Thursday, April 30, 2009
At this point in time, mankind has never been in faster communication with his world. Radio, television, and a portable Internet means most of us -- even in the remotest hills of Asia and Africa -- are within nano-seconds of news. Some call this the electronic global village. Has a nice ring to it, but here's the thing. It's no longer just a matter of all-the-news-that's-fit-to-print; it's now a matter of all-the-news-that's-fit-to-use.
The brain is a prodigious instrument for information, and yet it along with our sensorium can only process so much so fast. In some critical instances -- from local flood warnings to global pandemic alerts -- fast is fine. Fast is necessary. But threading the informational needle calls for steady hands on our part. How steady are we when assaulted 24/7 by dozens of networks, hundreds of channels, and thousands of websites each working hard to stagger us with their next headline?
One of the least articulated losses we face without our morning newspapers is no longer having the efficacious luxury of processing the news through the filters and clockworks of our own mind. Even our monster computers have to slice and dice the data fed into them. How, then, can the much smaller computers of our brain hope to keep up?
Here's a simple test. Spend the next 60 minutes scanning CNN, HuffingtonPost and Salon.com. Simply permit yourself to be the human receptacle they hope you are. Watch, listen, read, and ingest their breathless gorging of news. Now turn it off and ask yourself three questions:
* What do I know now that I didn't know 60 minutes ago?
* What do I know now that is a functionable fact?
* What can I really do about it?
According to my Bell Curve, most test-takers will come to the verifiable conclusion that their pulse rate is now higher! their sense of control is now lower! and, except for the pre-requisite touch of humor somewhere in there, they are one fatal step closer to blowing their brains out!
Which would, of course, be a shame, for none of these news sources would bother to report it.....
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
There may be other good counsel for May and June brides trembling on the brink of this ageless and still evolving institution:
* When everyone gets into the usual argument over which family and friends absolutely must be included in the limited invitation list, remember this comforting rule: None of the guests really care
* When you select the bridesmaids and groomsmen, remember these are people you like, so please don't insist on dressing them in outfits so nuptially melodramatic even children snicker
* When you hire a videographer, don't be intimidated by all the lights and lens; remember it's still your wedding not theirs
* When you hire a singer, you may want to select someone who works in a choir, because remember: Every soloist is always auditioning, and this is your day not theirs
* When you're having the wedding pictures taken, really really try to remember this is no one-shot affair; you and your kids may have to look at this shot in your home every day of your life
* When you arrange the meal for the reception, remember the age-honored rule: Chicken is cheap, but can always sound richer by the name of the sauce the chef puts on it
* When you hire the band, remember to go over their music list and outfits beforehand; loud in either of those categories is not what you want
* When the bride meets the groom at the altar, this isn't the place to ask about last night's bachelor party
One more thought. Churches and temples are still the preferred wedding venue in our culture. Thank God, most couples agree it's good to invite God to the wedding. Now it's even better if you invite him for the marriage!
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Still, we do spend a great deal of time thinking about them.There are at least four trajectories of thought on the matter:
* At first the Greeks and later the Bible laboriously pore over the stories of archetypes like Electra (who takes Fathers Day much too seriously), Oedipus (who gets carried away celebrating Mothers Day), and Moses (the quintessential Jewish-boy-succeeds story). Shakespeare's "King Lear" and later Freud's psychoanalysis further plumb the filial depths.
When you read these guys you can't help do some serious introspecting about this sex thing. What at first seems so much fun brings with it more morning-after issues than any morning-after pill can ever handle!
* Evolutionists have come to understand us as essentially existing and evolving for one purpose -- our own reproduction. In this muted light, our species is hardly distinguishable from any other populating the planet. We're born to live, grow, mate and breed our own kind. Period. Exclamation point. End of story. And of any gushy Mothers or Fathers Day cards
Personally, I've stopped reading Darwin and his successors. Right and brights as they may be, I can't quit look at my wife as simply the plumpest ovaries in the jungle, or my kids as merely the ordained genetic results of a one-night genetic compulsion. I guess I'll just have to evolve a few layers more to handle that!
* Victorians, ironically in the same19th century of Darwin and Freud , decided to swing in a different direction. Maybe it was Charles Dickens's poignant Tiny Tims and orphaned Olivers, but gradually children were seen as something more than just little adults. Enriched by the graphic sentiments of such as Currie & Ives, Norman Rockwell, and Hallmark, childhood blossomed into a sainted little garden of protected life.
Enter the Anglo-American legendary joys of Christmas and all things children. This opulent festival of gift-giving has pretty much become our Childrens Day; and when you're a kid or a grandparent, who's going to argue it!
* Finally, in our own times, children have become more than the subject of great narratives and grand gifts. To today's generation, they are the subject of study. By pediatricians, statisticians, and especially editors of the 104 current parents magazines that bulge from out of checkout counters and doctor's offices. And what's most amazing about their endless studies is that most of them comes down to some variety of "10-easy-steps-for.....".
Among such recent offerings is this latest from DePauw University which has researched the marital history of 600 adults. Observation...? "Of those frequently photographed as smiling in childhood, only 11% have ever been divorced.: Conclusion....? "Overall, people who rarely smile in their childhood are five times more likely to get divorced."
This and other such epic examples of current research leave one breathless. Perhaps we have at last reached the pinnacle of our long parenting progress through history. Greeks, Darwin, Dickens and Santa be damned -- the real reason we have children is so we can turn them over for publishable study.
Monday, April 27, 2009
Declared in 1914, it's been celebrated ever since by equal parts: Devoted children, guilty children, eager florists and dewy Hallmark stores. However, while a mother is always a mother, motherhood today is no longer one-size-fits-all. It now comes in all different sizes, shapes and saint-hoods.
For me it came straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Apron-wearing, pie-baking, stay-at-home mom who lovingly packed my lunches in the morning, and had cookies and milk waiting when I came home in the afternoon. Today that memory has become an endangered species in America. How, then, should we celebrate this 95th Mothers Day?
Maybe by understanding that endangered doesn't have to mean extinct. Plenty of moms are still putting out cookies and milk. But at that time of day, many others are working second shift at the plant, doing triage at the ER, directing traffic in the loop, or maybe meeting deadlines at the office. Their presence in children's lives today is felt in other ways. Exchanging stories in the van taking the neighborhood kids to school, hosting the weekend tour bus to Lincoln's Home, or just sharing their exhausted end-of-the-day bed with you wrapped inside their arms in front of a television screen.
There are widowed moms, single moms, teenage moms, latchkey moms, and gay moms. They aren't always the way we find them in the Bible or in the classics, but their maternal value is no more meant to be frozen in literary time than our faith is meant to be frozen in church statuary. These are living values, and the only true sign of life in this world is growth.
The lacy, pink patina of the last 94 Mothers Days is something to cherish. But growth is cherish-able too. Growth and change today is America's middle name. During a century of Mothers Days, we've witnessed a doubling of the population, a movement from the farms to the cities, the breakdown of urban family life, an explosion of different signs and sins. Yet running through it all is always the same back story: Moms!
Laud them or lament them, ask your psychiatrist how they molded you or messed you up. The one enduring fact of life -- personal or public -- is that they remain the great indispensables. Nothing happens without them. And when we are at last without them, there's a hole in the soul nothing can ever quite replace.
This coming Mothers Day will be one more chance for some of us to finally get it right....
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Right now, though, there's a quieter yet no less insistent sound out there...!
When you listen carefully, it's the sound of nature blowin' in the spring winds. Whispering to us an evolutionary message for dealing more wisely with our cockeyed world. It's the message of the pigeons, the deer, and the geese that have lately multiplied throughout our city in staggering numbers
There are complex biological reasons for this daily drama, but the simplest of them may be that these species have genetically learned to be less afraid of us. With the reluctant exception of gun-toting hunters, it seems evolution is doing its thing here. Specifically, altering the long-persistent genetic codes by which these flocks and herds have always feared us
Now, instead, we feed the noontime pigeons, enjoy the parading geese, and watch the deer daring out of their preserves. Say -- maybe Bambi was wrong about us after all!
