Wednesday, September 30, 2009



As a kid growing up in the city's west-side, one of my more ebullient adventures was to ride the Lake Street L, get off at Randolph & Wabash, grab a hamburger at Wimpy's and then explore the infatuating floors and features that were Marshall Fields. That was then and this is now....!

Fields is gone and so is its classic maze of 100-year-old departments. Wimpy's too is gone in a puff of McDonald's franchised smoke. But all the rest are still there -- the rickety Lake Street L, the screeching Randolph & Wabash turn, and me. Only this time I was riding along with the ghost of me. I was able (actually I willed to be able) to see myself as I climbed aboard my childhood flying carpet for one last ride.

The ads glaring smartly from their ceiling racks and the passengers staring blankly from their seats all looked the same. More races and less fashion, but still the same cluster of humanity trying to forget why they have to be here. More blue-collared riders and less blue-haired grandmothers taking Emily to "see the Loop,"
yet thoroughly familiar.

Surely what most remained the same were the sights outside the windows.The passing blur of backyards belching their clutter, three-flats exposing their worst side, and what seemed like the very same abandoned cars, tires and garbage. If one thing stands out as a constant across the years, the garbage would be it.

No blue-uniformed conductors at the doors or striding the aisles, for these new cars insist on being as manless and mechanical as possible. Mostly the drone of some faceless voice indifferently reporting the stops. After awhile, you wonder whether anyone is really operating this thing; but then like everything else in our mechanized age, you sit back and take it for granted. Rather, you hope it for granted!

Exiting the car and hurrying down the stairs at Randolph & Wabash, it seems and smells precisely how I remember it. That certain rush of metallic images around you in the shadows of Wabash Avenue, coupled with those hard-to-pinpoint smells. A concoction maybe of machinery oil, city grit and inappreciable whiffs of perfumes. Yes, yes, it was all coming back now! The very same way the sights and smells assaulted my 12-year-old senses when I would clatter down these steps to plunge into my El Dorado on State Street.

However, this was where my little adventure yielded its least results. Macy's is no Fields. The aisles and counters are hardly the same. The shoppers even less so. After cantering the first few floors, my ghost said to me, "Enough!"

But on my way home I thought about that. I may have left too quickly. As I explained to my childhood ghost: "So your world changed on you. So OK you've changed too. Just so long as we keep changing in pace with one another, everything should be fine...."

I expect the two of us will take this trip again.



It's fashionable these days to connect the dots. All right, try connecting these three:

* "News is something somebody doesn't want printed; all else is advertising." (William Randolph Hearst)
* "Misery no longer loves company. Nowadays it insists on it." (Russell Baker)
* "Wisdom is what's left after we've run out of personal opinions" (Albert Camus)

Here's one way. In our modern secular world, news reports about God are not what you usually lead with. We seem to prefer covering the bad, the bold and the beautiful. And yet, when all is said and blogged, somehow that old guy (you know, Yahweh, The Trinity, Allah) is still hanging around. He just won't die, and a lot of secular intellectuals don't know what the hell (or heaven) to do about this!

Among these best-selling intellectuals are Sam Harris ("The End of Faith"), Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion"), and Christopher Hitchens ("God Is Not Great"). Today's atheists are more articulate and aggressive than ever as they argue the real clash of civilizations is not between our different religions...but between our superstition and our modernity. To help their cause, Mr Dawkins has established an organization to help atheists throughout the world "fight the really important fight."

What may drive the secular intellectuals crazy is that it has been a canon of progressive thought ever since the Enlightenment -- that heady combination of science, learning and democracy -- that religion would die its natural and over-due death. Exactly as this monstrous superstition should....! Somehow, though, the deed has yet to be done. Billions of us still cling to our gods and our faiths despite everything we've been told.

Now for awhile the 20th century looked like it might pull off this caper. Religion was officially banned from politics and, wherever possible, from the public square. God was undone by Darwin...dismissed by Marx.... deconstructed by Freud...and virtually buried by everyone from Hitler to Stalin to the new EU to our own ACLU.

So why then won't the old guy just give it up? Move off the stage of history like all the other silly superstitions? There may be as many answers to that question as there are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Which means, I suppose, this new battalion of best-selling atheists may have to pick us off one at time. And that could take a very long time!

Now for those who prefer a few PhDs after the names of their "experts," here's one PhD with his own scholarly explanation. Professor John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale historian, thinks this so-called clash between superstition and modernity took a very sharp turn in favor of God during the Six Day War in 1967 between Israel and her Arab adversaries. "That was when Israel's miraculous triumph over secular pan-Arabism gave God a stronger voice in their politics, emboldening among other things the Jewish settler movement."

Gaddis and others argue this was followed by a "stronger voice for God throughout the 1970s with a born-again President Jimmy Carter, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, Iran replacing the worldly Shah with Ayatollah Khomeini, Buddhism being formally granted a place in Sri Lanka's constitution, and an anti-communist Polish Pope in the Vatican."

