Monday, October 29, 2007

Lost in the Cosmos

Dear Walker Percy,

The Wall Street Journal (says the book jacket of the edition of Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book that I am reading) was quoted as proposing that this book is “one of Percy’s best books.” Of course who are we to believe the strange quotations that camp out on the frontispieces and such of paperbacks? One of the best of your books? Well, maybe if they mean one of the top twelve of your books. How many books did you write?

I’m not sure if it’s a very good book. It’s a good title. I feel lost in the cosmos half the time, don’t you? And what a hope it raises. This could be the last self-help book I may ever need. A-a-ah!

But it rambles about with your tongue in its cheek, not really trying to be helpful at all. I’m wondering though, what were you trying to talk about, really? Certainly it is a repetition of material found in your other books. You talk about knowing or not knowing ourselves, transcendence, sex, religion, the uniqueness of humans and human language, being screwed up, being alone and lonely, and how we are desperately seeking others and ourselves, or perhaps desperately trying not to seek ourselves.

It is interesting that while talking with others about this non-fiction book, which, hypothetically is not subject to the veil that covers fiction, we constantly looked to your fiction for disclosure of the words of this text. When we talked about the “unformulability” of ourselves, we looked to Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman. When we consider sex and the sexual eroticism that permeates contemporary life, we look to Lancelot.

But there is much to be considered in this book, and I did appreciate it. The one thing it confirms for me is an idea that I feared might be true, the little helpful concept that you dropped into my lap and that I will doubtless forget in my own hopeful treks through the universe, is that I cannot know myself. As you mused, “Why it is possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life.” Your targeted example is that of the horoscope reader who finds accidentally that she has read the entry for Aries when really seeking for Gemini. Before realizing her mistake, the reader says, “Hm, quite true.” Then having identified the proper column of information, she likewise nods and agrees, “I’m like that.”

Shall we ever come to know ourselves, if you are correct in identifying that we are wandering about the Cosmos like ghosts of ourselves without any idea what we are really like? (Might we, perhaps, rely on the imaging that only a friend in community can provide?) Or as Brock Eide points out, you are fond of quoting Kierkegaard…something like, “The self can only know itself as it stands transparently before God.” Perhaps that is the apparitional way we can come to know ourselves.

A friend who blogs at Pretty Fakes, talks about the temptations of Halloween, the one day in which we are permitted to openly live our masked lives. But maybe it is not a masked life we are living. Maybe we are simply living who we might be, unable to know, but taking a stab at it. Today, I am Gemini. Tomorrow Capricorn. You say in Love in the Ruins, when “a person has so abstracted himself from himself and from the world around him, seeing things as theories and himself as a shadow. . . he cannot, so to speak, reenter the lovely ordinary world. Instead he orbits the earth and himself. Such a person, and there are millions, is destined to haunt the human condition like the Flying Dutchman.”

You might know, that I love The Flying Dutchman. I saw a wonderful production of the opera in Knoxville, of all places, a few years ago. Wagner’s bent to the dark is interesting, but this is one of his works in which it is love that triumphs in redemptive majesty. It carries a bit of the high-minded that is present in the immolation scene of Brunnhilde from Gotterdammerung. Brunnhilde knows that sacrificial love alone has the infinite power to over come the bitter and brutal of life. The Dutchman is trying to find this. His ghostly, glowing ship sails under a curse that it shall never reach it’s destination until the end of the world. Wagner adds a modifier to the curse. The curse will be broken should the captain find true love.

Your conclusion of Lost Cosmos is a confused tangle of sci-fi, religio-sexual speculation. Oh dear, and so filled with sexism I could barely stand it. (You didn’t exactly get feminism did you? But you are in very good company there.) No one in your book seems able to love or find love. You seem to miss the qualifier that Wagner finds. Love can make a difference. There is a redemptive quality to love. Not sex though. That is beside the point. (Not non-existent, but beside.) You seem to be unable to break through there. Perhaps it is your low view of women that prevents you from finding the mirror you need in a loving relationship. Your female characters are always real pasty. Did you know that some women are real? But now I’m rambling.

