Monday, August 31, 2009



Young biologist to 8-year-old daughter Katie after she describes the little people she saw in the sky last night: "Sweetheart, if Daddy can't see it he can't believe it." Grandfather amending his son's demur: "On the other hand, you can't see it if you can't believe it."

Is this a comment on the generations? on fantasy? on science? Well, yes.

When we're very young we sometimes see things with our heart. When we're very smart we see things with our eyes. When we're very old, we often see things we did when we were still very young. Sometimes it's back- tracking over ground we initially traveled too quickly. Is that what they mean by a second-childhood? Or is that more a matter of shedding the layers of our adulthood to re-discover the loves of our childhood?

That would be for each of us to decide for ourselves. And perhaps keep to ourselves. After all, Katie wasn't insisting Daddy see her little people; she was just sharing the news. To her it was good news. Coincidentally, that's what the word Gospel means -- good news. However, a great many smart adults failed to see what the gospel writers had seen. The same is true about such works of wisdom as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Torah, the Koran, Beowulf, Dante's Inferno, Gulliver's Travels, Alice and Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz, the lyrics of the Beatles,The Audacity of Hope.

The lines between fact and fiction, head and heart, biology and mythology often times blur when we are very young. Again, when we are very old. In between times -- well, you cheer the Bears and chug-a-lug the beers, because after all everyone can see them...


ho do we most admire in our country? Gallup reports the top-ten in the 20th century were, in order: Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Franklin D Roosevelt, Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II, Elanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. One wonders who will make the list for the 21st century....

If we use straight-line projections from these first nine years, we may end up with a great many celebrities (as in people who are famous for being famous). At least that is what is hinted by the enormous volume of coverage in today's media and Internet. We have brave Americans dying in the mountains of Afghanistan, keeping 24/7 guard of our coasts and skies, scanning the cosmos, curing our sick, saving our hurt, exploring our Genome and teaching our young. Yet our headlines and bylines endlessly report on blockbuster movies, music concerts, quarterback controversies and recovering starlets.

Now it's perfectly true -- what we write and talk about most is not necessarily what and who we admire most. Still, it does suggest shifting priorities. Some would argue, the world has become so terribly complex, we need this for healthy diversion. Maybe so. But if diversion gradually turns into obsession, the next thing you know we'll be electing actors, dancers, hustlers and wrestlers to public office.

Come to think of it.....

Sunday, August 30, 2009


CHANGE....? WHO ME.....?

Wow, political pundits have discovered a great American secret -- Americans don't like change. And thus they tell us Obama's fall in the polls is because his aggressive agenda has violated this political reality. Oh yeah....?

It might be better to modify their uncommon discovery with a little common sense. This reluctance to change is no more unique to American politics than say the universal reluctance to eat broccoli or swallow medicine. To solemnly declare we are a middle-of-the-road electorate who always reject extremes is to suggest all extremes are unacceptable. Particularly, at this time, in the matter of health care.

But lets think about that. Would that include other one-time extremes....? Circumcision? inoculation? vaccination? pasteurization? government meat inspection? federal water standards? Some dogged libertarians out there might shout yes, but it's safe to assume most of us today accept these as standard.

And yet, none of these were standard at one time. They were all unwanted, radical changes. What made them radical, of course, was that by golly people just didn't want to undo what they were accustomed to doing.They stood up for their right to wrong. Only after these changes worked -- the ultimate American test of pragmatism -- did they enter the nation's great pantheon of Givens.

This is not to say all change is good. But it is to say what our astrophysicists remind us: "The only sure sign of life in the universe is change!"

THE DASH............!

Most of us weren't at the Kennedy funeral. But almost everyone of us has stood in a cemetery with the same thoughts. That he or she is not to be found here....!

There is no headstone or crypt or flame large enough to encompass the life of those we have lost. That life is to found in the loves and labors they have left behind. That dash between the dates on the stone is what matters -- what they did between the date of their birth and this the date of their death. That simple little dash is what this life was really all about.

That may be one of the reasons many of us don't visit cemeteries as much as did previous generations. Neither way is the better way, but neither way will find their lost ones among the markers out there. Instead we learn the ones we have lost are never farther away than our own heartbeat. And the heartbeat of all those other lives who were touched in ways we may never know.

Our species has been burying its dead for eons. With different ways, different words, different wisdoms. But there runs through them all this one common truth. While we are from dust and go to dust, there is a mist that rises up from the dust. It shimmers, spreads and lives as far and as long as there are memories.

Now everyone quotes either Shakespeare or the Bible. Lets quote both. "Out out brief candle, life is but a walking shadow..." Ahh, but then" "O death where is thy sting, O grave where is thy victory...?"

Saturday, August 29, 2009



Did you know that the revered Western Wall in Jerusalem is not the last remnant of the great ancient Jewish Temple? And yet millions visit and pray there every year. Is this some tourist fraud...?

While you mull that over, ask the same question of other honored sites throughout the world. The tree under which the Buddha is said to have found enlightenment....or the place where Jesus is said to have been born....or the rock where the Pilgrims are said to have landed...or scores of other celebrated tourist attractions.

But of course this question counts not a jot or a jittle. Totally beside the point. It is not the place but rather the power that matters in these cases. The power of an idea! a belief! a conviction! No travel brochure can describe these, and no archaeologist can disprove these. The mind of man -- of cultures -- is imbued with enormous beliefs which animate and actuate it in ways that often transcend the facts!

Admittedly, that is an absurd statement in an age of scientific materialism. If what we have learned from our technologists is true, then all that is true in this world is its matter. Carefully, creatively massaged into great cures and inventions. And yet, the myths of our histories suggest that myths often matter much more than matter. More than facts. Indeed they often become larger than facts. That doesn't mean myths are necessarily lies; rather, they are the truths that cultures have chosen to believe and embrace and build upon.

Some myths are neutral -- Peter Pan, the Valkyries, the Gipper, Santa Claus. [ Well, personally I suspect Santa is more than just neutral ]. Other myths are dangerous -- the Jews killed Jesus, the Aryans are a super race, America is the Great Satan, the Cubs will never win. [ Well, that last one is not only dangerous for the team, it's downright debilitating for the fans ]. But the great majority of myths can be good. Positive. Productive.

The trick is to know how to pick your myths....!


When some cablecast/blog haters spew their utter disregard for the death of Ted Kennedy, you are reminded once again how cold and bitter a people we can be. And yet, there is also such lovely warmth and goodness in our midst. Where oh where to find it?

Here's one answer. Watch the local nightly news. What...? Are you crazy....? The news is nothing more than vile people doing vile things....!

Well, yes, that's true. A nightly parade of the mendacity of mankind -- murders, mayhem, terrorism, deceit, corruption, sexual deviation, you know the entire 10 Commandments.

However, there is something that occasionally sneaks into those if-it-bleeds-it-leads newsrooms. Real heroes doing really heroic things. The relentless brigades of firefighters waging battle against the California forest fires. The SWAT teams invading a gang infested community. Ambulance medics and ER teams executing daily acts of precision and mercy. Right down to those Kris Kringley crossing guards protecting their kids from a tragic accident.

Frankly, I'm not sure what motivates the newsrooms to include some of this footage. I guess to break-up the drone of disasters. But well-intentioned or not, these are the moments and the heroes I wait for. They actually help a cynic's chilled heart warm to the remaining goodness of our tainted species.

So, news anchors, bring 'em on....!

Friday, August 28, 2009



In the west, there are three special strains of guilt. In chronological order: Jewish! Catholic! Puritan! But now what if you suffer all three all at the same time....?

If that sounds like a psychiatrist's dream case, maybe not. Sometimes guilt -- if diluted with the more rational strain of simple regret -- can be useful. Now I know our evolutionary biologists have been studying the merits and demerits of guilt, and they connect them to little more than our genetic makeup. But perhaps the old Jews, Catholics and Puritans got it right in the first place. There are clearly definable wrongs in this life, so there are clearly definable reasons for guilt.

The hangup here for many secularists is that clearly defining such reasons has to suggest some sort of absolute scale of right-and-wrong. In a situational-ethics kind of culture, most secular thinkers reject absolutes. It smacks too much of some old fashioned Judaic-Christian God, and the old guys just doesn't fit conveniently into a modern secular worldview.

But here's where those evolutionary biologists may be missing something important. Just because their materialistic understanding of the cosmos can't find or theorize a personal god may be like a cynic sitting with a poet on a silent summer night. Both are enveloped in the same symphony of stars and smells and and sounds; but because the cynic can't hear the poet's voices from heaven, he concludes there is no heaven!

