Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Terror of the BlackBerry

President Obama has helped make the ubiquitous Black-Berry a cause ce'lebre. He, like millions of other stay-in-touch movers & shakers, finds this amazing pocket communicator indispensable. Not owning one, I take everyone's word for that. Only is it possible to find in this very indispensability today's grievous problem with dispensability....?

Let me explain, at the cost of sounding hopelessly calcified in some lost layer of time.

From what I have seen, the amazing Black-Berry -- like all today's computerized memory banks -- can delete faster than it can include. To include a piece of information or a name requires some moments of concentrated effort. Thought... open...click... click ....close. To delete same needs only a single (perhaps even thoughtless or accidental) click. Doesn't that have to give one pause? And please don't tell me about "all data is saved somewhere in the system," for I am not talking about digital systems but about human memories.

For some time, critics have indicted ours as a throw-away culture. Until our great recession, that was all too easy to admit and then ignore. Now, however, as we look through the shambles of that culture, we have compelling reason to re-consider much of what we have been so blithely throwing away. Money...caution....prudence...ethics....and most of all people.

When cultures collapse, the survivors get a second chance to get their priorities straight. Such as the people they have been raised by and with, have known and worked for, have shared and benefited from. In my calcified lifetime, these precious lives usually found their way into a telephone book. Like the old, tattered one Joan and I find impossible to part with.

It sits there on its kitchen shelf like an graying King Lear on his aging throne. It is a fading repository of all those names and numbers that have be-jeweled the crown of our lives together, and we proudly refuse to depose a single one of them!

I remember my sainted Mother pausing over her book at age 92 and sighing, "Nobody's left but me...." Had she a sparklingly efficient delete button at her disposal, I can assure you it would never have been clicked. Disposability was not high on her priority list. Nor is it on ours. Lives that have been part of us simply cannot be so discarded. And so each of these names of our lives shall yellow and age on their throne right along with Joan and me.

By the way, among those names may be some of you....

Monday, March 30, 2009

3 Good Things About Living Under O'Hare Field

Living here in pastoral Park Ridge, what can there be that's good about our noisy O'Hare Field neighbor....? Actually, despite some righteous rage at its daily noise and pollution, there are at least three.

First, its convenience. For air travelers, those departure gates are literally 20 minutes away. Of course getting to the gates and getting off the ground can be a half-a-lifetime difference!

Second, the airport continues to attract income-generating businesses and visitors to our community. In a recessionary downturn, every new buck is new help!

But there is a third and less quantifiable good that comes from our noisy neighbor. I grant that only some Park Ridgers may share this with me, however let me state my case anyway. For those of us who are retired from both careers and travels, there can be something exciting yet safe about O'Hare Field. Something that neither Mayor Daley nor our own mayoral candidates may think much about. It is that small tingly sensation when you stand in the safety of your own home at the very same time you feel the excitement of one of the world's busiest international airports.

Think of it this way. Even though you may be like me and done with the special drama of air travel, you can still look outside your window and experience the surge of global energy crackling in the skies above you. Every criss-cross pattern of contrails means perhaps another hundred passengers off to London, Paris, Tel Aviv or Peking. With a hundred different heartbeats of hope and anticipation.

Back down here on the safety of Park Ridge terra firma, imagineers like me look up and get a vicarious kick out of it all. What makes the thrill especially nice, is that it's totally cost and danger free. So to all those neighbors -- including my own brother who is also under one of these noisy flight patterns -- may I offer one retiree's very personal opinion.

You don't have to like our noisy O'Hare Field neighbor, but in a way you can always enjoy it!

Feminism Hits a Road Bump

Let me begin by asserting that I love women. Young women and old women...blond women and brunette woman...MBA women and homemaker women. Furthermore, I think Gloria Steinem is equally bright, beautiful and blessed. However...!!

This month the hard-earned feminist movement hit a big speed bump on its way to the promised land. It came by way of a nationwide poll. Granted, you can find a poll to say pretty much anything you want, because there are so silly many of them. Still, this was a poll whose results were published in USA Today, and thereby anointed as something to take seriously.

If we do, two of its results are stunning. More than that, they just may be correct. If true, every inch of over-due progress by the feminists suffers a great blow. And every chuckle-headed guy in every male-only gym or country club gets to make some cheap, nasty jokes.

First, the poll found that 25% of the young women questioned would prefer winning first prize on America's Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Second, 50% of them said they would marry an ugly man if he were rich.

One is left breathless. Not necessarily surprised, but breathless. Could these be the same admirable young women who are rising so rapidly in the ranks of business, education and government these days? The same women who are lately scoring higher than men in scholastic achievements and athletic accomplishments? The same magnificent women I call my daughters?

Well, I told you -- there are polls and there are polls! Perhaps not one in a hundred is worth taking to the bank. (Come to think of it, we'll have to change that cliche too won't we?). However, granting this poll some credibility, we are left to wonder what today's headline-making neuro-biologists would say. What evolutionary gene or brain lobe helps to explain such results.

Personally, I still have some trouble with these studies insisting that we all are -- young polled women included -- essentially the sum of our recently-dissected physiological parts. In my scientific ignorance, I still like to feel that we all are -- young polled women included -- a mystic total greater than this physiological sum. And therefore what makes us tick and click is considerably more and more mysterious than any pollster can quantify.

That being said, here's an un-polled conclusion of my own. Young women, just like young men, are a complex galaxy of little whirring emotions and aspirations that very often have little to do with reason or logic.Therefore when they say unreasonable and illogical things like some of them do about prizes and mates, maybe it's just something silly that washes across their sensorium at that particular moment.

Sorta like the way the giddy freedom and fragrance of another new spring does. Oh, if you haven't felt that lately, then just possibly you're being much too reasonable and logical for your own good

Sunday, March 29, 2009

So What's So Wrong with Notslagia...?!

We've all heard the old adage, "Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: You find the present tense, but the past perfect." Some snarl -- head in the sand! Others smile -- head in the stars! So who's right?

Well of course the question makes no sense, for it has no answer. Our yesterdays are whatever each of us chooses to make of them. For some, they are little tombs housing our disappointments and failures. To these realists, the past is best left in the past. And who can argue with such edgy pragmatism.

But to the nostalgics, the past is a catechism of remembrances too sweet not to re-read. It catalogs the joys of youth and innocence and hope and love and victory back when. Why would anyone wish to banish these from the kingdom of our memory. And while this kingdom isn't for dwelling, it is for visiting. So why seal it up under the lock and key of today's expediencies?

That question is not unlike asking the tourist why he or she is re-visiting the same London and Paris enjoyed so many times before. In the place of places, let me suggest a particular place in time. A time in mid-century America when radio was king of the kingdom. Not high art, but the highest rated form of pop culture during the 30s,40s, and 50s.

Nostalgics like to call it the Golden Age of Radio, for back then it was much more than today's cacophony of fast-talking deejays, breathless news-breaks and under-enuciated traffic reports. It was live music performances ...daily dramas (soaps) and romps (kid shows).... home-waking advice....comedy.... on-location, in-depth news. Not all of the highest quality perhaps, but all of the highest effort and ratings. So high, in fact, that virtually half a nation was listening in all at the same bonding times.

Lest this sound like pointless nostalgia turned to useless sentimentality, let it be known that this age of radio was actually our national morals meter! It helped energize the listeners and the land with a common sense of right and wrong. A lot more mythological than theological, yet a moral energy nevertheless.

And what exactly was that...? Collectively speaking, it included the nationwide conviction that there was good and evil in the world, good eventually prevailed over evil, comedy could be clean, leaders could be respected, governments were more solution than problem, the American work ethic made sense, talent and achievement were worthwhile...honor was not foolish...and foolishness was not honorable.

I've heard some Carpe Diem realists call the energy that was radio back then "corn for the ill-educated!" That, I submit, comes from listening to those old programs with today's ears. Today's more cynical ears which like to call themselves part of a more sophisticated age. Still, I can't help wonder if those nostalgics who collect and play these old radio programs haven't found a wavelength to American morals that today's Wall Street and Washington greed and graft could learn from....

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Generation Gap Growls with New Gusto

Well, it's that old generation gap thing again. It's back just in time for the great recession....!

Giving a long-standing battle cry a new shout, University of Virginia professor Timothy Salthouse has released his findings about the way young and old brains function. Only his thesis is worse than most of us thought (with either our young or old brain). Salthouse says the cut-off point is 22.

Good lord, at 22 most of us are too young to even suspect what it means to be old. Our young brains are throbbing inside young bodies that tell us that both our brain and our body will feel like this forever. Not so, insists the brainy professor, and to prove it he has the cognitive test results from 2000 healthy people ranging from 18 to 60. Using puzzle-solving, word-recall and story details, he concludes we hit our peak at 22. And by 27 -- well forget it (as you probably will anyway) because you're already sliding down the other side of the brain's functionality.