So here's one way to try connecting today's dots. To postulate that not only is God not dead....but that those who wish he were, will just have to do more than shouting him off the stage of history. Instead, they may have to recognize he still has a leading role. And whether they approve or not, they had best accommodate themselves to this reality. After all, they didn't author this play...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009



In your September 29 edition, you tucked a very big secret into a very little space on page 23 ("Radio Flyer & Steppenwolf Among Best To Work For"). Personally, I think it could have made a page one feature...!

Here's why. While the economy and the world are in tatters, the folks who work for this toy and this theatre company are apparently happier and healthier than most. And if you think about it, there's a good reason. Each company operates in the wonderful world of whimsy. That's right -- whimsy! The first manufacturers those wonderful red toy wagons we all remember from our childhood; the second manufacturers those wonderful fantasies known as plays.

Get it...? The workers here are still very much in touch and in tune with their Inner Child. Unlike the rest of us slogging through our work at hard labor or in cubicled monotony or in pressured businesses, these folks are having fun while they work. Yes, yes I understand how you report the enlightened ways their management has devised health-benefit packages and wellness-programs. And that's all well and good...

...but I think what really pays off at Red Flyer and Steppenwolf is this delicious everyday fact that their workers haven't had to completely grow up. Like the rest of us, darn it!

Monday, September 28, 2009



There's no way to avoid the Sun Time's relentless journalistic message in relentlessly featuring the relentless gang killings in our city. While adult homicide rates often drop, teen rates often soar. With every photo-story, the paper is poking some hard facts into our faces. Too many neighborhoods have become killing grounds with no solution insight!

While I live in the suburbs now, I lived and taught in the city for years. To us teachers, two solutions have always loomed just out of reach.... but not out of sight! There have to be more "No's" at home, and more "Yes's" in school.

OK, it's not that simple, but it does start there. Parents -- even in broken or blended families -- have the absolute right (and obligation) to act like parents. To impose "No" whenever their god-given-intuition so advises (see Bill Cosby Show & Roseanne reruns for details). But at the very same time, schools -- even in tough gang-riddled communities -- have the absolute right (and obligation) to act like educators. Which means more creative "Yes's" to the students' desires to break out of the old pedagogical routines (see films like To Sir With Love, Blackboard Jungle, Mr Holland's Opus & Hoop Dreams for details).

The stories on the screen aren't the solutions...! But their messages can be a damn good place to start taking back out city....!


Now right off I'm working at a disadvantage. I'm not a beautiful woman. But as a man who is genetically programmed to look at them, I do have opinions. One of them is that beautiful women are trouble...!

Wait, before the hypothesis is dismissed as ill-informed, ill-advised, or even ill-tempered, let me explain it. Historically, sociologically, and personally. The case is virtually air-tight -- well, at least that's how it played out when I presented it to the boys at the corner saloon:

* Historically, beautiful women have somehow always been at the root of trouble. Whether intentionally or not, their beauty seems to trigger all sorts of chaos throughout the centuries. Consider such infamous examples as Eve...Bathsheba...Helen of Troy....Salome....Cleopatra...Lucretia Borgia...the WWI spy mistress Mata Harri...not to mention a dazzling array of Hollywood seductresses who have kept the paparazzi busy for generations.

The hypothesis is not that feminine beauty itself is wrong (the boys at the corner saloon want to make this perfectly clear!), but that this beauty walking in a world of semi-literate males is just destined to generate trouble. In our marriages, our careers, our destinies, not to mention our dreams. The instant riposte is for the women to say: "That's your problem, not ours!" But lets face it, gals, that's like the Grand Canyon saying to the mesmerized spectators peering down: "Don't blame me for you being swept off your feet!"

* Sociologically, there is indisputable evidence that the French gendarme have it right when they say, "Cherchez la femme!" It's the classic Gallic premise that whatever the crime, first "look for the woman." It's their counter-point to the American SWAT team's, "follow the money!"

A mere un-uniformed citizen may not be able to speak with authority on this matter, but the evidence does keep coming in. For instance, the latest is from Germany were the authorities designated an 11-mile trail for the nation's nude-minded naturists. The park officials posted this sign: "If you don't want to see people with nothing on, then you should refrain from moving on." The sign is still standing, but the incidence of trouble on the trails has spiked 200%.

* Personally, I can only speak for my own testosterone. Whenever I hear Willie Nelson & Julio Inglise sing To All The Girls I've Loved Before, troubling images of boyhood frustrations, angst and torch-songs-in-the-night come crashing back into my memory lobes. OK, neither I nor the boys at the corner saloon can exactly claim the trouble was all the girls' fault. But then who else is a rejected adolescent to blame for his pain....? I mean, the vote we took over our beers was unanimous!

And so it is that perchance female beauty in our world is as much curse as crown. Of course, the final vote has yet to be tallied....then once it's in, who's to assure there won't be trouble counting the ballots?

