Sunday, May 31, 2009


We've all heard the pitch during those persistent PBS calls for money. With a congregational chorus of solicitors in the background, chirpy hosts remind us of the value to our local PBS stations. And they're right. Only not always for the reasons they report....!

If you're looking for top quality news journalism, children's programming and culinary excursions, this is the place. Possibly the only place left in the great and growing cultural wasteland that is television. However, upon closer examination, PBS's greatest contribution may be the way it has learned to master the minutes and miles of our lives. The minutes of lost time, and the miles of other lands. They do it with music.

Take the musical ways they allow us to transcend time. I'm thinking of those remember-when concerts with the singers and singing groups from the 50s, 60s and 70s. In other ages, folks had to recall the songs-of-their-youth in the privacy of their nostalgia. Nothing wrong with that, but now PBS brings all this back to life. Right there in front of graying audiences who cheer to the sights and sounds of their old favorites.

Okay, their favorites look their age as they try to hit the high notes of their old Hit Parade best-sellers. But the audiences are just as old, and just as happy to be re-living their youth with the singers they once danced and fell in love to. When some of us at home watch these 2-hour trips through the labyrinths of young love, we tingle with a few long forgotten tingles. And perhaps we pick up the phone and make that pledge the hosts are chirping about.

Along with the minutes are the miles.

I'm thinking those recurring musical concerts PBS offers from far-off lands. International singing stars from European cathedrals, Tuscany mountainside, Irish music halls, Swiss and Bavarian castles. Your network and cable stations aren't taking their cameras there anytime soon. Instead, they fill out their schedules with more pop music award shows than -- well, then there is good pop music! One wonders how can 20-30 award shows a year X two hours each find enough really award-worthy singers? The answer is, they can't So they just keep trotting out many of the same over-and-over-again favorites padded with a few never-to-be-heard-again bummers.

To be sure, the law of hypocrisy demands that someone like me put up or shut up. So I pledge. Not a lot, but just enough to help PBS keep mastering the minutes and miles of my little life. And whattayaknow -- you get a PBS sticker to show for it!

Saturday, May 30, 2009


You how how it is. The event starts at 8PM, but you're calculating the best time to arrive. Never too early, but exactly how late? The computation is both science and art. Not only for your social life, but your political life as well....!

Cicero put it this way: "All life is a matter of timing." Woody Allen added "80% of success is just a matter of showing up." When you apply this thinking to new ideas, timing takes on special significance. Usually we like to be the first on our block to embrace a new idea so long as it turns out right, but gee-I-never-liked-it when it turns out wrong. History bristles with examples. Fire...the wheel...the alphabet....the Wright Brothers...the Edsel....the 40 to 1 shot at the derby...all those sub-prime mortgages.

A friend's 100 year old father-in-law once confided with a smile, "I've seen many changes in my life, and I was against every one of them." A wise after-thought. But the real payoff is in wise-forethought. Which candidate will have the right stuff? which campaign will put us on the right track? which piece of legislation or which nominee will achieve the right results? oh, and which cablecasting or blogging screamer is the right one to shut off?

Come to think of it, though, some after-thoughts can also be a matter ot good timing. For instance, when is it time to keep cherishing national memories and myths, and when is it time to crate them away? Here too history bristles with examples. Our old frontier spirit of conquering the land and everyone on it...the tall-in-the-saddle rugged individualism of Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill....unregulated free enterprise...empire building...racial profiling...corporate farming...small town Americana.

The problem with some cherished memories and myths is that, after all, they did help get us here. It's never easy to repudiate your own past, to tear pages out of the national photo album, to admit some of the old movies had it wrong. And yet, here again, time is a player. As Ecclesiastes teaches" There is an appointed time for everything...."

In the end, the case for acting with good timing comes to rest before each of us. As individuals and as citizens. It ticks there inviting us to use it in our own decision-making. In democracies, the invitation belongs o everyone. And while millions of us have made the right decisions at the right times, equal millions have really botched it! Rather than investing our time in celebrating one another, how often have we cannibalized one another? The vulgarian packs in Washington, the high-pad shouters in the media, the gun toting gangs in the streets, right down to the way we love to eat our own celebrities from a Mel Gibson to a Lindsay Lohan and now to an overwhelmed Susan Boyle.

All of which brings us back to the case for good timing. In other words -- knowing which bridges to cross, which top burn, and exactly when best to do it.

Friday, May 29, 2009


A compass is an interesting thing. It will always tell you where true north is. People, on the other hand, will always tell you where their north is. And that's how we sometimes lose our way...!

In a free society we're all free to aim our arguments in whatever direction we believe (or, in the case of managers, in whatever direction they're paid to believe). Yet with all these compasses pointing to different norths, a society's collective journey can grow troublesome. If only we had some benevolent old top sergeant to straighten us recruits out, and guide us to where we need to be.

However, free societies don't want top sergeants (AKA, dictators). The platoon handbook says when troops are free, they need to freely argue things out. Such is the better way to reach camp before nightfall. And what do you know -- every we-the-people movie and on-the-road documentary says the same thing. From our very first American documentarian, Alex Tocqueville in 1835, this work-it-out-among-ourselves doctrine has been honored.

In truth, the doctrine has brought us a long long way. The camp we've reached may not be everyone's choice, but by and large our trip has been a successful one. Trouble is, success is a moving target, and so here we are in a new century with new compasses to reconcile. Some of the very same arrows on the trail are being read by us in some very disputatious ways. What's long-deferred progress to some of us, is dangerous retreat to others.

Pick any arrow out there you wish -- abortion rights, gay rights, marijuana rights; inoculation, interrogation, immigration -- they all point in different ways along our trail. One citizen's "at last!" is another's "Oh no!" One traveller's "Yes we can!" is another's "No, we shouldn't!"

History has produced a great many top sergeants. From an Alexander and a Caesar to a Machiavelli and a Napoleon. In looking back, what each of them built no longer exists. We're still here. That has to say something!

But then that brings us back to what each of our compasses are telling us is true north.....

Thursday, May 28, 2009


"June is busting out all over...." So goes the rousing Rogers & Hammerstein hit song from Carousel. But what's busting out this June is thunderously different than what I remember when the song was first sung in 1945...!

Back then, aside from the usual flowers and fireflies, there was victory and pride in the air. Americans were coming off the canvass from the Pearl Harbor punch of 1941 to soon land the massive knockout blow to both the Japanese and the Nazis. While the cast was still singing the song on Broadway, General Douglas MacArthur was standing on an American battleship in Tokyo Bay proclaiming the end of evil in the world. His lyrics boomed even louder than the cast's, because from now on every June would bust out all over with peace and harmony. From America to a standing-room-only world.

Sixty-four Junes have come and gone. Long enough to score how well we've lived up to the General's lyric. On balance, we've done worse than the dreamers had hoped, but better than the realists had dared to hope. As you stroll the June gardens of your neighborhood, you can study the swallow's flight and muse over the peonies' smile. They're both still here, as yet unconsumed by the terrifying mushroom cloud that ended that war. Despite the subsequent tragedies of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, we have avoided World War III. In a dangerous world, avoiding can be as important as achieving.

Of course we have achieved much since then. Medical breakthroughs...electronic marvels....astronauts on the moon....the power of computers and cyberspace within the reach of virtually every hand on the planet. The ancient gods and emperors, not to mention the General, would gaze upon all this in awe. So do our poets and patriots, and let the record show some of this awe is well deserved. We are a disputatious but remarkable people who continue to climb new mountains even though we never fail to shoot ourselves in the foot on the way up.

Along with the achievements, something else is busting out this June. The school kids. Schooling is over, now dreaming begins. After all, summertime is absolutely, positively the most ebullient time for dreaming. Hanging from tree limbs, lounging on lawns, paddling in canoes, or just scratching pictographs in the dirt. True, some of these kids are prowling alleyways and peddling drugs, but the majority of them reject their darker selves and opt for their better selves. They dream of soon-to-be adulthood and careers and amazing headlines with their names in them. These baggy-pants June aficionados don't look it now, but they will be the winners and warriors of the Junes to come.

Now the June page on our calendars usually comes with pastoral scenes of life at its fattest most fruitful best. But wait. Notice the 30 empty spaces on there. Yes, for jotting in appointments. But more than that, like all empty spaces, they're meant to be filled out. Nature and Americans abhor a vacuum!

And so this June arrives like every other June -- except we haven't lived it before. The grand peace and promise we won by 1945 are the very same we need to keep winning in 2009. Neither come without work. Or without dreaming.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

WHO ME....?

You have to be careful what you laugh it, for in the long run you usually become what you were laughing at. For instance, old....!