Shakespeare, the supreme poet, once settled this when he had Hamlet say to Horatio: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Well, let me correct that. He didn't settle it for all cynics for all time...just until that night when the cynic needs to dream a much larger dream....

WHY ME.....?

Thornton Wilder wrote an award winning novel "The Bridge of St Luis Rey." In it he told the story people have been living and re-living in every corner of the globe in every generation of time. The ancient story of: Why Me..?

It is the tale of an old Inca rope-bridge abruptly collapsing over a deep canyon, and of the different lives that were lost and were saved on that fateful day. Writing in 1927, Wilder examines the question men and women have been asking before and ever since: Why am I still here and they are not? A question that haunts both the survivors and the loved ones of the non-survivors. Be it a sudden airline crash, ship sinking or fatal disease.

Wilder allows the readers to decide for themselves as he traces the inter-woven tales of that day. The question is not all that different than the same one wrestled with my Abraham, Moses, Paul. Or reflected upon by historians of assassinations like Caesar, Lincoln, JFK, and Martin Luther King. Or prayed about by shocked parents, lovers, widows.

These fateful split-seconds in history -- when some survive and others die -- are often studied by experts of the incidents and the times. Still, the only expertise that seems to count is the slow, agonizing wisdom that emerges among just a few of us who've been left behind. Of that, even Wilder could not find the words....

Thursday, August 27, 2009



You know how we're always trying to compare yesterday's heavyweights and quarterbacks with today's? Problem is, you can't, because you're working with that proverbial apples-and-oranges thing. But maybe today's millions of blogs and twitters can help us compare, if not celebrities, perhaps cultures....!

Here's how this might work. Surf today's blogs and twitters, and you've got yourself some hard evidence as to what's on a lot of people's minds. By one survey, the top five topics with the 20-50 age group: Celebrity gossip, political gossip, connecting, hobbies and musical favorites. Fifty years ago there was no blogging/twittering to surf, so you have to check the major newspapers. Among the top five topics with the 20-50 age group: Vietnam, the sexual revolution, political correctness, NASA and musical favorites.

That was the Sixties Generation. Fifty years earlier, the Greatest Generation's 20-50 concerns had to do with: Finding a job, getting an education, earning enough to raise a family, surviving the war and musical favorites.

We at least know one thing here. Music always has a place in the minds and moods of the young. But what about arriving at some value judgments among the three generations? Can any be made? The nation's most prominent survey institute, the Pew Center, usually prefers not to quantify generational values. Only generational views. So some sociologists at the University of Iowa are planning to take up the slack.

They're noodling this question: Does the blogger/twitter generation have less significant matters on their mind, or is it mostly the ubiquitous technology that makes it easier for them to talk about the insignificant?

The study is not yet underway, but one thing seems likely. It's results won't be tweeted!


Along with the Bible and Shakespeare, it always impresses to quote Einstein. The great scientist said many things over a lifetime, but one of the more intriguing is: "You can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle."

As with all Delphic-like observations, this can be taken in different ways. I suspect he meant that with or without a God, everything can been experienced as miraculous by its very cosmic beauty. In his case, he saw the miraculous without a miracle-worker. Other scientists have reached different conclusions. In the meantime, whatever/whoever is responsible for this miraculous cosmos must smile.

Having presumed that, the presumer might be asked to decipher the smile.

This brings us into a realm where few of our maps work. If there is a great What or Who, it's not likely that even the Einsteins will be able to fathom its smile. Most likely, the smile is what always comes from fulfillment. In the event of a What, the biologists tell us once the evolutionary process began, it eventually became an inexorable force that fulfills itself by its very inexorability. In the case of a Who, the Bible tells us he said, "It is good."

Either way, one can imagine the smile. And the 6 billion of us crowding this planet as an integral part of the smile. When each of us is born, a small cherished few to celebrate; when each of us dies, a small cherished few to mourn. But the process -- Evolution or God -- continues.

This continuity, this inexorability, beckons us like a fantastical, musical Merry-Go-Round. Can you hear it? The music is always saying: "Come ride with me....!"

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


You know how we're always trying to compare yesterday's heavyweights and quarterbacks with today's? Problem is, you can't, because you're working with that proverbial apples-and-oranges thing. But maybe today's millions of blogs and twitters can help us compare, if not celebrities, perhaps cultures....!

Here's how this might work. Surf today's blogs and twitters, and you've got yourself some hard evidence as to what's on a lot of people's minds. By one survey, the top five topics with the 20-50 age group: Celebrity gossip, political gossip, connecting, hobbies and musical favorites. Fifty years ago there was no blogging/twittering to surf, so you have to check the major newspapers. Among the top five topics with the 20-50 age group: Vietnam, the sexual revolution, political correctness, NASA and musical favorites.

That was the Sixties Generation. Fifty years earlier, the Greatest Generation's 20-50 concerns had to do with: Finding a job, getting an education, earning enough to raise a family, surviving the war and musical favorites.

We at least know one thing here. Music always has a place in the minds and moods of the young. But what about arriving at some value judgments among the three generations? Can any be made? The nation's most prominent survey institute, the Pew Center, usually prefers not to quantify generational values. Only generational views. So some sociologists at the University of Iowa are planning to take up the slack.

They're noodling this question: Does the blogger/twitter generation have less significant matters on their mind, or is it mostly the ubiquitous technology that makes it easier for them to talk about the insignificant?

The study is not yet underway, but one thing seems likely. It's results won't be tweeted!



As the 1968 Grant Park chant went, "All the world is watching." In 2009, they're watching American democracy in action. A messy system of government we often try to export. Question is, do we have our mess in order....?

The Founding Fathers created a system meant to be a messy, free-wheeling collision of knock-down arguments. Instead of a royal court with one voice, more like a neighborhood saloon with many voices. Right now we're once again doing what Lincoln said at Gettysburg: "Testing whether this nation or any other nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure...."

In 1863 the issue was slavery. In 2009 it's healthcare. Shelving aside the crazies from Alaska to Alabama, there are some legitimate issues at stake. It's just that this messiness involves so many gridlocked opinions, many of us will be waked before any plan is actuated in 2012.

So we and the watching world are left to wonder. Is all this here-today-forgotten-tomorrow messiness democracy at its best? Or at its worst? The answer is, it is what it is. It's pretty much how the Founding Fathers planned it in order to avoid the tyranny of another king.

However, that leaves us with a nagging concern. Have we avoided the tyranny of a king only to allow a tyranny of aristocrats....? When you peel back the sound and fury of these debates, it's really not so much the people who are in charge, but rather the aristocrats of special interests. They -- through their control of the concerned industries, networks, and punditry -- can usually be found puppeteering debates such as these. Now that is a kind of democracy, but a democracy of money more than morals.

If you're a pessimist you'll recall Shakespeare's view: "Life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing!" If you're an optimist, you'll recall Freud's view: "The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization!" If you're one of the special interests, you probably don't give a damn just so long as your bottom line is black!


Here's the fun to statistics. They can usually mean anything you want them to....!

Consider the Pew Research Center's latest report. Today more than 35% of Americans say they listen to rock 'n roll, making it the most popular music in the nation. In 1966, rock was disliked by 44% of Americans, making it the most unpopular music in the nation.

These numbers leave you to wondering whether they spell cultural progress, regression or simply nothing more than the fact people's taste changes. While you muse over that, muse over another set of statistics. Hilary Tindle of the University of Pittsburgh surveyed nearly 100,000 women, ages 50 to 80, about their outlook on life. Her study reports that after eight years, the most optimistic women were 9% less likely to have heart disease and 30% less likely to have died from heart disease. Professor Tindle adds this warning: "Women who scored high in cynical hostility were at the greatest risk of dying from all causes."

Tindle suggests we teach people to "modify ingrained pessimistic attitudes." Very wise. So do we start by teaching them to modify their switch in musical tastes since 1966? OK, cheap shot! But then why are growing numbers of young mothers today exposing their children to the music of Mozart rather than Elvis? Here's a theory -- it's easier to be optimistic when listening to the music of the angels than the rockers.

I know, I know -- that makes me sound old. Ahh, but you see, a lot of us have lived to be old only because we listened to more Mozart than Little Richard....!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009



Remember when Karl Marx sneered, "Religion is the opiate of the people?" Given this secular view of the world and its problems, it's logical for an atheist to conclude religion's promise of an after life drugs believers into blindly accepting the miseries of this life. But what if we turn Marx on his head....?

What if, in today's scientifically secular world, we suggest reason is the opiate of the people? Especially the intellectual classes running our corporations, media, think tanks, and campuses? Reversing Marx, we could say our growing dependence on scientific reason in the West is drugging us with the hubris-tic belief science has all the answers. What's more, all the answers are to be found this side of heaven.