Sunday, September 27, 2009


It was a Saturday morning, and two disparate events conflated for me. A friend gave me a bag of fresh-picked tomatoes from her garden, and an hour later I was watching some tuxedoed young men gathering at our church. The tomatoes spoke to me of how we can evolve from ignorance to bliss, and the tuxedoes of how we can evolve from one bliss to another ....!

When the Europeans first discovered the tomato in South America, they looked at its strange innards and drew the strange conclusion that it was a poisoned fruit. Bad, vile, inappropriate for eating. Later, however, they discovered that their discovery was actually a bliss. Anyone who's bitten into a juicy rich tomato right from the vine knows exactly -- and sublimely -- what I mean. One has to wonder if this rather than the apple is what seduced Adam and Eve (you'll notice they are paired in due deference to todayt's call for equality of the sexes).

Savoring fresh tomatoes (in contrast to the cosmetically-enhanced red stuff in the stores) is a gift we might never had known, had the frightened ignorance of the European conquistadors remained smugly in place. God not only gave us tomatoes to enjoy, but a brain to distinguish between a fear and a joy. Score one for God and another for his creatures!

Why, though, did those tuxedoed young men make me think the same thought? The distinction between fear and joy? Well when you think about it -- as I did munching on my organic tomatoes -- the comparisons are rather prominent. Young men today thrive in a world of bachelor bliss never before known. The rules of society have been so loosened, that a young buck can have everything a married man can -- sex and the good life -- without the traditional pre-requisites of marriage, mortgage and kids. So -- like they always say in Ireland -- why should a guy commit until at least 40 or 50? If then!

Now it seemed to this casual observer that these young tuxedoed bachelors had learned early on that their fears might end be disguised joys. That marrying the girl of their dreams was not locking them into to a life of domestic servility, but rather one of shared joys. Commitment is not actually a bad word, nor is faithfulness. They just went out of temporary style sever since the postwar 20s and then again in the 60s.

Too bad, really, because respect for the institution of marriage must have endured for as many centuries as it did for a good reason. True, the male of virtually all species seems to have an inherent proclivity for multiple mating which, in our case, has gone by the peculiar name of "freedom." But I had to suspect these tuxedoed fellows had learned early on what I had. And that is that freedom to do anything is often no more than freedom from everything! You are as free as a thistle blowing in the capricious winds -- no point, no direction, no purpose.

Oh, the botanist says they do have a purpose. But when you reflect on it, fertilizing whatever comes your windy way, isn't much of a purpose

Saturday, September 26, 2009



Quick, what are two of our biggest "gaps" in America? The generation gap and the nationality gap. But after living 40 years in Park Ridge, I find happy little bridges across those gaps. I hope this is true of other communities as well.

Take this thing about the generations. Sometime the older we get, the more we forget what it's like to be young. To be adolescent. To be carefree even if sometimes a little careless. But if you need a pick-me-up as to the budding merits of the young, drop the drone of news reports about teen drugs, pregnancy and gangs for just an instructive moment. Instead, visit some of our Park Ridge eateries which are staffed by teens. Dairy Queen...Pickwick Restaurant...Otherwise...Panera...and my family's personal favorite, South Park's dainty Colonial Coffee Shop. In all these years, I can't remember ever encountering any young servers whose smile and service didn't renew my faith in the future!

Sure kids are troubled and troublesome -- especially the ones who reach the metro editions because they make the hottest headlines; but I've spent a career with them in high school classrooms, and by my math, for every hoodlum there's at least 10 heroes. There's so much good stuff brewing just beneath the grungy surface. In time -- why they might even grow up into responsible adults just like wonderful us!

As for the nationality gap which always means the specter of immigration, lets face it -- all our families were immigrants. But right here in town we share this community with a couple dozen nationalities which are on successful daily display. In our many ethnic restaurants...shoe repair shops...cleaners..and my pwn personal favorites, our two Italian barbershops. Mario's -- Touhy & Northwest Highway -- is something like a little Rome. Really! Every barber there is Italian...each from a different colorful region of the country....bringing with them their own unique skill, courtesy and the flags of our nation's armed services proudly festooning the place. Every haircut here is a free 30-minute tour of our two nation's best!

No, we're not the most diverse community in the Midwest...but we do house some of the happiest diversity you'll find this side of the UN Building. Come to think of it, we're probably doing an even better job than they are...!


Well, wouldn't you know it -- another "vast right-wing conspiracy....!"

This one may be a family affair. First there's the hot-headed US Representative from Carolina, Joe Wilson. But his mouth is perhaps bigger than his influence. However, now there's another Wilson -- Bill -- whose got lots of money, lots of anger, and therefore whose anti-administration influence is a lot greater. (He just made the front page of the New York Times).