Could it be that what's at work here in our city parks and fields is evolution quietly re-coding ancient fear genes with emerging co-existence genes? Just as it has for centuries with our dogs, cats, horses, and other domesticated species who have learned to come out of the wilds, and peacefully co-exist with our species. After all, they've learned exactly how to let us take care of them for life.
If evolution can re-code animal gene pools this way, is it also possible nature is quietly demonstrating how a co-existence gene might also be acquired by other once-warring species? Consider the possibilities. Whites and blacks...rich and poor...young and old....neighbor and immigrant...why even such natural enemies as Democrats and Republicans?
The times are pregnant with possibilities. Why not Cub fans and Cardinal fans....Americans and French.... Americans and Russians... someday even Americans and jihadists? Evolution has accomplished far stranger things as it keeps proving to its many species how they all share this very same tiny blue planet in this very enormously uncaring universe.
Evolution is a funny fascinating thing that's led to many surprising changes. Even among the unchangeable. So it's hard not to hope.
Trouble is, this evolution thing is a stunningly slow, methodical process, and right now we don't have as much time as evolution usually likes to take. Is there something we can do about that...? Say like we have with the pigeons, the geese and the deer...?
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Recently a Polish zoo added a new elephant. Ninio, to its attractions. Only half-ton Ninio is apparently not interested in mating with any of the elephantine femme fatales. In true, family-values outrage, a conservative Warsaw politician Michal Grzes protested, "We didn't pay 37 million zlotys to have a gay elephant!"
When you think about it, Michal is speaking for all the world's angry bigots. All those clear-compassed minds who can confidently tell you where true north is on every issue -- exactly right where they're standing. Gays, marriage, abortion, the Bible, the environment, elephants, whatever you've got they've got the answer.
Sure, everyone harbors some bigotries, often under the banner of "causes," but picking on Ninio could be the straw that breaks the elephant's back. Michal, you old Slavic savant, you perfectly demonstrate why this world of ours is always in trouble. Really! Your ignorant stance on homosexuality is the very same self-righteousness that has energized so many of our world's trouble-makers. Remember that other bigot, that Adolph guy who swallowed up your country in 1939? He had a cause too. The self-righteous destruction of all Slavs and Jews by his Aryan legions whose true-north destiny was to rule a purified world.
Look, Michal, I don't want you to go away mad. But I do wish your uninformed rage would go away. Not likely, though, for homo sapiens has harbored bigotries right from the beginning. Anyone swinging from a different forest than ours we determined was forever "different." The same with the tribes across the river from us. Then the countries across the ocean from us. And always, always those neighbors who somehow just didn't understand "normal" like we do.
Psychologists tell us that putting other people down like this automatically makes us feel taller. Theologians tell us that mankind's Original Sin comes from a pride that can't accept the possibility someone else may be more correct than us. Whatever the cause, the consequences have been interminable. We've been busy hating other people's habits throughout the bloody trajectory of history. Think about it -- no hate, no Alexander, no Hannibal, no Attila, no Crusaders and Jihadists, no KKK, no gay bashers, no Cub-Sox rivalry.
I guess, Michal, this means your hangup with gays is not really a headline-maker after all. Tragically, hating other's habits is page 6 news by now. But wait, here's a possible headline for tomorrow's editions: "Michal Grzes rides Ninio in Polish Gay Parade through what's left of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto!"
Friday, April 24, 2009
Enormous wealth side by side with enormous poverty, stunning success neck and neck with disastrous failure, historic progress shoulder to shoulder with historic decline. But if you really want to experience this full throttle, try sitting in a public waiting room. Service shop, hospital, wherever. Sit there and indulge yourself in everything that's wrong with your world coming out of that television set, and then everything that's right with it coming out of those magazine issues.
Sure they're back editions, but my how they render the perfect solution to every problem in your life. Acne, wrinkles, obesity, colicky babies, destructive two-year olds, how to salvage your next block party, ways to save your marriage, tips for breaking the bank at Vegas, 3-minute casseroles to stun your guests, oh plus 10 easy-herbal-tea methods for overcoming clinical depression. And just think -- you're not even paying for these nifty answers!
But then you glance back up to the screen. Riots in the middle east, fires in California, tornadoes in Oklahoma, bank failures in New York, the ubiquitous closeups of grieving family members of the murder victim, talk shows that won't stop talking, and wait -- breaking news from a new campus shootout!
Exactly who are we, then? The land of the new Sodom & Gomorrah, or that Shining City on a Hill? Will the real America please stand up.
To be sure, the answer to most contradictions is: Yes! Yes, opposites do co-exist, but yes they do generate a kind of synergy all their own. The challenge -- as individuals and as a nation -- is somehow transforming what's so wrong with us into agendas for what can still be right about us.
We hardly lack for leadership in this tasking. Political leaders, reformers, researchers, educators, clergy, and lets not forget the most efficacious of all -- dreamers. They're everywhere trying to be heard.
When we listen carefully, the only ones who say silly things like "If you can dream it you can do it" are at sales meetings, motivation seminars, and such. Our really best dreamers are more modest. Instead, they put it this way: "So long as you reach for the stars, at least you won't come up with a handful of mud."
Thursday, April 23, 2009
My parents did. God love them and their convoluted intentions, they selected Camp Wichiwakka. Let it be known far and wide that -- recession permitting -- summer camp is one of those honored American traditions by which wisdom and knot-tying are passed on to the next generation. I can't tell you how much my nautical skills have served me here in semi- landlocked Illinois. The glories of slip-knots and cleat hitches are, of course, only part of my story.
The chief reason for camping is getting in harmony with nature. My problem at Wichiwakka was that my body always played in a different key. Where my comrades inhaled the fragrance of the morning air, I smelled tree rot; when they romped through dewy beaches, I found leeches; while they studied the stars, I was swatting mosquitoes. In retrospect, mosquitoes were my first encounter with theological doubt. When I began questioning the goodness of God, the camp counselor put matters into quick perspective. "Stuff it, kid, I've got food poisoning to deal with!"
Competition is another of the honored American characteristics honed in summer camp. At good old Wichiwakka, it seemed like everything was a competition. Getting to the outhouse, getting to breakfast, getting to the available canoes. There was compelling incentive for the first two lines, but because I was always falling out of those damned canoes, I learned early on the gift of giving. I always gave the other kids my place in this line.
Given the perils of our times, I can see why bolder youth can better serve our nation's needs. So along with an appreciation for nature and competition, summer camp can teach collective effort. The merits of cooperation and the joys of camaraderie. I tried joining in at every opportunity. I remember sharing pictures of my pet turtles from back home, and demonstrating how I could crack my knuckles to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." As I look back now, sharing has its limits in life. You have to have something worth sharing. I've always remembered that lesson whenever someone wants to mount a community talent show.
As today's parents study camp brochures there is one more feature to consider. Are there any camps nearby serving the opposite sex? This can prove to be a significant added value to your child's summer experience. America in today's global economy needs ambition, creativity, the Yankee can-do spirit. And while there are no courses so listed, such nearby camps can easily generate all kinds of night-time free-enterprise through the woods. I know this for a fact, because my comrades always picked me to stay behind and be their recorder of deeds.
Whenever I get nostalgic for the joys of youth again, I try to remember Algebra and Camp Wichiwakka. It helps me get out of today's bed everytime!
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Thereby encouraged, here are 600 words on the most inexhaustible and inexorable law of life -- change. Change comes in all shapes, sizes and species. And yet many times we're as unaware of it as a butterfly cupped in our hand is that we have a spring cold. The cold we're experiencing right now promises to be epic, as we try to diagnose two opposite forces at work. Economic liberty and social planning.