The Census Bureau reminds us that next year the first of the Boomer Generation turn 65. The unofficial entrance into the world of gray hairs, brittle bones, squinty eyes and regretted memories. But while the government jousts with the budgetary dragon of money, the newly-arrived old must take up the lance to joust with the barbarous dragon of meaning. You know, the ancient but often deferred questions that accompanied Adam and Eve out of the Garden: why am I here? where am I going? what's it all about?

In the years just after they lost their lease, their descendants huddled around tribal campfires to hear the wise ones (AKA, old guys) speak of the great answers to the great questions. In due time, tribes found among themselves medicine men and temple priests who could address the questions more formally. In later time, societies found among themselves medical scientists who sought to wrestle with the questions in their laboratories.

Today, the graduating boomers have all three sources at their disposal as they relax between the front and back nine. Over a tall cool one there shaded beneath the fairway greens, the young elders have time to reflect on their earlier and glibber answers. Like when they were consumed with raising their children in the happy hope of felicitous retirements....or when they looked at their own aging parents and vowed never to let age do this to them....or when they locked in those portfolios sure to hoist them throughout their own declining years.

Grasses are forever greener just over the next generational fence. However, now the old boomers find themselves in a slow-motion kabuki dance with the Grim Reaper. How in the hell did this happen! How did this come to be so soon! And why without any warning!

Well, here's the funny thing. All of us -- elderly, boomer, and boomer-to-be -- have been witness to this process from the first time we could pluck a flower. Spring...! One day it's not here, then suddenly one day it is here. In all its blooming green wonder. The little signs and signals were nudging and popping for weeks, only we forgot to notice.

Likewise the sudden burst of old age is never all that sudden. It is we not it that is surprised. But now that the boomers sipping tall cool ones are no longer able to defer the conversation, one particular dragon-of-a-question challenges us to subdue it: Is the answer medical science offers us about aging, the best answer to live with? put another way, is warehousing us the best solution? or is it more like the final solution?

This is surely not to say the old ways (ie. sharing a back room in the home of your kids) are better than the new ways (ie. sharing a room in the institution your kids are paying for). As usual, the best answer probably lies somewhere between. Between familial compassion and superior care. Something for each family to locate for itself.

It's just that the aging boomers never had to joust with it so seriously. Nor was it ever topic one on the fairways before.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The last time I saw Paris -- I like writing that, it sounds so cosmopolitan -- I spent a few cafe coffees sitting with a writer who must by now be dead. But his musings about niche marketing live on with me here back in the home of shaken but still still shimmering American capitalism....!

His thought was that while entrepreneurs aim their goods and services at specific niches of their market, consumers choose to live in specific niches of their life. There may be niche marketing, but still more relevant there is niche living. And could there be any better time to indulge in this prescription than today's daily avalanche of words and images, facts and statistics, theories and conspiracies?

You may have witnessed the same scenes -- bartenders turning off the newscast at the request of upset customers, mothers easing children away from the nightly news, jobless men fighting back despair at the latest unemployment reports. While we no longer go to our beds at night with long-rifles in the event of Indian raids, we do climb into them trailed by nightmares of the impending Armageddons faithfully but breathlessly reported by our 24/7 media.

One of the questions the media often poses is do we have more information than we can process? more knowledge than wisdom? The questions are of course sandwiched in between another breaking-news dispatch that slams into your life like another missile.

And so as Jacques pointed out lo these many newscasts ago, "You can't stop the missiles, but you can step out of their range." What he had in Gallic mind was a practice perfected by certain souls travelling this same ship of fools with us.Those who, for a variety of reasons, have reasoned that we live in herds, but can still graze in private. And so these escapees travel in their minds to other lands for brief respites.

The artists among us do so as they sabotage their way behind the line of daily fire into the bloodless fields where live music and literature and poetry. The philosophers among us do so as they tease out of the everyday hair-fright strands of thought which transcend the mud of the moment for the message of the eternal. Nostalgics too do this as they escape -- yes, they have no shame about the word! -- into remembrances of things past, people loved, and times savored.
My Parisian friend wouldn't shape the words this commonly, but what he was saying and what I was approving is: Different strokes for different folks! And while today's helter-skelter age brims with rhapsodic new opportunities, it bubbles with discordant new disasters. Sipping coffee in that Paris cafe and slipping into bed this night, I carry a feeling next to my heart which whispers: Yes, seize the day, but only in the pieces and parts you can actually hold.

After all, the world is a very big pot of coffee, and you are only a very small cup.

Monday, May 25, 2009


Fundamental to the difference between the United States and the Eurasian half of the world is the way we look at time. In the thousands-of-years old civilizations of Asia and later Europe, your past is what you build on and memorialize. Here, all too often the past is what you forget and instead of memorializing its remains, you clear them away for new parking lots....!

You doubt it? Walk the streets of Jerusalem, Athens or Rome. Around any corner you're likely to encounter an ancient wall, temple or aqueduct with people taking its picture. In downtown Chicago, maybe a tiny unnoticed memorial plate in the sidewalk right next to a spanking new parking lot. If nothing, we are a practical people.

Historical and preservationist societies work hard to save our past, but compare their clot with downtown entrepreneurs and -- well, another parking lot!

Walking the streets of other ancient cities -- Cairo, Istanbul, Venice and Paris -- there's no reason to feel outdated. Unlike Hollywood's B-movie versions of turbaned beggars and singing pizza peddlers, these are glistening metropolitan centers housing easily as much talent and income as ours. Somehow, though, glorifying their past greatness is as important to them as erecting new greatness. It's usually not an either/or choice for them. It's largely a matter of understanding that the seeds of their future lie buried in their past.

One great irony to this small wisdom is our American railroads. Perhaps the only technology we have allowed to regress rather than progress. In the golden age of railroading, great silver trains sped from city to city at 100 mph while serving fine dinners and wines on white tablecloths. Today, the old four-hour trip from Chicago to Minneapolis is eight. And that's only on the days there aren't any hour-long delays because of slow-chugging freights. Other trips to other cities are not even on the schedule anymore. And fine menus are now boxed lunches.

If air travel were replacing rail travel with bold new speeds and services, fine. But have you been stuck on a tarmac lately munching bags of peanuts you had to pay for...?

As Congress wrangles with another annual budget simply to keep old rickety Amtrak alive, they can watch 200 mph trains flashing through Europe. To city after city, on-schedule after on-schedule. The issue here of course is more than money (another mistake young kids and nations often make). The issue is to once more look over our shoulders to where and why we have come from, before deciding where and why we intend to be.

I have nothing against cars and parking lots in reasonable numbers at reasonable prices. But I do have a lot against time-locked thinking which finds discarding our past the cheapest way of reaching our future. We're too great a society to be caught with our past down...!

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn't have to do it himself...!

This is most true in the case of the person who condemns prejudice. It's the universally approved theme in conversations from barbershops to literati in which we proudly damn this practice in the case of races, religions, classes and genders. And yet, few of us can offer many examples of where we're personally engaged in the cause.

There is perhaps no cause more convenient than echoing the post-World War II call "Never again." In so doing, everyone continues to condemn Adolf Hitler as the most hated man of the 20th century. The Nazi Fuhrer has become the worldwide tuning fork by which to test the sound of evil in our midst. By which to measure leaders like Saddam Hussein, Omar Qaddafi and Osama Ben Ladin.

Time out for a reality check.

Hitler is dead and Nazism is a forbidden label in most nations. Still, both live on in the hearts and homelands of many. By other names and other flags, to be sure, but live they do. Because both are congenital to a human nature which has throbbed ever since Eden with a pride in self and a disdain for anyone not part of this self. Pick a name, any name! Racism...nationalism...messiahism...elitism. They will all do, for they are all itching just beneath our surface when scratched in just the right way.

You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to see this. The evidence screams out from every hate crime, every terrorist act, every blogged call for racial purity, and even every secret basement handshake. Our human nature -- so fragile a thing -- falls easy prey to the seduction of sudden superiority. What easier way to compensate for one's failures in life?

Right now in the heartland of the fatherland there is another variation of the disease spreading quickly. In Hitler's birth country of Austria, Nazism has persisted in coffee shops, university campuses, even the parliament itself where the same old venom has seeped out but with new names and flavors. Prejudice of course always needs a target, so now in place of the Jew there is the Muslim. Demographic reports about the Islamization of Europe are breeding as fast as is the Muslim populations in Austria and throughout Europe. Each soiled by a familiar fear: They are polluting the race!

And so the slogan "Never again" remains in constant danger of being re-written: "Over and over again."

Saturday, May 23, 2009


A few weeks ago a great crime was committed in our American secondary schools. Millions of students took the required US Constitution Test, and an estimated 96% passed...!