So, may I know myself? No, not completely, not clearly, hardly at all perhaps. But it is the quest I am on for life. Your perceptions may serve me, i.e. your book leads to my self-help in knowing myself. And it is in clarity of the seeking mind, that I would continue this quest, with a healthy dose of standing as transparently as possible before God. Yet I think that it is in well-developed, mutually respectful love relationships that we can best find our reflection, our possibility for a glimmer of seeing and understanding ourselves.

That vision of a higher level of relationship is present in your books in relationships between men to some degree. And you allow for that in relation to God. Unfortunately, you seem to miss it in terms of its possibility within heterosexual relationships. And it is here that your ship, whether it is the Dutchman or the starship Copernicus 4, sinks off the cape of good hope.

I’m thinking I’d best return to your fiction.


Friday, October 26, 2007

Fighting Polio in 1952 Part III

Dear March of Dimes,

This is just a word of thanks for what you did for my sister back in 1952. My mother has, see March on Polio photo above, worked out her own thanks over the course of many years. In fact at 87 years old, this is the first year since 1952 that she has not volunteered to collect money for your organization in her neighborhood. In the 50’s era photo here, she acted as city of Altoona chairperson.

I found this photo last week as I rummaged through old photos and memories at my home place. My childhood room is pine-paneled with plenty of dark brown knots that for years, in my imagination, transformed themselves into the eyes and pointy nose of a fox or the snout and furry ears of a bear cub as I fell asleep to the lullaby traffic of 25th Avenue. There are small pullaway eave doors in that room through which we access storage compartments. There I found a treasure trove of pictures, clippings, and other precious paraphernalia.

At any rate among all that stuff, I found the pictures and clippings for this and the last “polio post.” How our distant past rises sometimes? For my sister, it rises when she notices a weakness that might be attributable to Post Polio Syndrome. For me, it is a reminder that this old mother of mine was transformed in her early marriage and early mothering by the Herculean challenge of fighting, for her child, a disease that struck fear in hearts.

And, dear March of Dimes, they fought successfully because of you and the work you did then. So thank you for the dollars you invested, not just in research that eventually resulted in a highly successful and universally used polio vaccine, but for the dollars that paid for an enormous hospital bill and the treatment that saved my sister from the crippling power of polio.


The text of the article pictured below follows.

Debbie Rupe Successfully Conquers Germ

The shocking words, “Your daughter has been moved to the polio ward for treatment” brought the first realization to Mrs. Jack Rupe of Altoona that three year old Debbie had become number 31 of the polio cases admitted to the Altoona hospital during 1952.

It was early in September when Debbie’s usual sunny disposition began to undergo a change. She became cranky during the day and wakeful at night. Though her mother treated her for her sore throat Debbie was too young to explain how she really felt. When it became obvious that it was an effort for her to sit up and that she didn’t want to stand on her feet, she was admitted to the hospital for observation. In time came the frightening words dreaded by every parent.

That evening, filled with worry and apprehension, Mr. and Mrs. Rupe visited the polio ward to talk with Miss Mardell Gunsallus, supervisor of the department. Since Debbie was in isolation they could do no more than look in at her from the door of the room. They found the nurse’s words reassuring. Even more of a relief was the sight of other youngsters, playing cheerfully in their beds, obviously getting the best and friendliest of care.

On their next visit the Rupes found that Debbie had been joined in the isolation room by Denny Fortney, three and one-half, of Mount Union. It was the beginning of a friendship destined to last even after both had been discharged from the hospital. Tears which began to flow as Debbie’s mother and dad prepared to leave were stopped when Denny offered her his treasured music box.

Weeks passed as Debbie went through the polio ward’s routine of hot packs, stretching exercise and lessons in walking. It was found that she was one of the lucky ones who suffered a general weakness of the limbs rather than any definite paralysis.

November 18 was the happy day when her parents were notified that Debbie was ready to be discharged from the hospital. She was walking proudly but she was reluctant to take leave of Denny, her playmate of the past seven weeks. Denny, on his part, was to miss his “diri fren” during his remaining weeks in the ward.