The first (Capitalism) traces its history through such times as the Protestant Reformation, British Mercantilism, and Yankee free enterprise. It happily harnesses our primal passions for pursuit, profit and prominence. In some ways it scrapes down to the raw appetite of human greed. However its defined, it works. Capitalism has unleashed pent up personal ambitions that have built great industries, economies, nations and empires. From Adam Smith to Ayn Rand, its irrepressible energies have been esteemed and codified.
The second (Social Planning) has its roots in early Christian communities where sharing the wealth was also esteemed and codified. By modern times, these roots came to blossom in such diverse corners of the world as Anglo-American Utopian societies and Marxist-driven ideologies throughout Europe.
Six hundred words are hardly enough to span these centuries, but there are those who would say the late-20th-century Cold War between America and the USSR was the climax of the capitalism/planning clash. Having "won" that war, capitalism's historians saw the 21st century as the time when the victor's ideas converted the world.
But a funny thing happened on the way to global capitalism -- the great recession of 2009. The victory stalled, the dreams turned into nightmares. In the shambles of collapsed banks, businesses, and economies, we the victors are confronted with a peculiar twist in the game plan. Perhaps rather than a victory, it was a tie. And rather than easing into a new age of global capitalism, we're in sudden-death overtime.
The players in the program are no longer simplistically listed as the Free World and Communism. Now they include anyone and everyone with an economic opinion. For those who need to keep it simple, OK -- the White House vs Fox News. Hardly that simple, but simple sells in complex times.
If the butterfly were to take notice, it would realize the change raging through the body politic pits the bawdy history of capitalistic success vs the academic history of social planning. Capitalists (jot down: power brokers) defend what is, because what is is what has made them successful. A success which traditionally they hold out as the American Dream anyone can have. Social planners (jot down: liberal wings of both parties but especially the White House) argue that high-tech ingenuity has given social planning new tools whereas capitalism is still playing with old greed.
The pen of history is held in abeyance as the contest unfolds. But while the issues can be packaged in 600 words, the results will call for many more by the time our children someday read them.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
For those who simply get up every morning to do what they did yesterday morning, the question may have neither purpose nor imperative. However, there are at least five categories among we remaining 0.5% who have something to say on the matter. Surely nothing that can be squeezed into a few paragraphs here, but as a fellow runner in the race, you might want to consider some of their observations:
* Our biologists tend to to understand you and me as a part of the evolutionary process that began a long time and place ago. While they've pinned down the time to about 14+ billion years, they have no idea as to the place. Even the master biologist himself, Charles Darwin, gives us no firm location. Most evolutionary biologists just say it happened with the Big Bang, wherever and however that was. Which seems to be telling us we arrived here without any passport from there.
* Our neuro-scientists tend to focus on our amazing brains. That part of the human anatomy the ancient Egyptians didn't even bother to preserve with their mummies is today considered to be the power-source for billions of energy bursts Electrical bursts which seem to explain how we experience and behave, think and decide. We are told these energies, coupled with those from our gene pools, explain much of who and what we are. Which seem to be providing us the missing passport, but with so many crucial specifics still missing.
* Our sociologists tend to work without passports, chiefly because their interest lies in how we interact once we congregate here. Socio-economic behaviors and consequences are their areas of interest. Their work has shed light on such hitherto mis-understood behaviors like violence, crime and ghettos on one hand, sharing, cooperating and creating on the other. Still, the sociologists leave our passports with gaping holes for anyone who would fully understand us
* Our theologians and philosophers have a word to say here too. Lately, though, they don't get as much coverage in the media, and they function mainly in backstage areas like college campuses and sabbath day services. At one time in history theirs were the preeminent voices, now muffled by more secular choruses. A loss, though, because theologians and philosophers are the ones who insist our passports must be stamped by both place of original origin and the place of destination.
* This leaves our artists. The painters, poets, composers, novelists, playwrights and cinema directors whose gifts allow them to speak directly to everyman. Whether we are degree-ed or not, wealthy or not, powerful or not. When our artists speak, they use the international languages of sights, sounds and language which strike directly into the deepest fathoms of our being. And while school budgets trim their role, while the recession thins their ranks, they would be this man's choice for what keeps our remaining 0.5% human in the midst of so much inhumanity and hopeful where there is so little hope. Our best artists are often the best reasons why our 0.5% just might keep making it by the skin of our teeth....
Monday, April 20, 2009
How happy are you…?
Ever since Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness,” Americans have had a fixation with this happiness thing. We are perhaps the first country who decided survival wasn’t enough; we also had the inalienable right to be happy. But
what gets complicated is how we define and pursue it.
To the Cubs and Sox it’s another win…to Hollywood another hit…..to a stockholder another split….to a banker another bailout...to a child another ice cream bar…..to a teenager a clear complexion.
Lately, it’s mainly come to mean being one of the Beautiful People. You know, the rich flawless few just before their stint in rehab. In a culture where you can buy a few diet pills, a new hair style, a little botox and a knock-off Armani, it’s actually possible to act like one of them.
The catch is -- and everyone from Freud to Oprah has preached it -- is you can never buy this happiness thing. You have to find it. Not on a shelf, inside yourself.
Self discovery like this can take a lifetime. Prayer, meditation, 12-step program, support group, backpacking to the Himalayas, or in my case perhaps a meaningful encounter with Catherine Zeta Jones. However it works for you, it only works from the inside out. In a glitzy consumer culture, it’s all too easy to believe it happens the other way around.
Some of the happiest people I’ve known seem to have transcended our proverbial happiness thing. All the way to the real stuff: Contentment, serenity and finally joy. Does that sound like saints and philosophers….? Yes, but In my experience it’s also meant school custodians and crossing guards. I keep writing about them, because well, because for me they seem to have some of the real stuff.
The custodians I’ve known don’t make a lot of money, and they’re not burdened with a lot of decision-making; but they always seem to take pride in maintaining a place for their kids. As for the those crossing guards in my town, they're usually retirees demonstrating that same kind of gentle pride in their kids.
I admit we can’t all become custodians and crossing guards. But maybe we can notice how they smile a lot. That just might excavate a few of those same life-can-beautiful smiles still left inside us. Crazy…? I don’t know about that. Jefferson’s “pursuit” should at least be worth the effort.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
When you make a commitment like a home, you owe it to yourself to at least know the difference between a chisel and a crowbar. Between a gas line and a water line. If not, you are indenturing yourself for life to your local hardware man. And that, my fellow-suburbanites, is an investment likely to send his kids to the university and yours to the community college.
Not that cash-strapped consumers need any more warnings, but here are five that may scratch that itch to buy:
* Your house is like your body -- it keeps aging no matter how many times you re-paint it
* Your crabgrass is like your in-laws -- you can never ever be free of it
* Your furnace is programmed to go out every winter and your air-conditioning out every summer
* Your electrical wiring is exactly where you can't reach it
* Your neighbor's darling kids begin playing at precisely 30 minutes before you have to get up in the morning
These are among that relentless parade of problems that is sure to march you down to your local hardware man time after time. He's the only one with all the right materials and tools, so there's just no way of surviving without him. Oh, one thing he can't do for you. He can't muzzle those darling kids. That's something you have to find the materials and tools to do all by yourself.
I'm wondering where in the President's new mortgage recovery plans they intend to list these warnings. In any case, Ray my friendly hardware guy doesn't much care. He retired on my money to Marco Island years ago!
Saturday, April 18, 2009
No, not the act. The role.
In a rapidly shifting 21st century, is there any longer clearly defined roles for the two sexes? Speaking as a man, I'm probably disqualifying myself with 50% of the population. Or maybe not. After all, the roles of the sexes have been largely indisputable for millions of years. Historically speaking, men have always played the physical roles, women the feminine roles.
So far so good. But this is where it gets sticky, for what is physical has remained pretty constant while what is feminine has not. Look at the evidence.