Admittedly, human reason has taught us to put aside witchcraft, voodoo, black cats and Virgin faces on potato chips. That's a good thing. And yet, hasn't the arrogance of human reason shut our eyes and hearts to other possibilities? Miracles, visions, eternity, angels, and gods? In throwing out the bathwater of past ignorance, we may have have mistakenly tossed out the baby of existential truth. And then, because no thunderbolt strikes us down, we self-righteously conclude: "See, there's no one up there!"

Today's atheists are less cautious than they once were. Far more aggressive, they are armed with new scientific hypotheses suggesting everything from moods to morality simply come from our evolutionary brain circuits and gene pools. They're on the New York Times best-seller lists -- Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and even Bill Maher.

No one can deny them their right to deny. On the other hand, no one can deny how atheists throughout history have found God in the most interesting places. Foxholes and hospices, yes; but also in marriage beds and nursery cribs. So...don't fire all your bullets quite yet, fellas. Save a few for when one surprising day you discover that great target in the sky.


If you're like me, you like Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." But lets think about this. Besides liking the image, aren't we also living it....?

Motivational speakers love to tell us we're one-of-a-kind, and that everyone-is-an-exception. I even wrote speeches like that for CEOs. However, I'm here to confess that when I did I was prostituting my talents. I wrote the words for a fee, without ever completely believing them. Let me confess why.

One of the advantage of old age -- among its countless disadvantages -- is experience. No, no, I'm not playing the wisdom card! But experience does mean having been around long enough to realize Shakespeare was on to something big. Everyone of us since the dawn of time has walked across much the same stage, has spoken many the same lines, and will exit in almost exactly the same way.

This hard-core fact in no way denies the existence of a creator! the beauty of life! the purpose of living! But what it does say to us is we are far more alike than different. Regardless of our skin, our country, our faith, our features -- all tens of billions of us throughout history have had the same basic feelings and fears. hopes and joys, loves and losses. Come on now -- it's what we mean by the Human Condition!

However, rather than feel belittled by this discovery, we should feel connected. Once we discover this deep-down connection, it should free us to enter the stage smiling, read our lines with gusto, and appreciate taking our curtain call all together...!

Monday, August 24, 2009



Everyone needs to be liked; but not everyone also needs to be right. It's hard to be both at the same time....!

To be liked has no real price to it. Just cater to the positions of those around (see authors Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale for details). In contrast, to be right can exact a very high price. It means taking a stand and stoutly defending it (see lost friends and dinner companions for details).

Confucius said a great many things, but one of the more intriguing is: "What is important in life is not to be liked, but to be liked by the good people and disliked by the bad." That helps conflate these two opposites, for it implies it is worth the price to defend your position as opposed to the wrong positions. Of course, the ancient sage does not instruct us as to who are the "bad."

With or without Confucius, democracies are especially contentious, because everyone is encouraged to have and take a position. Remember your old US History classrooms...? That's where you learned about the marketplace-of-ideas. The so-called healthy collision of everyone's different ideas from which is supposed to emerge the eventual will-of-the-people. Something like a jury system, where the law counts on the eventual whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.

So whatever the latest great debate is in a democracy, it often comes down to this: The winner is simply the last one standing. Whether he or she is right (or liked) is left to historians to decide. The historians have the advantage of a few years or generations to decide. In the meantime, all we can decide here is whether we want to be liked or be right.


The percentage of threats against President Obama is 400% higher than that os any previous president (according to the New York Times). Wanna guess why...?

Naturally, there's no way to know for sure, but there are several good speculations handy. Barack Obama personifies three of those things in life which most enrage most people: (1) Change (2) Boldness (3) Them.

Change -- be it with taxes, healthcare or government in business -- is uncomfortable. Especially to those who like things just the way they are. Right now, this administration smacks of the passion for change seen in other presidencies like Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and LBJ. Their changes made a lot of progress, but also a lot of enemies.

Boldness is something we like on the playing fields -- a daring quarterback or a dangerous downfield runner -- but when it comes to changes, we intuitively say: Not so many and not so fast.

Them is all of those who are not Us. When someone tells Us that Them have to share in our pie, it leaves a bad taste in our mouth.

By Secret Service math, this 400% jump in threats is no surprise. It's as American as apple pie!

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Here are some numbers to choke on...!

There are 3300 registered lobbyists working the halls of Congress right now. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, they're button-holing members to vote in one of 3300 different ways on health care reform. This breaks down to six passionate lobbyists for every whip-lashed member in Congress. In the meantime back home, populations are graying at dazzling rates. Here and abroad. According to the US Census Bureau, in the next decade the world will for the first time in history house more people 65-and-older than people five-and-under. This makes the issue of health care like a giant meteor aiming for an entire continent.

In the flurry of town hall and cablecast debates, these cosmic numbers don't get a lot of play. We're too busy with the local, personal stuff; meanwhile the global demographic stuff means our challenge is not only complex but possibly catastrophic. And there's a clock ticking.

It's hard to see local lobbyists and politicians capable of meeting this larger reality. Garrison Kellior once said, "Sometimes you have to look reality right in the eye and deny it!" So far the Lilliputians are doing exactly that as they wrangle over their pet clauses and paragraphs.

Here's an issue that calls for a grasp of the wide-sweeping consequences of an aging population, not simply the clutch of politically-personalized feelings. It troubles me to remember how with enough tiny Lilliputians they were able to tie down the giant Gulliver. When you look at Washington these days, you have to wonder if we're not living out the same tale?

Saturday, August 22, 2009


There's an "old neighborhood" in everyone's life....!

When you visit it, a lot of things may seem different. The yards appear smaller than you remember...the trees and lawns look older...the streets have more parked cars...some of the homes and stores are gone.

And yet, in the realm of memory which often acts like a cure for death, not one blade or branch, not one school yard or candy store is really gone. Everything remains exactly in place. Like the last day you left it.
They say memory means we can have roses in the winter. Likewise, memory can preserve the "old neighborhood" as clearly as any treasure housed in any museum.

Back in that sweet-used-to-be of our youth, there existed homes and playing fields and houses of worship that no map can locate. Yet our memories of them are more than sentimentality. They're an efficacious force in our life, because they give it thrust.

With all its limitations, the "old neighborhood" was where we discovered the love of parents, the support of friends, the values of good and evil, the visions that carried us from childhood to adulthood. The "old neighborhood" is a sacred place. Not to be eulogized, but from which to be energized. Roots count. Yesterdays count. In a sunrise society like ours, we usually say the future is always greater than the past. And yet....

And yet our personal pasts are the steadfast shoulders upon which we stand in order to see our dreams for that future. So whether your "old neighborhood" is Hyde Park or Rogers Park, Gage Park or Pilsen, Douglas or Austin, Wrigleyville or Wicker Park, Oak Park or Maywood, don't think of it as a graveyard of yesteryears. More as a gateway of years yet to be.

Some of us know this for an enduring. You see, our childhood memories are tiny time machines that carry us back to exactly the way it was. Precisely the way we were. And that's becomes more than nostalgia and sentimentality. It becomes power and possibility...!

Friday, August 21, 2009


The other morning a terrifying thing happened. I looked into my mirror and saw Sarah Palin....!

No, not another cheap poke at our Alaskan phenomenon. It's just that I suddenly realized the America she sees as "the real America" is kinda what I do too. At least when I see it with my heart rather than my head. You know, that lyrical America of Tom Sawyers & Becky Sharps, small towns, toothless kids, wise old grandpas, white framed homes in green leafy lanes, and very white moms and dads and puppies always at the ready.

Exactly the same America seen by Norman Rockwell, Hallmarks Cards, and Thomas Kincaid. What's not to like...? Well, if you're White and Christian and Straight, that is. There's where Sarah's gut and my brain mis-connect. Living so far up there on our last frontier, Sarah may not have read the figures about what's inexorably happening to her America.

Small towns, family farms, White majorities and repressed Gays are no longer the future. Or even the present. Look, Sarah, I appreciate your nostalgia for the "real America," because unlike you I actually lived there. But once all the facts and figures reach Alaska, you'll able to see for yourself that's gone with the wind. Scary...? Well, yeah. Change is forever scary. Right down to the ideological marrow of our national bones. But facts are like the tide. Neither you nor I can stand on the seashore of history and push it back with our little Tom and Becky pail and shovel.

So here's what I think, Sarah. Better to do what I'm trying to do. Literally -- go with the flow! The more Blacks and Gays and Latinos and impoverished I've met, the more I've learned that they and we are damn well made out of the very same stardust. Oh we may look different and feel different and live different. But when it comes to our dreams and fears, our wins and losses, we're very much the same creatures God (or Darwin?) made us.