Dr. Salthouse does throw us a cookie on our inevitable slide by suggesting that with age comes wisdom. At least when defined as "storehouse of vocabulary and general knowledge." However, lest we sliders get too giddy, Salthouse goes on to say this wisdom gig usually tops out at about 60.

One number that does not accompany his report is his own age, which I take to be somewhere midway between his appointed benchmarks. Usually most researchers are comfortably "midway" which lends them that much desired aura of scientific objectivity. In my case, 22 is so long ago I can only fictionalize it in my old brain; and even 60 has now become the-good-old-days.

All things and brains considered, professor Salthouse's thesis places President Obama, at 47, right smack in the middle of the brain's peak potential. Of coures neither the professor nor we can prove that. However, there is a good hint to that effect when you graph the daily barrage of criticisms aimed at the President's. Currently, the percentage of criticism from the young and the old, from the left and the right, graph out about equal. And as any history of democracy will suggest, leaders who make both extremes equally angry are leaders generally proceeding down the right path.

One thing neither Professor Salthouse nor President Obama has attended to yet is the way this recession is widening the generation gap in the pursuit of jobs. Right now the competition for entry level jobs in supermarkets and fast-food restaurants is being won by the older brains. The New York Times recently reported that in this market the 16-24 year olds have lost 2 million jobs and the 65-and-olders have added 700,000.

How does one try to summarize all these studies and numbers....? Perhaps one turns to some wise elders for their reflections from the far side of the slide:

Poet Robert Frost observed: "The reason worry kills more people than work is that more people worry than work." And playwright Arthur Miller: "Maybe all one can do in this life is hope to end up with the right regrets."

Neither professors nor statisticians need add anything more.....

Friday, March 27, 2009

When Words Are Unnecessary

Words are powerful. They are strewn across the pages of the histories they have changed. And yet we all know what a thousand of them is worth -- a picture. And in many cases -- a sound. The sights and sounds of our days are often the most powerful prompts to our lives...!

The funny thing is that for all the courses in composition & literature, there are virtually none in sight & sound. A good reason to take a short one right here and now. Because the sights and sounds of our America are so much a part of our national consciousness. A consciousness that any effective leader must understand and use in times of challenge like now.

Lets start with the sights....

Beginning in the 19th century, the earliest sights to soak into the mass culture were the illustrations of Currier & Ives. By the millions, these images filled the newspapers and hung on the living room walls of the nation. Simple, affectionate images of pastoral America, family affection, children at play, puppies in frolic, heroes in battle, and all that we wanted to believe we were.

Beginning in the 20th century the sentimentally gifted illustrator Norman Rockwell took the torch, as his imaginings of Americana filled magazine covers that reached tens of millions. Again the images were an America of good and decent parents, children, grandpas, wise old folks, families at holidays, children in mischief and all those moments of magic that could be imagined in the life of this special corner of the world known as America.

Throughout that century our illustrators and photographers continued to freeze America in time with worth-a-thousand -words scenes that have seared their way into the deepest recesses of our national consciousness. The Gibson Girl...the Flapper...the Petty Girl....Coca-Cola's Santa....Morton's salt girl....Rosie the Riveter....Uncle Sam Wants You...the flag raised over Iwo Jima....the bobby-soxer....Mauldin's weeping-Lincoln at the death of JFK....Marilyn Monroe's flying skirt....the brooding James Dean...the scowling Nixon, the saxaphone-playing Clinton, Bush on his aircraft carrier, and handcuffed CEOs.

Each of these images and a thousand more come together in our national memory like a jigsaw that portrays this great and imperfect land of of ours. Each and everyone without a single word!

Then there are the sounds...

Throughout our wordy history, certain sounds have emerged and filtered into the ethers to compose a symphony of our America. Notes that play in our minds, instantly triggering thoughts and feelings that we 300 million share together. Understand together. Respond to together.

You can hear them with me. The pipes playing the "Yankee Doodle Dandy" that speaks of our Revolution.... the strains of "Across the Wide Missouri" which conjure up the endless wagon trains spreading westard across 19th century America....the Cavalry bugle that charged across that same west....the plinky piano of a Scott Joplin tune re-creating the riverboat-age in America...the brassy beat of "The Charleston" from the roaring twenties....the "Rock Around the Clock" thunder of the new age of Rock...the theme from "Rocky" which trumpets the American swagger of beating the odds....the theme from "The Godfather" which haunts our fascination with evil....the solemn notes of Taps which speak to our soul of all those who have died in our America.

And so it is that those of us who use words are humbled by those of you who speak in sights and sounds. Each embedding themselves so deeply into each of our psyches, that they can instantaneously bind and bond us. And could there be a better or more necessary time....?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

We're Off To See The Wizard!

The morning jogger was bent over at the curb outside my house. I noticed her as I was picking up the papers on my driveway. Instinctively I went over to her, "Is something wrong?"

"Terribly wrong...!

Then I realized her plight. A small robin lay dying there in a smattering of blood and feathers. "Oh god," the jogger cried, "how sad."

Death is always sad. Especially when it seems so wrong. As in the case of our small friend here, likely the victim of a passing car. The two stark-still robins nearby seemed to sense the same thing, but then they like we moved on.

Death comes into our life in so many painful ways. On the ascending hierarchy of our pain: Robins...pets... neighbors ...classmates...family...friends....parents....children....mates. Oh, and somewhere in there, those fond convictions by which we have lived our life. Their wakes are only held in our hearts.

I'm thinking here, for instance, my childhood conviction that each new day or mail brought a happy little surprise. That Jack Armstrong secret decoder ring....the college acceptance letter....the date I hoped for or the job I applied for or the lottery I prayed for. Youth does that to you. It energizes you with hopes little and large. And so you rise each morning with the conviction of hope; and hope like that surely makes life worth living.

And yet, time happens in every life. And so in time you find yourself getting up in the morning thinking: "No surprises, Lord, please no surprises!" When that happens, you know you've lost something. Very much like you do when other youthful convictions slip through your fingers. Say the surety of your invincibility...of your capacity to change the world...of your beliefs about good winning over evil, friends standing by you, leaders knowing how to lead, and nature remaining forever beautiful and benign.

Still, none of these little funerals need be catastrophic. Just as we somehow manage to go through the pain of other funerals, so do we the funerals of our young convictions. Many things -- from robins to loved ones -- will die and we will live. The living know no other way. Call it evolution or God, we are programmed to survive every funeral until our own.

Let the record show that survival is a good thing. A courageous thing, really. What is particularly surprising about this courage is that we never knew we possessed it. But because we do, just like the Cowardly Lion we continue to trek the Yellow Brick Road in search of our own Emerald City.

The Lion learned something essential. Not even the many inevitable deaths in our past can stop our steps into the future. So sing it along with me in the key of C: "We're Off To See The Wizard...."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dancing With Some Very Different Stars

When you stepped outside this morning you saw and heard a different symphony. The string section of sun-rays dappling the lawns.The brass section of crows cawing their way to breakfast. And the soft but steady percussions that are the heartbeats to each new spring. Maybe you thought to yourself: Wow, it's suddenly here. But if you thought that, you would have been wrong...!

Nothing in nature is sudden. Neither spring nor winter, not even volcanoes or earthquakes. We simply experience them suddenly. Actually they've been building up to this moment in a thousand unseen ways. All part of the eternal cosmic rhythms of life. Birth and death, love and murder, peace and war, yesterday's economic bubble and today's bust

When we're young, we don't know this. Every day and every thing is new. Which is what helps makes youth so wonderful, and age sometimes so weary. But young or old, it is these rhythms to which we either dance or defy. We either go with their flow, or try to re-channel them into ours. To be the first is to be a player; the second, a reformer.

Most of us love reformers, but prefer to be players. Much easier. Among the great reformers were Noah, Abraham, Socrates, Jesus, Constantine, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, Columbus, Martin Luther, Robespierre, Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, FDR, Orson Wells, Martin Luther King. Each in different walks of life, most with untimely deaths. None with easy lives, for how easy can it be to re-compose life's cosmic symphony when most people around you just want to play the tune as written.

Probably 90% of life is perception, and perceptions are our reality. So we players are likely to call these reformers by some annoyed names. Trouble-makers...boat-rockers...out-of-step....just plain foolish and crazy. With ratings like that, no surprise most of us aren't willing to be reformers.

And yet, without their discontent with the-way-things-are, the way they are could easily become they way they'll stay. This then is one of those issues that divides us. Those of us who are satisfied dancing with the stars, and those who see entirely new and different stars. A choice people have been making since the cosmic rhythms of the stars first began. A choice to which there are of course no real right-or-wrong answers.

So stepping out this new morning, you hear a symphony of billions of players along with a few million soloists. Exactly who can be called a true soloist, and exactly how harmoniously you hear their kind of music is what will help make your day....