Nothing so stirs the physicality of the American male than seeing (or being) tall in the saddle on a stallion charging up a hill. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood have been doing it for generations. The thunder of the hooves. the smell of the leather, the jangle of the boots. It looks, feels, smells manhood. And if there isn't a horse handy, the speed and roar of a convertible or a racing car will do very nicely, thank you.
We could argue details, but in essence this is the consistent imagery of American male physicality. However, when it comes to American feminism, well that's become complicated.
At one time the imagery was fairly clear (forced but still fairly clear). Their chosen role involved fine homes....fine motherhood.. ...fine children...finery of all kinds. Before you snicker, this role not only prevailed for generations, it was often preferred. As the saying had it, the man was king of his world, but the wife was queen of everything else.
Then along came Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Oprah. Taking their cue from as far back as Abigail Adams, these feminists took sharp issue with these pre-ordained roles. Today -- even though there may be a silent minority out there who still prefer to be queen -- the awakened majority have re-defined feminism. It includes careers in business, medicine, sports and government. You name it, and they can nail it!
This old "king" applauds this over-due "revolt." Only looking from the outside in, he has to wonder how much harder it is for a young woman to choose her role today. There are so many! As for the young man, well nothing's much changed. The physical roles waiting for him still include the same old, same old. Changing the tires, fixing the leaks, throwing out the garbage. Oh, and when he really wants to get physical, tearing off his shirt and pounding his chest in the Wrigley Field bleachers.
There's one role today's women have little interest in. If, however, they did, you can be sure the guys on the television cameras would be working their zoom lens....
Friday, April 17, 2009
When we were still living in caves, God wasn't anything to laugh at. But as we grew smarter, well it became easier to have some fun with the big guy. Like kids do behind the teacher's back, it makes you feel kinda sassy.
If philosophers like Nietzsche announce, "God is dead," that's something I have to take seriously. But when the likes of Bill Maher and the late George Carlin do, I can't take that any more seriously than the rest of their jokes. That's because I can't help thinking of scared urchins acting out for a laugh while the teacher's not in the room.
But here's the thing, boys, if there is a God, then he's always in the room.
Still, even jesters should have their day in court. So I'm imagining what the world might be like were our sassy atheists in charge:
* all coins would read "In Frontal Cortex We Trust"
* all courts would now have people swear on "The God Gene" inspired by atheist-in-chief Richard Dawkins
* all football teams could no longer offer a victory prayer (starting with Notre Dame which, after allowing President Obama to speak there, instantly killed God right there on campus)
* all churches and temples would be removed from tax-exempt status and turned into abortion clinics
* all clergy would be sent to re-doctrination classes to become certified life coaches and/or television MCs
* all clerical vestments would be shipped to Taliban outposts where dressing silly still makes sense
* all crosses, statuary and stars-of-David would be melted down into wrist amulets to ward off any hints of divinity
* all high school graduates would have to read "The DaVinci Code," all marriages would be presided over by genetic-biologists, all births would be recorded by DNA documentation, and all funerals would be conducted in officially-approved nuclear-waste dumps
Oh, one more thing! From this point on, by the sheer logic of their newly atheized society, all comedians would be banned from telling God jokes. Because, you see, now they wouldn't be funny anymore.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
In the name of technological progress, someone from here in President Obama's own Chicago neighborhood has now created a GPS tag for your pet so you can track it down whenever and wherever you wish. You say, "Well after all, Spotty is just a dog." But wait -- we now have the very same satellite cameras, cell towers and computer banks at everyday work tracking down anything and anyone you're willing to pay for.
While you catch your breath at such startling technical accomplishments, hold it long enough to ask yourself: "ust because I can do it, should I?" At one time religious leaders like Jesus and Buddha sought the privacy of isolation. Monks and gurus fled to mountaintop retreats. Inventors and innovators closed their doors to the world. Thoreau and Gauguin escaped civilization for Walden Pond and the Islands. Hollywood's Greta Garbo famously announced: I want to be alone.
Actually so did my Uncle Benny back in the 80s when he walked out for a pack of cigarettes and never returned. Aunt Evelyn raised their three kids with enormous success, but recently one of them showed her how she could track down her long-errant husband. Google helped her do it, and now that the electron has re-fused their parted lives, I have to wonder whether things for all of them weren't better left alone?
Modern secular civilization has this thing about gadgets. We love them, adore them, fixate about the seemingly infinite range of powers they give us. Don't get me wrong, I adore indoor plumbing too! When, though, does this rush to progress pause long enough to weigh the merits? Not as related to our physical senses, for every gadget extends their reach wondrously; but for our human spirit, because there are times when our gadgets have become our gods. Think today's cars, cellphones, petrie dishes, Vicodin, DNA codes.
It's in our nature to probe each new frontier we meet. Frontiers exist to be crossed. The challenge is in what we do with what we find there. History offers countless examples. How man first found fire...flight....printing ...radio and TV transmission....space and galactic travel....and now GPS systems that can track any pet or person anywhere anytime on the planet.
I hear the voice-of-progress asking: And which of these marvels would you give up...? That, of course, is the wrong question. The infrequently asked question that comes to mind is: Which of these marvels are best left in the genie's lamp? Especially in our technological age of exponential genies.
Every holiday that I watch my re-united Uncle Benny and Aunt Evelyn sit in silence, I'm absolutely convinced her kids and their gadgets did them all a dazzling but disastrous disservice.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
To get your parked car out of any loop lot, you have to pay a king's ransom. To have a fine meal in any downtown restaurant, figure it costing you another ransom. As for an afternoon at Wrigley Field or Sox Park, better bring a treasure chest. And to be released by a city ER, count on coming up with a loot of gold.
I don't want to overdue this piracy thing, but lets face it. Once you risk sailing your ship into any cove on this treasure island we call Chicago, you gotta figure paying reparations for your daring. This isn't to say it won't be worth the price, but it is to say the world's long history of buccaneering for a quick buck is alive and well right here in town.
Oh, in case it gets rough, though, don't count on the Navy to protect you. Mayor Daley would probably charge them docking fees!
Writing that principle into the Constitution was the easy part. Making it work to the advantage of the nation is where the ink on the pages begins to smudge. Among the biggest smudge-rs these days are the bloggers, Rush Limbaughs, Bill O'Reillys, Glenn Becks, and Anne Coulters!
When Supreme Court Justice Holmes is quoted as saying, "You can't yell fire in a crowded theatre," that laid down the marker for dissenters. Much like Hippocrates supposedly did for doctors when he said, "First, do no harm." However, the eternal question that accompanies this eternal flame of free speech is, "How do we distinguish between the free and the carefree use of our speech?"
Over an expensively, un-democratic Spiaggia lunch at President Obama's favorite Italian restaurant, I challenged my constitutional lawyer friend: "We're all created equal, yes, but don't some end up more equal than others? Aren't some public dissents more informed and useful than others?"
He instructed me, "In a free society, who is to judge that? And once you try, freedom is gone."
"But when today's dissenters raise outlandish, misinformed taunts -- Obama is a Muslim, a socialist, a traitor, a baby-killer -- how exactly does this advance the public dialog and the national interest?"
"The Founding Fathers anticipated this, and so by giving everyone the same freedom to dissent, the good eventually prevails," he smiled contentedly.
"And what about the the one rotten apple that spoils the barrel,?" I argued. By now the clients were staring.
"Once some someone decides whose apple is rotten, you start to have tyranny not democracy!" The stares grew a bit louder.
"And once the people are so thoroughly confused with angry misinformation, how long do we still have our democracy? How can the protests of a US Senator, a member of the State Department, a college professor, a street gang leader, and a 70-IQ dropout all be put on the same playing field of public dissent?", I dissented. "Teams, schools, hospitals, even religions recognize the difference between their first and third strings."
My lawyer friend frowned, "That's not democracy!" Guests shifted in their seats pretending this noxious duo weren't really here.
"No," I insisted, "that's reality."
