Saturday, July 25, 2015

Ode to an Old Soul

About twelve years ago we snatched a skittish calico cat from a premature end of life, she having outlived her grace period at the animal shelter that had received her from owners unknown. She had not been treated well by those owners. She learned to trust ever so slowly, but eventually became a beloved member of our family circle.

She slept on our bed at night; sometimes I would awaken to find ourselves nose to nose. She plunked herself down in the midst of our granddaughters' play, bemusedly tolerating their petting hands or allowing herself to be carried from place to place. She blended in with the bedspread, her calico colorings almost like a camouflage suit, allowing her to sleep undisturbed throughout much of the day.

Maggie was an old soul. Her eyes always seemed dark and brooding, as if a pool of understanding was rippling in there, just below the surface. I tend to stay up late at night, and Maggie would usually find her way into my library, jumping up onto my lap with a little guttural sound and pressing her forehead against my hand. Cats are often nocturnal, but Maggie's black mask made her seem even more like a creature of the night.

Yesterday, having noticed some irregularities in her breathing and other behaviors, we took her to the vet to get her fixed up. Little did we imagine that we would come home without our beloved Maggie. Details aren't needed here; suffice it to say that she was much sicker than we imagined and there was no turning back.

We had tears to cry. We had Ashley and Ayla to talk to once again about life and death--they had lost a family cat within the year. Amidst their own tears, they said some unbelievably sweet and sensitive things to us. Their parents lovingly led them through it, answering their questions as best they could, recognizing that we all have to live through the pain and we can't make it go away from them or us, as much as we might wish it could be so.

I don't know how to write about this without it coming out predictably sentimental and maudlin. Pets are deeply personal. I know she will be a ghost here in our house for months to come; I will see her where she usually is, even when she isn't there. I will hear her little yelp as she jumps up onto the bed when I'm turning in, but she won't be there, waiting for my head to lay on the pillow.

Her compatriot, a gray tabby named Snuggles, who arrived in our home from the same shelter on the same day as Maggie, is without her friend and we can't find the cat words to explain it to her. But she knows, as she pads along after us, meowing, lonely.

Here's the thing we know. Love cannot exist without pain. It's just the way it is. If you choose to risk love you are also choosing pain and loss. Today, we miss our friend and there is no doubt we are hurting.

But Maggie, you are worthy of every tear, and you are and always will be loved. You will forever be the Old Soul of our family's heart.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Embracing the Ebb and Flow of Life

Three seemingly unrelated things that tell us something about ourselves and our world...

First: I recently began to reread Alas, Babylon, a classic apocalyptic novel published in 1959. The author, Pat Frank, captured the worst fears of the Cold War by depicting life in a small Florida town that miraculously survived a nuclear holocaust that destroyed most of America.

I can't really explain what provoked me to pick up the book. I had a copy in my library for decades, but it apparently did not survive the occasional culling that goes on now and then. But it has been reissued and I had Amazon send one my way.

The first night I started to read the book, we had a tornado warning. For one hour, I read the novel with a storm siren howling in the distance, our ears tuned to the weather report, flashlights at hand, readying ourselves to hurry to a reinforced area in the center of our basement that serves as an emergency shelter. It was surreal. I didn't pick the book up again until the sun was shining.

Second: A couple of weeks ago, my brother-in-law died after a five-year battle with a debilitating stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side. The last ten days of his life were spent at a hospice house, his wife and daughters at his side. The vigil was healing in some ways and difficult in others. One cannot feel good about a life that was taken too young and with things yet to do.

But a few days later his church was filled with family and friends who came together to celebrate and learn from his life. We heard things we had never heard before, laughed aloud at stories that captured the beauty and uniqueness of his life, shed tears that had been welling up for a long time, and celebrated through song, story, and prayer the richness of his life. It was redemptive.