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Future Just Ain't What it Used to Be

One of the 20th century's quickest minds, John Kenneth Galbraith, perfectly captured our latest 21st century mess. "The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable....!"

At the moment -- and this financial mess is a moment-to-moment skydive -- our best-and-brightest forecasters seem divided into three triumphant legions. Those who predict Obama's boldness will be our answer....those who predict his boldness will be our disaster....those who make a living by turning such predictions into late-night humor, hot-off-the-press revelations, or, best-of-all for their ego, regularly scheduled cable & blogging rants.

If we shift for a moment from economic forecasting to end-of-life forecasting, some interesting things emerge. At least at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Here Dr. Andrea Phelps tracked the ways terminally ill religious and non-religious patients responded to their treatment options. As reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, religious patients were considerably more willing to undergo intensive (and unpleasant) medical interventions to prolong life than the non-religious ones.

The question that occurred to her medical teams was: Isn't this a contradiction? If one believes in a god and an afterlife, wouldn't the logical prediction be they would be more willing to meet their maker than the atheist?

A pause here.....! Perhaps the real contradiction is in having solvent economists and healthy doctors presume they can predict how out-of-work families and out-of-time patients really feel.

Making any prediction is hard. Especially about the future. Lets face it folks, the future just ain't what it used to be. Which is what anthropologist Margaret Mead meant when she wrote: "No man will ever again die in the same world into which he was born."

Which brings us back to those economic and medical forecasters we pay so much attention to. In today's highly statisticalized age, these have become the GPS oracles of our lives. From the morning weather forecast to the daily NYSE update to the quarterly company report to the annual State of the Union Address to the end-of-life hospice team, we have become a society that waits to hear what the "expert" has to say before we live our day. And yet, didn't old Mark Twain remind us, "Experts should be on tap, never on top!"

The next time our potion of ignorance and fear whets our appetite for an expert -- whether it's about the state of our economy, the state of our health, or the state of our faith -- it might be good to remember the only future they can predict with much certainty is theirs not ours. And when you think about it, rarely with any certainty about theirs either. Because, you see in the final measure, the future is almost always a map we each chart and travel ourselves....

Monday, March 23, 2009

Looking for a Better Dictionary

It's entirely possible the four most misunderstood words in the English language are: Victory, Defeat, Certainty, and Serenity. In this possibility rests an enormous threat to the way we live our everyday lives....!

Victory is an idea that's been largely hijacked by those grinning faces we see on the pages of our newspapers and the screens of our television sets. The yelping, finger-waving pitcher....the brash, gloves-raised fighter....the scream of the hoopster sinking a basket over the crumpled body of his defender....the fist-pumping stock broker beating the big board (back when they were still pumping)....the award-winner hoisting their trophy and the successful candidate flashing their V-sign.

Such portraits in victory have the smell of gladiators succeeding at something largely by the act of defeating something. It's that American adrenalin rush we can all identify with, and yet aren't true victories more than beating rivals and destroying losers?

Defeat, too, wears a familiar look most days. Players at the end of the game sunk into themselves on the emptied bench....racetrack betters tearing up their tickets in disgust....sprinters collapsing after the failed dash....the smoke and fire of a smashed car at the far end of the Indy.

Defeats like victories are all too often defined in this culture in terms of raw, lusty competition. How better might they be experienced deep within ourselves? Deep inside where the only competition is really with us? With our own best standards of what is the good, the virtuous, and the right? That makes any victory or defeat more inescapably real. Perhaps less seen but surely more felt!

As for certainty, here is an idea which has lately come to dominate every vestige of life. From televangelists to terrorists.... church leaders to gang leaders....generals to 2nd lieutenants....politicians to pundits....my Uncle Abe to your Uncle Willy. There is little doubt in the minds and the mouths of true believers. Especially when -- like now -- things are coming loose at the joints, and it's hard to be sure of anything.

At one time we had little podiums in parks and dim corners in coffee shops where certainty like this reigned supreme. Only these righteous prophets had small audiences, whereas today's cable networks and political blogsites can reach tens of millions. In moments. Once imbued with the gift of certainty, these strutting oracles can sow anger and discord faster than calm and unity can ever hope to repair.

Enter the last of our fractious words: Serenity.

Here is a state of being forever pursued but strangely understood. Is it the bliss that drink and drugs can bring? The diversion that sex and power can yield? The comfort of love, the safety of family, the intoxication of wealth, the security of truth, the ecstasy of faith?

Well, yes, all of that sounds about right! Only where to find all of that this side of paradise? It's the question that has somehow prompted our species to be forever on the move. From its earliest days in dark trees right up to its latest days in gleaming towers. Where and when and who will be the end of the chase...? When all's said and done, perhaps that too can be found only deep inside us.....

.....a frontier most of us have yet to cross.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Going to Washington With Mr. Smith

In another few weeks they'll be back. Our local farmers markets. You know, those sunny Saturday mornings when nearby farms truck in their bounty of fresh, fragrant fruits and vegetables for us. A grand organic harvest from the soil of dozens of nearby farmers, giving us this splendid array of choices.

One of the classic metaphors for American democracy...! Political scientists have long seen our democracy as a great marketplace-of-ideas. Unlike those un-democratic chain stores down the block which dictate what you can buy and at what price, our democracy is more like these wide-open farmers markets where the free clash of choices lets us decide for ourselves which are the best products and prices.

Only there's something a little delusional about this. Our choices only seem our own, when in fact there are a number of unseen forces inevitably manipulating much of what we see. The crops (ideologies) from which all this began...the families (entrepreneurs and bankers) that make it possible.....the field hands (unions) that gather and ship it....the local licenses (laws and regulations) that authorize and give favors to it...not to mention all those other truck farms not allowed in here (clout or the lack thereof).

Here's the problem. What we learn in school and hear on Fourth of July speeches are the indisputable goodness of our democracy. But like the founders of all great religions and the half-time pep talks by all great coaches, those of us who come after rarely live up to these high standards. And so democracy's marketplace-of-ideas in today's Washington, Springfield and City Hall is not quite what we want to believe each time we see a re-run of Jimmy Stewart's inspirational Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

We like to remember Jimmy making the system work, and keeping the "marketplace" open for the will of the little people. However, the guy we should also remember is Claude Raines playing the manipulating Senator who knows exactly how to make that marketplace dance to his backroom deals. Each of the marketplaces-of-ideas in each of our seats of government inevitably have their little unlit corners where the power-brokers from banks, corporations, unions, media conglomerates and big-time contributors control which produce (laws) reaches the market. We the people should have a say -- just like the Founding Fathers and Jimmy say we should -- but in reality there's always a lot of pre-selection going on by those "who know better." (see the current recession for names and details)

In the movie, Jimmy eventually wins the hearts of the people in the balcony, Claude Raines on the Senate floor, and damn near everyone in the audience. I love it! so do you! so do all the Claude Raines out there in their million-dollar board-rooms, estates and yachts. Exactly like every smart-guy loves watching The Godfather. It's cathartic! inspiring! makes you feel good inside!

But lets put it this way. If you happen to think of our new president as Jimmy Stewart (a comparison not yet confirmed by time), then you 've noticed by now that there are a lot more Claude Raines in the screenplay coming out of Washington. However, while we wait for the final reel to see how this turns out, maybe we ought to be more like Jean Arthur and Thomas Mitchell in the original film. Get involved before Claude wins....!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Secret of the Sidewalk at New Trier HS

New Trier HS in Winnetka, Il is often ranked as the number one school in the nation. But only its custodians know its truest secret. The secret of the sidewalk....!

When an ancient king ordered his wise men to find the secret of life, they traveled his kingdom for a year before they returned with these Solomonic words: "And this too shall pass..." As an educator, I traveled the campus of New Trier for 25 years, and found the secret in a small sidewalk on its campus. Not in any words; just in its placement.

For years the custodians had landscaped the area with attractive greenery, but by adolescent nature the kids always took a shortcut that trampled right through it. Next, the custodians planted a thorny row of bushes. The kids trampled right through it. In aesthetic desperation, the custodians drew a chain across it. That's right -- the kids trampled right over it.

Today you can find this secret right there at 385 Winnetka Avenue. The custodians gave up and put in a sidewalk. From Plato to Edmund Burke to William Buckley to Newt Gingrich, conservatives will always tell you that human nature is resolute, and neither custodians, school principals nor political reformers are apt to change it very easily.

Enter our reform-minded new president. If he can find a way to salvage our current banking crisis, he wants to take us to some long-neglected summits. Places like healthcare reform, energy reform, and education reform. However, both history and psychology tell us that national human nature is hard to change. Reinforcing this instinct are each of the vested interests in society who stand to lose with any such reforms. Translated: They will use all their wealth and power to convince us that our don't-make-waves instinct is absolutely correct.