Following our window-table dust-up, we were ready to order. I asked the waiter for an antipasto and lasagna. My friend put on his glasses and studied the menu much more precisely. Finally he looked up to the waiter, "Tell me, does the chef have a favorite choice for the day?"
I'm sorry, but I had to interrupt: "Hey, if everyone and everything is so damn equal, then why are you asking about an expert chef's expert choice? Why not just go with your democratic menu as is....?"
And, as always with us, the argument started all over again. The waiter patronizingly shook his head, and disappeared into the kitchen. I'm thinking to myself, everyone of the cooks back there has the same right to cook. But I'd swear on a stack of constitutions that some of them cook a lot better lasagna than others!
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
That gets you thinking. Maybe in their relationship twice a year is a actually just about right, whereas in another family twice a week wouldn't be enough. Al was right -- it's all relative. How long it should take for our economic recovery to click into place, for our potholes to be repaired, for the Cubs to win a World Series -- it's all relative.
If, then, life comes down to the tick of time, inevitably we're faced with evaluating these ticks relative to our life. For example, there's at least three cosmic categories: Slow time...fast time...eternal time.
Slow time is when you're a kid waiting for Christmas to get here, a guy waiting for the gal to say yes, for that big promotion to come through. Each tick has the slow, ponderous sound of Big Ben announcing that wide canyon between you and your goal. Slow time can be cruel, it's your enemy, it's insidiously reluctant to give itself up.
Now here's the irony -- fast time can be just as much an enemy. As in the case of a spectacular vacation whooshing past much too fast, a long-time life together hurrying by sooner than your hearts would wish, a world you both knew now hurtling ahead into frontiers of change you find hard to approve.
That third category -- eternal time -- that one Einstein never gave any formulas to. Actually he couldn't, for it looms larger than mere numbers can quantify. From the time we swung from trees right up to now when we swing from stars, eternal time neither ticks nor clicks. The eye can't observe it, the mind can't dissect it, only the heart can sense it. It is the unmapped distances that stretch out between the Eternal Now our carpe-diem proselytizers speak of, and the Eternal Eternal our poets and philosophers speak of.
Will Rogers once said, "The older we get, the fewer things seem worth waiting in line for." I imagine he was talking about slow and fast time things. Eternal time things -- well, we're in line for that whether we want to be or not. Which makes spring 2009 as good a time as any for my friend to visit his parents more often, and for my country to visit our best dreams more often.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Right about now, there's a great deal to laugh at in America. Or, more correctly, about America. While the Great Recession has joyfully generated some amazing acts of kinship and kindness, it has also triggered some laughable contradictions. As in the case of: More information side by side with less wisdom...more traffic accidents side by side with less cars....more political leadership side by side with less political challenge.
It's true, being a mix of different cultures we Americans are famous for our many contradictions. But at this writing, some contradictions are in the classic category of the ill-winds-that-blow-no-good. Consider...
Our body of knowledge is exploding exponentially each and every day. In 2006 the world produced 161 "exabytes" of digital information. That's 3 million times the amount of information contained in all the books ever written since the beginning. Next year, according to the "Columbia Journalism Review," that 161 exabytes will spike to 988. And yet with all of that information, Americans in only four states have found the wisdom to accept gay marriage.
One is left to wonder how long it will take for the historically inevitable -- filing away this absurd primal fear along with other discarded fears such as witches, black cats, and mental illness!
In a second peculiar contradiction, Detroit is projecting 6 million fewer car sales this year, and yet Americans persist in its growing number of traffic accidents. Each year, more than 100,00 incidents yielding 40,000 injuries and 1500 deaths.
You ask yourself how can we keep killing ourselves on the road faster and faster with fewer and fewer cars. Answers range from the fact that Americans are sleeping less to the hunch we simply prefer speed to safety!
The third contradiction afoot these days is more political leadership side by side with less political challenge. This, to be sure, is more opinion than truth, and yet there are some truthy examples out there to support it. On one hand we have a new president who has unveiled an ambitious array of plans and programs. On the other, we have the loyal opposition exercising their right to dissent, yet making this more comedy than drama. That's because today's dissenters-in-charge are the likes of mushy-mouthed critics like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck and Anne Coulter.
I'm not a card-carrying Republican, but even an Independent has to yearn for the classier days of dissent by a Wendell Wilkie, Barry Goldwater, William Buckley and Newt Gingrich. They didn't shout as loud, but they did think better!
But, hey, if you like your America in sharp shades of clanging contradictions, this is your day...
Sunday, April 12, 2009
However, even though my computer-poised fingers can reach out to the farthest limits of our planet and to the deepest layers of our knowledge, what most intrigues me about them is my second wedding ring. It rests right next to my first, and together they afford me a comforting sense of human continuity. When you hear their story, you may want to get a second ring for yourself
The first is the gold wedding band Joan slipped on my finger that sun-lit April at Holy Name Cathedral. The second was given by J to L in the year of our Lord 1803. Now I don't exactly know who J and L were, but this 18K gold band has passed down through the generations of my Mother's family ever since. I wear it to remember the generational beads of continuity that constitute my family's necklace of life. Whenever I start to think the world began the day I was born, I look at that 206-year-old ring.
There's more than sentiment at work here. All too often our commanding arsenal of personal computers and Iphones can seduce us into believing today has so much to offer, that our yesterdays were merely pale preludes. Not true! Each year we uncover more of the mysteries and marvels of the Ancients, of their long forgotten inventions and accomplishments. The same truth fits our own families as well.
When I study my hands, my eyes, my vocal inflections, even my beliefs, I have to wonder what small part of these were inherited from J and L. Just like the J's and L's in your own family history, there were entire genetic galaxies circling around each of the births throughout each of those ensuing 10 generations.When J loved L, Napoleon ruled Europe, Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, slavery was in the ascendancy, and some of their grand-children were destined to fight and die in the Civil War.
Some of what and who I am today traces back like a time-machine to that mysterious J and L. Were the young...beautiful... bright...Christian or Jew, rich or poor, city or farm? What made them laugh? What made them dream? What were their origins? You and I may never know such answers, but each of us is living some of those answers. And if this is true of our two families, then so is it true of the millions of families we call America.
Today, we millions seek new and safer futures for each of our own genetic galaxies. And that is entirely proper. At the same time, though, our search benefits whenever we pause to look back from where the search first began. At Holy Name Cathedral that long ago April, the priest spoke of the Church's belief in "the communion of saints." That article of faith that holds that every life from the beginning of time to the present and into the unborn future are all in some way bonded together
In our American ethos of rugged individualism, communion and community and collectivism are sometimes left behind on the trails of rugged progress. But whenever I look at this second wedding ring, I can't help hearing J and L whispering to me from somewhere: "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent..."
This poet, John Donne -- I notice his name begins with a J.....
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Each was typical of what you might expect in spring. One a tribute to new life, the other a tribute to lived lives. Not too unlike America itself this springtime, as we hesitate between a triumphant past and an unsure future. All springs are a hesitant interlude between one season and another, between the known and the unknown. And while we look forward to new births, we can't help but find new deaths.
You study the seeds, and you understand how each must die in the ground before yielding its blossoms for you. You study the faces in your graduation picture, and you understand how each death among your ranks yields rich memories for you. Call this what you will -- gardens or reunions, joys or sorrows -- but at root what we're dealing with are transitions. Those sometimes subtle, often slapdash changes which are the recurring theme key to our symphony.
I'll plant some of these seeds and I'll attend this reunion. Just like my country is once more planting and attending those things which my grand-children will read as history. The funny thing about transitions, personal or national, is that you rarely realize them while they're happening. How does the fish know it's swimming in this thing called an ocean when this is all it knows? How will our grand-children know they're competing in a different world than we knew when their world will be the only world they know?
Any coming transitions in my backyard or from my re-gathering with old friends will be something I can see and touch. On the other hand, the historical transitions of a nation are far less perceptible, because not even the historians can see and touch them until they're over. Helen O'Connell -- who was a popular big-band vocalist in the 30s and 40s -- put it succinctly at age 80. During a big Hollywood tribute to her and to the big-band era of Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Glenn Miller, she blushed at the microphone and said: "Gee, if I only knew I was living in an 'era' I would have enjoyed it more!"