The crime is surely not in the test, but in the easy way almost everyone passes it. I speak here as a retired teacher and co-compliciter. In retrospect, it makes you think of H.G. Wells when he warned: "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

Here's the heart of the matter, Mr. Duncan. While it's appropriate that youngsters learn the principles of their Constitution, the test never really addresses the practice. New immigrants are required to pass an adult exam, but once we graduate our 18-year-olds, that's it. Slam, bam, end of civics education! Down-right crazy in a democracy which depends upon the wisdom of its citizenry.

Isn't it something like giving the keys of a BMW to a kid who never finished driver's ed? The answer that's offered is: (1) if they're old enough to die for their country, they're old enough to vote (2) besides, it's their inherent right under the Constitution. But while both answers carry weight, not enough when we consider something like the current Gitmo dispute.

The administration you work for offered a nuanced plan to close a camp that violates human rights and further inflames the recruitment of terrorists around the globe. Those who dissent -- some Democrats, virtually all Republicans, and the great volcano god Limbaugh -- surely have the right to dissent, but do they have the right to use their right so irresponsibly? Maybe if more of the students you and I helped graduate were on the top of their game, the irresponsible battle-cries would have failed in their tracks.

As with all irresponsible dissenters, they gotta have a gimmick. A hot bumper-sticker message. This one does: "Not in my neighborhood." I'm wondering right now how many of our former students -- a grand collage of young humanity -- can see through such a bogus case? Such utter nonsense? In other words, such a lie? The facts, as re-stated by your colleague Defense Secretary Gates, are that "our neighborhoods" already house terrorists and mass murderers in safe maximum-security prisons. (Along with, by the way, atomic waste deposits). For decades, and not one has ever escaped. Including those imprisoned within only a few hours drive of our own Chicago.

And so, Mr Secretary, if I had the chance to meet our former students today, I would pray to Thomas Jefferson that a show of hands would show they understand their Constitution and their country wisely enough to know demagogy when they smell it. And then choose to help get on with the truly legitimate crises on our national plate.

To my way of thinking, that would deserve an A. Don't you agree...?

Friday, May 22, 2009


And so begins the official season of the great American picnic. Only please count me out....!

I admit this is completely counter-culture, but I wonder if the culture is all that right in the first place? Just because outdoor grill and hot dog sales depend on this time of year, who is to say picnicking is actually what Chicagoans were meant to do between Memorial Day and Labor Day? I mean, where in the great cosmic code is it written that people should leave the comforts of air-conditioning for the risks of nature?

People like me grant that the sight of a happy family picnicking along the great green lakefront has its charms. But remember, people like me are looking at them from an insect-free, air-conditioned car on its way to a nice insect-free, air-conditioned restaurant. You see the point...?

Now I've researched this thing, so I come to it with facts not only feelings:

* Fact -- It has taken our species millions of years to evolve from out of caves and into homes with electronic kitchens that can do whatever we command. How logical is it, then, to turn my back on such marvels for the quirky whims of an outdoor fire that I had trouble making as far back as to my failed career as a Boy Scout?
* Fact -- Talking about fire, when Prometheus first stole fire from the Greek Gods, is it really reasonable to presume this epic theft was for such purposes as grilling wieners in Lincoln and Jackson Park? I think not!
* Fact -- When God said in Genesis what He had created was "good," I still have this heretical question: Did that mean mosquitoes too? Now wait, this is no trifling matter. Actually it's all part of the eternal how-can-a-good-god-permit-evil question. I for one have decided bugs were not the best part of the divine plan. And so no picnics for this heretic!
* Fact -- Lately we have been advised by science that our environment is in danger. Most of the time these experts point to ozone layers far into the atmosphere or giant glaciers far to the Arctic and Antarctic. I've been duly impressed and am duly concerned. At the same time, I ask myself why should I contribute to environmental problems by littering and messing up perfectly pristine landscapes? In deference to Al Gore, I refuse to further pollute our world. What's more, now that the children are gone, I no longer have to pretend picnics are fun!

And so I, one lonely mosquito-hating Chicagoan, stands before the jury of history and says: I have but one life to give to my Park District. I intend it shall be in the form of my grateful pride not my grubby picnics

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Okay, so everyone knows America is changing. It's always changing. And we right along with it. But some changes are harder to define than others. Perhaps the best way to sense today's changes is to open your front door. Stand there and look back. Then look in front. You'll find an inside America and an outside America.....!

In most cases, inside is the new America. Today's highly technical and cocooning America with its TVs, PCs, iPhones, Ipods, faxes, and of course your very own www. One click and you're in instant connection with family, friends, stock markets, news headlines, gossip blogs, retail outlets, food deliveries, Congress, and a nifty choice of personal sex experiences. All this without ever leaving your room.

And that's only during the first hour.

Outside is something of the old America. Sky, grass, mail carriers, home delivered newspapers, baby-strollers, joggers, chatting neighbors, kids loafing on their way to school, toddlers giggling on tricycles, and puppies barking at everything that passes. No, this is not a Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kincaid illustration, but out here the pace is slower, the focus is less intense, the information is less impersonal, and the distance between people much shorter and more touchable.

Lets not get confused here. Most of us are pretty happy with home comforts that are a few eons beyond the cold caves our ancestors used. We like indoor plumbing, and we love our everywhere gadgets. However, in our transition from outdoor living to indoor living, we've lost a few things along the evolutionary way.

For instance, our senses.

Cocooned inside our splendiferous homes and condos, our sense of sight has lost its 360 degree alertness...our sense of sound is confined to this acoustically controlled venue....our sense of touch is often limited to switches and keypads...and our sense of smell, well forget it, because the smells of the green earth have little chance inside climate-controlled living rooms.

This isn't a plea to return to nature and the noble savage. Rousseau and Gauguin got that wrong. Cities and city life are in many ways the pinnacle of human achievement. Its boulevards and parks and great buildings and fine arts aren't to be found either in the land of Amish or the world of nostalgia. On the other hand, the Amish and the nostalgics may have a case when they pose this challenge before the jury of history: Is the new always better than the old?

Perhaps they answer their own question. They have no problem embracing some of yesterday's finer values while at the same time using today's indoor plumbing! As to the rest of us using indoor plumbing, might we have a problem with yesterday's values?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Evil has worn a face ever since the world's religions have pictured it for us. In some cases it's been a bull, a goat, a scorpion and a vulture. The three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have agreed upon a serpent. There must be something to their choice, for to this day snakes are almost universally looked upon with palpable revulsion. However, there's more than one way to stare one down...!

Four years ago Mel Brooks did it not with loathing but with laughter, featuring two cast members from here in Chicago. I spent opening night with them at the Cadillac Palace where they jauntily chose the most evil face in our times -- Adolf Hitler -- to laugh at for two scandalously uproarious acts titled The Producers. Now the Broadway hit has just opened in the heartland of the fatherland itself -- Berlin. What's more, the show is playing for the next two months in the Admiralspalast where Hitler himself attended plays in between conquering countries.

This is of course more than a theatrical issue for my friends. It's a moral issue. Can a nation which has lived for three generations in expressed shame for its Hitlerian evils now shift from shuddering to snickering? According to the critic's early reviews, the answer is yes. Perhaps enough time has passed and enough victims have died to clear the way for a treatment that a few years ago would have itself been called evil.

We can analyze this a dozen different ways. From the argument we have matured enough to turn fear into ridicule, to the claim we have coarsened enough to take evil too lightly. Either way, there are larger questions hidden in here. What do we mean by evil? Is evil something to fight or to accommodate? And who decides what's evil in the first place?

To pose the questions is easy; to answer them is complicated. Here's an audience member's guess:

* Evil is more than simply the actions of evil-doers. It is a cosmic force which exists in our midst the same way the force of Love, Goodness, Beauty and Truth exist. Evil is always out there, shrouding itself inside various people at various points in time and place. All part of the inexpressible combat between yin and yang, between our demons and our angels
* In times past, societies have believed evil an enemy so great it called for its death and destruction. Too often in ugly self-righteous forms, yet always rooted in the presumption that what is out of harmony with our cosmos needs to be plucked
* Who, though, is to decide? That's the trillion-dollar question. To illustrate how difficult it is, consider the historical fact that Hitler himself was once hailed as "good" by a majority of the 60 million Germans of the 1930's
The two cast members from that opening night are not in Berlin this week. But if they were, I ask myself would they find their original roles now played by young post-Hitler Germans as funny as they did back here in Chicago? It occurs to me the two of them might already be talking to Mr Brooks about a new study in evil that has also damaged millions of lives. Featuring Wall Street Bankers!

And musically suggesting that there actually is an enduring force of evil in our midst. Only it keeps changing faces, inviting us to keep changing the way we stare it down.