Jack Rupe was fortunate enough to have hospital insurance which covered part of the bill for Debbie’s care, but the remainder was still a heavy burden since polio is a most expensive illness to treat.

In an interview with Roy Thompson, chairman of the Blair county chapter of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, he learned that the March of Dimes money not only equips and staffs the polio ward, but also pays for patient care when needed.

The American people give annually to the March of Dimes to assure that no one stricken with the disease will go without adequate medical and hospital care for lack of funds. Each year thousands of these same people suddenly find that they are the recipients of this aid.

PS--Want to Donate?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fighting Polio in 1952 Part II

Dear Deb,

I'm glad that the outcome of this fight, was, for all of us, so good.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Fighting Polio in 1952

Occasionally I have submitted posts here that were not written by me. The last one, on social security has become, hands down, the second most popular of all my posts. My post today is a letter written to me by my mother, answering the question, "What do you remember about fighting polio in 1952?" As you read her answer, which is a mix of medical, emotional, spiritual, and other personal memories, you will find the story line. She refers a number of times to my medical fight for my daughter that was against a different enemy, leukemia. Mother's fight, on behalf of my older sister was against the most dreaded enemy of the early 50's, polio.

Dear Betsy,

I didn't forget about your letter asking about our memories of Debby's polio experience. I'll try to write down what I remember and how we felt.

In those days when more and more people were being attacked by the disease, we parents were frightened-especially in the summer. No one really knew how it was spread, but there was a feat it might be from swimming pools-even children's little pools. We learned the symptoms, one of which was that the back got stiff.

Debby was suffering from a sore throat. Our pediatrician was on vacation or something and we took her to another one. He did not detect anything serious. Debby didn't improve. One night she woke up crying. I went to her crib, noticed that she did not sit straight up, but turned over and got up on her knees. I carried her to the bathroom and put her down on her feet and she cried in pain. I knew there was something seriously wrong.

Next morning we took her to our pediatrician, dear Dr. Keagy. He put her on the table and when he tried to lift her upper body, she was stiffer than normal-a scary sign. I said, "Is it polio?" He said, "That's a possibility."

Jack took her directly to the hospital and I walked up to the lab-about a block away-carrying you. You were about nine months old. This was in September-somehow the 17th is in my mind as the date-September of 1952.

Debby was put in the pediatrics department for a week-in isolation. We weren't allowed in the room. We could look at her from the hall. She was able to walk around her crib. They were not sure yet if it was polio. Something they called radiclia-neurinitis (as I remember it) was suspected. Bob Deuel at the time said, "Be glad it was not that."

In a week Dr. Keagy and the doctor in charge of polio admitted her to the polio ward in the basement of the hospital. There were probably eight or nine patients-at least one on an iron lung and two little tots, Debby and a little boy called "Yummy." They competed for the use of the little tricycle.

Debby never became paralyzed, praise the Lord, but she had weakness in her back and right leg and trouble walking.

The treatment they used was the Sister Kenny treatments with the hot packs. Debby hated that. We never saw her get the treatments. We were only permitted to visit two times a week-I think it was Wednesday night and Sunday. We saw her an extra day on Saturday at the YMCA when they took the patients to exercise in the pool there. The Rotary Club members worked with the patients in the pool. Then they showed them a movie and gave them hot dogs. We were so thankful for the time with Debby.

She was in the hospital from September until just before Thanksgiving. I have a vague recollection of our going to the Thanksgiving service at Calvary although we did not attend Calvary at the time.

We had a list of exercises we had to have her do for some time. She hated them.

When we took her back to Dr. Keagy for a checkup, Jack asked him what we owed him. He said, "To see her walk is all the pay I wanted." We had no health insurance at that time, as far as I remember. The expenses at the hospital were paid entirely by the Polio Foundation.