Does that make them an evil cabal, a vast right-wing conspiracy, a contract with the devil...? Those would be easy to confront, because they have a name. Today's re-emerging resistance to national reform is far subtler. And for them far nobler. Generally it's a big-A-American pride in "what we've always been!" As in the case of such habitually posed either-or choices between good medicine vs socialised medicine....available energy vs unrealistic energy.... universal education vs privileged education.

Among those advocates of what is called "the great American status quo" are most doctors, most oil companies, and most teacher unions (yes they have one at New Trier, although I'm not sure where they stand on reforms like charter schools for in effect New Trier already is one).

In "this too shall pass," the ancient king's wise man offered comfort in the midst of trials, but challenge in the midst of comfort. Change is always a challenge. But today, the challenge has changed! In today's game, virtually all the old rules and hash marks and goal posts have crumbled. True, this has happened before in history, but not this fast and not all at once. Crumbling icecaps, crumbling banking institutions, crumbling drug enforcement. crumbling border patrols, crumbling police and health protection, crumbling churches and moral codes.

The President is historically accurate when he says "great perils also mean great opportunities." We all agree on the perils, but not on the opportunities. In the final measure, it will be for us to decide whether we keep trampling across the campus of life according to our old shortcut instincts. If so, then once again the call to reform may have to give in, as we put in that sidewalk whose secret says: "I tried, but couldn't get you to try with me."

Friday, March 20, 2009

So What Do We Do With Tomorrow,,,,?

America has always been a tomorrow place. Missions not memories have been our genetic code. We leave it to older cultures like Europe and Asia to honor the past, while we roll up our entrepreneurial sleeves and sculpture the future. Which, frankly, still makes us the exciting land of opportunity so many foreigners still hope to call home....!

And yet, we do have yesterdays and we do occasionally take them out like the family album on special holidays and anniversaries. The question is not what we find in these yesterdays, but what we should find? Are our 233 years of yesterdays something we simply tuck into history books and carve into statues? Calcifying yesterdays this way can steal them of their power.

This power is often claimed by self-described conservatives who insist the-way-it-was is most often the-way-it-should-be. And so from Sarah Palin to Rush Limbaugh to the Wall Street Journal to the Bible Belt we are warned of creeping urbanism, socialism, government and sodomy respectively.

But they appropriate -- rape, really -- the power that is yesterday. Let the record show that yesterday's power in our personal and national lives is a force to be lived not labeled. Our collective yesterdays are a theatre of life as we and our forefathers have been living and growing it for over a dozen exceptional generations. This makes these yesterdays a panoramic stage set in which we play our present roles. Always facing the audience and the future, but never ignoring the backstage crews and directors who helped mount this production in the first place.

Perhaps, then, some credit is due these crews, directors and props so often ignored simply because they cannot be seen. A credit listing in the audience's stage-bill so that both they and we the players can draw from the power they have invested in all this.

Everyone's list of credits may be slightly different, but here are a few impressionist thoughts on the matter....

The early settlers subduing the wilderness without pillaging the natives....the Minutemen and their long-rifles on the April fields of Lexington and Concord....the Founding Fathers on a hot July in Philadelphia signing our freedom in their signatures...the covered wagon trains injecting new cultures into the ancient wilds of the West...a bearded man from Illinois saving the Union and freeing the slaves...two different Roosevelts in the White House at two perilous times in our nation's history...the vigor of a Kennedy, the vitality of a Reagan, the vision of an Obama!

And, not to be forgotten, the apron-ed mothers waiting for their kids to come home from school....the sweaty fathers whose labors could be seen and felt not only calculated and computed....neighbors you knew by name...newspaper boys still delivering the newspaper you counted on holding in your hand...the easy-walk-to mom&pop shops, produce markets, gas stations, movie houses, schools and churches....family picnics, sleeping in the parks, weddings of virgin white, corner kids toting baseball bats not firearms....cocky young trail-blazers still humble enough to understand their frontiers were possible only because their out-of-touch elders had reached them before!

Here's to our best yesterdays, because without remembering them we are all amnesiacs....

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sex For Sale in a Recession

People who read health magazines and prescription labels are an interesting bunch. Lately, what they've been reading about are two important chemicals in the human anatomy -- serotonin and dopamine. Secularists who believe we're pretty much just what our chemicals and genes are, may find something curious here. Too much of a good thing (serotonin meds like Prozac and Zoloft) can diminish the other good thing (dopamine which enriches our love life)....!

The first thing that comes to mind is, "Oh great, another contradiction to live with!" Now to feel better I have to feel less?

But wait, this is only another theory by another biology team. Helen Fisher and James Thomson posted their results on Wired.com. We don't know if Helen and Jim are involved personally, but you're reminded of the old definition of a sex researcher. "Someone who has studied 214 ways of making love, but never had a date."

Americans consider themselves a pretty sexy species. At least we spend a lot of money on sexy items like perfumes, aftershave lotions, lap dancers, Chippendale dancers and Viagra. From Las Vegas to the local porn shop, sex sells in America. But in all these studies and venues, few ever ask the indispensable question: Is love more than simply the chemicals I produce or purchase?

Some statisticians report there is more sex during a recession, because it's a cost-free, at-home release. Others tell us that right now people are too distracted to have sex. Neither group bothers to layer into their soup the ladle of love. Even the Vatican seems to concern itself with the act of procreation more than act of love.

In the final measure, we are each left to confront this exquisite mystery called love as we wish. A lightening rush? a surge of serenity? a Hallmark Card? a box of candies and a spray of roses? hands held gently in the dark of a theatre? a song first discovered together? a new infant? a prayer from our knees to our creator?

Love as most of us understand it is all of the above and considerably more. So much more and so chemically and genetically unquantifiable that for most us it is just what it is...! And -- like the spring, the sun and the stars -- it might best be saluted not studied.
Now my old chemistry teacher and the American Medical Association will surely dismiss that as an unenlightened response mechanism by an aging elder. A somewhat immature mind still clogged with too many lacy recollections of first loves, first kisses, all sorts of first firsts.

I'm rather proud to say -- they'd be right!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Heartland's Three Words to Recovery

Right now everyone -- I mean everyone from the President to the governors to the local village managers -- is desperately trying to find the patient's pulse. To learn what's going on deep inside in time to administer the right cure. Today I can report, with some immodesty, that I have found it...!
If Heartland America is the nation's central nervous system, then what better pulse to check than Fredericks Drug Store in the little Illinois town of McHenry. I was driving through its elm-tree-speckled main street, and stopped in to replenish my car's inventory of gum and candy bars. But a funny thing happened on the way to the checkout. I couldn't for the life of me get those packs of Doublemint off their hook. Is this crazy or what?
The forty-ish print-dress of an owner explained feistly, "Gotta make it hard to keep the little creeps from stealing them!"
"You mean the kids?"
"These days, I mean anybody! Look, I work for my money, and no slickers are going to take it away from me."
Driving on through the greening miles of our heartland state, I thought about her words. Three jumped out like a grand trilogy of an answer to the patient's plight: "Work," "slicker," and "take." As soon as those in power truly fathom the inescapable mix of pride and rage here, then we're on our way to the recovery that is historically destined to come.
"Work" is the DNA of America. The first settlers carved it out of wilderness, and working it hard ever since has been our genetic code. Mrs. Fredericks, like my parents and yours, never needed to ask what you do with your life. The curse of Eden has become the measure of a good American. Not manipulating numbers on a screen or brainstorming dreams in a spa, but honest-to-god, shirtsleeves activity that you can see, feel, taste and in 40 years get a gold watch for! Well, yes, that's corny and old-fashioned, but when hard times come, most folks suddenly get more old-fashioned.
"Slicker" of course is a tar-and-feather label Americans have been sticking on hustlers from the eastern dandies in the Robber Baron 19th century to the Wall Street vulgarians in the 21st century. Americans have always had this schizophrenic attitude toward the easy rich. Lately it's earned the name Paris Hilton factor, as in the case of drive-by billionaires who change clothes twice a day even though they never sweat. We grudgingly envy them until the times get hard for us, but somehow better for them.
"Take" is that kind of word that Americans are unarguably hypocritical about. When we take, that's gumption and glory. When the not-so-hard-working slickers take, we've got names for that. Greed...graft...corruption....and a damn good reason to pack the bums off to jail. Hypocritical or not, there is this populist rage that rises up and demands government punish these sinners. (That, by the way, is the very same government we like to get-off-our-back until times like these when we understand that government can be just as much the solution as the problem).
I may not ever meet Mrs. Fredericks again, but those in government will. Day after day after day during these angry times when hurting Americans want to find cozy Americans to blame. Political leadership now becomes less about pointing wild, angry fingers, and more about offering wise, encouraging hands.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Random Acts of Kindness & Porn