Monday, May 18, 2009


I was quietly sitting there in the church pew when I noticed her toes tapping next to me. As the choir sang out, so were other toes around me. Including mine. Hmm, I guess it's true. In this life we all got rhythm....!

The sound of music will almost always energize our bodies to respond to its rhythm. Fast or slow, adagio to vivace, the music around us has its way with us whether we're conscious of it or not. So do the emotions within us, for from impatience to irritation our body-signals are hard to guard and even harder to miss.

It's equally true with the people around us. Those we love like the infant in our arms coax out of us gentle swaying and cuddling motions. Just as those we dislike generate automatic stiffening and withdrawing motions. You see, whether we can dance or not, we really do have rhythm.

There are other rhythms too, congenital to our very being. Consider that softening feeling that slips over us when we're communing with nature on a sparkling spring morning. Or that inexpressible yielding sensation that washes over us when we're in deep prayer. I suppose there are some biological research studies on some college campuses right now trying to isolate the exact brain lobe or gene pool that can explain all this. But do we actually need to dissect this...? Isn't experiencing it sufficient unto itself....?

To be sure, there are other rhythms that we respond to in this life. Say the metallic marching beat of a military band calling out from us the pride and fury of patriotism, Or the plodding dirge of a funeral mass to which our every muscle resonates. Or what about the roaring ecstasy of a rock 'n roll concert or the sweaty joy of a dixieland band? Or the sacred quietude of a close family unit? None of these rhythms are out there as much as they are quite literally in here.

Press the premise further and you can see and sense the rhythms of a nation as a whole. When Franklin Roosevelt looked out at a nation on its economic knees, he himself a cripple beckoned from out of us a revived rhythm of hope. When Ronald Reagan looked out on a nation adrift, his rhythm of national pride helped re-charge that same rhythm in us. And now a new president has rendered a spirit-broken people a pair of addresses (first at Georgetown and now Notre Dame) that to many sound like the symphonies of a wiser tomorrow.

Now lets see how many toes tap to the rhythm of his words...

Sunday, May 17, 2009


The American bedroom is way behind the times.....!

Thousands of years ago the Greeks portrayed how their women could stay the hand of war by staying their conjugal pleasures from their husbands (see Trojan Women for all the gory theatrical details), Fair maidens in medieval times often tried the same thing. And as recently as last month a Kenyan husband sued the organizers of a national sex boycott in his politically stalemated nation (he charged this caused him "mental anguish, stress, backaches, and a lack of concentration").

One can only fantasize how his lawyer introduced evidence and used witnesses.

But just think of the possibilities. American wives -- shoulder to shoulder and genitalia to genitalia -- denying their testosterone-driven husbands their bed until they grow up and stop spending all their time at war. And not just the big bring- 'em-on kind, but all their warrior compulsions to bellow in government, scream on cable, defame on blogs, butt heads on the gridiron, and battle one another on every expressway.

The mind swirls. A world without battles...streets without bloodshed...courtrooms without games without concussions....movies without fireballs...colleges without food fights. Well, the mind mustn't swirl quite that much. But still the idea surely invites some delicious dreams of peace on earth and good will to man. One is surprised the women's movement has not officially taken this up. Or the churches and temples and mosques.

I don't know the Kenyan husband in question or what he's doing with his nights lately. But I do suspect his judicial actions tell us his wife made her point. And a rather good point at that
Whether I've just blown my chances for membership in the local country club remains to be seen. But I have a lawyer too....!

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Kurt Vonnegut explained that, "True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country!"

For those of us in Park Ridge, Illinois, this thought struck particularly close to home when one of our own Main South HS grads almost became president last year. That's right, Hillary, who grew up only a few blocks north of me. (She's still helping to run the country as Secretary of State). Such a sudden paradigm shift can be staggering. And, for any of us well over 50, common place.

Now when you think about it, all your life all the adult roles -- policemen, doctors, professors, news anchors, athletes -- are now being filled by folks as young or younger than you. That can really be terrifying. All your life you were looking up to these power players. You know, big, strong, imposing and obviously in sacred possession of the answers. But now upon closer examination these towering, faraway figures are -- well, gee, many of them are just kids, and you're the adult.

How did this happen?

Okay, we understand our Darwin. Life just keeps evolving. But totally without our permission...? The terror in this is that if they're suddenly younger than us, somehow that must mean we can no longer intuitively count on "things being taken care of." A little reluctantly, but inevitably, we've become caretakers too.

The bittersweet irony is that while we were being taken care of all those years, we couldn't wait to grow up. Being grown-up meant owning all that adult power unto ourselves. But a funny thing happened on the way to adulthood. Adulthood...! Back then, those imposing policemen, doctors, professors, news anchors and athletes never told us that with their power came responsibility.

There it is -- that irritating chink in the grown-up's armor. Having to be responsible with the power, the authority, the impact on others. No official manufacturers guidebook comes with adulthood. It's one of those passages -- like through a dark woods or up a misty peak -- where the traveler has to feel and find their way. Those who do becomes leaders...those who don't become losers. Either way, there's no turning back on the road. Or on the clock.

So here we are my fellow AARPers. Ready or not, now we're the adults. In a world much in need of authentic adults. But in case you notice many of the adults around you are often younger than you -- well, hey, this is the trip you've been waiting to take. The travel-brochures just never explained you had to take it as it comes...

Friday, May 15, 2009


Here's a question without an answer for the Sun Times. Actually for all the news media. You regularly feature pictures and stories of the tragic civilian deaths in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but you rarely did in Italy and France when the toll was far greater during World War II. Why the difference....?

The irony grows when you realize the WWII GIs who caused these deaths are still honored in military cemeteries over there, whereas today we sneak them out of countries who have no wish to honor a single one of them. And all this despite the fact that in both these wars we saw ourselves as fighting and dying for these very civilians.

Some thoughts come to mind, but none exactly an answer. Maybe our mission is less morally clear now...or our media is more willing to feature ugly stories...or our allies are not really willing allies...or our soldiers are less tolerant. More likely it's a mix of all the above, leaving us with a recipe of American exceptionalism that's no longer as easy to swallow as when we were saving the world from Hitler back in the 1940s.

May is the month we honor our military dead -- buried here or over there. The honor is desperately well deserved. But as we remember them and their sacrifice, this disturbing question should be rattling around at your news rooms. At the networks. At the Pentagon. Everyone can agree with Sherman that "war is hell," but the question remains: Why is the hell so different and so less fulfilling than it was 70 years ago..


The Sun Times rightly boasts the best sports coverage in town. And with columnists like Steinberg and Hitchens, you've also got the market covered on idea-crackling bravado. But maybe you're taking your comics too much for granted. Most of us readers aren't.

Any good newspaper aficionado knows these three pages are a 75-cents-a-day entrance fee into more enduring little wisdoms about life than anywhere else this side of the Emerald City. Garfield, The Wizard of Id, Dennis the Menace, Real Life Adventures, Drabble and Family Circus are among those homiletic laughs that not only tickle your heart, but stir your head. So while the daily din of news fills your first 20 pages, your comics come just in time to make life seem worth living after all. At least till the next edition.

Cartoonists are among your least valued artists, but artists they are. With a few strokes of the pen, they not only get us to laugh, but to laugh at things worth laughing at. Put it this way. Crying over bad news doesn't contribute much to the world. Laughing over our ridiculous ways can sometimes remind us how to be just a little less ridiculous.

Keep us laughing....!

Thursday, May 14, 2009


"All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players...." When Shakespeare wrote that, he had more than 17th century England in mind. It was an epiphanic bolt of insight for every century. All nicely wrapped up inside iambic pentameter...!

Now think about it. Every presidential news conference is a stage replete with lights, cues and scripts. Every interview with Mayor Daley is another stage replete with lights, cues and dangling participles. Every newscast, weather report, talking head commentary, Letterman guest appearance, cop-giving-a-ticket incident, catcher-talking-to-pitcher moment, and downtown maitre d' seating is very much a stage too on which the players strut their stuff. And lest our egos let us forget, each and every time we comb our hair, set our makeup and go out into the world, we too are players on a stage where we too are hoping to get our cues right.

The point to this small wisdom is simply this. The players -- and their audience -- need to recognize the fuzzy, fragile line at which players cross from reality into performance mode. If we don't, all the world remains just that. A stage on which we can no longer tell the difference.

One convenient test is available right here in Chicagoland's theatre districts. From Marriott Lincolnshire in the north to Drury Lane in the south plus all the Goodmans, Steppenwolfs and Cadillac Palaces in between, we're gifted with scores of performers lighting up stages and creating grand illusions every night. The test comes if and when you go backstage with the players. To know them is a happy little pleasure by which you can discover for yourself that magical bridge between what is and what they want you to believe is!