When Debby was diagnosed, our friends who had children were very concerned because it was considered to be very contagious. Soon they came out wit a treatment called Gamma Globulin. I think they use it for measles. I started working with the Polio Foundation to raise funds, etc. I remember one day our ladies with the Polio group were invited for tea at the governor's house in Harrisburg. Then the wonderful Salk vaccine was discovered. What a blessing. We were very thankful for the treatment at the hospital and for Dr. Hull who gave his time for those patients. They would bring musicians and clowns and other entertainment in on the days we could visit.

They were scary days and we feared that Debby might become a cripple. We prayed earnestly that that would not happen to her. We kept pleading with the Lord. I remember that one day, as Jack and I prayed together, we were able to say to the Lord that if she became crippled, it was all right. We quit striving, and the Lord gave us peace about it. Praise Him, we never had to see her become paralyzed or crippled.

I have memories of giving Debby her exercises in our little living room in the 28th Avenue home, sometimes with grandparents watching and little Betsy watching from her playpen. I hope we didn't neglect you when Debby needed so much attention.

We didn't have to see Deb go through such painful treatment as Diane did. And her recovery did not take so very long. I don't remember her suffering pain after the beginning and I don't know if she was given any medication.

Years later, when Deb was an adult, I first read about Post-Polio-Syndrome. That was frightening to me-thinking it might come back. I know a young woman who suffers quite a bit with PPS. Deb seems to be doing quite well. She says she sometimes minds it when she is very tired-limps a little.

We have been richly blessed in both Debby's and Diane's lives and recovery. Thank you Lord.

NJR aka Mother

Friday, October 05, 2007

Item 4 Peoples is Peoples

Dear Steve, with a special thanks to Dave (who couldn't bowl too well) and Walker Percy,

I do not have to tell you this, yet I was reminded of it during a book study with your old buddy, metaphorically known here as Forest Old-Rambler-Model. We are looking at the book Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy. In it there is a section that talks about how a characteristic of some people is to sense that they are transcendent, that they can understand others but others cannot understand them.

Now, I can't say for sure that I "transcend" the text enough to know what Walker Percy is trying to say, but I do remember an incident from my life when I was your age. I went bowling with a man, perhaps now I would call him a boy. We went bowling. I bowled better than he did. That rankled him. I suppose, in that era, I was expected to gutter a few so that the male of the species in this coupling could crow and strut, et al. However, this post is not about feminism. It is about human dynamic. The incident was enough to make this guy say what was on his mind about me. He told me, "You are so proud and think that you are better than everyone else."

I received that blow full-face. What? Who was this punk? I understood his kind. He didn't even make good grades in school. I had consented to go bowling with him, not because I was interested in him, but because I was being nice to him. I transcended him, didn't I? And did he appreciate it? "NO." He insulted me.

There are some things, some events, even hurtful ones, that a person takes and ponders, and keeps tenderly, respectfully in one's heart. For me, this was such an event. I don't know if I have ever verbalized what happened that night to anyone before. I was ashamed. I still am, for I still fall prey to the tendency described by Percy in his book. We stop listening to other people. We put them in a box of our own imaginings, thinking that we transcend them, and we no longer hear what they are saying, pay attention to what they are doing, or are willing, on the basis of input from a relationship with another human revelator--or as Percy might call them, co-namer, co-sustainer, co-discoverer, co-sign-user of our world--change ourselves on the basis of information they can provide.

I don't have to tell you this, because you have not stopped listening to other people. That is one of your special gifts. Perhaps it is what makes you an effective leader. You are a bit like Kermit. Willing to hear and willing to change and willing to lead. We need Peoples like you in our world. Not listening, not being open to others is a form of pride, and it makes leaders unfit to lead.

In contrast to people who practice transcendency, I think about the life and teaching of Henri Nouwen. Here are a couple of comments from his books,
“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.”

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing... not healing, not curing... that is a friend who cares.”
Nouwen lived pretty incarnationally, and the older he got the more he lived that way. I think that is a good way to live.

Tell you what is, "There's tomatoes huh, there's peoples, there's dancing, there's music, there's peoples. So, peoples is peoples." I know that helps a lot.