I don't know whether these two passionate Wilson's are related by blood, but they are by baggage. They are among that slice of a democratic population that always seems to take their right to free speech to prodigious heights. They are those among us who always feel they are standing taller and smarter than most in the way they can see what is evil in our midst. And -- by God and the First Amendment! -- they intend to roar their mind.

Who can tell the difference between a bitter dissenter and a perceptive prophet...? I can't. And yet neither can their followers. History as usual will write the final chapter. But in the meantime -- while they heap every evil and evil motive onto this administration -- it will be the enduring responsibility of the rest of us to listen carefully to both sides. And to take the time between football parties and other sprightly diversions to honestly discern the facts from the fictions, the right from the rage, and the different dreams we are each dreaming in this too-complicated-for-sloganeering new age.

Gee, where's that wise Philosopher-King when you need one....?

Friday, September 25, 2009



We hear a lot about reform as if the idea is fairly new. Actually, in a democracy, it's been right here right from the get-go. Question is -- are we trying to reform the right things...?

To reform is to re-formulate that which exists. Americans were demanding this the day after Washington took office. But the reform spirit really took flight in the mid-19th century with the anti-slavery and anti- immigration movements. Then, as southeastern Europeans flooded the nation, the late-19th century watched socialist and anarchist reformers rise up. By the 20th, we have the Progressives demanding reformulation of the political system itself.

But do you notice something missing here...?

That's right -- the citizenry! Not many people are suggesting we the people need any re-forming. Seems in a democracy we're all right and righteous just as we are. We're just everyday decent folks who in the end tend to get it right, right?

Personally, I have a problem with that fluffy perception every time I look in the morning mirror. Exactly how educated, informed and active am I -- and you? -- in our role as citizens? The citizenry is, after all, the heartbeat to a democracy. Without a good us, how can we expect a good it...?

We've all read the embarrassing polls showing large swatches of us totally unaware of how our democracy works. And yet, in the name of our equal right before the law, don't we presume we're equally competent before the law...? In the name of one-citizen-one-vote, don't we presume the illiterate drug pusher's vote should count as much as the Pulitzer Prize winning professor...?

In theory it does, but in a dangerous world with a dangerous babble of voices, it's the practice of the principle that counts! And so it's time we challenge ourselves to be the better educated and informed citizens our Founding Fathers planned for.

No, you can't take away someone's right to vote; but you can challenge voters to enhance that right by taking it at least as seriously as they do planning for an extended summer vacation. How...? Well, once they're out of schools where folks like me try to teach them about their government, maybe we need a massive national re-education campaign. One in which we exhort citizens not simply "to get out and vote," but to vote with an informed vs inflamed mind
Now there's something to think about between Bears games.

Remember how the Feds and the National Ad Council mounted campaigns to heighten our consciousness about smoking? teen pregnancy? cholesterol? highway speed? the environment? and now Swine Flu? Each of these highly finessed messages have had good results. Why not similar efforts with we the people? Especially when we the people are needed to think and vote and act honorably rather than hysterically....?


I might as well say right up front -- I hate Jon Katz and Peter Savolainen...!

My reason is a noble one, for they're doing harm to our best friend, the dog. For centuries we've happily thought of our puppies as our friends-in-need. Compared to most people, our dogs are kinder, prettier and certainly more faithful.

But now this guy Katz writes a book ("Soul of a Dog") arguing dogs don't and can't love anything or anyone. He scorns what he calls the cult of the Disney Dogs, and insists "unemotional scientists" back him up. Then in Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology, Savolainen reports while dogs have been humankind's best friends for at least 10,000 years, humankind first started domesticating them in Southern China for meat.

I grant my sentimentality over dogs (and even people), but "unsentimental scientists" always seem to be trying to take away the pleasure of my sentiments. Frankly, as a scientifically uninformed gushy guy, I must reject these two authors, and continue loving dogs for what I feel they are. You see, if we're not careful, we'll start researching humankind's domestication of human love.Then decide it too is simply a matter of evolutionary instinct and need!

You gotta wonder if these scientists ever bring roses to their domesticated mates....?

Thursday, September 24, 2009



If you surf cable channels at night, your choice falls into three general categories: Political bombast, nature documentaries, and anything they can find about World War II. Millions of male viewers are nightly immersed in the bloodshed of warfare very much like they are on the networks in the bloodshed of football...!

There are dozens of explanations. Freudian, Jungian, and especially those from frustrated wives and girlfriends. Blend them all together and you usually come up with the intuitive conclusion the male of virtually every species has this genetic predisposition for combat, conquest, and crowing. In the case of American homo sapiens, it's virtually foreordained right from their frisky little blue-bonneted births.

From early on there is a semi-conscious dash of ancient Sparta to this. He is given soldier and gun toys...he is programmed for hard sports...he is offered athletic heroes....and he is generally convinced that the maleness that most attracts the femaleness is of the John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise genre. And while it's quite true some of this one-dimensional programming has been diluted in recent decades, there's just something deep and dark in the male animal which instinctively responds to the smell and roar of battle.