What is is a troupe of baggy pants, makeup-less employees trudging through a dark backstage door into crowded little dressing rooms stuck somewhere behind giant curtains, sets and pulleys all overseen by a seen-it-all-before stage manager with a cue sheet. The players bring with them troubles from their families, over-due credit card bills, all the very same burdens the audience bring. Actually not much different than the employee locker room at the local plant, at the city bus depot, or the office lunchroom.

And yet there is an inexpressible difference here, for here in the whispered darkness of backstage an astonishing transmutation is about to happen. In another few minutes, the drudgery of everyday life will leap into special life. That celebrated life which has been captivating audiences long before Shakespeare. To know these cast members back-stage as well as on-stage is a gratifying privilege and joy. Privilege because of their talents to entertain; joy because you see exactly how they make this entertainment happen.

Cut back to our presidential news conference, newscasts, maitre d's, and those supposedly tell-all closeups with Oprah and Barbara. As an audience to these stages, we may not always have a backstage experience to draw upon. So in order to tell the difference between what is and what they want us to believe there is, we may need to pull from other sources. Our life experiences, our personal value systems, and especially our instincts about the difference between the sincere and the staged.

Shakespeare and Chicagoland theatre prefer you simply enjoy the performance. Democracy prefers you seriously study the performance.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


A lot of Americans don't like the French. And a good many French don't much like us. Things were different when they gave us the Statue of Liberty in 1886. So what went wrong....?

For one thing, the French have had a love/hate affair with us ever since our American Revolution. They helped us win, but then watched us go on to eventually become a bigger richer nation than them.

There's also the French ethos which has lived off its national grandeur from the days when France was the center of Europe and Paris the capitol of the world. The French have a long proud memory of long lost greatness whose thousand- year heritage often makes our 233 years seem like raw adolescence.

Then we have the matter of how American armies twice saved France in World War I and II. Grateful is one emotion, yes, but how many times is gratitude laced with some resentment?

Putting all this aside, there may be a far stronger explanation for this national tension between our two cultures. Simply put -- the French sometimes don't think we have a culture! To many a French scholar and literati, we're the kid on the block who has grown bigger and stronger than the rest, but remained gangly and uncouth in our leadership (AKA, Lyndon Johnson and George Bush). Our pleasure is making money, our relaxation is golf, our obsession is sex and violence, and besides all that we've never taken the time to learn French!

To hang some numbers on this attitude, consider the latest survey which finds the French spend more time sleeping and eating than do people in any other developed nation of the world. On average, nine hours a day in bed and two hours at meals. (The survey didn't detail who they spent those nine and two hours with, but then statisticians have to draw a professional line somewhere).

Lets examine these numbers further. Our lawyer-president marries another lawyer; their president marries an Italian sex goddess. Our lunches are often squishy drive-up hamburgers; their lunches are often leisurely feasts over four course meals and vintage wines. Our moral standards gasp at the infidelity of public officials; their public officials feel comfortable to invite their mistresses to state affairs. (Actually, ever since Madam daPompadour, mistresses are part of state affairs).

You see how it is, then. Cultural ships in the night which pass each other without really recognizing or acknowledging the other. To bring that closer to home, its not all that different than Cubs and Sox fans....Northsiders and Southsiders... Rush Limbaugh and anyone with a high school diploma!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


So nobody likes taxes, so what else is new? And what we especially don't like are King Stroger's taxes, however, that's not new either
My fellow Americans and local protesters, maybe you need to re-check your US History notes to get the facts here. Taxes are the rent you pay to live in a country. When Adams and Jefferson kicked up a storm over King George's taxes, it wasn't the taxes as much as how the taxes were being raised.
The battle cry was: "No taxation without representation!" We the people didn't have a voice in the Parliament. Fast forward to 2009. We the people do have a voice on the Cook County Board, only we the people don't use it. And that, dear dissenter, is the real eye of this storm.
Mr. Stroger will remind us we have 17 elected voices on that Board. And he'd be right. However, name two you remember voting for! And one who remembers you! You see, there's where the storm hits landfall. We the people don't do our job in the election, and the winners don't do their job after the election.
But remember -- democracy is not like monarchy. It's not a one-time affair. It's an everyday affair. So why are you wasting time here...?


A person doesn't have to be a believer to understand the Bible is important. Three billion times important. To Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. This is because all three of these Abrahamic faiths find roots in these texts. Roots that have helped shape not only the religions, but many of our world's most enduring value systems.

That is until now....!

No, it's not Dan Brown's DaVinci Code books and movies. They're only fictions. It's facts that have been stirring the biblical pot. Facts being excavated by biblical scholars. Until recently,they tended to confirm the Bible. Now they challenge it.

The challenges are much more than the stuff of fussy academicians. If these new challenges end up changing old beliefs, it will impact all of us. Something like finding out your parents aren't your parents! Suddenly you're jolted into an entirely new paradigm. Everything you thought you knew buckles beneath you in a seismic shift. Ask anyone who's been in an earthquake if they can ever trust the ground under them again.

Using the exacting tools of disciplines like geology, archaeology and anthropology, scholars have begun questioning whether the Exodus from Egypt ever happened, whether the Israelites actually conquered Canaan, whether David's mighty kingdom was all that mighty, and whether an itinerant Jew could possibly rise from a sealed tomb. Of course they're right to challenge, but of course each challenge is the tail of a tiger. More than Passover and Christmas are at stake here, folks. So are such values as the sanctity of life, of parenthood, oaths, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's most stirring rhetoric, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, and your daughter's wedding vows this June.

The way this works is illustrated by some recent excavations at Mt Sedom in Israel where stands the celebrated Lot's Wife. A pillar of salt in the form of a human that has been held by many as God's punishment when she disobeyed his order not to look back at his destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Carbon dating shows the formation goes back to the right biblical time-line for the event. However, geology shows how ancient earthquakes and soil erosion over these same 4000 years can scientifically explain the phenomenon.

So here's our tiger!

Do the facts help confirm or deny the story? Does the story require confirmation or denial in the first place? Can any two visitors to the site be expected to see the same physical object and hear the same spiritual message? Ride this tiger far enough and you're left with the same foundational question many of us have. If the biblical god exists and if science is one of his gifts to his creatures, why can't the scholar and the believer arrive at the same conclusions here at Mt Sedom?

If I ever book a trip to Israel, I'm going to ask the travel agent this question. Not that travel agents know how to ride tigers any better than scholars and believers. It's just that they're so good at making everything on the itinerary so ecstatic. In the long run, maybe it's the ecstasy of belief more than the thrill of truth that travelers like me want.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Patriotism is love of the country; pragmatism is love of the practical. Can the two co-exist....?

To test the question we have countless examples at hand. On the national level there is today's heated dialog over budget, health care, energy, education and everyone's all time favorite: The perennial are coffee-and-red-wine-really-good- for-us-or-not. To be a patriot it would seem we should be reading and learning everything we can about such matters. Free schools and responsible media are there to help us be responsibly informed citizens. Indeed, the current crisis over the loss of newspapers raises the question of how can a democracy function without informed citizens.

But then we have our bottom-line pragmatists. These are the life-hardened skeptics who say something like: "Look, when these guys come up with a final answer, that's when I'll pay attention. Till then everything's just hot air." Given that the answers keep changing and the deciders keep shifting, the skeptics have a point. I mean, how many times have we been emphatically told that coffee is absolutely bad for us until they count the number of ways it's good for us. Or that Illinois's budget is in crisis although on second thought except for those items our representatives decide are in demand.

Focusing on this month's final debate over the new Illinois budget, everyone agrees it's in a mess. But everyone down in Springfield agrees the mess has to do with someone else's priorities not theirs. Hard not to throw up your arms with the skeptical pragmatists and say: "Just wake me up when it's over."

There's only one thing wrong with that. Everything!

Democracy is built on the notion of majority rule, but history is built on the way well-organized minorities usually carry the day. Without such a dedicated minority we probably wouldn't have had the American Revolution...poor white farmers dying for the cause of rich Confederate slaveholders...the country entering World War I... the Prohibition Act....and the Iraq War. In each case, the silent majority tended to follow the organized minority.

And so it may be again. At both the national level and right here at the state level. There are well organized minorities (AKA, vested interests) with well thought out agendas. While the pragmatists sleep, the self-proclaimed patriots act. But it would be wrong to label this "conspiracy." The word is sorely over-worked by every Hollywood director and novelist out to woo an audience. According to democracy, minorities just like majorities have the right to speak out and fight for their cause.