MOM aka brd

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Ten Most Important Studies for a Young Person (Items 2 and 3)

Dear Stevie,

As I said in my last post, you asked me to suggest some important works for you to study in this, your first year out of school. You have studied hard already, through high school, college, grad school, and of course all those athletic trials. Now you are free. Free not to "NOT study," but free to study what you choose.

I was very touched that you asked me what I thought would be good for you to study. And I have been thinking alot about what I wanted to recommend. I am working on a list of ten suggestions in no particular order.

One. Read your Bible as a disciplined regular practice. See last post!

Two. America in the King Years, An historical trilogy studying the period between 1954 and 1968.

The introduction to the third volumne of Taylor Branch's Pulitzer prize winning study of America in the King years begins with these words.

"Non-violence is an orphan among democratic ideas. It has nearly vanished from public discourse even though the most basic element of free government, the vote, has no other meaning. Every ballot is a piece of non-violence signifying hard won consent to raise politics above fire power and bloody conquest. . . But the whole architecture of representative democracy springs from the handiwork of non-violence."

Your heart is already filled with the kinds of thinking about issues of justice that make me proud. This history will just fill in some important information that will help you understand our world, what it was, what it is, and what it should become in relation to class and race. The books center around Martin Luther King, Jr. but really cover all the main action of the Civil Rights Era.

Three. Get a solid foundation for understanding classical music. I have used a metaphor at times which has been offensive for some people. And I may be all wrong. The metaphor is this. Popular music is like eating McDonald's hamburgers. Everybody likes them. They are easy to get. They are cheap. Classical music is like a fine steak. They aren't always available, and when they are, they are expensive. The taste is more refined, but oh so much better than a Big Mac. And it is true that not everybody likes classical music, but my opinion is that it is lack of education and understanding that blocks their appreciation. I would hate to see you miss the depth and delight of classical music.

Here is where you should start, as I said in a post, some time ago, the lectures of Robert Greenberg, entitled, How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. This is about 40 hours of listening, so it is a large undertaking. I did it while driving to and fro to work. and it is done best in chunks. Listen to lectures, which include large portions of great musical works as samples, then check out some CDs from the library that are from the periods he is teaching about and listen to them. The Greenberg Lectures are pretty standard fare at public library audio sections.

OK. That is three. Enough for now. I will post again soon.


MOM aka brd

Monday, October 01, 2007

Read Your Bible, Pray Every Day

Dear Son,

Quite a while ago I promised to give you a list of the ten most important things that you should do in your first year of freedom. What is important to do? What is important to know?

I have thought about that for a while and hardly know where to start. I have several unfinished postings that talk about different things, literature, music, justice. But yesterday during the church service that I was attending, I realized where I should begin. You will, perhaps find this to be a repeat of what you have heard over the years, what you have heard from your grandmother. It is, however, the number one thing I have to suggest of all the things I might say.

Let me start with the "New Testament reading of the day" from the 17th Sunday after Pentecost.

1Tim 6:6 (NRSV) Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment;

7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it;

8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.

9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pon'tius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you

14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ,

15 which he will bring about at the right time--he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.

16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,

19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

It was that last phrase, "Life that really is life," that most captured my imagination. Where in our world do we find much active talk about finding life that really is life. Where do we hear teaching about the importance of doing good over the importance of getting rich. All about us from billboards to movies, from sitcoms to malls, from the internet to ball field scoreboards, hucksters are telling us what to buy, what material goods to want, what gusto to grab. Few are the messages that we receive that say, stop. Riches and goods are not the summum bonum.

However, you will find that as regular fare in the Bible. Your palette is whetted with words like, "Be ye kind, one to another."
"I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content."

"Real joy."

"Let him who glories, glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practice kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth."

So #1 on my list of ten things to do this year echos the old children's song, "Read your Bible, pray every day, and you'll grow, grow, grow." You won't grow into some predetermined ideal. You'll grow into you, and the you who is conscious of the life that can be lived above or beyond the surface of a society carefully constructed with Madison Avenue paper mache and glitter. You won't find the answers to every question that will arise in the course of living, but you will find direction and hope and good.

Invest in this discipline.

MOM aka brd