Now while many psychologists speak of the feminizatioin of American men in today's more equal society. it would seem that even the gentlest and most esoteric respond to cable's endless gorge of World War II battle footage. Especially inasmuch as it so nicely plays out with irrefutably good vs evil casts. Militarists from Generals Grant and Sherman to MacArthur and Patton have repeatedly spoken of the glories of war, because in these epic gladiatorial clashes, our species is said to be functioning at the very peak of both its rational and primitive forces. Patton exalted it thus: "You give me a fighting sonofabitch who knows how to hate, and I'll show you man at his most complete!"

I don't imagine Bears fans read the General on their way to the game. When you watch them there, you realize they don't have to....!


Arthur Miller famously killed Willie Lohman in Death of a Salesman in 1949. However, there were millions of real Willies who succeeded him "on the road" thereafter. Now a half-century and E-Bay later, the very last of the breed have finally been laid to rest...!

As Marshall McLuhan predicted back then, "the electron has replaced the wheel." There is no longer much need for Willies or Music Men. A fabled age that began with the first Yankee peddlers in 16th century America has at last come to an inglorious end.

However, I'm here to report that when Willie's wife laments her husband's tragic death, her lament was never more torturous and terminal than it was in a Steppenwolf audition hall 35 years after the Broadway run. Another wife -- mine! -- brought one-of-a-kind tears to the Steppenwolf company that day in her portrayal of the haunting cemetery scene. Joan knew the part with profound understanding, because she had in her own way lived the part.

The theatre world missed that portrayal, because there was a conflict of schedules. But I didn't! Even all those years later, Arthur Miller would have been reduced to tears even he had not experienced before.

To Willie and to all the memories of all the Willies buried by their grieving wives -- Rest In Peace.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


We live an age of Why. Equipped with so many means of precise measurement -- polls, statistics, DNA, Genome Profiles -- we feel we've reached that point in human history when we can at last ask and answer all the Why's which have bedevilled us from the beginning. But can we...?

At one time we gathered around tribal fires to listen to shamans, or we studied entrails and tea leaves, or we asked Delphic oracles and prayed to our nature gods. Today's western intelligentsia have proudly stepped beyond such primitiveness. And so today we have research reports, master plans and white papers. If the last refuge of a fool is the flag, the final refuge of the frightened is a footnote.

One industry especially devoted to research is the entertainment industry. They gamble big bucks in Hollywood and on the networks to chart and graph our every dollar-packed whim. Why do we like this? why will we pay to see that? why are we laughing and crying and buying the way we are?

TV executives have paid large sums for large surveys to anticipate audience taste. At one time it was the variety show...then the western...then the family sitcom...then the non-family the reality show. But if you examine this year's broadcast schedule it seems the once-dismissed sitcom and other comedy genre are back big time. NBC is even gambling that two straight hours of Leno and O'Brien every night will garner big audiences for cheap bucks.

The thing is, perhaps all the exotic audience research really comes down to this simple hunch -- there are natural cycles in taste. From ties to television! So maybe it's just comedy's time again. No exact cause or reason or explanation. Taste just is what it is, and those who can smell and intuit it best, succeed the best.

There is the story of the pricey researcher who explained to the board of his dog food company why the packaging, promotion and merchandising of their new product had been thoroughly tested."So why isn't the stuff selling," demanded the CEO. The researcher reflected: "But we've analyzed every facet of the program, and it plays out perfectly." At which point one lowly sales rep whispered: "Except the taste. Dogs just don't like it..."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009



Choices in life are hard. That's because you have to live with what you choose. This week, though, choice came easy...!

Some friends are moving from their home of 35 years to enter a senior community. Now their home is a tad gray and old, while the community is fresh and new. So, as with all choices, there's a trade off. But for me (and I suspect a few million others) there would be more loss than gain. The loss of the known, of the shared, of the maze of memories that have sustained me and the people I've loved for a lifetime.

In today's youth-minded America, this sentiment is easily judged counter-intuitive and surely counter-culture. Americans by nature and by history grab for the next opportunity. But time happens in a life, and often 'next' translates into 'no.' No to excitement and yes to to collegiality and yes to to the organized and yes to the happily haphazard.

I remember my parents downsizing after all the kids were gone. The morning I walked our proud but empty old bungalow for the last time, the desperate dislocation in my soul seared it for life. I never wanted to feel that feeling again. Look -- this is the spot where Dad first handed me the keys to his car. Look -- this is where I remember showing the family my graduate degree. And look -- here's where the mahogany dining room table stood joyously groaning under the weight of all those steaming holiday family dinners.

Mom and Dad are gone now, but what they experienced is not something I want to replicate. Old homes are old friends. They are time-burnished altars upon which you and your loved ones have offered up your tears, your sorrows, your joys and your togetherness. Each squeak in the floor tingles a each corner there is a moment frozen in time...with each piece of furniture there is the echo of a long ago conversation...and in each room there is a history. How do you walk away from a friend like this?