In today's tightening grip of mass disgust and despair, it's necessary more than ever to remember all those random acts of love and kindness. They're really far more frequent than the over-reported acts of war and violence. And yet, this morning's kindness ironically arrived here in the form of some surprising data on pornography in America...!
The kindness was the way some anonymous neighbor took the time to gather up my morning newspapers from the front lawn and gently tucked them into my front doorway. That has to start your day feeling there's still something decent about the human species. But then -- scanning through the pre-requisite number of funereal recessionary headlines -- you come across this chart about our top ten porn-buying states. You figure you'll find those free-living, free-loving blue states like New York and Washington. But you figure wrong.
In a current Harvard University study, the dubious honor of first place went to Utah. Utah....? The state that's home to the great Mormon Church with its strict adherence to biblical values? The state where most people agreed with the survey statement, "I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage?" The state which consistently votes Republican and righteously opposes gay-marriage?
The answer is a saucy yes, for Utah boasts the highest porn-buying rate in the country. But here's the question that goes with that answer. Why? In heaven's name, why?
The author of Harvard's study, Benjamin Edelman, explained his conclusion in the latest edition of New Scientist. "One natural hypothesis is something like repression -- if you're told you can't have this, then you want it more."
Funny, but that has a familiar ring. As in Adam and Eve being given all the riches of Paradise with only one restriction. We all know how that story turned out. Again and again and again throughout history. Seems like our species, so prone to random acts of kindness, can resist everything but temptation!
This contradiction has spawned religions like Zoroastrianism in which there are twin gods of good and of evil, to John Calvin's doctrine of pre-destination, to today's cool crowd practicing an existential catechism that anything goes.
Take your pick. Personally, I still marvel at the way people kindly defer to the handicapped, and instantly to the ambulance. Small moments in which to take some large pride in our humanity. We are, after all, all stuck together on this same tiny troubled planet. And yet, if the human race is to keep surviving its own self-inflicted traumas and idiocies, the small seed of kindness planted in our soul needs a lot more watering..

Monday, March 16, 2009

When Populism Turns Into Vigilantism

Mention the word "squirm" and most people think defendants in the witness chair. Or maybe babies and puppies in your arms. But in today's America, you can add three more to your list. Pupils in the state of Colorado....seniors in the state of Iowa ....bankers in the state of guilt everywhere!

In Fort Collins, Colorado, school districts are creatively seating their squirming students on tushy-sized rubber exercise balls. The theory is, organized squirming lets the kids concentrate better. The way the educators figure it, the brain is more engaged when the body is more engaged. Don't ask...! Although come to think of it, America did invent the rocking chair, making it possible to be sitting and moving all at the same time.

In Iowa, seniors took offense when the Department of Elder Affairs changed its name to the Department of Aging. That made the acronym DOA, and if you know your cop shows, that stands for dead-on-delivery. We seniors would just as soon not be toe-tagged by our own government this way.

However, today's biggest squirmers are the bankers. And with gargantuan good reasons. These riverboat gamblers are where we entrusted our hard-won money. And while there have been some notorious financial manipulators throughout history, some of today's swindlers are writing whole new chapters in white-collar crime. So if they're squirming right now, couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch.

And yet there is a terrible irony to this scenario. The Great Recession and its many bailouts are teaching us a thorny lesson. It's hard to turn your own parents into the cops! You see, banks and bankers help parent our economy, because they feed it the nourishment it needs to live and grow. Or, to switch metaphors, consider FED Chairman Ben Bernacke (who borrowed directly from President Roosevelt back in 1937) when he said: "When your next door neighbor's house is on fire, you don't have to love him to know you have to help him put out the flames."

The squirming kids in Colorado and seniors in Iowa don't impact everyday life in 21st century America. But the sweating, squirming big-bank officers do. And the more we read about the continuing greed of their unconscionable bonuses, office decorations and pleasure trips, the more our populism erupts into vigilantism.

The new sheriff in town rides tall in the saddle. He and his deputies in Congress have rightly named the bad guys in the black hats. But before anyone in town has the right to claim any white hats in this plot, they first need to explain how they will use the noose not to kill the bankers, but to kill the ornery, bushwacking practices that have created this posse in the first place.

That takes a sheriff who's not so much quick on the trigger, but cool on the draw. And a posse who's willing to ride with him, not against him.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Word From Chicken Little

Remember the classic tale about Chicken Little telling everyone the sky was falling in? Well, it did the other day on an otherwise sunny Chicago morning....!

There are those rare cosmic moments when the contradictions in our life somehow clarify life. When the ironies to our existence somehow produce insight to that existence. If that sounds appealing, stay with me here. It happened just a few weeks ago to thousands of us driving to work. There we were, with all this vehicular power and gadgetry, feeling in push-button control of our world. Until, that is, we turned on our radio.

Within a matter of minutes, we learn just how little control we actually have. The news ticks off a series of totally dislocating events. Our Governor impeached....our Tribune files for bankruptcy... Detroit's big three in worse shape than we thought.... Wall Street CEO's more guilty than we knew...and all those supplements that cancer patients like me have been taking now shown virtually useless.

The word "dislocating" is apt, because each of these things has been a reliable anchor to our lives. Now suddenly ripped away from us, we're once more left dislocated and adrift. Precisely as the waters we travel grow darker and deeper.

Now it's reasonable to expect many of these matters will work out in time. And yet, time is exactly what we have so little of. So we're anxious. And we're angry. Isn't there anything left in this world that we can count on!

The stunning contradictions and ironies here are that we exist in an age of startling powers, and yet few if any of these power seem to empower us. What is there on our gleaming power panels that will stem crime in high places? keep my newspaper alive? keep Detroit and its workers from becoming a ghost town? and when can I ever again believe anything any pharmaceutical company or bank tells me?

By the time I reach the Loop and drive through its proud canyons of steel and glass, I can 't help thinking of this not so much as a great city, but as a great cave. Like the ancient cave dwellers who used their's to hide away from the terrors of their world . But that's not the way it was supposed be. Civilization and all its powers promised us, unlike our ancient cave-dwelling ancestors, we would be masters of all we survey.

Musing over that unfulfilled promise, now comes the final contradiction and irony. My parking lot is full....!

I hear science is toying with the notion of using DNA deposits to resurrect neanderthal mammoths and men. The way I feel this messy news morning, both the mammoths and the men would feel perfectly at home in our wild age of dislocating terrors. Perhaps reminding us -- and them -- that true security will always come not from the power of my power panels, but from the power of my own inner humanity.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Can Angels Ring Doorbells?

Have you ever seen an angel...? Shepherds have. Saints have. Even my Aunt Rose claimed she had after every novena. My first and so far only encounter was last Saturday at my front door.

I had just finished another breakfast of rotten news headlines when this fluff of fragrance rang the bell. Presumably the petite brunette from our local high school was here selling tickets to their spring musical. What she couldn't have known was that instead she was here selling hope.

Back on my kitchen table was your newspaper. Turbo-charged with reports of the day's calamities, none of which I could or should ignore. However, here in front of me was this small hint of angel dust whose eager eyes were turbo-charged with enthusiasm. That indefinably infectious energy that has no room for calamity. Tag this either innocence or ignorance, right now I needed both. Happily, I bought a pair of tickets I wouldn't use.

Later I changed my mind The play was "Thoroughly Modern Millie," another fluff of fragrance. The story is set during the zest of the 1920s. Remember, just before the Great Depression of the 1930s? Another time when America was giddy and exuberant. Is that because your newspaper was reporting better news...? Or was it because the news was really better....?

We shall leave that to the historians to sort out. As for giddy, exuberant Rita, she played Millie for a giggly three hours of angelic escapism. The audience loved it. This old manic-depressive adored it, because no one can capture and project hope like youth can!

Which brings us back to your admirably serious newspaper. Some of us are still young enough to admire the instant universality of your news gathering. We're also old enough to abhor the intolerable drumbeat of calamity. You see, unlike some of us, Rita and her heavenly cast of high-stepping thespians have never known a time when time didn't -- at least for a precious little while -- stand still. So still, in fact, that what you knew from your local newspaper was mostly the local events and laws and parades and occasional misdoings.

Today -- thank or blame mass communications -- we know instantly which gypsy band in Romania blew up which convent...which fire in Uzbekistan burned down the German embassy....which gang of survivalists in the Montana mountains raped a girl scout.....which prime minister from a country we can't find on the map killed his entire office staff with a Uzi.... which gang in which backalley in town gunned down which other gang....and which US Senator's un-authorised aide whispered how her boss was in back-channel discussions to filibuster the next stimulus bill.

In everyday democracy, news is necessary. At least that news we can actually use! So I'll keep buying the news you're selling me. But in everday life, Rita is also necessary. Her angel eyes of young hope is what might some distant day actually improve your news. That's why from now on I'll buy every ticket to every high school play she's selling....!