So, Sarah, my humble advice is drop the pail and shovel right now. Look out to the sea change taking place with much more curiosity than consternation. I've found it works. Why do you know, those "other" Americans actually like me...?


Everybody picks on lawyers. Not me. Some of my best friends are lawyers. But I do have one problem. They have no sense of humor....!

OK, not all of them, but enough of them. And not having a sense of humor can be a very serious thing in a country where 45% of Congress are lawyers. By and large, lawyers are good and decent citizens; but that's where the problem comes in. They become so decent -- so precise and literal and theoretical -- they get to be like that one sitting next to me on a recent commuter ride to Lake Geneva. I casually mentioned how the cows out there were such a unique shade of brown. He paused, surveyed the pasture, then mused solemnly: "Well, yes, this side of them." Say what...?

When the law becomes that strict a master, I say it just sucks all the fun out of these people. I mean, when you want to rage about the Cubs or the Bears, lawyers tend to play their irritating but-on-the-other- hand card. Look, raging about Chicago team failures is an ancient right. No fun if you have to listen to some calm rational explanation for the failures. Can't these lawyers understand -- raging and reason aren't supposed to go together!

Likewise, whenever you want to blister the officials in Springfield or Washington. Having some straight-arrow present you with dull facts when you're right in the middle of a perfectly lovely rant simply takes all the satisfaction out of ranting.

Come to think about it, there are other annoying straight-arrows in our midst too. Like teachers and clerics and wise old aunts and uncles. You see my point, don't you? In a free society, you have be free to rant and rage and roar! And without being unduly interrupted with a lot of specifics and statistics. I take it this is what the Founding Fathers meant for us to do. Whenever faced with an issue we don't understand, shoot from the hip. Gun it down, blow it away. That's what that wonderful all-things-to-all-people First Amendment is all about, right?

Wrong! And here's where those fun-less lawyers have a point. Using our rights and expressing our opinions really isn't meant to be a spectator sport. In a democracy, it's meant to be a spectator responsibility.

Which means it's a good thing to have our lawyers around. Only do so many of them have to become members of Congress? Except for Barney Frank, they never laugh....

Thursday, August 20, 2009


What it hurts to remember becomes easy to forget. For instance, some of those kids sitting in your high school class who got better grades, because they were smarter than you....!

The memory may be unpleasant, but it can be instructive. Especially in a democracy where we are repeatedly but counter-intuitively advised that everyone is equal. That everyone's vote counts. That everyone should have a voice. But what they don't advise is what we should all recall -- not everyone of us was as good as the kids with the As or the high-jumps or at the prom. Look, school reunion time is coming around, so it might be a good time to take stock of what we mean by "being equal."

Since high school we've learned that some of us are actually more equal than others. In business, sports, marriage, parenting. Well, the same has to be assumed for our role as citizens. A democracy depends strongly -- even desperately -- upon the best informed efforts of its citizens. And yet every new school year features new reports about how many citizens have no idea where Europe is, what we mean by the three branches of government, who's running in the election we're being urged to vote in.

With democracy, a nation tends to go no further than its citizenry is willing to take it. And yet we watch health-care debate degenerate into mis-informed shout fests, we witness rage in traffic jams and on highways, we see election after election in which we vote into office the most astonishingly inappropriate candidates. Here, let me help make the point. In a recent survey by Prince & Associates, a whopping two-thirds of respondents with incomes of $30,000 to $60,000 (the national median) said they would marry an average-looking person they "liked but did not love" if their potential mate was worth more than $1.5 million! Interesting, hmmm?

But, then, we don't need surveys to remember how Miss Cutler and Mr Jenkins were always telling the loafers in the back seats to "pay attention or you'll never amount to anything!" Turns out that Culter and Jenkins were half right. A lot of us loafers haven't amounted to much in this world. And yet, in the noble name of democracy, we have become the ones whose votes are running it!

Sorry, but I still believe our teachers had it right, and I'm going to tell them so next month. You gotta do your homework. Especially in a democracy. So don't give me this inspiring but delusional everyone-is-just-as-good-as-everyone-else. For us Italians -- less is never more...!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Science is at it again. Some of its brightest minds are finally ready to test their theories about extending life. Twenty, thirty, maybe forty years! Experimental drugs have worked on roundworms, fruit flies and mice. Now why not us...?

There are doubters, of course, but some very hefty proponents. It's largely based on the theory that caloric restriction can promote longevity, and drugs that stir our sirtuin activators might be the way to go. They haven't got a name for it yet, but I'm proposing: Beating Death By Diet.

Inevitably, priests and poets will ask the same question many of us do: But why? If the Biblical three-score-and-ten is not enough for us, what then are those things we want to get done with this extra time? At this age, I can't afford to wait for the answer. So I submitted my answers to GlaxoSmithKline who holds the patents on the new drugs. I addressed it to their philosophy department, only I really don't think anyone in the health care field has any philosophers on salary.

While you doodle your own answers, here were mine. From the ridiculous to the sublime. Given all these added years, here are some of the things we might expect to see:
* Dozens of new TV seasons, featuring boundary-breaking reality shows like "Having Sex In Bed With Your Mother-in-Law," "Borat Tours D.C. Congressional Brothels," and "Terrorists Visit Their Mothers To Find Out Where It All Went Wrong"
* Dozens of new wars in places and among people I never heard of before. It would be like a home-study college course in the geography, demography and demonic of our species
* Dozens of new political/religious scandals in which some of our most admired figures fall from grace by gotcha journalism. History demonstrates the longer you live, the more you learn what you never wanted to know

On the other hand, we shouldn't dismiss this gift of science too cavalierly. If it can actually deliver this commodity of time, we consumers would be obligated to use it wisely. Some of what we might expect:
* Dozens of new seasonal cycles in which the rich greens of summer, bright reds of autumn, crisp whites of winter, and new sprouts of spring will sing the eternal lyrics of creation. Big Bang or Big God, the seasons never fail to amaze. So bring 'em on
* Dozens of new neighbors, friends, and great-grandchildren whose unplanned arrivals will energize our added years with added faith that this trip has been worth taking after all
* Dozens of new locked doors and sealed curtains to pry open. Having more time is bound to bring us more of such mysteries. Unlocking and unsealing these mysteries has to be part of what our philosophers and theologians have been talking about all this time

I don't expect GlaxoSmithKline to be answering my letter any time soon. But if they deliver on their pharmaceutical promises, I guess I'll have plenty of time to wait. And wonder....

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


If George Washington is the father of our country, P.T. Barnum is the father of our culture...!

To make the point, Hugh Jackman will play Barnum in a musical film scheduled for next year's 200th anniversary of P.T.'s birth. Who was P.T. Barnum? He's the name on the celebrated Barnum & Bailey Circuses still touring America today, but oh so very much more. Old P.T. was Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, Elvis, Michael. Epcot and the Internet all rolled into one. Generations before any of these were even born. He coined the phrase show business, and as one wise cynic said of today's America: "From Hollywood to Washington, everything's really just show business!"

Barnum knew his young America loved being entertained. So he brought them year-round entertainment with elephants, lions, midgets, giants, magic, mystery, Tom Thumb and Jenny Lind. Think Las Vegas! Think 24/7 movie theatres, DVD stores, and cable channels! The hot new TV series "Mad Men" portrays advertising and marketing hustlers from the 1960s, but Phineas Taylor Barnum was already hustling Americans back in the 1860s.

Old P.T. never actually said, "There's a sucker born every minute," but he proved it. And his successors in Hollywood and Washington are still proving it. Only with far more con than charm. Barnum was hustling suckers; some of today's voices are hustling souls. They have whole cultural and political ideologies to sell you. And they've got instant, nationwide show business tools at their disposal even Barnum never dreamed of.

Most Americans like to think of themselves as thinkers. I mean, in a democracy, everyone's got the same equal right to think what they want, right? Well, yes and no. If one citizen says 2+2 = 4 but 99 insist it's 5, who are you supposed to believe? If democracy means the will of the majority, then the 99, right?

Wrong. And for a democracy to survive, it takes more than a show of hands. It takes a show of intellectual courage. Which is tough these days when we're being show-businessed to death by the enormous power of powerful interests who own today's show business tools. Hollywood studios... television networks....newspapers and magazines.....and, very often, our most colorful and articulate celebrities appearing in these multi-million dollar enterprises.