Respecting what once was in no way disrespects what is still to be. One of the dangers of youth is its propensity to dismiss the values of the elderly. Here's a respectful suggestion. You can march bravely into new sunrises while at the same time looking over the shoulder of your memory, and still not miss a beat...!


The statisticians have just presented us with the numerical magic of 2.3. In some remarkable confluence of mathematical circumstances, they report that right now there are 2.3 million Americans in prison, and there are 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space. We seem to have a troubling parallel here-- how to store our citizens and our stuff...!

Stuff, as the late George Carlin celebrated, is what we Americans do. We collect stuff day after day, until the day we realize that's exactly what it is -- a clutter of disposable dispensables. But as for our prisoners -- that's human clutter that is neither disposable nor dispensable.

Right now it costs on average $29,000 to house a single inmate for a single year.Then there are the costs of maintaining a probation system for another 5.1 millions people recently released from prison. With only 5% of the world's total population, the U.S. has a staggering 25% of the world's prison population.

Different experts will offer different reasons. Historians, sociologists, psychologists, and theologians. Then there's Senator Jim Webb of Virginia who wants a national commission to study the problem. The way he puts it: "Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong."

The Senator had no comment on the parallel issue of storing stuff. This is a problem that requires no commission, just a commitment. To once and for all admit it to ourselves -- we're never ever going to use this stuff. Now if only our prison problem were as simple....

Monday, September 21, 2009



This week America gets to see a fully-restored theatre version of the MGM classic The Wizard of Oz. There's a rich recipe of reasons why this 70-year-old movie has earned the name classic. Not the least of which is Judy singing what everyone hopes to find over their rainbow.....!

You can discover what distinguishes a classic from the mundane on virtually every page of every newspaper every day. If you live long enough, you begin to recognize all the stories are all the same. Year after year, there's a cycle of repetitive news in which all that really changes are the names and the dates. Doubts? Check how the exact same themes recur again and again and again. Presidents and quarterbacks in trouble... sensational local fires, burglaries and floods...elected officials and celebrities caught in salacious scandal...expose of pensioners living off the fat of your taxes....patented photos of families in weeping post-trauma anguish...and of courses tax protests which have been standard headlines ever since we dumped King George III back in 1776.

When Uncle Charlie grumbles been-there-done-that, nephews Andrew and Matthew wonder why the old guy doesn't share their passion. "Uncle Charlie, this political fight is changing history!" or "If we don't get the Olympics, Chicago will never be the same!"

What we have here is another classic: A failure to communicate. The elderly have the perspective of having been there before, but risk the danger of lethargy disguised as wisdom. The young have the passion of purpose, but not the vision to fully understand the purpose. Sometimes it takes a Wizard to bridge this gap. A lot of people apply for the job -- in governing, teaching, coaching, even in making movies -- but there are far too few who qualify.

And far too few of us who recognize the real ones when we find them behind that curtain!


While the Wizard of Oz turns 70 this year, the island of Manhattan celebrates the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's landing there. From what we know, the island back then was an Eden of hilly forests, bird-filled wetlands, and stream-crossed meadows. They calculate there was more animal and plant life there than in modern day Yellowstone and Yosemite. The question is, is Manhattan better off today...?

Well it's true, it houses one of the world's great cities and is the financial capital of the world. From 600 Native Americans, its population is in the multi-ethnic millions. It even has magnificent Central Park as a desperate reminder of what once was.

How does a nation measure the trajectory of 400 years from Eden to electronics? Progress? Regression? Simply a matter of evolution? If Henry Hudson or fellow New Yorker Rip Van Winkle were to wake up today, what might be their first thoughts?

Walking down 5th Avenue, it might be: "I can't believe it -- everything's changed!" Meeting a confrontation between a New York cabbie and a pedestrian, it might be: "I can't believe it -- nothing's changed!"

Sunday, September 20, 2009



Many of you have heard of Mercedes McCambridge, Clayton Collyer and Theodore Goetz. But chances are you haven't heard of Ralph Cummings, Lesley Woods and Jane Webb. They were all involved in the early years of America's longest-running radio/tv soap opera: The Guiding Light. And at one time or another they were all friends of mine. However, it's not the friendship, but the history I'm thinking of here...!

This and other soaps helped shape American social history. Especially during their radio hay-days in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Soaps then were a unique American invention which soaked up the moral values of the recently demised Victorian Age, then squeezed them out five-days-a-week from sea to shining sea. Whether written by Irna Phillips or the team of Carl Bixby and Don Becker, whether on NBC or CBS, whether late mornings or early afternoons -- these relentless 15-minute ethical epics were there to remind young housewives of the enduring American truths: Work, honor, family, commitment and especially love!