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Light at the End of the Tunnel Just Went Off

Two quick scenes. Scene one: Grim president in White House east room: "Due to the current economic crisis, the light at the end of the tunnel has just been turned off!" Scene two: Laughing, bikini-clad American college kid in spring break at Cancun with Mexican civil wars raging just outside, "What tunnel?"

The first never happened. The second actually did. The distance between these two points in life is the distance between counting facts and hoping facts don't count. But as life teaches, the indispensable sustenance of hope must always be seasoned with the bitters of reality. Having said that, everyone then holds on tight.

But to what do we hold onto...? Aye, there's the rub, as the great Bard muttered while struggling to keep the hope of his theatre alive during the financial troubles of his London. Some answer: God. Others say: The government. Still others insist: The unrestricted rhythms of the economy. As for the pundits and the scholars, each one has their very own hobby horse to ride with splendid self-assurance.

In a large, multi-cultured, multi-racial democracy like ours, all this is nobly named the Marketplace of Ideas. That great array of free, freshly-harvested thoughts from which -- like that day's fresh produce market -- some great meals can be prepared.

And yet even democratic diners expect a master chef will do the preparing. This elected chef is quite properly surrounded by a great many elected dietary experts. Still, the chef is usually the last spoon in the pot. That's why we elected him.

Here's a third scene: Master chef begins serving meal to a nation of guests few of whom could find their way to a spice rack; but each of whom fancies themself a food critic! What happens next will be found written in about 20 years in your kids' US history textbook. For now we're only at the appetizer. And that racket from the kitchen? That's the chef and his cadre of specialists wrangling over the salad. God only knows what happens when they get to the entree.

But look -- Jefferson and Franklin helped start this kitchen. Chefs like Lincoln and FDR helped re-decorate it. It's the only kitchen we have, and a pretty darn good one at that. So now that we're all here once again at the table of crisis, we have a choice. Either send the meal back....send in some new cooks to watch the chef....or try nibbling at the best parts of his meal for now. Because while man does not live by bread alone, at this point he surely needs a few slices to sustain him. At least until that gang in the kitchen get their act together in time for the rest of the meal.

And do you know what...? They will....! Because they need to eat too

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Inescapable 'Why' Question

No arguing the fact, America right now is in a bailout mood. Not everyone likes it, but everyone grudgingly admits some things simply have to be saved whether we like them or not. However, when it comes to saving our busted, bloated healthcare system, few of us ever really brave the axiomatic question. Exactly why do we spend tens of billions every year on our health...?

This inescapable why question takes on renewed urgency now that the President has given a green light for science to more freely explore bold new ways to protect, preserve and extend human life.

When it comes to this inescapable why question, answers like "I just want to feel good" are really no answers at all. Looking and feeling good is not an end in itself. If we're honest with ourselves, it's more a means to an end. Consciously or not, we want to feel good because we want to live longer. And that, my fellow healthcare participants, is the real answer to the why question.

Upon closer consideration, it seems the younger we are, the longer we want to live. The older we are, the better we want to live. Be it either quantity or quality, eventually comes that twinkling in time when the what's-it-all-for question takes a bite out of our soul. When, like in the old song classic by Peggy Lee, the inescapable why question comes down to is-that-all-there-is?

Our good doctors, hospitals, insurance companies and government planners have no answers for us. Nor should they be expected to. Their task is to sustain not explain life. Enter here the philosopher, the clergy, the artist. It is to these that we must look for help in understanding our obsession with health

Each of these mentors each in their own way reminds us that life is more than protoplasm, genes and brain circuitry. Shakespeare called us "the paragon of animals," and yet he wrote about us as being far grander or grosser than the beasts of the field. That's because he and most of the world's philosophers, clergy and artists sense we are a whole mysteriously greater than the mere sum of our physiological parts.

It is because of this vague, arguable presumption that our species can never completely ignore the inescapable why question. Look around. That includes the hard-sweating racket-ball player...the vigorous treadmill walker...the vitamin-popping breakfast taker...the dedicated OR surgeon....the meditation guru...the experimenting neuro-biologist....even the iron-pumping teenager. We're all instinctively hoping that healthcare in America gets fixed, because then our disguised dream of eternal life gets real!

Still, I for one hear the haunting echo of Peggy's song "Is That All There Is?" I know somewhere deep inside me the answer is a lusty, presumptuous No. That for many of us is the beginning of the answer to the inescapable why question.

OK, healthcare reform, I'm ready for you....!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How Many Times Do We Have To Kill God?

I had a hard-drinking old uncle who loved to taunt God. "If I'm lying to you, kid, may God strike me dead!" God never did, so Uncle Andrew would always laugh, "I rest my case!"

Uncle Andrew died at 97 from lung cancer. I suppose you could say God finally got him, because God created tobacco. To keep the record straight, my uncle wasn't the world's first -- and certainly not the smartest -- atheist. As far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans, Plato was called an atheist, while Lucretius and Epicurus doubted any such being. By the time of the Enlightenment in Europe and the Founding Fathers in America, deism had refined atheism by smugly admitting the old boy may have created the world, but then just stopped caring.

Much to the amazement and irritation of both atheists and deists, God made a comeback of sorts during the 19th and 20th centuries. Lately, though, he's taken another hit. In much of Europe the cathedrals are filled with tourists, not worshippers. And despite greater attendances in America, the number of doubters here has doubled in just the last 20 years (from 8% to almost 16% according to the American Religious Independent Survey).

Lots of theories about why. Here's one to consider the next time you look up in the middle of, say, a great recession in which you've lost money, job and hope. The Internet! No, not because of the pornography, ponzi schemes, on-line gambling, and glut of YouTube distractions. Because it's now the fastest way in the world to conclude you're your own God.

Uncle Andrew's doubts came from his gut. Today's doubts can easily be found in and reinforced by everything the Internet lets you do that to our ancestors could only be done by a God. Sitting at our screens we can now see anywhere on earth...find out about and talk to anyone on earth....buy and sell anytime on earth....create music and art and literature at the click of a key....call in for our Genome profile or DNA history.... call in for our own medical charts, diagnoses and prognoses ....plus scan the latest neuro-biological research explaining precisely which brain lobes and gene pools actually determine why you live, love, mate, hate and pray the way you do.

There's this funny law in life: The law of unintended consequences. The Internet was certainly never intended to be a God-killer, and yet the enormous digital omnipotence it grants us does feel a whole lot like what and who we used to pray to. Religions have always spoken of God as a kind of omnipotent father-figure. Atheists and deists have instead spoken of human intelligence as the only real God mankind should worship. Here in 2009 we can see this split in the road cleared than ever.

Down one fork, the Internet-energized populations of the world can see a distant new day in which the instantaneously googled intelligence of all history lights our path to a potential heaven-on-earth. Down the other fork, the prayer-energized populations can see a no-yet-realized day when paradise lost is finally found.

But then, why does there have to be a fork in the road...? Isn't there still a chance all these populations can still find the very same route....?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Big Three Get Tested

Researchers love problems. Even more, they love solutions. Recently they've taken on three problems most of us never even thought were problems. Reality, morality and God. If you took it for granted you understood these matters, the researchers are saying, "Not so fast!"

In the first, we're being told that this reality we think we see, touch and smell is real not just because our senses tell us so, but mostly because our mathematics tells us so. As for morality, we're now being advised it mostly applies only to what we decide it applies. As for God, some of today's skeptics have decided they prefer to find out what man thinks of God rather than the other way around.

If these researchers are on to something, then maybe a lot of laws, novels, paintings, symphonies and holy books are in for some big-time editing. But then again, why not? Seems like everything else in our world is changing too.

Start with reality. Ever since physicists like Niels Bohr came up with quantum mechanics in the 1920s, scientists have suggested it's actually impossible to know if the world really exists except when we are observing it. (Remember the old :Does the falling tree make a sound if no one's there to hear it?). Well, we can relax now, because some scientists at the University of Japan used some polarised photons to mathematically prove that what you saw and smelled this morning really was real.

You have to applaud such fine research efforts, but all that time and work just to learn there's really something worthwhile outside your front door....?

On the morality matter, a scholar by the name of Mary Eberstadt recently wrote in the "Policy Review" that food and sex have lately traded places on America's morality scale. Two generations ago we maintained very strict moral codes about sex, but ate like pigs. Today, she says, we're strict about how we eat, but not about how we have sex.

You have to give Mary credit for noticing this trade-off, only when did morality once emblazoned on fixed stone tablets get reduced to a handy slide rule....?

Finally, this matter of God. Ever since Nietzsche proclaimed he was dead, God has become something like the pistol-packing cop on the beat who little kids can feel big whenever they stick their tongues out behind his back. You have to wonder what happens if he ever turns around. However, that hasn't stopped two Northwestern University scholars, Dan McAdams and Michelle Albaugh, from statistically measuring God by polling how liberals and conservatives "need God in their lives."