Third: A few weeks ago a series of remarkable events gave many of us reason to feel new hope for America. The Supreme Court upheld provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act that would have cost millions of Americans health care coverage had the outcome been different. Then came another ruling that declared same-sex marriage to be constitutional in all fifty states. While there are still deep divisions within the country on both issues, the Court reflected the changing cultural consensus and set in place a framework by which these issues can be processed.

At the same time, a tragic shooting spurred by racial hatred turned a historic African-American church into a house of forgiveness and reconciliation. In South Carolina and elsewhere, courageous leaders stood up to the forces of hate and led to the removal of a flag that was for many a symbol of slavery and racism. And in the midst of it all, President Obama delivered a stirring eulogy to the slain that artfully and sensitively captured that powerful transformational moment.

A friend wrote me and said, "It is a great week for America." I agreed and my heart soared with a sense of hope I had not felt for some time. I have been distressed by the direction of the country--the horrible electoral gridlock, the obscene influence of money in politics, and an increasing income inequality that threatens the well-being of our country. I wrote about my malaise earlier this year. So my pleasure at these landmark moments was palpable.

Then came Donald Trump, spewing words of racial hatred, imposing his megalomania on all who would listen, turning his delusions of grandeur into some kind of political platform. It was like he turned and spit into the fountain of goodwill that had been filled during a remarkable few weeks in the summer of 2015.

I had to pause and think about how we are shaped by the ebb and flow of our lives. Good times replace the bad, pain gives way to joy, moments of insight are blunted by stupors of thought. It is just the way it is. If we understand that, we can live in hope, aware that this too will pass.

And so it is that a scary apocalyptic novel can be better read in the full light of day. Pain over the loss of a beloved family member is salved in part by the awareness that we shared a slice of his life and we are better people for having done so. And we must remind ourselves that buffoons will come and go, particularly in politics. But they will not stand because voices of dignity, reason, and humanity will ultimately drown out the haters and quell the designs of those whose egos dwarf the country they would presume to lead.

In Missouri, we often say that if you don't like the weather just wait a bit and it will be completely different. And so it is in the ebb and flow of life. Tomorrow is always another day.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Best Medicine

[This post was published in Facebook and in essentially this form on June 12, 2015, but I neglected to include it in my blog at that time. I am adding it here so that it appears in my blog in proper chronological order. This is not a new post, although I added an update at the bottom so that readers will be aware that the outcome has been very positive.]

Ashley, age 7, is Papa's best medicine

On Monday, I had a Minimally Invasive Lumbar Laminectomy. I had always wanted to have one of those until I discovered it wasn’t a dessert served at a chic restaurant on the Plaza. You know what I mean. — the kind of thing they set afire just before bringing it to your table.

But NOOO! It turns out that it’s a surgical procedure on one’s back to address a nasty little situation known as spinal stenosis. For the past several months, I’ve been experiencing an extreme amount of pain in my back and difficulty in walking. After x-rays, MRIs, and consultation with a neurosurgeon, this seemed to be by far the best alternative.

Surgery was scheduled for yesterday morning, and during the prep time I met with the anesthesiologist and she discussed the possible side effects of the procedure. They included short-term pain at the site of the incision, nausea, loss of appetite, and dizziness. Death was also mentioned.

Upon hearing of that potential side effect, I immediately experienced nausea, loss of appetite, and dizziness. But I decided to go ahead with it since I had already been fitted for the gown.

So far, the results are encouraging, although my Decathlon plans have been put on hold. My legs are feeling better than they have for a while, but I am experiencing pain in the lower back around the incision, which is normal and expected. As of this writing, the post-operative pain has become more severe and I am reluctant to walk without assistance. I am told by the medical staff that this is not unusual. Obviously, this is a process that needs to be played out. As to the death thing, I appear to be within the survey’s margin of error.

I am grateful for the support from so many friends and family. My wife Joyce tagged along after me making sure I was properly cared for. I spent one night in the hospital and was released the day after the surgery. I cannot say enough about the physicians and staff of the Saint Luke’s Marion Bloch Neuroscience Institute, located within the St. Luke’s Hospital complex on The Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri.