It's not important whether you are in the majority or the minority. What is important -- essential -- is that you play your role as a well-informed citizen. No matter what they say about the old western gunslingers, no one gets their man wildly shooting from the hip.

It's the head, stupid...!

Sunday, May 10, 2009


We all live with some riddles and some mysteries in our life. My ridiculous riddle is figuring out the price tags in supermarkets. My sublime mystery is figuring out the Vatican in Rome...!

Now I grant, supermarkets try to help your comparison shopping by listing the per unit cost for most items. But that works only when products X, Y and Z have the very same number of units. If not, this calls for on-the-spot multiplication. And even that's not enough if X is on sale and you happen to have coupons for Z. I've seen some scrupulous shoppers work with a calculator, but that brings back ghoulish memories of Mr. Horton in Trigonometry.

Better to admit the cosmos is complex, not ours to always understand, and just go with Z!

A far more challenging issue is figuring out the Vatican. This is the oldest still-functioning institution of any kind in the Western world. Its Popes have earned the status of the world's single most prominent religious office. In recent years, they have drawn the biggest crowds ever seen in human history. And yet despite all this, the pronouncements from the Vatican continue to roil the passions and the theologies of Muslims, Jews and Catholics alike.

And so one is left with the mystery of this unique institution. With all its past errors and current disputes, how does it remain intact? What holds it and a billion Catholics together?

The Vatican speaks of the Holy Spirit left by Jesus to "remain with my Church." Critics like the DaVinci Code talk about the role of conspiracies and corruptions. Reformers talk about keeping the faith but changing the church. One is left to wonder.

Sometimes, though, you simply can't answer all of life's riddle and mysteries. So in my case I usually choose the least line of resistance. I buy the products with the best saving coupons, and I buy into the church with the best saving promises. In each case, time alone will tell....

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Statisticians are grinding out new survey numbers every day. In the Middle Ages they counted the number of angels on the head of a pin. Today they count the number of anything they think is publishable. Many times the results are pretty useless, but here's one that's not. The number of Americans who said they "like being recognized as wealthy" dropped from 35% to 29%.

Surveys are like the Delphic Oracle -- you make of them whatever you want. So here's what I make of this. America's enduring split-personality about wealth is surfacing again in today's recession. On one hand we've always admired the rich-and-famous; at the same time, we can't help resenting them. In a democracy everyone's supposed to be equal, only everyone knows some people are more equal than others. That un-democratic status is OK, but only if it happens to us.

In some countries, this tension creates distinct rich;poor class structures (AKA,old Europe and new Middle East). In our country, this tension has always been eased by the assumption anyone can become wealthy (AKA, The American Dream). But in the current recession, the wealthy class is sticking out like a very sore and annoying thumb. Bankers, Wall Street hustlers, hedge fund gamblers, Berny Madoff, Paris Hilton -- when you're out of a job, what's to like about this class!

Maybe this is why more of them are more self-conscious about their BMW's and off-shore accounts. Then again, maybe not. One of the best known ways in history of distracting the plebeians or peasants from the luxury of the patricians or the lords is to find a common enemy. The wealthy today have found a classic example: Big Government. After all, who likes the guy who imposes taxes on you, and tells you how to behave?

Trouble is, using the government as your common enemy (AKA, "the problem") only works so far. Easy to condemn its graft and corruption, but not quite as easy to turn your back when you need it to guard your shores, patrol your streets, inspect your meats, protect your health, and build your schools and colleges.

Whether ot not the government is "the solution" is open to rigorous debate. In the end the consensus may be what it's always been in this country. Each side of the democratic equation needs the other. The people need concerned government in order to maintain the general welfare; the government needs concerned citizens in order to maintain its commitment to that general welfare.

Sounds like a strong marriage...? Exactly. And everyone knows how hard, but how rewarding that can be.

Friday, May 8, 2009


"Hey, pal, you gotta great future behind you...!" That was how my pal Joe Conti used to put down hecklers during his standup routine. Joe was big in Chicagoland clubs for years, but never big in the big time. Too bad, because Joe was not only a good comic, but a pretty good philosopher too.

Philosophically speaking, one of the few things liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, agree on is that very same sentiment. That our nation's past is where we start to re-build our nation's future. Call it a sense of community and progress, or label it family values and free enterprise, either party is drawing from our rich heritage. Our dazzling accomplishments. In other words, our enduring national myths.

Myths are not lies, they are those stories we tell about ourselves -- who we are and where we came from -- that energize us into making the myths come true. And who are our greatest mythmakers...? Hollywood, whose silver screens millions of us share, and which continually remind us of how strong and good and giving and loving we can be.

What's that you say? "Not many of the movies I've seen lately!" You'd be right. A hefty crop of current films are a study in sex, violence, and conspiracy. The films Joe and I are referring to are more the classics from the old studios like MGM and Warner Brothers. And the old directors like Capra, McCarey, Wilder, Hitchcock and Houston. Not that these guys were any more gifted than today's Speilbergs, Howards and Coppolas, but the stories they told usually created nobler American myths. Perhaps inspiring nobler Americans.

Which is why today's Oscar Ceremonies are always paying them such tribute. Not that today's studios and directors couldn't tell the same stories, but today's audiences are often less willing to buy into them. "Corny," "out-of-touch," "dishonest" are the usual epithets from today's 12-to-30 audiences. To really excavate those old national myths about ourselves, you have to check the old-movie channels. You know, where stuff like tall-in-the-saddle cowboys, work-with-their-own-hands fathers, stay-at-home mothers, kids playing all day without drugs or supervision, and admired cops & clergy were all fairly common fare at the neighborhood theatre.

Sure those movies had wars and crime and adultery, but somehow by the last reel the good side of the plotline seemed to prevail. Corny...? You betcha! But so is helping your neighbor in a storm, crying at your daughter's wedding, getting a testimonial dinner after retiring. You see, the corn is not really gone. And neither are the old myths. Maybe they've just been lying fallow too long.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


When you were 12 maybe you were asking yourself some of the same questions I was. "Why does big Burt always bully me...?" "Why does Mr. Rooney next door always come home drunk...?" "And why in God's name won't Rosie ever smile at me...?" I didn't realize it, but I was pondering some of life's great mysteries: Evil! Tragedy! Love!

Now I don't know if you've come up with any answers. I'm still trying.

Burt was my metaphor for the eternal how-can-a-good-Creator-create-evil conundrum that theologians and my Aunt Rose always talk about. The classic example -- the innocent child suddenly struck down by a cruel disease. Theologians tend to say God doesn't create only allows evil in his world. But why? As Job learned, the answer belongs to God alone. As some theologians put it, evil in life can serendipitously lead to a greater good. As Aunt Rose said at the wake when people wept for her loss, "Oh I didn't lose her; she's waiting for me at home."

Somewhere within the trinity of those ideas is the answer I live with.

As for Mr. Rooney, he was a happy-go-lucky metaphor for the Greek tragedy that lurks in everyone's life. The ancient Athenians staged plays in which a great protagonist experienced a great disaster all tracing back to a great flaw within their own character. Shakespeare carried the tragedian torch into modern times with his Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. In our own times the world bulges with brooding examples from protagonists like Hitler and Stalin to Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon right down to our latest headliners Bernie Madoff and John Edwards.

In looking for an answer to the tragedy question, we owe a great debt to playwrights like Arthur Miller. In his celebrated Death of a Salesman, Miller show us that even everyday small figures like Willie Loman (and Mr Rooney) are capable of the same tragedies of great figures. If I had known this answer back then, I believe Mr Rooney's bizarre rages would not so much have frightened me, as they might have saddened me into reflecting on the character-flaw hiding in all of us.

Then the ultimate life-mystery -- love. The poets say it well when they say we humans can't live with it or without it. Artists capture the magic in their facial expressions. Composers in their chords and cadenzas. Hollywood in the way 98% of the screenplays end in some version of the proverbial clinch. In the case of Rosie and me, well, her Celtic red hair flashed three rows from me in class. The deed was done at that first sighting, but alas it was never reciprocal.

All through adolescence I reflected on the great unrequited mystery that love can be. Then, lending tragedy to mystery, I met Rosie at our 50th class reunion where we made a date for lunch. A lunch we never had, for she died two weeks later.

At this age and stage, I think to myself: Evil exists side by side with joy, so best to enjoy the second rather than dwell on the first...tragedy is as close to us as us, something to remember when we reach for those will forever be God's greatest mystery, but having found my beloved Joan I can better let go of all the Rosie's in my life,

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


When someone tells us "You're such a clown," that's either a compliment or an insult. I never much thought about clowns after my last circus many years ago. But then I met Jeff, and many of my ideas about being-a-clown changed....!