Their survey results were interesting, only if they conclude God is either on the Left or the Right, I'd remind them that more likely he's everywhere....!

But enough research for one day. Some days are simply meant for living, not examining. Which, in the final measure, may be the very best way to take this course.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Soliloquies in the Snow

There aren't many things about Chicago winters I'll miss this spring. But one of them is the trails in the snow...!

From December through February there's usually enough snow on the ground to spot where everyone's been in the morning. The dogs and squirrels on their sunrise treks, the mail carriers and delivery guys on their daily routes, the neighbors who just left for work, and the kids meandering to school. More than tracks, these are messages. Un-rehearsed soliloquies by the life around us that we don't often notice or, worse yet, don't often take seriously.

You can forget about these in the spring and summer when their travels leave no trails. But in the winter, you know they were there even without you being there. Kinda nice. Sorta reassuring. White reminders that all sorts of things are happening in our everyday world even when we don't take the time to notice.

That of course is because we're so terribly busy with the important things. Jobs, taxes, graft, corruption and why we're collectively depressed that the Cubs will once more break our hearts. But in the winter, you can't walk outside your home without seeing and sensing other important things are afoot too. Things that -- even unseen -- tell you of the cosmic rhythms that pulse through the collective days of our lives. In the winter, out of sight is no longer out of mind.
When you think about it, our days are made up of all sorts and sizes of these trails. The ones we take, and the ones others take. While they may not all go in the same direction, their very existence out there reminds us we are each a small part of a very large criss-cross webbing of life. And while we are intent on the pursuits of our own individual existence, those trails in the snow make it impossible to ignore the reality that we are community. We are one. We are integrated within each other's lives even when we have the size homes and bank accounts that deceive us into smugly believing otherwise.

Right now this sense of community, this irrefutable reality we really are all in the same life raft, seeps into our consciousness each new headline. We have leaders who are calling us to stop sulking in our corner of the raft, and start paddling together. Bobbing on an ocean of traumas, the call makes sense.

Or, to return to our trails, there is this story about an old tribal guide leading a safari through the jungles of Africa. After several days, the roads gave way to paths and the paths to unmarked wilderness. When the frightened travelers asked, "But where's the trail now....?" the wise elder replied, "From here on, we're the trail...!

Sex and Love in the Information Age

By now it's cliche to call ours the Information Age. And yet, the cliche like all cliches endures, because in a few small words it encapsulates a very large truth. However, today's exponentially exploding information from our PC's (1 billion), cellphones (85 million), cable channels (10,700),and newspapers (3,900), needs to be distinguished from education. Not unlike sex from love...!

Information is always transient, education is always transformational. This unprecedented surge of 24/7 information ranges from the innocuousness of celebrities to the precariousness of calamities. And while the first are like empty calories, the second are always ready to become ravenous cancers. Especially now when in the last six months our nation's immune system has been shattered right down to its deepest foundations.

Banks that stop banking, jobs that stop existing, schools that stop functioning, health-care that stops caring, energy that stops working. Trouble is, what good is this incessant drone of unnerving information unless it can actually educate us to find our most transformational options?

The options before us are neither right nor left, rather forward or backward. Forward always has the taste and the tang of our most advanced scholars. Disciplines like economics, sociology, and biology which promise to marshall the finest answers from our finest minds. Such knowledge, we are told, is the ultimate magnet and mission of our species. Once equipped with all the answers, we are destined to resolve all the questions.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. Just as we were finalizing all the answers, they changed all the questions. The irony continues as each new study or committee or delegation or Sunday Morning talking head seems to contradict the others. We, the little people, are left to watch the important people drown us in information, but rarely agreeing how to swim our way to safe shores.

This is where the wisdom of education distinguishes itself from the chaos of information. And who are these wise ones among us...? Traditionally they seem to come from places and positions rather removed from the daily assault of information and knee-jerk reaction. Often they are found in isolated college campuses and research labs... hunched over keyboards or doodling at workbenches...speaking in their churches and temples of their god. While billions of frenetic words are written and spoken via hundreds of millions of informational venues, this quiet legion of quiet seekers is educating, each in their own chosen way.

Almost 200 years ago another seeker tried to escape the din of information by spending a year alone in nature. His name was Henry David Thoreau (that's right, the guy you had to read in English class). His spot was Walden Pond. His goal was to navigate through -- not drown in -- his world's information. A kind of Himalayan monk right in our own New England woods. Did he find the right answers there? Would we? I suppose, Like Thoreau, that would still depend on what we really believe the right questions are.

Here's a hint. You usually won't find them in the news

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Are You Staying Awake at Night?

The President said in a recent interview that he spends most of his study time reading briefing papers and scanning newspapers. Television news and political bloggers are not very high on his must-do list. Defenders of the written word will heartily approve. However, the younger generations continue their rush toward the electronic word. A trend or a tragedy...?

Among those studies quantifying this rush is one from Germany which reports a startling 84% of 20-year-olds would rather do without their significant other than without their Internet. One has to wonder what this might mean for future ind-ices of marriage and birth rates, not to mention IQ scores. One thing's sure, though, today's electronic words are contributing to the sleeplessness of 46% of the American population. That's right. Surveys by the National Sleep Foundation report that this 24/7 electronic news of the sinking economy is keeping millions awake at night.

Staying awake is one thing. Doing the right thing while you're awake is quite another. Which brings us to yet another set of statistics. In Gainesville, Florida a traffic officer wrote a record-number seven parking tickets for a new BMW which had been illegally parked for more than two weeks. A curious neighbor finally called the police about the nuisance. When they checked the car, they found a two-week-old dead body in the back seat.

One may tally up all these different numbers and draw whatever conclusion they wish. Here's mine. When the times are hard, the news is bad, and sleep doesn't come easy, maybe it's time to use our waking hours to wake up to the fact that things aren't always what they seem. What's in the back seat of our current problems may actually be a death of sorts. The death of our traditional way of operating that maybe we've taken for granted far too long.

And so it is that many socio-economic observers today are projecting not only future corrections in our way of of operating, but largescale future re-structuring of that way. When Teddy Roosevelt headed in that direction he was called "that damn cowboy." When FDR's New Deal did, he was called "a socialist betraying his own class." When LBJ's Great Society did, he was accused of being "the great meddler."

Today's critics of big government restructuring point to our country's proud 19th century tradition of unregulated free enterprise. And they have a good argument. So does W. Somerset Maugham when he wrote, "Tradition is a guide, not a jailer." Thus the great debate in Washington has begun. Whether it's the written or the electronic word keeping us up at night, those of us who sent these guys there better pay our best attention.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Meeting Brad and Angelina in a Chicago Park

Occasionally come these little epiphanies in life where large truths suddenly appear to you. Like last Saturday morning as I watched two very different couples each strolling a lakefront park hand-in-hand....!

First came the two young and lean ones. Each in fashionable jogger outfits just back from their run. He of the Brad Pitt look, and she cute enough to stand next to Angelina without too much embarrassment. The shine in their eyes and the energy in their step tell you they greet each new day with a readiness to meet and match its challenges. Terrific. I even think I can remember that sense of tomorrow-ness myself.

The other couple was holding much older, frailer hands. Their gait much slower and less deliberative. The look in their eyes seemed less concerned with the challenge of the new, more with the comfort of the learned. You can't really know what's behind the message of the eyes. Still, it struck me they had caged so many challenges over so many years that now seemed a fine time to relax in the knowledge of those captivities. To reflect on the hunt, and to savor the victories.

Every age is the hardest age. In every age the young possess the energy and the old the experience to carry on the hunt. What may make this time different than any other in history is that today we know so much more about the dangers lurking ahead. Each new day we are drenched in a deluge of new dangers. Be it about our health or our banks, our jobs or our enemies, our DNA or our God. The truth that is supposed to free us sometimes paralyzes us!

While the couples were walking, I was sitting. Smelling the fragrance of spring out there. Glad that there is always the steel of the young with the scars of the old which together can keep caging the beasts of our jungles just enough so we can keep reaching the rewards of our journeys.

Friday, March 6, 2009

How to Handle the Coming Riots!

Presidents and prime ministers are not telling us how they're planning to handle the riots, but you can be sure they're thinking about it. Just as sure as the riots are coming...!

Today's arcane numbers about sub-prime mortgages and international banking meltdowns torture the mind, but being shamed into long unemployment or food lines tortures the soul. Feelings of worry turn to fear to panic to violence. It's already happening in the hurting economies of Russia, China and throughout Africa. How long before New York, Buffalo, Gary and Los Angeles?

The presidents, prime ministers and media antiseptically refer to this as "social unrest." The police know it for what it is -- rioting. It's when desperation spills over into the streets.