Looking through my catalog and my invitation, I feel like Helen. Gee, I lived through the "heroic forties," the "fabulous fifties," the "revolutionary sixties," and all the while it didn't seem like an "era." Just everyday life. And so will it be with America when in some future time, folks look around and feel what they are is what they always were.
But that won't necessarily be so. Because in that future springtime, America may no longer bear the glory and the burden of leading the "American era." We'll perhaps be just one more great power among several great powers. And the name on our proud flagship will not have to be the USS Invincible, but rather the USS Indefatigable.
Frankly, I wouldn't mind a transition like that. After all, look what happens to my backyard when I let these seeds die into new life....!
Friday, April 10, 2009
But you and your potholes are getting a bad rap. You'd almost think they had no grand, divine purpose in our life. But you and I know they do. Every ugly one of them is communicating a beautiful message. We simply have to listen for it.
Engineers may tell us potholes come from shifting weather. Republicans may say they come from shifty liberals. Democrats may insist they come from shiftless conservatives. But there are those of us who just know they come from God. Or, if you have a problem with that, from cosmic Evolution.
Here's our spring-tested logic. Potholes make us mad...that makes us realize things have to be maintained.... that makes us pay more attention to life's maintainers. Not just street crews, but cops, firefighters, power-line climbers, flood-control teams, ER staffers. Think about it -- when you need them, are there any more beautiful people in the whole wide the world?
And the beat goes on, because life's maintainers also include stay-at-home moms, crossing guards, mail carriers, dog-walkers, meals-on-wheelers, baby sitters, and oh yes grandparents. Without these quiet armies, the planet would spin a lot less efficiently.
So to all my disgruntled fellow-commuters, think of it this way. The next pothole you hit is actually the thud your memory needs to remember all those under-appreciated maintainers who help make it possible for you and me to be -- well, to be you and me!
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Mom used to say, "Always keep your day job." In recent years, Wall Street said, "If you can dream it, you can do it." Dad used to say, "Save for a rainy day." The stock market said, "Saving is wasting." In looking back over these last 30 years -- Reagan to Obama -- a lot of us are discovering that some of our best-selling books may have talked us out of some of our best-learned advice. Now with our latest bubble busted, we're left to wonder who we should believe in more: "the folks" or "the experts?"
The question is an ancient one: How best do you mix your paints to achieve your best economic picture? Perhaps dabs of optimistic yellows and spendthrift greens subtly worked into cautious blacks and thrifty blues? Well, yes, but the real master painters always know the exact degrees and blends needed for a true masterpiece. Who are the masters today? Those old-time pictures from home face all sorts of new-time experts confidently hoisting their brushes and holding up their canvasses. These painters come from the White House, the Congressional Budget Bureaus, the International Monetary Fund, the G-20, even a few that survived their own rubbled bubble to paint again. And yet, not a one of us knows for sure which of their paintings to bid on.
This could be one of the biggest bids in our lifetime, so how to choose?
Darned if this doesn't sound like the classic battle between old cliches and new statistics, around-the-kitchen- table wisdoms vs new global-economy charts. While they're still unframed, everyone's painting looks spectacular. Until, that is, the next one is held up. And so once more, we have this gluttony of choices, this plethora of solutions. The old tug from what we learned in Mom's kitchen and Dad's workshop still has the feel of time-tested folk wisdom. After all, they didn't do so bad!
Still, this is a far more educated and sophisticated time. Can old Uncle Harry's home-spun intuitions about making-an-honest-buck stand up to Ben Bernacke's and Tim Geithner's computer-spun projections about the GNP, COLA and CPI? Darned if I know! Or they know!
So we're left to ponder. Has our world become too complicated and sophisticated for the little guy to understand it...? Or is our world just another emperor whose clothing is an illusion that takes a little guy to see through...? Like you, I'm just in the crowd standing on my toes to see if I can tell the difference.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
That's the average number of seconds each of us has in this lifetime. At least according to the latest actuarial projections. How you feel about this depends a lot on your age and your faith in actuaries. Or, for a better gut-check, ask yourself how you feel about the hundreds of lives just lost in the recent Italian earthquake? Or in last year's Chinese earthquake? Or in that Asian tsunami a few years back? Or what about in that volcano at Pompeii two thousand years ago?
Here's the point. With each tick of each second of our lives, we are one more second closer to that split-second. To that sudden slicing shard of time which forever splits our lives asunder into "before" and "after."
Our split-second needn't be some abrupt catastrophe (although they seem the easiest to recall), for it can also be some abrupt cadenza. That moment your graduating class cheered your valedictory...that surge when you first saw him or her across the room...the flush when you first held you first child...the joy that morning when the blazing sunrise seemed all of a sudden to light up all the shadows of your doubts.
These split-seconds that click so emphatically into place are, at best, mysteries. Neither religion nor science can really predict them; neither faith nor fortune can actually explain them. Perhaps our best guides among these clicks of our lives, those eyes which can best pierce such mysteries, are our artists. The poets, playwrights, composers and directors whose works are entirely familiar with mystery, for their gifts of expression are likewise inexplicably sudden and staggering.
You and I, we thrive in an age of enormous science and technology. It has helped our species probe so many of the eternal mysteries of our physical bodies and our planet. Geologists, archaeologists, chemists and physicists have made the world around us more explainable. Now, science is taking up the still greater mysteries of the world within us. Psychiatry is being joined by neuro-science and biology in order to tour the inner-sanctums of our being and our behaviors. This passion to know is our specie's first passion, and these passionate seekers seem to be entering the real final frontier.
It has been said that as these scientists travel further, they will eventually meet the theologians who got their first!
There may be a better answer to this ancient riddle between science and theology, between reason and faith. Our artists....! They seem to have a mighty footprint in both those paradigms, for the artist works with the cognitive skills of a scientist, at the same time with the affective intuitions of a theologian.
Throughout their lives they experience these split-seconds which permit them to suddenly fathom our split-seconds. Michelangelo who suddenly sees the touch of God upon our lives there in the barren plaster of the Sistine ceiling...Rodin whose sudden swift sculptor's chisel finds our seeking souls in marble....Mozart and Beethoven and Stravinsky whose fingers suddenly fly across keys that sing clarity amid our confusion...Frank Capra, Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola suddenly splash their sudden insights onto the great screens of our lives.
Art is the fusion of all that is best about both our reason and our faith, our science and our theology? I don't know how many seconds are left to tick, but at this point I'm inclined to believe it is our artists who are best gifted with the mortal means to explain these mysteries to us.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
This confession does not, however, keep me from going to gloriously green Wrigley. Here where the game off the field is usually far more fascinating than the one on. Because these players don't realize they're being watched. What's more, they don't even realize they're performing in uniform. Let me explain.....
First, come those waves of libidinous humanity lapping against the walls of the friendly confines. These are the tight-dressed blondes and their would-be partners gaggling inside the surrounding pubs. Wading through these noisy enclaves to get to the field is an adventure in itself. Especially for old, well-tamed husbands. Spectacular necklines plunging down almost to the point where unbelievable tights begin inching up, these off-duty feminists keep the on-duty hunters thinking anything but pennants!
Next come the ticket-takers and aisle-ushers. The first, a stoic study in I-got-this-job-through-my-alderman indifference; the second, uniformed platoons of failed lives at home now at last with a piece of power before the world. Can you find me a player on the field with any greater complexity to such character-studies!
The vendors are, of course, the featured players in this off-field game. Each playing their part with a different brand of gusto -- some yapping with toothless grins, others intimidating with barking demands -- but all straight out of central-casting which auditions only the city's most incredibly unique!