"Conspiracy theory?" Those are for the folks who want to stir up headlines. The folks we're talking about here don't like headlines. Don't like pictures and interviews. They simply like to keep us entertained into believing what they want us to believe. The Roman emperors did it with their bread-and-circuses. Barnum did it with his celebrities-and-circuses. All just different forms of show business for the masses.

But while show business then and today is essentially the same happy hustle, there's irony today. We the customers are smarter than ever, only they the hustlers have smarter tools than ever. So the hustlers may be running ahead in this race. Time for the customers to check their ticket stubs more critically before taking in the show.

Monday, August 17, 2009


There's an angry struggle going on in America right now. Yes, it has to do with health care; but, no, it's not just about being for or against the government's role. It has to do with the government itself....!

In farm country they like to say if things look hopeless, maybe you're facing the wrong way. If our democracy seems hopelessly tied up right now, maybe it's because after more than 200 years we still haven't faced up to what we want our elected officials to do. Listen to us...or lead us?

When what officials hear goes against what they believe, that's known as the challenge of conscience. Some take a show of hands or a count of shouts, then vote accordingly and call it democracy. After all, they want to get re-elected. And yet there have been times in our history when officials have voted against their constituency and for their conscience. John Quincy Adams (son of John) was well known for that.

How much of his proud Yankee self-righteousness is still out there in the face of today's jeers and swastika's...? We won't know that until later in the year. Between now and then there will be a bazillion polls taken to take the pulse of the people. However, in the final measure, the only pulse that will count will be the one beating in the hands being raised for the final votes.

When the Founding Fathers created our Constitution, they referred to the "will of the people." They never defined the distinction between will and intellect. Our will is generally what we want, our intellect is what we should. Chicago's City Council is infamous for wanting more than shoulding! The US Congress is different in size, but hardly in style. And so we can expect to see most political consciences in Washington safely hidden under the noble banner: listening-to-the-folks-back-home.

In the next round of elections, the listeners are likely to be re-elected. In the next several years, many of the leaders won't be in office, but they may be able to hold their heads up higher. Hard to say for sure. What is for sure is that all of us -- believers and dissenters alike -- will need good doctors and nurses. I've got one of each in the family! What are you counting on....?

Sunday, August 16, 2009


OK, so we can agree the health care proposals have kicked open a Pandora's Box of troubles. However, it's eventually better to deal with troubles than continue to deny them...!

In the critic's frenzied lexicon, the proposed "consulting panels" for the aged are actually "death panels." If they're right, then at my age I'll soon be hearing young docs hot on my trail figuring out how they can convince me to die sooner rather than later. What's more -- you can always count on it!-- some of these critics yank Hitler out of his grave for their proof. Crazy Adolph is used anytime you want to stir up a mob.

The critics have the right concerns, but the wrong conclusions. The person they should be resurrecting isn't Adolph, but Cicely. Dame Cicely Saunders who in England during the 50s helped launch what we today call the Hospice Movement. The world renowned concept which blessedly counsels and cares for the terminally ill. You know that bit about death-with-dignity...? Well, these are the folks in your own local community, who help make it happen!

What a lot of citizens on both sides of this debate have done is at long long last taken this next step -- facing up to the fact that even in America science doesn't have a cure for death. Terrific. It make good sense to start thinking about it while we're still alive.

But wait a minute. Isn't there one more next step? The step most everyone avoids as long as possible. That is, facing the question of what happens after our death. Oh sure, many of us attend churches and temples where we hear about that on the weekends; but then we damn well try to forget the rest of the week. Hey, this is America where people are big on living not dying. So lets not get grim here!

As it turned out, I was visiting a dear hospiced friend recently. Outside her door I met a clergyman checking in on patients. I can't help myself, I just had to ask him. Clergymen, of whatever faith, always stir in me the itch for the ultimate scratch. What can you, a man of God ministering to the dying, tell me so I can better understand the death the follows the hospice....?

His quiet reply was one of the simplest yet best my heart has ever heard: "I believe there is a life after in which none of us is denied the mercy of God...and if there is no God, then slipping away peacefully with family like this is a permanent peace hard not to welcome."

And I never even caught his name....


No surprise -- our world comes in twos. Male/female. Head/heart. Democrat/Republican. Cubs/Sox. But sometimes you wonder if two shouldn't be one....?

Take the facts from two examples here. Keeping in mind Mark Twain's good advice: "Get your facts first, then you can distort them later."

First, there's the two statisticians from the University of Vermont who are pioneering a new but complex way of scanning the Internet to determine the mood of the nation. They have downloaded 230,000 song lyrics from to calculate what mood of songs were popular at what points in the nation's time. They sorted through 2.4 million lyrics for key words like "love," "sad," and "prisoner."

The research concluded that the national mood is generally up during holidays and vacation times, sharply down during tragic events like 9/11, The statisticians plan to focus their research on tweets next. As one of them put it: "This is going to change the social sciences!"

Maybe. But then maybe most of us could have already told them what their conclusions would be. Investigation is good, but sometimes intuition is simpler. The question before the jury is why can't these two function together...? In other words, how about we investigate our intuition....?

A second example is the recent research at the pretigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here they used monkeys to test the old intuition "We learn more from ours failures than our successes." According to the way their test monkeys responded to rewards, MIT concluded, "The neurons learn better when the animal has had a recent success."

Now I'm not a monkey, but speaking for my own species, I intuit from the lives I've known that hard failure indeed teaches us more about ourselves than easy gratification. Understand, I'm not speaking for my neurons, just my experience.

Again, the question occurs: Do we really need monkey trials to test the wisdom of the literature and philosophy of the ages? I think not. What I think is thius: two-should-become-one. That is to say, research and reality belong together. We are a species of both head and heart. Investigation but also intuition.

John Paul II wrote eloquently, "To reach the summit of truth, the dove of inquiry needs both wings. Reason and faith together." To put it more mundanely, any baseball manager will tell you the team needs both lefties and righties. Come on folks, can't we just agree on this and work from there...?

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Small boy to small girl: "Are you the opposite sex or am I...?

When you're that young, everything is new and wondrous. But here's a question: Does this state of wonder age? Well, the body surely does, but wonder almost always has a longer expiration date. Especially if you keep up with the maintenance requirements that it came with.

I once learned this in an unlikely venue. Not the local workout gym, or comedy club, or even hot new community website. Young bodies fill those spaces to their physical and digital rafters. The elixir of wonder, however, doesn't belong only to the young. You'd think so, but actually it's owned by the most astonishing variety of people. Including members of this senior community I had volunteered for.

The first person I met that first morning was a grisly octogenarian manipulating his wheelchair like the Mustang fighter he used to fly over Nazi Germany. I couldn't help myself. "Why are you in such a good mood on a rainy Monday like this...?" I'm not sure if he was just laughing, or laughing at me. "Hell, I haven't lived this day before...!"

Now I hear that sort of mantra on PBS programs and in downtown Starbucks all the time. I'm never quite sure they really mean it. Having survived three marriages and World War II -- Kenny meant it. He didn't call it a philosophy, but the more we got to know each other, the more a philosopher he seemed.

America is one of the world's youngest nations. Like Chicago, still a little wet behind the civilizational ears. However, it's always in a surprising state of becoming. Changing and becoming something it wasn't before. Now maybe that's good; sometimes maybe that's bad. Either way, this has been the way it's been since we first muscled our way across the continent. From covered wagons to wheelchairs, we're a restless, tomorrow kind of people. And while the old worlds often see us as upstarts, it's safe to say we've started up some of the most extraordinary things those old worlds have ever seen. Mostly because of those wonder-filled folks in the gyms, the comedy clubs, the websites, and -- oh yes! -- Kenny.

A thought like this just might make most rainy Mondays seem worth slogging through to get to Tuesday. And then to Wednesday. And then, who knows....

Friday, August 14, 2009


Everything out there is changing on us. Big time. Glaciers melting, economies tanking, civilizations colliding, and town halls sounding like Robespierre's old reign-of-terror.....!

But here's the deal. The dynamics of change is much closer and much more significant than those explosive headlines. It's more those subtle yellows and rusts seeping into our backyard gardens and nearby parks. Nature's ancient way of stirring our consciousness to what it means to watch another summer slip through our reluctant fingers.

It's not yet fall, but it's no longer summer. It's that perennial point on the celestial calendar when we are compelled to admit life never remains in full, lush bloom. What is must go, what we love we must say farewell, what is warm and lazy must yield to the cool and challenging. Farmers understand this, because they live inside nature. We, glassed & steeled in city-dwellers, live outside nature. And yet, we can't afford to ignore its philosophical whispers.

I can't speak for you, but here's what I hear out there in my August.