Admittedly, these truths got wrenched and wrangled a bit by the time the scripts reached television. By the 60s, 70s and beyond, housewives were looking for something steamier than Minister John Ruthledge's homilies first starting on that January 25, 1937 at 3:15 PM on WMAQ. Mom remembered him well, for he was forever guiding his Five Points congregation during her afternoon dinner preparations. Some of which I remember helping her with. All the while listening with her to the good pastor, Mary, Ned and Papa Bauer.

The Guiding Light is gone now. So will be other soaps soon. But in those years of 20th century struggle (Depression, War II, Cold War) the program sought, along with its companion soaps, to energize the women who energized the families who energized the nation. No small task. What's more, each new episode helped those sturdy, aproned echelons keep their clothes and dishes sparkling clean. A win-win situation for performers, networks, sponsors and Mom alike.

They just don't make radio like that anymore, do they? Nor do they television, for that matter. Among the diminishing ranks of stay-at-homes today, such homey Victorian sentimentality has little currency. All a matter of national awakening, say some. A matter of national loss, say others. It is what it is.

Were Mercedes or Theo still here today, they might well see themselves as I did (and do). A fleeting force for good. Their sudsy monologues and stirring reflections helped keep stressed, stay-at-home wives and mothers feel the steadying ground of unchanging moral principles under them. These casts and crews were in effect reassuring Mom and millions of other moms that -- despite the economic hardships, personal losses, and strange new public behaviors around them -- they were right to stay at home! to stay by their man! to fuss over their children! and to be proud to be a woman!

Sociologists and feminists don't always share that judgment; but then they weren't there. I'm not entirely persuaded that all the mothers, sisters and aunts I knew have lived to regret their times. We all look at our world through our own window.

In her later years, Mercedes (a graduate of Mundelein College here in Chicago) had soap opera battles of her own with alcohol. Theo fought the wages of advancing age by working to the very end (including some teleplays of mine in New York). They were pros who started early, lasted long, and remained passionate in their craft.
There were literally thousands of actors, writers, producers and tech crews who like them plunged their young lives into this once mesmerizing art form. Both here and in New York. Both in front of the microphone and later the camera. However, if you could ask Mercedes and Theo today if they were bestowing moral values on millions of fans, they might simply smile. Like the celebrated band singer Helen O'Connell who was once asked what it was like to be "part of an era," these radio artists might have agreed with her answer. "Gee, if I had known I was part of an era, I might have enjoyed it more!"

Saturday, September 19, 2009



A friend of mine ends all her letters with the challenge of this thought: "There are no coincidences...."

In the flotsam and jetsam of our everyday lives, it's easy to suspect everything as a will o' the wisp event with no meaning, no connection, no reason. And yet it usually takes only a serious pause to excavate each of these small treasures from each of those events.

Aren't we all our own prime-mover each new day? When we get we eat and dress...where we go...who we choose to speak to and how we choose to do it? All these flow into those six-degrees-of- separation and those serendipitous rhythms we all initiate in our lives. And if you want to take the matter to a higher level, think God as the ultimate prime-mover. Not only in ours but every other life around us.

Now there are those who will argue the universe is random. That the only meanings, connections and rhythms here are those exquisitely fashioned by a blind evolution. We exist, we function, we succeednd we fail only by and because of the inexorable laws of evolution. And these laws exist only because of themselves, for evolution is the one self-generating, self-fulfilling prime-mover in the universe.

That's a fashionable way to see and say it in scholarly circles these days. For these circles have proudly untangled themselves from the primitivism of our ancient past where people got up every morning believing there were meanings, connections and reasons to everything they did. When I listen to these scholars then listen to the rhythms of my own life, I can't help feeling a little primitive myself.

Speaking for myself, then, I have to agree with my friend. There are no coincidences! I especially agreed at her funeral. When and how she died was one more reason for me to understand: There are no coincidences.


Mark Twain is always a fresh spring of pithy quotations. One of his elderly wisdoms was: "Courage is resistance to and mastery over fear -- not absence of fear." We have a young president who has an historic opportunity to test this wisdom....

Every leader is so tested, because by their very nature, every leader insists on leading. This stirs some to resent and to resist. Examples flourish even in other societies. Compare the chanting Turkish mobs in France, the silent protesters in Tehran and the Glenn Beck ragers in Washington. The anger in their faces isn't all that different. (Incidentally, while the overseas resisters were gassed, here 57 advertisers simply withdrew their budgets from Beck).

Inevitably, this tug and pull between leaders and followers shapes the times. But those who only understand their times from within the times themselves rarely see them with the advantage of perspective. Resentment and resistance are inevitable parts of the human landscape. What distinguishes all this are the causes over which there is this turmoil. Good causes make it worth the fight; bad causes do not.

How the final draft of history is written eventually depends upon how the participants eventually learn to distinguish one from the other. In the meantime, there's the encouraging wisdom of another prodigious thinker. In similar times of test, Winston Churchill wrote this: "You have enemies? Good! That means you've stood up for something."