During the course of that first day, I had many medicines put into me by pill, injection, IVs, and any other mode you can think of. But the best medicine of all was when my son Brian came up to see me at the hospital. I knew he was coming, but what I didn’t know was a surprise he had planned for me.

There was a knock on the door and I looked up and in came my seven-year-old granddaughter Ashley, chocolate milkshake in hand, fearlessly weaving her way through the hospital paraphernalia to give me a big hug.

I cannot find the words to explain the unconditional love that swept over me when that little girl came through the door. When I felt both her arms around my neck holding me tight, it was a transformational moment. Then she handed me a handmade card made by Ayla, her four-year-old sister, making the circle complete.

Modern medicine can do miraculous things, but healing begins with love.

[Update: As of 7/14/15, I can report that the nerve pain that was the occasion for the surgery has completely subsided. I wouldn't have minded if one procedure could have fixed all that ails me, but that would have required a full-court press by physicians representing a variety of specialties. We all have our aches and pains and I cannot adequately express how grateful I am to walk again without the debilitating pain that set me bopping off to the spine center. Thank you, Doc, and you too, Ashley.]

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Civil Liberties Strike Out in Baltimore

The Orioles and White Sox played in an empty Camden Yards in Baltimore
on April 29 because MLB decided that civil unrest made the area unsafe for fans.

America's pastime staged a piece of theater this week that seemed bizarre at the outset, but ended up creating imagery that expressed better than words or deeds how fragile American society has become.

On April 29, 2015, for the first time in the storied history of major league baseball, a regular season game was played in a stadium absent of any paying fans. Those of us who have faithfully cheered losing baseball teams for many years know all about "near empty" stadiums. But this stadium was empty not because of fan indifference but because of a Major League Baseball edict.

For much of this month, the City of Baltimore has been caught up in public protests over the death of Freddie Gray, who was arrested on April 12 and died seven days later, apparently of spinal cord injuries suffered while in police custody. This week the civil unrest turned to riots in the streets with the full complement of looting, arson, smashed and fire-bombed police cars, and a number of law enforcement personnel injured by bricks and bottles hurled at them by demonstrators.

Over the past couple of days, the civil unrest in Baltimore was joined by solidarity demonstrations in other American cities, including Washington and New York, with some of those resulting in violence and arrests. The protests were driven largely by a lack of information about what caused this particular death, along with accumulating instances of police brutality being caught on videotape all around the country.

Anyone following the news knows as much as I do about the issues in play here. There are prognosticators and commentators, politicians and preachers, mothers and kids, finger pointers and finger lifters, looters and brick throwers, peacemakers and peacebreakers, all of whom have points of view, some of them informed and others not so much.

Clearly there is something amiss in this country. The social contract between law enforcement and the people they are supposed to serve is fractured and at risk of being shattered like a broken bat. At the same time, there are violent criminal elements out there who put the lives of those officers at risk every day they put on a uniform, The only answer to this problem is resident in the communities themselves, where neighbors rout the drug dealers, where families raise their kids, where cops become allies, not agents of fear.

Easy words to type, not so easy to do.

In the midst of it all, few people are thinking about the significance of an empty baseball stadium. But since I believe that baseball imitates life, I am able to see connections that are missed by those who foolishly subscribe to the notion that baseball is "only a game."

Consider this. The previous record low attendance of paying fans at a major league baseball game occurred on September 28, 1882 when only six fans showed up for a contest between the Troy (N.Y.) Trojans and the Worcester (Mass.) Ruby Legs at the Worcester Driving Park Grounds.

The fact that such records are preserved and accessible may appear to some as evidence of the decline of Western civilization. I'm borderline on that point myself. However, the response of professional baseball, arguably the most tradition-driven sport in the world, to a matter of civil unrest suggests that something deep and serious is going on here.