The gardens of ideas I've been enjoying can't live forever. They regularly call for weeding, pruning, replanting. Getting too comfortable with anything in our lives can become the ether of complacency. Nice to value what you have; indispensable to recognize when its value has been spent.

Something else these subtle signs tell me. While I cherish what I have grown over a lifetime, I must at times admit our lifetimes are changing. New gardeners are showing up with new seeds and new applications. That doesn't mean I have nothing to teach them; but the best teaching is always a two-way affair.

The gradual drying and browning of my Huckleberry summertime may at first look like a death. But isn't that very much like what the fetus must sense when it's yanked from the womb of its comfort zone? Hey, it's cold and white and metallic out here! What happened to my beautiful world! Of course, the answer is that the fetus has died to one world only to be born into a new and vaster one.

Modern, sophisticated city-dwellers -- surrounded with all the pomp and pomposity of their gadgets -- are temped to miss these signs. We're too easily seduced into believing we run the world! we understand its secrets! our science has cracked all the codes. Maybe that's why so many prophets are killed, why so many reforms are refused. And, yes, why so many young ones are dismissed as "still wet behind the ears."

Surveying my fading summertime, I'm sometimes reminded we old gardeners could use some of their fresh wetness. This is not an either/or moment in history. Simply the eternal laws of nature whispering to old and young alike: Work with me.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Nothing against scientific research, you understand, but why does it take so much time, talent and treasure to learn what we've known intuitively most of our life....?

University of Helsinki researchers studied more than 2000 American men and women over two decades to conclude that beautiful women tend to have more beautiful children. Well, yeah...! The reason the mostly unmarried researchers offer is that beautiful women are more likely to be married, because beauty is what guys look for. Well, yeah....!

It's called sex, fellas.

University of Tel Aviv researchers tested subjects attending scary movies. Their complex studies concluded that when the attendees closed their eyes, the sounds of the movie were actually more frightening than when their eye were open. "Closing your eyes apparently changes how the brain perceives and processes all kinds of music," reported neuroscientist Talma Hendler. Well, again, yeah...!

It's called radio, Talma!

OK. OK. this is being cynical on the cheap. Scientific research has surely brought us a world of creativity and cures. Only sometimes our highly sophisticated age does tend toward exotic proofs of the obvious. It reminds you of another piece of common sense we've all learned even without any costly research teams to statisticalize it for us: By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he's wrong.

I found that out without reading single generational research paper on the subject. Makes me remember what my unschooled Dad once warned me: "Jack, sometimes the light you find is not at the end of a tunnel, but a gangplank."

Now you either study that or not....

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Of all the wrong times to shut down Kiddieland....!

Still, the generations-treasured amusement park at the corner of First & North Avenue will tuck away its tiny train tracks and musical merry-go-round in just a few days. Built at the start of the Great Depression in 1929, it closes in the middle of the Great Recession in 2009. Just when so many other remnants of our youthful innocence are also disappearing in a tsunami of adult complexities.

Thomas Wolfe caught it dead center when he wrote, "All youth is bound to be misspent; there is something in its very nature that makes it so. And that is why all men regret it." Very much like the youth of our nation which we spent blazing trails, cutting through forests and frontiers, intoxicated by the conviction this would never end.

But it did, and we've been compelled to backtrack over the journeys of our youth to confront what we rushed over. With few of the empty spaces available to that small population, we now have to figure out how to live in the more crowded spaces left to a booming population. Instead of bravado it takes brains, instead of raw energy it calls for rare excellence. Making America work today demands what trappers and gunslingers never had to think about.

Precisely why we're going to miss Kiddieland. And all the other kiddielands across this terribly grown-up country of ours. We're gradually losing the semblances of a simpler yesterday which could help balm the wounds of a complex today. A today in which hundreds of channels, thousands of websites, and millions of blogs drown us in equal parts facts and fears. Over banks, health-care, energy, schools, Iran, and often each other!

During the kiddelands of our youth, there was so much more space and time between us. And between our needs to make great decisions. In America's post-Tom Sawyer, grown-up today, neither space nor time are in abundance. Everything happens everywhere, all at once, all the time. And given the dictates of democracy, everyone decides they are the decider. That's an army even Napoleon and Patton would have found hard to lead.

What then to do...? Yes, we still have our Disneyworlds; but actually they're just as grown-up and complex as everything else. The restorative surge of simpler times is becoming a thing of the past. Even our kids' everyday playtime is grown-up and complex.

Maybe both our generals and their troops could build their own backyard merry-go-rounds. Cheaper than alcohol...less dangerous than drugs...still the kind of re-set button Silicon Valleys has yet to think of...!


So Obama "lost his cool" at a press conference question. And Hillary at an African student's inquiry. What's interesting is how we can't make up our minds. Do we prefer our leaders so cool, their emotions never show? Or do we want them so Palin-esque, their heads never show....?

It's an old question that's grown complicated in a new age. An age where everything has become incredibly complex. Bursting with so many facts and stats and blogs that both our heads and our hearts are drowning in the stuff. The only yes/no people left in our digital democracy seem to be those so comfortably ignorant they simply operate in simple blacks & whites. Say like today's town hall crowds whose apparent lack of specific information makes it easy for their hearts to suppress their heads. Then call it democracy.

In seeking to sort out this question, here is some head stuff and then some heart stuff to consider.....

In the head-driven world of cool facts and stats, two current examples:
* A Seattle bank just fired a hero bank teller who tackled a would-be robber until the police arrived. The bank's heady reason? "The rules instruct our employees to cooperate with robbers"
* One in 10 Americans are now taking anti-depressants, double the rate of 1996. The less quantifiable talk therapy is declining, because heady insurers aren't paying as much

In the heart-driven world of warmer emotions and feelings, two recent examples:
* Americans are now spending $34 billion a year on various alternative therapies not covered by insurers, because they "feel good" about herbal capsules, acupuncture and yoga
* The birthers movement over Obama's legitamcy has raised "feel good" to whole new heights of group hysteria. They hysterically falsified his birth certificate to read "Republic of Kenya," never mind the country didn't exist when Obama was born

Now it's true -- everyone looks at their world out their own window. Still, we need to know the glass is revealing rather than refracting what's out there. All heart and no head can makes it too rose-colored. All head and no heart can makes it too opaque. Which to me means both leaders and followers better maintain both in good order.

Didn't we already learn that as kids in the case of theTinman and the Scarecrow....?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


In Charles Dickens's classic "A Tale of Two Cities," he was referring to London and Paris. But their differences were minuscule when compared to the two ancient cities whose enormous differences somehow created what today we call the West. The two cities? Jerusalem and Athens -- the heart and the head of the civilization we're fighting to preserve...!

Ancient Jerusalem is the home of the Judaic-Christian monotheism where faith, mystic ecstasy and dogmatic scripturalism have supplied the West with its mythos and its God. Ancient Athens is the home of inquiry, reason and hubris which have supplied the West with its science and its Promethean spirit of progress.

In its rawest terms, there it is -- the beating heart and searching head that help explain who and why we are. From Washington and Edison and FDR, to Spielberg, Gates and Elvis.

To make sense of Iraq and Iran, you need to see this as a civilizational struggle waged by those who have resented the West ever since Alexander conquered the Middle East, the Western Crusaders tried to win it back, and today's US-EU-Israeli power stands within their midst. They were here first, but we've made first our very own.

Cheney-Bush saw this war in apocalyptic blacks & whites. This is our world and you're not getting it back. Obama-Clinton see this war in bloody greys. We're not leaving, but still there's enough to go around. Sometimes you have to scream "stop I want to get off....!" I mean, civilizations have been fighting over the world since forever. And to what purpose? Take your pick -- pride, anger, fear, greed. Each one, raw emotion more than logical explanation.

But try telling that to the warriors! Warriors have been fighting one another for so long, most of them can't remember why. It's like asking a racial bigot or cablecast ranter to explain their rage in one coherent paragraph.

Anyway, this was sent to you not through the courtesy of any Athens-Holy Land cruise line. Lets face it, they're taking you there to see the sights and buy the trinkets. How these two cities have helped make you you isn't likely to be on their itinerary.

But that's OK, take the trip anyway. Among today's trinkets, remember yesterday's truths. Even if you can't spell them, you're living them. Hopefully enough to preserve them.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Gothic novels are always dark, foreboding, and crammed with sinister characters. Like our morning newspaper....!