Jeff is Florida director of Barnum & Bailey's clown school. My actress-wife worked with Jeff in professional theatre before he, as they say, ran off and joined the circus. I learned from him just how much work and rehearsal it takes to be a good clown. But I have to say he learned from me just how easy all that is for politicians back here in Illinois. What's more, our guys do it without costume and makeup.

Now look, there's nothing unique about calling politicians clowns. It started with Washington being called a "funny excuse for a king" to Jackson being labeled "a laughable killer of Indians" to Lincoln being considered "nature's biggest joke on America." However, those critics never met an Illinois pol.

Jeff and I both agreed that politics is an honorable profession. These are men and women entrusted with the power to serve the general welfare, and most times they start off with the best of intentions. It's just that funny things seem to happen to them along the way. And while the details are different for each story, the plot is often the same

* Most start off as council members at local or city levels. After the first few months of slogging through dull documents and meetings, they try to break the monotony with some flashes of humor. If the media happens to pick up on this, it feeds the ego enough to eventually produce a Fast Eddie Vrydolyak or a Hat-Flourishing Dorothy Tillman. As I pointed out to Jeff, no amount of training can make pols like these funny. You either have it or you don't. The ones who have it usually bring it with them all the way to prison where they get jobs like MC of the annual prisoner talent show!

* Mayor tends to be the next step up. Whether it's a local suburb or all the way up to the funniest political city in America, Chicago, this office has the opportunity to keep voters laughing all the way to the tax-sponsored poor house. The political laugh meter spikes especially when mayors speak in public, but I was able to tell Jeff Mayor Richard Daley not only spikes but breaks the meter. That's because he speaks a language mastered by only the few great ones: Chicagoese legalese!

* The post of governor in Illinois is, as I told Jeff, the biggest clown-prize in our state. It's known far and wide as the Henny Youngman award, because no job in American politics has proven to be so funny. I mean guys like Kerner, Ryan and now Blagoevich have had audiences rolling in the aisles for years. All at the very same time they've been rolling the suckers in that same audience. Lets see any Barnum & Bailey clown pull that off!

* The big drumroll of course goes to anyone from Illinois who gets to Congress. In the highly competitive world of political humor, playing Congress is playing the big time. Over the years we've had too many clowns to count. But if you don't mind counting backward, start with our latest Senator, Roland Burris. He may not be funny himself, but he does owe his career to the funnest clown in sight: the big Blago himself!

When I got through, Jeff was so impressed, he says he's changed his plans. Instead of bringing the circus to Illinois, he'd like to bring Illinois to the circus!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


The 6 billion people on our planet share at least one cross in common: Daily unpredictability. From the most powerful of leaders to the weakest of losers, we all travel this same Via Delarossa wearing this same crown of thorns. Frankly, it can bleed the very confidence out of us. So we may sometimes ask ourselves, are there no predictables left in life...?

Take heart fellow traveler. My research found seven. Seven you can count on every single step of the way --
1. Health: Count on every new report on eggs, coffee and red meat to be reversed within exactly 26 weeks by new reports on eggs, coffee and red meat. Evidence suggests this will have less to do with lab tests, and more to do with who in the labs like eggs, coffee and red meat. Either way, the absolute regularity of these reports is like the much needed port in a storm

2. Hollywood: Count on the same career choreography for every new child star. A cutesy movie; a shot on Leno or Letterman; a nationwide tour; a benediction on Oprah; a scandal in "The Enquirer;" child out of wedlock, month in rehab, apology on "Larry King." It's a crazy world out there, but it's guarantees like these which make it all make sense

3: Heroes: Count on a minimum of two heroes a year to go down in flames right before your eyes. Sports, government, clergy; makes no difference. There's always a secret drug bust, nanny fraud or abuse case to reassure you that it's really true -- there's nothing new under the sun. Especially a California or DC sun

4. Hierarchies: Count on one or more of our institutional hierarchies to make hypocrites of themselves. Take for example Major League Baseball buying ads calling baseball "everyone's game" the same season they double the price of grandstand seats and halve the cheese on the pizzas. Consistent hypocrisy, my friends, isn't as easy as it looks. But bank on it, these guys come through every time

5. Harbingers: Count on a whole bunch of these every year. Wild-eyed harbingers of doom from amateurs carrying signs on the streets to televangelists wearing tears on the closeups to the occasional guru who moves his message from cave to PBS. Just when everything seems to be falling apart in your life, take comfort. You can always count on these Cassandras to give your fears a name right along with a mailing address for your tax-free donations

6. Has-Beens: Count on these former celebrities to show up with a kind of cosmic dependability. This sub-set can usually be found in summer stock theatres, singing songs from the Sixties on that same PBS, doing periodic gigs on the Food Network, and of course smiling on the front cover of AARP Magazine. Gives you renewed confidence when you realize -- gee they're not dead after all

7. Historians: Count on these guys to understand that history isn't written, its re-written. Re-written according to what we'd like the past to be. When my parents suffered in the Depression and World War II, they never realized they were "the greatest generation" until Tom Brokaw decided they were. And when I was struggling for a career in the fifties, I didn't realize these were "the happy days" until the television show said they were. Well, you get the idea. Undependable lives need something they can depend on, and very often that's our dependable best-selling pop historians

See, and you thought life was undependable. It's really not, and you can depend on that....!


Well, I think your long run is over, fellows! All you poets of either pen or piano who have for generations been waxing eloquent about human love! I don't care if it's a Shakespeare sonnet or a Mozart minuet, you've had it all wrong all along!

Now I hesitate to report this in this the lyrical season of spring, love and marriage, but scientific facts are facts my dear outdated friends. Today's breakthrough hypotheses by our neuro-scientists and evolutionary-biologists have once and for all stuck the finger of irrefutable fact into the eye of this love stuff. You and I fall in love because we have to.

All you Hallmark and red-roses devotees must now and forevermore understand that the reason we love -- our date, our mate, our parent, our god -- is largely because evolution has hard-wired us to do so. What we have traditionally felt was our heart skipping a beat has in fact been our brain lobes and gene pools skipping to the pre-ordained rhythms of evolution. A blind planetary compulsion for every form of life to mate, breed, and re-produce itself.

I've often wondered what these researchers say at the end of the day to their spouses and children. Maybe something like, "OK, time for a DNA assessment to see how well our love-drives are performing today." And does this mean that old fashioned miracles like the loaves-and-fishes now have competition from new miracles like the lobes-and-genes?

I'm not being disrespectful to the legitimate discoveries of modern science. The dogged pursuit of truth is what science is all about, and many of us wouldn't be here today without its discoveries and cures. However, the problem some of us have is not with the laws-of-science. It's with the laws-of-unintended-consequences. The unintended conclusions many lay people reading these reports may arrive at.

This comes into especially sharp relief when you hear defense attorneys arguing their case according the compulsion of some brains to "kill for love." Or kids caught in the act saying something like "Gee, mom, my genes made me do it!"

I asked my therapist if I'm carrying my concerns too far. His answer concerned me: "Re-read your Darwin, take two serotonin tablets, then call me in the morning...."

Monday, May 4, 2009


The US Census Bureau just reported another record. This time a half-century record low in the number of Americans who are moving. Only 35 million of us changed residences last year, the lowest tally since 1962....!

Now I happen to remember 1962. It was a lovely year, before the tragedy of Dallas, the quagmire of Vietnam, and the street protests. Doris Day movies still sold, and music by Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee still had trans-generational appeal. And, on a personal note, the students in my US History classes were still proud to be Americans and America was still proud of them.

With that sort of easy national ethos, why move? Things generally seemed to be perfectly nice right where we were!

But of course nothing -- nice or nasty -- ever stays the same. The sixties soon changed. Crises mounted, angers flared, even the nice kids in my classes began asking angry questions about their country. Anger, of course, is a secondary emotion so you have to ask what's triggering it? For those of us who were there trying to mollify it, the best explanation is: Doubt. Something I assume Chicago's new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan understands very well.

There's a striking parallel between American then and America now .Youth in both periods begin doubting many of those things they once took (or were taught to take) for granted. The government, police and military. Churches, parents, oh yes and US History teachers. Suddenly it wasn't -- and isn't now -- as easy to pitch America to your high school students. Students who are watching their parents lose their jobs and their pensions, banks and stockbrokers lose their credibility, leaders and heroes lose their shine. Doubts like these make anyone angry. And should.

Now I have no way of testing my modest hypothesis. After all, people aren't moving as much today for many many different reasons. However, there is something running through classrooms today very symptomatic of the sixties: Doubts-driven angers that must surely suck up some of the air of confidence that usually motivates families to move around.