Ironically, on April 25 almost 37,000 fans at the Orioles/Red Sox game were locked down for about a half hour in Camden Yards because of "ongoing public safety issues" outside the stadium. A small group of protestors had targeted the baseball game as a good place to draw attention to their cause.

With baseball games and riots playing out on the same stage, the seemingly logical step to be taken if there was a risk to fans would have been to postpone the game and make it up another day. Baseball has done that with natural disasters, inclement weather, notable deaths, national tragedies, and a variety of other reasons.

Instead, the game played on with zero fans, overturning a 133-year-old record, and creating an iconic image for the deepening social divide in this country. Like the tree falling in the forest, one wonders if they had a game and no one came is it still a game? (Well, yes. It was on television, but that begs the point.)

Both the Orioles and Major League Baseball management have been criticized for seeming to make the game more important than the tragedy. But I kind of like the gesture. A quirky thing like playing a game without a fan in the seats is a wake-up call for America. We have a huge problem as long as kids are shot in the back, choke holds are applied to unruly citizens, volunteer cops can’t distinguish between their handgun and their taser, and certain economic and ethnic groups are targeted disproportionally for traffic stops and shakedowns.

Until that stops, the words of the Constitution will be as empty as the baseball stadium.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Misery in Missouri - The Tragic Consequences of "Show Me" Politics

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is a powerful symbol of the
opening of the West.
I have been a resident of the state of Missouri for 55 years. For the most part, it has been a pleasant place to live. Located roughly in the center of the United States, it sometimes gets referred to as America's Heartland. It has a little quirky reputation as the "Show Me" state, has fostered silly arguments about pronunciation of its name (Missour-ee’ or ‘Missour-uh), and sometimes gets identified as the place where hillbillies from the Ozarks live. The latter image was turned to gold by the development of Branson as a country music destination second only to Nashville.

But those irksome notions are easily overcome by the state's more redemptive features. Mark Twain is connected with Hannibal and the Mississippi River adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Western Missouri is the jumping off place for the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails and the majestic arch in St. Louis is a memorable image commemorating the opening of the West. The Latter Day Saint movement, the largest indigenous faith tradition in the United States, claims Independence as a place of historic and spiritual significance. The University of Missouri boasts one of the most prestigious schools of journalism in the country.

The Lake of the Ozarks and the small mountain range in which it nests, offers a particularly picturesque setting that surprises first-time visitors. Harry S Truman is Missouri's favorite son, a plain-speaking President beloved more after he left office than when he occupied it. I watched Thomas Hart Benton paint the majestic mural in the foyer of the Truman Library, and it was not unusual for us to see Mr. Truman walking to the Library in the morning, waving his cane at our school bus as we passed him on Delaware Street. St. Louis and Kansas City each have Major League Baseball and National Football League franchises, a claim few states can match. 

Missouri was a Border State during the Civil War and supplied troops to both the Union and Confederate forces, a form of bipartisanship in its own way. That was echoed well into the twentieth century. Although politics was usually defined by Democratic Party strength in the two urban areas and a more conservative presence in the rural areas, it also led to some spirited and healthy debate as moderate Republicans began to gain strength in the last third of the twentieth century. I remember being proud when our two U.S. Senators were Democrat Tom Eagleton and Republican John Danforth, both decent men who worked cooperatively for the good of the state and the nation.

Former senator John Danforth delivered the
eulogy at the funeral for State Auditor Tom Schweich
It was Danforth's appearance in the news today that prompted me to put these words to some things that have been troubling me and really came to a head this week. This was a horrible day for the state of Missouri, but this state has been dropping like a rock for several years now. 

Danforth, formerly a senator but also Ambassador to the United Nations, was on the television today because he was delivering a eulogy at the funeral for Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich, who took his own life last Thursday. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest, delivered a powerful take-down of the cesspool that has become Missouri politics. It reminded me of how much I miss voices like that of John Danforth.