Recently, though, they're adding new characters to the plot. Hussein? Kim Jong? Ahmadinejad? Been there, done that. According to the New York Times, now it's the future threats our government agencies are predicting for the next 10-20 years. Sounds like a cruel twist to the old Al Jolson promise to his audience: "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

One of these predictions has to do with the effects of the global recession on certain populations. The experts have spent thousands of pages to explain what any cop in any big city can do over just one donut. Tight times trigger unrest, protest and crimes against the Have's. Other government agencies project civil strife, riots and wars wherever mass climate changes disrupt the the regular rhythms of social life. Not to minimize this second report, but anyone whose community has been devastated by a flood or hurricane can predict the same thing.

In each of these dire projections, the agencies are postulating the need for US intervention. Economic, military or both. As a non-expert Gothic novel reader, I suspect this is another way of saying those-who-want will always find any target of opportunity to grab from those-who-have. Which is why Have-governments like the US and its allies are always the candy store against whose windows are pressed the dangerously hungry faces of the Have-not world.

It started with the first tribe with the most cattle, n constant alert about the less fortunate tribes around them. Exhausting to be primo uno! Sometimes it seems it would be a hell of lot easier just being, oh say the Czech Republic.

Predictably, members of our primo uno tribe seem to be following historical patterns. First, the warrior class imagined by Humphrey Bogart in the "Caine Mutiny" and Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men" always supported by the industrial-military-congressional complex. Second, the who-cares class as found in selected campuses, communes and coffee salons.

Neither extreme is the ideal, which is why the current administration seems to be trying for the middle ground. It all got me thinking this week as I watch a member of each class dying. The first, a dear friend who survived 25 incredible B-17 missions over Germany in WWII; the second, a Wall Street vagabond who seems to survive every market crash or company court trial to dance another day in another place.

The warrior will die with the dignity of having fought what he believed was the good fight. The who-cares is already dead. An unreported spiritual suicide in which the cadaver never met a prospect he couldn't hustle and call it capitalism.

You wonder. And yearn for the middle ground....

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Everyone knows what an epiphany is. It's what happens to atheists in foxholes. When the rookie learns how to hit the high inside ones. When you realize the person you've been sleeping with is also the person you love...!

I had my own epiphany while reading the newspaper and listening to some music. The paper was reporting the latest threats to our security and dangers to our economy. You know -- that quicksand feeling you have as you are relentlessly sucked into more and more disasters about which you have absolutely no control. And yet just as my mouth began choking on the sand, my ears caught the cadence of an old torch song.

Quite suddenly I was buoyed. Caught up from the depths of my despair and being lifted into a -- dare I presume? -- a transcendental state of serenity. The song was one of those sentimental classics about lost young love. The operative word is "young." It was from that lacy time when your young heart was, as another song put it: "Glad just to be sad thinking of you."

All of a funny sudden, the grim gluttony of bad news seemed somehow far away and apart from me. All that was out there; what I was feeling was inside here. Here, the last refuge of the sinking. You see, I told myself, the whole world may be going to hell, and yet it can still be heaven within. The heaven in which you become one with the truth of the ages -- my peace is the peace beyond all understanding.

OK, I paraphrase. But as I remember it, these were something like the words of Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and oh yes John Lennon. The point to my little epiphany was this. That which is of time passes away. But the peace which is within you and me may someday die, but it never actually passes away. It's like the many different tributaries of a mighty river which eventually all reach their delta. Then flow out into the same

Oceans like eternity never pass away. Well, if you're an oceanographer you won't quite agree. But then that's probably because you're studying the wrong ocean....

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Today's outlandish fears and fantasies over health care reform raise a peripheral question. Since everyone seems to bestow live-forever talents upon our medical professionals, how exactly should we look upon these talented people in our midst? Are their talents largely a gift (as in "he has this gift for healing"). Or largely a matter of genes (as in "she was always destined to be a doctor")? Or maybe largely where they got their degree?

Well, the most likely answer is a combination of gift, genetics, and good training. And yet. that conveniently sidesteps the full implication of "gift." Is there such a thing among people? In other words, are some of us more than simply our genetic makeup and training?

To answer Yes is to open the doors to a larger question: Is there some ultimate gift-giver? To put that in a way that may annoy critics and defenders alike: Are we evolved planetary life each reaching our own best biological heights or are we created beings each endowed with certain gifts?

This isn't to suggest these questions belong in the current medical debates. (Did I say debates? I meant to say reign of terrors). But it is to say that talented people themselves are sometimes inclined to ask the question: "Now, where did that come from....?" A question a surgeon may ask himself when he surprises his OR team -- and himself -- by suddenly cutting and clamping in such a unique way the patient survives against all odds. Or when an artist suddenly envisions or a composer suddenly hears a first-of-its-kind experience they capture in sight and sound. Or when a writer or a salesman suddenly experiences a symphony of words not found in any thesaurus or marketing report.

Granted, such questions don't belong in today's rational debates. Two reasons are usually given. First, human reason is neither equipped nor comfortable with such non-rational matters. (Note they are non-rational not ir-rational). Second, human reason cannot comprehend the non-rational which usually refers to the supernatural.

However, these reasons don't hold up well under reasonable cross-examination. First, rational experts like health care givers surely use their talents in ways that often exceed the rational. For instance their instincts, intuitions and yes inspirations! Second, although human reason alone cannot carry us to the peak of the supernatural, it certainly can bring us to the foot of the mountain!

True, there's no mention in the legislation of "gifts," "genes," or even "training." But here's the thing, my fellow patients. All legislative reform can propose is Where and How we can be treated. Not Who. Those extraordinary Who's out their with the best combination of gifts, genes and good training are always a matter of splendid serendipity. Degrees and titles and rates and facilities are never the whole story.

The whole story to whatever health care we end up with, will almost always depend upon who we end up with in the office, ER, OR, or hospital night shift. With all due respect to the President and the AMA, praying to your God may be more important than yelling at your Legislator.....

Friday, August 7, 2009


Everyone talks about time travel. But do you know something -- it's already happening right here in Chicago. Every night. Sometimes under the stars at Grant Park. Other times on your favorite cable movie channels...!

I understand perfectly well which summer blockbusters sell the best with the kids. Big, splashy, raunchy. But I also understand how the young adult audiences are traveling back in time to watch many of the old movie classics. Why are long-dead Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis attracting so many young audiences? Maybe because the young are looking for something old. As in the old values that filled those black&white screens of the 30's and 40's.

This is not to enter the arena of cinematic critique. We can leave that to others. Instead, this is to try taking the pulse of today's young adults as they get caught up in the dramas and delights of enduring classics like "Chain Gang," "Dark Victory," "Goodbye Mr Chips," "Random Harvest," "Mr Smith Goes to Washington," "Casablanca," "Mrs. Miniver," "Wake Island," "It's A Wonderful Life," and "Battleground".

What makes anything -- from movies to music -- a classic is if it houses values that last. That connect with anyone in any age. This is not the old man's blather about they-don't-make-'em-like-in-my-day! Rather, an invitation to wonder about those human values which were indomitable enough to help a hurting population get through the world's greatest depression followed by the world's greatest war.

Guy gets girl...? OK, that still works today. The clinch in the last reel is the sine qua non of Hollywood. However, there was more at work back then with which today's audiences are connecting, like they do when coming home for the holidays. Rock-solid, old-fashioned stuff rarely portrayed in our more frenetic age of fast money and even faster love.

Let me put this out...

Fast, rich living can dull the appetites for more traditional values. Until, that is, we re-experience them. Such deliciously corny (yet intensely admired) ideas like: The end doesn't justify the means...honest effort yields honest results...right eventually wins over does conquer all...good guys finish first.... honor counts...heroes exist...parents matter.

It's true -- today's culture is more informed and less gullible. And yet watch them tear up at the National Anthem on the Fourth, cheer the underdog, admire the good guy, bring flowers to Mom. There's something still ticking inside the hearts of our cynical times that ticks louder whenever it's surprised by one of those supposedly dated old values. Reports of the death of a moral America may be premature. One of the first, faint signs of life can be detected in the way young audiences respond to these old movies.

This is not to say America's young adults are ready to re-live the frothy innocence of the old Mickey-and-Judy movies. And yet you catch the happy gleam in their watching eyes, and you kinda wonder....

Thursday, August 6, 2009


I was lousy at math. Like almost everyone I knew. Except straight-A Stanley who could somehow juggle all those numbers and logarithms in his head to come up with startlingly correct answers every time...!

I hated Stanley, and now his spirit is back to haunt me. Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, predicts, "The sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians." A liberal arts major, I ask myself why has my world betrayed me like this? To live forever in an age of Stanleys?