The dangers from milling crowds can be disastrous (see the Depression and the Vietnam War for bloody details), Recently, though, the police got some encouraging news from Britain's Lancaster University. Studies led by social psychologist Mark Levine have arrived at some counter-intuitive conclusions.

If you've ever been in an angry football stadium crowd, you've seen the explosive mass hysteria and criminal acts that can break out. But not so fast, say the studies. Dr Levine has observed there is a surprising "collective choreography" in crowds which frequently means the more the people, the less the violence.

The good doctor says he has the crowd-control camera footage to prove it. However, once you've been in one of these ugly mobs, you dread this recession igniting such scenes in our cities. Other cities as well. For in today's world, whatever de-stabilizes Baghdad, Peking or Warsaw eventually threatens the safety of our armies in the Middle East, our labor force in Pittsburgh and Detroit, pretty much everything.

In hard times, fear and anger happen. We have every reason to hope such fears and angers are calmed long before they reach the world's streets. Dr Levine's encouragement notwithstanding.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

USA - RIP - CIRCA 2010

Lincoln called America "the last best hope of mankind." FDR said we "have a rendezvous with destiny." Reagan hailed us a "sunrise society." All this because we reach outward to accomplish great things. Like saving the union, defeating Hitler, landing on the moon. Today we are still accomplishing great things, but often by reaching inward...!

We are doing this in part by means of a schizophrenic technological revolution which incredibly brings us together at the very same time it allows us to pull apart. Today's stunning satellite/internet capacities let us instantly see and talk, cure and create, together from anywhere on the planet. But also allow us to cocoon into ourselves by holding these sights and sounds in the palm of our hands in all the private corners of our lives.

In this schizophrenic condition, our cocooning habits have helped produce a remarkable state of perpetual self indulgence. We think and talk and share ourselves incessantly. Facebooking! Twittering! Blogging! Call-in programs! Reality shows! Seems as if we simply can't get enough of ourselves.

Recently several Russian scholars predicted this national obsession-with-self will "doom America by the year 2010." Instead of the old Soviet challenge "We will bury you," these doomsayers boast "You will bury yourself." Their premise? In this financial meltdown triggered in the USA, people here have become too self-absorbed to collectively strive together to turn things around.

We have a new president whose new budget is seen by his supporters as an audacious call for collective national action again. To his critics, it is collectivizing America at the expense of America's traditional individualism. With the submission of his budget to Congress, another great debate begins. Another rendezvous in history where we as a people collide with the same evolutionary beasts that have been prowling our journey from the beginning.The wolf packs of crisis are once more ready to devour their prey unless their prey learns how to devour them.

As a people we have the tools...we have the will...we have the history. This debate will now be over exactly how we gather these together to get the job done. If only the debaters on both sides can keep their eye on the prize, not on the politics.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Hard Times and Bandwagons

In these new hard times, the experts keep throwing facts and stats at us each new day. Most of these are pretty disconcerting. But lets admit it -- in America, the most crowded place in the world is a bandwagon. So good news or bad, everyone loves getting on the latest one coming down the road...!

A closer look at this accelerating bad-news bandwagon suggests that different folks are riding it in very different ways. In Colorado a man rushed across a busy street to help two elderly ladies. Was hit by a truck, ended up in intensive care, and got a jaywalking ticket for his troubles. Back in the 30s, parents told us,"When the going gets tough, the tough get going." But you have to wonder how this good Samaritan feels about that advice now.

Another statistic seems to turn that old advice on its head, suggesting instead, "When the going gets tough, go get whatever you can." This jumps out at you as you read the CNN report that last year alone the number of women robbing banks jumped by a whopping 25%.

What we have here is a bad-news bandwagon that everyone's riding differently. Some may see it as a chance to reach out to others like people did in the Great Depression. Others may simply find it another excuse for getting while the getting's good. Different strokes for different folks. Trauma in life -- whether personal or national -- has this way of separating the Samaritans from the Vandals.

Right now the national debate in Washington is pitting these two instincts against one another. Only under subtler names. One side sees social planning and collectivized action as the best way to harness this wagon. The other side sees capitalism and individual action as the better choice. While they argue, the wagon keeps picking up steam from the spreading financial meltdowns. The fork on the road up ahead? One lurches in the direction of a cliff, the other of a meadow.

Here's the thing. We're all on this big, blustery bandwagon together, arguing just who should take the reins. Sounds like an old John Wayne or Clint Eastwood western. But in Hollywood, the one who wrote the script knows what the ending will be. In real life, we're just learning something Mom and Dad learned 75 years ago. Nobody writes this script so nobody really knows what the ending will be.

Perhaps that means we're going to have to help write it ourselves. How? By each of us doing what we can to keep our financial wits about us. Even accelerating bad-news bandwagons respond well to riders who think before they lurch!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

How Old Has This Recession Made Me Look?

Lately banks are in the news. So are seniors. Put the two together and you get this scene of me approaching my community bank the other day juggling some files under my arms. As I do, this sweet little old lady offers to help me at the door. Wait a minute. Until recently, I was the one helping them....! Exactly how old has this recession made me look....?

Some seniors take umbrage at what they consider being patronized at doorways and elevators by the young. But this lady is no youngster. Has to be 85 if she's a day. Exactly how old do I look!

Frankly, though, I don't mind being attended by others. It's about time. Age should have at least a few privileges. God know it offers little else.

Makes me think of all the wild dogs and horses who, anthropologically speaking, gradually let mankind domesticate them. That's right, they let us do it. I mean what's the advantage of running around all your life scrounging for an existence? Especially when you can get all your food, housing and grooming for free?

Armed with this cosmic thought, I accept the sweet little old lady's assistance at the door and smile, "Thank you, Mam."
"God bless you, sir" she answers back.
That's when I hesitate. Is she helping me or is she bidding me some kind of celestial farewell?

Exactly how old do I look? Has the stress done more to my face than even I notice? Is that haunted look in my eyes even more haunted? The stoop to my shoulders even more stooped?

Just then I see my bank's president drive up to his reserved spot in his champagne-toned Jaguar. He steps out resplendent as always in his dark three-piece-suit. There's a grin on his face and a skip to his step. Gee, he does look better than me. The sweet little old lady sees no need to help him.

As he hurries past us, it occurs to me why shouldn't he look better? The sweet little old lady and I are paying for his salary. And his bank. And his Jaguar. What a great country. What a great time to be alive. What a great day when 85-year-old ladies open doors and 35-year-old bankers drive Jaguars.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Music of our Lives

Some sociology students at Loyola University have been singing their way through American history lately. In exploring the music of our lives, they have gathered together a list of songs which they say "give voice to our nation's feelings at that time." Anyone who's ever called a song "my" or "our" already knows exactly what these students are beginning to discover. Their compendium is fairly long, but six jumped out. Three very Now songs; three very Yesterday songs. (No rock or rap made their list, but then why am I not surprised!)

Among the now-songs: Over There, Happy Days Are Here Again, and As Time Goes By. If you've heard them or, more importantly, if you've lived them, no explanation necessary. Otherwise, here's how their list explains them: * Over There is the big-beat George Cohan salute to the way a proud but innocent nation sent it's dougboys over to fight the bad boys in World War I. "Tell 'em the Yanks are coming and we won't come back till it's over over there...!" was a young country still willing to believe there was evil in the world only America could cure. Not unlike the same way the nation sent its GIs to Iraq. * Happy Days by Lou Jones is the rousing yes-we-can theme song of FDR's New Deal, pre-dating Obama's campaign by 75 years. Both leaders entered our history at a crisis point, both telling the nation times are bad, but America is at its best when the odds are at their worst. * As Time Goes By by Herman Hupfeld is the quintessential song-of-love-in-time-of-war. Used as the haunting score to the World War II classic "Casablanca," it helps Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman remind Americans that love always conquers adversities, and America always conquers enemies.

The students' yesterday-songs included: The Summer of '42, The Way We Were, and Over the Rainbow: * The Summer of '42 by Alan Bergman is that genre of pop music that speaks chapters without a single lyric. It squeezes the heart with the ache of the longing we all feel in our lives. In this case, the longing of a young war widow and of a coming-of-age boy. It speaks to any American who has ever needed someone to fill the hole in their soul. * The Way We Were by Marvin Hamlisch conjures up instant images of Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford yearning to re-connect the two halves to a broken love. Wanting to be whole has always been the through line to America's history. * Over The Rainbow by Harold Arlen is the quintessential anthem-to-a-better-place to which Americans forever stand attention.

Being a sunrise society that believes in dreams more than nightmares, Americans of all ages continue to re-live the lyric's message. From its earliest days to its latest days, America just has this thing for rainbows. I'm not sure what these students plan to do with their list. As for me, it's not list. It's a life. Mine and perhaps yours too.