The death of Tom Schweich, a Republican, twice-elected auditor and recently announced candidate for governor, has sent shock waves throughout the state, but not enough of them for my taste. This is a terrible tragedy, but it is also a wake-up call for this state and its elected or wanting to be elected politicians.

Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich
Here is a link to a more detailed account of the Schweich suicide, but in essence this appears to be a case of a sensitive and perhaps thin-skinned man being unable to cope with a humiliating radio ad and a whispering campaign about his alleged Jewish heritage. He was not Jewish, actually an active Episcopalian, but was proud of some family roots in the Jewish faith. 

But there is a backstory here that is yet to be fully told. It involves the state chairman of the Republican party, the other announced Republican candidate for governor, a billionaire who has injected hundreds of thousands of dollars into Missouri politics, and untold allegations of corruption being alleged by Schweich. All of this has been more or less known, but now it is embodied in the death of a decent man. Something has to change.

This post is triggered by the Schweich tragedy, but is more broadly about the distressing fall of this state, now on our way to becoming a laughing stock because of the absurdity of the legislature, the ineffectiveness of the governor (a Democrat), and an increasing perception that we are a kind of cultural backwater over here. 

On the day of this funeral, many may have overlooked the report issued by the Justice Department regarding the racist culture present in the Ferguson police department, resulting in the tragic shooting and rioting last November. The report details disgusting jokes and scores of discriminatory actions by the supposed public servants. It is an account of Missouri in shame.

But that is only the beginning of our embarrassment. Here are a few illustrations of what we are experiencing here in Missouri:
  • 28% of the executions in the United States last year took place in Missouri, which tied Texas for the most executions in 2014.
  • More black elementary school students have been suspended from school in Missouri than any other state in the country. (14% compared to 7.6% in U.S,. and compared to 1.6% white in both Missouri and U.S.)
  • Todd Akin, campaigning to be elected senator from Missouri in 2014, advanced the notion that if she is "legitimately" raped a woman has the ability to "shut down" and prevent pregnancy. This proved too much for even Missouri. They reelected a Democrat.
  • The legislature has had on its agenda this year a proposal that if evolution is to be taught in a school the parents must be notified and sign a note agreeing to their child being submitted to this information.
  • Governor Jay Nixon, who has managed to get elected to several statewide offices as a Democrat in a red state, managed to embarrass us all by his inept handling of Ferguson, all of it played out on a very large national stage.
  • In 2012 the legislature honored a famous Missourian by putting a bust of Rush Limbaugh in the State Capital. Fortunately, it doesn't talk.
  •  The range of efforts to curtail lawful abortions has become so ridiculous that it can only be described as ludicrous.
  • Missouri managed to prevent many of its residents from benefitting from health insurance coverage by refusing to expand Medicaid and by attacking the Affordable Care Act at every turn, thereby denying Missourians significant benefits from federal subsidies.
It goes on and on. These are only suggestive of the kind of thing we have been coping with in this once proud state. 

We need some serious dialogue in this state around our dysfunctional political system, our willingness to succumb to the most barbarian of ideas without denouncing them as such, and by laying claim once again to being the heartland of America.

Lies, bullying, and ridicule by political officials and their take-no-prisoners consultants have resulted in a good man taking the most ultimate step possible to relieve his pain. I am ashamed to be a Missourian today. My profound hope is that people who care will take John Danforth's words and begin right now to clean this system of those whose names were not mentioned but whose identities are not a secret.

And then let's grow up and live in our own century. With our record these days we've got no business demanding anybody to "Show Me" a darn thing, as if we already know everything. It's time for us to go deep within ourselves and then hope we have something to "Show Them." Don't hold your breath. 


Literally as I was writing this piece, with my television playing in the background, the Rachel Maddow Show started playing a segment on the Tom Schweich story, including Danforth's eulogy. It is excellent and you can find it here