The nation's statisticians are crunching numbers faster than ever. Among their latest totals:
* By 2050 Whites here will be 46%, Blacks 12%, Hispanics 30%, Asian 8%
* By 2050 over 30% of American Whites and Blacks will be living alone
* By 2050 33% of the rich country's populations will be over 60
* By 2050 Muslims will be emerging as a majority in many regions of Europe

Being statisticians, these experts always seem to leave it to others to draw conclusions. They tell us they're not into making value judgments. Just the facts, mam, just the facts. Which leaves their numbers hanging out there to be celebrated and/or feared according to one's personal attitudes (for those who demand defining your terms, I define attitudes as emotions that have hardened).

One of the more prominent attitudes by White-Christians like Patrick Buchanan is that these statistics spell the decline of White Christian supremacy in the western world. You're a pretty smart guy, Pat, so you may be right. On the other hand, I always try to remember that a good scare always seems worth more to people than good advice.

So here's some advice from some other statisticians. [One needs to remember that, like medical reports, statisticians come in all different types; so all you have to do is pick the one whose numbers you prefer!]. There are statisticians who (1) insist that White birth rates have begun to rise again ever since 2005, as reported by statistician Hans-Peter Kohler in the journal "Nature" (2) insist Christianity is really on the numerical rise in most parts of the world, as reported by the Vatican (3) insist most Muslims are eventually integrated into their new societies, as reported in the New York Times.

But for anyone who's confused by such conflicting statistics, there's always world-renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to the rescue. Sayeth he and fellow biologists, essentially we are mostly what our genes say we are. I take that to mean that if we wait long enough, evolution will settle most things for the best. Or to put that another way -- everything works out in the end, and if it doesn't, then it's not the end!

Ahhh, exactly the way Stanley might have put it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


There are about six billion hearts beating among us on this whirling spaceship earth. Naturally, we can only know a very few of them. But even among those few, how many do we really fathom....?

Everyone protects their hearts because just as the Tin Man learned, hearts can be broken. And yet, in protecting them, we all too often hide their light from those around us who could benefit from the glow. I'm thinking here of the delicate young woman who bags my groceries at the local supermarket. Obviously challenged in some way, she is shy to the point of total silence. My smiles and efforts to engage her never quite make it.

In guarding herself this way, she's remained a mystery, and I've respected that. Then the other day Natalie finally spoke. She wanted me to notice the bagger-of-the-month ribbon she had won. "God love you, Natalie, I've known all along you were the best one here!"

It was clear now why she never talked. It was her inability to speak clearly. And yet, her few struggled sentences of pride that day made it worth the wait. It struck me how much she communicated in those few words, in sharp contrast to how little most politicians communicate in their endless words. Honesty versus hubris!

Sadder still are the hidden hearts of those who have died before we really fathomed them. How many of us have had the experience of excavating the secrets of these hearts only years later? A mother whose childhood years of frontier poverty were never shared, a father whose early years of struggle during the Depression were never talked about. A sheen of pride and dignity kept those tattered years hidden so as to protect their children from these awful struggles.

Today you can appreciate their good intentions, yet regret how hiding their hearts this way denied you the honor of fully realizing their goodness. How many hearts are still hidden from you today...? Many for many different reasons. Perhaps, though, you can keep sharing yours, and in so doing woo theirs. Like with Natalie.

I'm glad I kept trying. I only wish I had worked as hard with those gentle hearts no longer beating....

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Most have heard of the $64 Question and later the $64,000 Question. But how many have heard of the 64-year-old Question? Only if you lived 64 Augusts ago when Chicago and America were as different from today as today's Millennium Park is from the Egyptian Pyramids....!

In that hot, sticky August of 1945, Chicago and America celebrated the stunning climax of World War II. After almost six horrific years and 60 million lives, the whole bloody thing came to a sudden mushroom- cloud ending over Japan. On the night of August 15, almost a million Chicagoans crushed into the Loop to scream their hearts out. It was finally over over there.

My father, just back from service, tried to drive us into the epicenter of the jubilation -- State and Madison. A Walgreen's was still on one corner and Marshall Field's on the other. Both gone now, but even more important, so is the thundering sense of pride and unity that screamed itself hoarse until after 3AM. It was a pride and unity we've seen only rarely since.

Today's national struggles are often just as crucial as those of Pearl Harbor, Midway, Iwo Jima and Normandy. Trouble is, a half-century of sophisticated power and prestige has ironically sucked much of this innocent pride and unity out of our city and our country. History reports that if nothing succeeds like success, so also nothing recedes like success!

For those who weren't there that triumphant August night 64 years ago, maybe the handiest comparison for you might be another cheering crowd at nearby Grant Park for a new president's election last fall. There was a similar whiff of victory, pride and unity that night too. Instead of young sailors and marines exhausted from an ugly war, there were young voters exhilarated by a surprise win.

I was there for both; but if on the face of it there are striking parallels, at the heart of it, there are none. Far too much national anger and contentiousness has grown over these 64 years. Back then, we were too proud to later grow angry; too united to later grow contentious. In the August of 1945 there was apparently just enough national innocence to still believe a victory night could last longer than the dawn.

Maybe the burden of 64 years of sophisticated power and prestige has made such exuberant innocence seem too sentimental to still believe in. Something like today's player at the plate too busy with sophisticated mechanics, that belting that sentimental homer in the bottom of the ninth seems too sentimental to still count on.

Takes more than national innocence to make a nation great. But 64 years ago this August, it sure helped!


The drug deaths of so many celebrities and the the drug cheating of so many athletes is neither a recent nor a random affair. Simply the latest chapters in a Gothic novel whose first lines were written a thousand generations ago...!

Once our ancestors first discovered nature's ways of escaping the pain of human existence, they've been trying to perfect the escape ever since. One of the few societies still not using psychoactive substances are the Eskimos, and that's only because you can't grow them there. Otherwise from the cannabis in the ancient Middle East to the opium poppy of China to the cocoa leaves of the Incas to the alcohol, steroids, morphines and amphetamines of today, this mass escape has remained a mass habit.

And while this may seem to be a legal problem, something both deeper and higher is going on at one and the same time. Deeper, because of the craving desperations the user suffers from; higher, because of the altered states of consciousness the user seeks. Drugs have been and will be part of the human race so long as it continues to exist this side of the mythic accomplishments and raptures it dreams of.

Some say the alternative of religion is the only real cure. Others insist that instead of curing we should be embracing. The only fact history can report for sure is that psychoactive substances may help explain the actions of powerful figures from the emperors of ancient China, to the Kings of the Incas and Aztecs, to the pill-popping Hitler to the brandy-swilling Churchill, to the Dr Feelgoods of who knows how many of today's heroes and headliners.

Not exactly a portrait of the human race at its most sublime. And yet, isn't a kind of sublimity what the user is trying to reach? To be pain-free, sorrow-free, inferiority-free? From the simplest cup of coffee or power-drink to the most exotic herbs, pills or lines, we Children of Eve seem to be hardwired to somehow remember our lost Paradise. When life here outside the gates grows toilsome, we want it back.

That may tell us these substances are not so much a new habit as they are a very old hope....


There's usually a sliver of soap in my soap dish which leads some of my children to ask: "That looks silly, why keep just a sliver of soap?" To which I answer, "Because my Mother told me never waste anything...."

Her admonition was a common one during the Depression of the 30s and the War of the 40s. The notion of sacrificing something for "the cause" was a given in those hard-times days before children learned the bravado and bounty of America is forever. Several wars and recessions in recent years have done little to dissuade them from this illusion. Or to help them realize every society comes with an expiration date on it.

Saving soap and tires and sugar and tinfoil back then didn't cure the depression nor win the war. But what these small sacrifices did was allow everyone to feel they were part of a common cause. Like the football grunts on the line get little of the quarterback's glory, grunts working with other grunts can at least know they've helped make the glory possible.

Some critics call upon our leaders to demand similar sacrifices today. The problem is the disconnect between us grunts and today's causes. Professional armies fight our wars far from our everyday shores... economic experts manipulate our economy far from our everyday understanding.... political leaders may try to rub elbows with their constituents, but their decisions are made far removed from our everyday life.

John Locke wrote, "What worries you, masters you." And so most of us grunts are mastered by our worries about worry. The worry that we don't really understand what's happening in our complex, globalized world; and that just maybe even our quarterbacks don't either!

Notice the summer kids with their little lemonade stands...? Whether they know it or not, they're practicing capitalism. Well, more of us grunts sacrificing some of our excesses would be practicing democracy. We would be substituting the angry ravings of today's self-indulgent birthers and end-of-lifers with the sacrifices of those old fashioned put-up-or-shut-uppers. Like Mom.

Sacrificing personal indulgences in the midst of national struggle will always be worth a hundred times more than spewing collective invectives. The second takes angry words....the first takes real work.