Now come the stars of this game -- those amazing fans around you. Amazing because most of them are in attendance for almost anything you can think of besides baseball. Grisly old-timers bathing in the sun of old memories together...young parents working hard to feed their fidgeting offspring...downtown execs here to swap stories and close deals...the silver-ladies who bussed in from Appleton for some good time together, even with the distraction of those teams down there...oh, and the blondes from the surrounding pubs here criss-crossing the aisles to the impressed whistles of the boys-of-summer in the stands whose baseball card collections no longer seem quite so interesting!
Rounding out this team of unpaid players are the cops and the sellers in the food booths. Chicago's finest at Wrigley are usually not chosen for their marksmanship or their athletic prowess. There's a place for that in our city streets, but here they usually come in much thicker sizes. Wrigley is a nice assignment for the nicer types, and so when they're not swapping Mayor jokes, they're helping lost kids believe there really are Officer Friendlies in our town. As for the booth sellers, one in a hundred has a smile for you. The other 99 are here to prove there's nothing friendly about their food, so pay up and move on, pal!
The next day I usually read about the relentless fastballs and spectacular catches I missed. I simply can't help myself. The game off the field is just so damn interesting. What's more, for me it's always a win. Can you match that record, Lou.....?
Well, no, it didn't actually happen; but if it did, the press on both sides of the Atlantic would have heralded it as the great Anglo-American right to dissent. And so it is. However, living in an age when rights rule, we don't often hear enough about the obligations that come with those rights. As one classic description tried to put it: "The rights of my fist end when it meets the rights of your nose." In the case of political dissent, these rights and obligations are not always that clear cut, but still there are obligations that go with these rights.
Take the current dissent from Congress and the media. This president's agenda for reform is so sweeping, it has predictably ignited equally sweeping dissents. From the sedate halls of Congress to the shouting pundits of Fox News. He's asking for bold changes to everything from banking to bombing, from energy to education , from domestic health-care to international hegemony. When your bite is that sharp, you just know there will be a lot of powerful teeth biting back.
OK, no one questions this constitutional principle of dissent. But everyone should question its practice. Especially in a time when this indispensable principle slams fist-first into some equally indispensable demands for crisis management. This is where the loyalty of the Loyal Opposition gets tested. In a free society, it is free to express its dissent freely. But not care-freely. To put that another way, its opposition should be constructive more than obstructive. If not, what then is its purpose?
In a democracy, the courts and the police don't usually decide this distinction. The people do. The active citizen asks is the criticism I'm hearing factual and fair or fantasy and fanatic? In an age when dissent has so many more forums than ever envisioned by the Founding Fathers -- newspapers, networks, cable channels, blogsites, nationwide demonstrations -- there is need for a new delicate balance. Inviting dissent up to but not beyond the point of paralysis.
About this time of year, you hear fans saying, "Life is like a baseball game...." Well, not really. But there is one lesson to consider. In the dugout, the staff may argue, debate and dissent; but when the manager sends in his closer to save the day, case closed! At least until the closer blows it. Right now, the people still support the closer they picked by a margin even wider than their vote last November. For now, lets give him the ball and try cheering more than jeering.
That's usually the way you win the big ones!
Monday, April 6, 2009
Now if you poke through this clutter of clashing numbers, you may find at least one gospel in common. Today's mantra about getting our confidence back. Described in different words -- hope, hustle, gumption, mojo -- confidence seems to be everyone's deal-maker. Get it back again and we get the system going again. Investors begin investing, consumers begin buying, banks begin lending, international trade begins flowing.
When President Roosevelt called for renewed confidence back in the 1930s, he put is this way: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." President Obama has now uttered several memorable calls-to-confidence, although only time will decide which one endures in our children's history books.
Just like the many spontaneous neighborhood acts of sharing back in the 1930s, similar gestures are beginning to bubble up today. The media are doing their part to find and feed these inspiring making-a-difference stories to us ( proving that their usual if-it-bleeds-it-leads format isn't the only seller). It feels good to hear workers taking pay and time cuts to save jobs....bankers returning bonuses....CEOs working for a dollar a year....factories trimming not closing lines. This serendipity in action can surely spark some confidence among the worried public.
But for how long and with what results....? That's where economists, even sociologists, find themselves short of answers. These questions run far deeper than their numbers. So I went to my favorite philosopher, Sean. An usher in our church, his ruddy Celtic face is more than the proverbial map of Ireland. It's the accumulated wisdom of centuries of Irish potato farmers, city artisans, Catholic pastors, and Dublin Pub dwellers all squeezed into one gloriously informed pout.
Old Sean never smiles, but neither does he ever rage. For me he has this stoic septuagenarian grasp on all the great truths of of time. So whenever Sean speaks (and it's not that often) he speaks with the authority of every Irish poet who ever bought a Guiness. One day after Mass I was asking him what he thought about the economy. He didn't hesitate for a moment. "A wee bit of more optimism," he advised. But, then giving the cliche a special life of its own, Sean offered me this example. "My favorite optimist was this Dubliner who jumped off the Empire State Building. As he passed the 42nd floor the window washers heard him say: So far so good!"
You talk about confidence.....! I think Sean was telling me it doesn't start with statistics. It begins with faith. As he winked up at the alter, he added: "Even when your stats can't prove it."
Sunday, April 5, 2009
That need for and reliance upon one another expresses itself in countless ways. To the the evolutionists, it is part of our genetic code for survival. To the religionists, it is the mark of love written on our soul by God. To the skeptics, it is lost time away from more important personal pursuits.To some political thinkers, it is the collectivized way society grapples with national challenges such as the Great Depression and now the Great Recession.
To those of us who teach, this social connectedness is something else. It's one of the best ways in which our students learn. Even though all learning is an individual act of self-discovery, the act happens best when in the company of fellow learners. And so it is that teachers watch with some dismay the dis-connectedness among our students today. Each equipped with a constellation of digital informational- communicators which should be better connecting them, but often tend only to separate them. (Picture how in time some of them sat behind Wall Street computer banks separated from both their products and the people counting on those products!)
There is no question about our new electronic capacities to link up anytime and anywhere. Our President himself wields a mighty BlackBerry wherever he goes. And yet, when armed with the power to do and accomplish so much on your own, where is the appetite for arm-in-arm action? Despite the plight of the un-employed, we don't see it in many mass rallies. Despite the passion for various causes, we don't see it in many mass demonstrations. Why not? Because in cyberspace, there is apparently less need for physical expression.
Some psychologists wonder how far this goes. For example, there is the Wyoming County case of 15-year-old Marisa Miller "sexting" in which cell phone cameras were used for pornographic encounters. As one prosecutor sighed, "This might become a whole new way of teenage birth control!" Half a nation away, in a Connecticut middle school, concerns over excessive physicality has motivated principal Catherine Williams to order "children may not touch each other in any way, under threat of expulsion."
The God of Genesis said, "It is not good for man to be alone." And so came Eve. But now Silicon Valley keeps generating new widgets by which we can be alone. Live, learn, profit and perhaps even copulate alone. One's head swims.
But then -- just when you aren't sure where all this is leading our cocooning species -- you are struck with the reassuring news from this year's Miss Universe. Upon visiting the Guantanamo Bay military installations, Dayana Mendoza of Venezuela cooed: "I didn't want to leave, it was such a relaxing place to all be together."
Now you see, not everyone wants to be alone after all!
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Two personal anecdotes come to mind which may say something about the history of my America. One reflects its spirit of fame, and the other its spirit of fortune.
Our passion for fame is the later and the least of the two. Lately, Americans indulge in this sorcery daily, as the news of our celebrities takes up equal space with the news of our leaders. This American-Idol-Dance-with the Stars obsession has worked its way into the national DNA, so that which superstar is cheating on which partner gets the same headline treatment given to which rogue nation is cheating on which arms control. Hello.......?