US History teachers who've been around for both these decades-of-doubt have an institutional instinct for this sort of thing. We can feel the dangers that doubt and anger can mean for our classrooms. And for Secretary Duncan 's reform agenda. However, we can't fundamentally alter this dynamic. Neither can Duncan. The one man best equipped for this is the President himself.

His steady, pragmatic confidence in our country can help ease the doubts and thereby ease the angers. So far he strikes most US History teachers as beginning to do that. If so, I predict it will be a lot easier for us to start teaching upbeat American history again, and for our kids' families to start moving up and on again.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


For those culture warriors who miss Sarah Palin, not to worry. We've got Joe Biden. A more down-home, press-the-flesh natural you won't find this side of the Alaskan reef...!

I say that with non-ideological conviction, because Joe personifies those solid, old-time family values that you gotta like no matter what your party. (Well maybe that doesn't include the Paris Hilton brand of post-moderns, but then that's their loss). Joe -- just like Sarah but with brains -- embraces those basic, blue collar virtues like hard work, strong fidelity, and deep faith. The ideal vice-president. Where Obama is cool, Joe is hot...while the president appeals to our heads, Joe touches our hearts....and if Barack rarely stumbles, we can feel right at home when Joe does.

In music, they call this counter-point. The ancient Chinese speak of yin and the yang. In Hollywood they talk about the buddy-movie formula. Whatever the descriptor, this kind of delicate balance exists all throughout our lives. Frankly, without it, our lives would be far less rich. Consider....

Today we have the instant power of email. Fortunately counter-balancing that is the old through-rain-and-snow post office.I call it fortunate, because while email is faster, snail-mail has a face. And a smile. And a steadiness plodding down my block every morning that makes we feel human communication is still human.

Today we also have the Internet. Super powerful, super fast, super everything. Luckily, though, we still have the counter-balance of the daily newspaper. Unlike the Niagara of instantaneous but unedited information on my screen, my newspaper has a local address, a local staff and a local mission that makes it feel like a good neighbor.

Today we have researchers and statisticians. They have this habit of advising us what we think, how we do our thinking, and what it all means to our lives. Fortunately we still have the counter-balance of our churches and temples where a very different breed of wise ones speak to us. Less in terms of antiseptic hypotheses, more in terms of divine hopes. While I admire the researchers and statisticians, when life suddenly blows apart they really don't have what it takes for me to put the pieces back together.

Today we have a booming young generation, and youth is terrific. I know, because I was once. And yet would it betray my gray to say it is always fortunate that youth has with its sails the rudders of age. Each generation needs the other if that desired delicate balance is to be realized.

Oh and one more counter-point. Science and nature. Both are indispensable to our lives, the first providing us with answers, the second with questions. Science comes from people, nature from God; and while answers are always essential, questions are always more thrilling. I reflect on this every time night I look at the moon and realize how the work of science helped us reach it, but how the inspiration of nature is what asked us to try....

Saturday, May 2, 2009


One of our cosmic burdens in life is attending high school. No, really. Except for the few star athletes, chirpy cheerleaders, and straight-A kids, most of us slog though these four years with various combinations of acne and angst, disappointing grades and disappointed dates. Then, adding insult to injury, we get invited back to our reunion to live it all over again....!

But here's a story out of Los Angeles where the injured got the last insult. Andrea Wachner knew she was considered a shy geek at school, so she hired a slinky-dressed, fishnet-stockinged stripper to attend in her place. With long-repressed cunning, Andrea equipped her alter-ego with a hidden earpiece. This way she could coach her about what to say and to whom. In all this world, two hours of revenge may never have been so sweet.

The Bible teaches: Revenge is God's alone. How many times, though, have we asked for an occasional exemption to the rule? Right after insidious bosses and credit card companies, old hurts loom large on our list. The real problem comes when we carry this instinct to the level of nations. History has been spattered with the blood of revenge-wars ever since Cain slew Abel.

No need to know your history, though, because all you have to do is close your eyes in front of world globe and plant your palm. Presto -- you've just identified at least three or four neighboring nations that resent one another. And, most likely, have had wars with one another.

When wars were with clubs, losses were modest. Now with missiles, wars are apocalyptic. We can always escape our school reunion, but we can no longer escape one another on a shrinking energy-depleted planet. Who, then, do we turn to when it comes to managing this revenge syndrome...?

Science has been busy isolating and identifying various gene pools in our species. Among these are inherited pre- dispositions to envy, aggression and violence. Genetic engineering has long been the dream of many. To what purpose is, of course, the critical question (see Nazi science for ugly results).

The fine arts have always been busy "soothing the breast of the savage beast." Without music, sculpture, painting, cinema and literature, there is less to distinguish us from the other evolved beasts on the planet. But to what purpose is, again, the critical question (see Hollywood for mixed results).

Religion has always been busy sublimating our specie's vilest instincts to higher and more worthy purposes. To one theological degree or another, religions have sought to build bridges between the human and the divine. Gods and after-lifes help shape the nature of our behaviors. However, in the hands of zealots, to what purpose is, yet again, the critical question (see monastics to suicide-bombers for confusing results).

I'll be thinking about these perplexing matters at my next reunion. Fortunately, at my advanced age, I'll probably forget all about them after my first drink! Then again, maybe not....

Friday, May 1, 2009


This month's dramatic Chrysler bankruptcy and deal with Fiat isn't the first time Chrysler and the Italians have worked together. My Italian-born father knew Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli's American-born father long before this latest chapter. Only back then, Americans were in the business of saving Italians, not the other way round....!

The causes and consequences of the current crisis are many and complex. But I imagine our dads would have boiled them down this way. As two 20th century Americans, we've been born with a silver dream in our mouth. The American Dream, which means we have everything we need to succeed any honest way we can.

My father, a proud 30-year-long Chrysler dealer in Chicago, would have agreed with his friend's son today when Nardelli said, "It's not the fate I would have chosen, but it has allowed us to save the company." All three of these men would consider this an honest way left to succeed. And, if only the rapacious Wall Street debt-holders will stop bleating over the shortfall this deal will cost them, it will succeed. Chrysler is likely to emerge as strong an American institution as our dads once knew.

What's at stake, though, is more than a company. More than an industry. Even more than a presidential agenda. The stakes here include this challenge to the same American Dream which galvanized our fathers. Can the growling appetite that serves America's taste for free-enterprise capitalism be tempered by the even more intrinsic appetite that serves our taste for the general welfare?


As the proverb would have it, the devil is in the details. And yet, most people never give these details a name. Here's one that works every time -- people!

Think of it this way. How many mechanical inventions, architectural wonders, bank bailouts and football plays have worked perfectly on the drawing board. Only to flop terribly once they were turned over to people? If you start counting, the numbers are staggering. Two examples will do: Christianity and Democracy.

Like most religious founders, Jesus today would very likely not join his own church. Surely not because of the ideas he left it, but because of what his followers have done with some of those ideas. Like Gandhi observed: "Christianity might be worth joining if anyone were really practicing it." Instead, Gandhi found what Jesus might. A claptrap collection of hundreds of denominations each more Pharisaical than the next. And lets remember, it was the Pharisee's obsession with rules the Messiah wailed against.

Consider now the bird-witted array of man-made rules that never dropped from the master's mouth. Two currently ripping some denominations apart are homosexuality and celibacy. The first draws from isolated passages in Ezekiel, Leviticus and Corinthians. But never from Jesus of Nazareth. Likewise celibacy which, though praised by Paul, was only made a rule in the 11th century. Then largely because of the expenses from the clergy's offspring. Another popular man-made rule was meatless Fridays, which comedian George Carlin famously asked after it was dropped: "I wonder how many folks are in still hell on a meat rap!"

I write this as a serious Catholic, but one who hears the current call from some frustrated laity: "Keep the faith, change the church." If for example we were to do so, then President Obama will speak at Notre Dame this month without any embarrassing incidents from rule-bound protesters.

Democracy is another sterling idea whose shine has been muddied by the people practicing it. Among its enduring principles drawn from John Locke through Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln is the "will of the people." In making this social contract with the people, the government obligates itself to rule for the good of the general welfare. In turn, the people obligate themselves to be informed and responsible citizens. It's the very reason for America's free public education for everyone.

I write this as a serious member of this educational system, but who has watched the cause of good citizenship slip and slide in the hands of the very people the system has tried to educate. After graduation, how many close their books and minds foreverafter? Listening instead to mostly the loudest voices what we envisioned a marketplace of ideas. Talk-radio hosts, cable shouters, angry bloggers, bar-stool buddies, whispered prejudices at the water cooler, and those whose understanding of democracy is not so much speech that educates, as it is speech that sells.

Christianity and Democracy -- it doesn't get much better than that. Until, that is, we the people get hold of the details.