As if to prove this startling habit, I once sat on the dais of a Roast for my friend Bob Newhart. As the "mystery roaster" I was in mask and costume sitting next to the Mayor, the Cardinal, and other prominent Chicagoans. But it was me many of the guests crowded around for an autograph. An autograph.......? Me....? Well, yes, their giggling explanation was, "You must be somebody famous!" It was then that a nameless me really understood how in today's America, name-and-fame has somehow become comparable to work-and-talent.
The second anecdote is closer to home. In fact, wherever you call home you can probably find this example tucked inside your front door during these spring days. It's those inevitable handbills, advertising local spring-cleaning services. Now think about it. Aren't these simple, hand-printed promises yet another optimistic example of American free enterprise in neighborhood action? I get several a week, suggesting to me that people still believe there's a new way to make a buck in this country.
Today's fat-cat CEOs now under populist attack trace back to the infamous tycoons of the 1920s and before them the even more infamous robber barons of the late 19th century. Still, they can all trace back to those back-pack peddlers and traveling salesmen who in time became the Wards and Sears and Marshall Fields and AT&T's and GE's of our time. It's called by many names, but capitalism will do.
Fame as a goal is often little more than seeing your lush mirage melt into the drifting sands. Fortune, on the other hand, is more substantial. However, as we're once more discovering, only when you make the honest effort to make the mirage come true.
Right now, both parts of our national DNA are being tested by history. No matter how you define it, history's pen is writing as we read it...
Friday, April 3, 2009
The shock is to the collective nervous system of all those wired into these entities. A program, a place, a person. Endings are never easy. And for all their reputed excitement, changes are never simple. How then to cope?
One way is to see each change inside its larger context. To recognize how it's an organic part of a larger evolving process we often shrug and call, "That's life...!" For example, when The Guiding Light first arrived on radio January 25, 1937, it was a gentle 15-minutes each afternoon which I would hear when I was home sick from school and Mom was in the kitchen preparing dinner. Those too were hard times, and the kindly old minister who opened his non-denominational church in the town of Five Points brought both his townsfolk and his audience the comfort of biblical wisdoms.
As the show wrenched its way with us through the Depression and World War II, its light continued to guide millions of at-home mothers like mine. But then in the post-war television years, The Guiding Light emerged as a much tougher tale of lies, sex and betrayals. Why? Because the context of the show -- America itself -- was growing tougher. If The Guiding Light is an institution about to fade away, it reflects the many other institutions that have also faded during its 72 years.
There's a long list starting with the shrinking role of small communities like Five Points in our lives. The enlarging role of government. The tortured role of marriage and family. Other institutions too have shifted like the unseen tectonic plates beneath earthquakes. The school...the church...the military. Now even our libraries and our banks. While you and I can survive the loss of The Guiding Light, we can't these other institutions. Civilizations hold in place only when the pillars upon which they stand hold in place.
Staying with the metaphor, we can't forget where these institutional pillars come from....! Exactly. From each of us, for each in our own way has been among the artisans who've helped chisel and carve them. And so -- when vital institutions begin to crack and sway -- concerned artisans must face the historic fact that there is no master builder alone who can strengthen them.
I remember back when The Guiding Light was still coming from Mom's kitchen radio. One of the messages we listened to as we saw our institutions buckling under the weight of Depression and War was the evening voice of President Roosevelt. If you replay those long ago fireside chats today, you can sense his recurring theme just like we did: "Together!" We got into this together, now together we can work our way out.
And, my fellow artisans, do you know something...? We did.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
In an age when it has become commonplace to think in trillions, there are still no really workable units by which to measure this stunning exponential feat of informational growth. The law of doubling eventually brings you to your knees by the sheer weight of all you can store. Not even a thousand Googles can handle this.
In such a Lewis Carroll world, it might be best to climb out of this bottomless rabbit hole long enough to just deal with a few more manageable numbers. Say the relatively modest number 48,000. Why such a small total? To the US Army, it's neither small nor acceptable. It's the number of young Americans it has turned away since just 2005 for being over-weight. A number greater than all the US forces in Afghanistan.
Among the vast accumulated knowledge of mankind, this matter of body weight has had a quirky history. We don't need Google or the Army to quantify it, because it's pretty much all there in history's scribbled cave art, pyramid etchings, Persian and Chines drawings, Greek and Roman statuary, medieval canvasses, right down to today's movies and television.
The human form that comes down to us through centuries of expression has certain consistencies when it comes to weight. And how that weight is distributed.
The weight factor tends to evolve in inverse proportion to a culture's food supply. In times and places where that supply is thin, the preferred body weight depicted is thick (see primitive societies for caloric details). Where the food supply is thick, the anatomies glorified in art grow thin (see modern celebrities and all those yearning to emulate them for disappointing details). It's true -- body weight in times of plenty is somehow deemed the curse not the reward of its times.
Although this weight factor is open to debate, the distribution factor is not. Throughout the eons of time, anthropologists have uncovered a recurring set of requirements on this score. To be taken seriously enough to be depicted by your culture, it seems you have to meet certain unwritten -- yet undefyable -- standards. Eyes...nose....hair....tummy. Find me an example of beady eyes, bulbous nose, stringy hair and bloated tummy, and I'll find you a movie or museum with very few customers!
None of this is meant to be a value judgment, for few of us can live up to these physiological standards to make such judgments in the first place. But it does bring us to a question. How has our species arrived at such physiological standards? Darwin and his genetic successors propose that species of all kinds mate on the basis of physical attraction. Fine! But exactly which genes can they point to as defining "attraction?"
Perhaps, though, the answer is not to be found in research at all. Rather in poetry. Shakespeare put it this way, "Beauty is brought by judgment of the eye." The ancient Greeks said it even better than the Bard, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
I'm trying to imagine how the Army recruiters would use those definitions....?
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
How about money as the dot-in-chief here? Eventually every society in history develops some. Economists call it a unit of exchange. People call it what makes the world go round. Looking at the record, I'd put my dots on that second definition, because it's hard to find anywhere in this record where the plot didn't involve money.
Anyone with a world map can draw the connecting lines from country to country, from age to age. Of the many thousands, just a few will make the point. From the cuneiform tablets of the ancient Middle East and the cowry shells of ancient China....to the Drachmas of ancient Greece to the Sesterius of ancient Rome...to the Florins and Pounds of medieval Europe...right up to the free-wheeling dollars that have become the currency of today's global economy, nothing of consequence happens without the motivation of money.
The obvious examples range from great farmlands to great cities to great universities to great economies to great wars. Oh, you noticed the sequencing there? Well, yes, there's an almost inevitable connection from the first to the last. Somehow as any society grows great. its national appetite for greatness suffers rivals poorly. And so -- as with each of the above national examples and every other example in history -- success begets success. And begotten success only whets the success-appetite for more success, even at the expense of rival appetites.
Some will say there is more to mankind than his money. For those dot-connectors who believe in a God or in the inherent goodness of the human spirit, we want that to be true. But if mankind is more than his money, his history is not. Somehow, when all the dots are on the table, we eventually tend to fix our appetites on the ones marked money. Not that we express it quite that crudely. We prefer attributes such as "the right to a job," "having a decent wage," "balancing the budget," and that old-time, all-time favorite "keeping ahead of the rest."
Throughout the history of dot-connecting, folks have traced the motives of money in many peculiar ways. Some look for conspiratorial cabals like Jewish Bankers...the Knights Templar....the Vatican....Wall Street. ( Right now that last one has a lot of angry people connecting a lot of angry dots around the circled wagons of a lot of worried New York hustlers!). But there have been other dot-connectors over the years like Karl Marx who found the evil of money deep inside the system of capitalism or like the writers of Genesis who found this evil deep inside the original sin of of our pride.
The latest dot-connectors are the G-20 nations who are meeting to see if the ancient blessing/curse of money can somehow be sublimated into a global solution. The trouble with that devoutly-to-be-wished-for scenario is that each of the players on this stage see their own role and their own lines as the starring ones.
Which brings us right back to where all these dots began in the first place -- the Almighty Me.