There are times when quoting gifted people is no gift...!

Here I'm thinking the novelist Iris Murdoch who said: "We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality." Maybe. But then, if we live without the drama of our fantasies and the grandeur of our illusions, what enormous power is out there to keep beckoning us to achieve something finer than the reality we are stuck in....?

Friday, September 18, 2009



Two parallel events with parallels message: This week's International Film Festival in Toronto and this week's latest delivery of celebrity magazines to the local supermarkets...!

Oh, you don't see the connection? Well, let me elucidate. A large segment of the new films up there have a decidedly apocalyptic undertone. Dark themes about dark times. Doomed people operating in doomed situations, reflecting America's zeitgeist panting to maintain its moral equilibrium. Anger, divisiveness and existential bitterness all explode on the screen.

It makes some of us recall the divisive bitterness of the late 60s -- anti-war, anti-black, anti-government. The body politic was wrenched during this era of dissent. Sometimes into progress, often into bloodshed. To listen to many of today's angry cablecasters, bloggers, congressmen and organized dissenters, our country is plunging leaderless into an age of authoritarianism (defined as socialism, fascism or madness, depending on the day of the week).

If they're still writing histories a hundred years from now, the historians may sort this all out. Much like they have with other decidedly chaotic presidencies such as Jackson, Lincoln, FDR and Truman. On the other hand, if you scan these supermarket magazines, you may wonder if they're not already reflecting the historical judgment. Behold -- today's pop role-models in various splashy stages of exhibitionism, drug abuse, mate- swapping, sex orgies, and tummy tucks, all spiced with vacuous quotes from vacuous people explaining which latest herb or husband has just brought them eternal serenity.

From Toronto to the checkout -- things here aren't looking good these days! But not to worry -- gun sales have never been better!


While our times seem furiously stirred by do-it-yourself controversies from quarterbacks to death
panels, there really are matters that matter. For instance: Is all this sound and fury in the capricious hands of evolution or in the caring hands of God....?

Two new books try grappling with this question. Well, neither one is a flashy tell-all memoir by some disgraced official, but it still strikes me their concerns are concerning. If not now, they will be whenever we find ourselves in a hospital or at a cemetery where you can't be as easily distracted by the minutiae of your times.

Today's lion of atheism -- Professor Richard Dawkins -- has just authored "The Greatest Show on Earth" in which he carries on his hubristic campaign to make God irrelevant to our lives. A religious scholar -- Karen Armstrong -- has authored "The Case for God." They come at this question from decidedly different vantage points.

You'll have to decide for yourself their merits on their merits. But given the authors' past records, here's what they may be once more saying. Dawkins: We can only understand what we can understand. In other words, if the rational mind can't conceive and demonstrate a God, then God is impossible, and Evolution is its replacement. Armstrong: The history of religions demonstrate that God is not something facilely found with the rational mind and its words alone. God can ultimately be found mainly with mythos not logos!

In a twittering age, these two authors may not get tweeted very much. Too bad. Somewhere within the dynamics of their debate rests what will really matter to each of us. Considerably after quarterbacks, death panels, and gotcha journalism will have lost their salt and their relevance.


Ever since Americans over-threw King George III, we've had this angry anti-government DNA. The Constitution reflects this with its limitations on governmental powers. However...!

However, while this systemic suspicion rages whenever it's tweaked, our history suggests sociologists and psychologists more than constitutionalists may have something to say here. It might be useful to put aside the instant and lurid tales about "government graft, corruption and inefficiency," because they apply to private enterprise as well as public. That's a human problem more than a government problem.

Instead, it might be useful to listen to the socio-psychological case that suggests the teacher/student, boss/employee syndrome.That's the one most of us suffer from be we Democrat or Republican, white or black, rich or poor. Lets face it - we simply don't like anyone telling anyone what to do. Unless, perhaps, we're the ones telling!

Now...! If we could start with this simple, verifiable assumption about ourselves -- well, our arguments just might become a little more honest. A small thought for a very large problem....

Thursday, September 17, 2009



There may be an unspoken side to the current battle over health care reform. It has to do with cholesterol. If I can say this to my doctor, I can say it here. I hate the day I learned to spell cholesterol...!

Not just spelling it, but understanding it. We're always told knowledge is power, but the power of this medical knowledge has helped shatter a once blissfully ignorant life. I mean, think about it. All those giddy days when three or four eggs for breakfast, thick juicy hamburgers, salty french fries, exotically-sauced ethnic foods, and free-form slabs of German chocolate cake were all there for the joyous taking. No doubts, no guilts, no lingering regrets.

But now -- well, now that I've been victimized by today's incessant babble of medical knowledge, my breakfasts feature shredded wheat! my lunch breaks include sliced pears and crackers! my dinners are broiled fishes I can't even pronounce! and desserts, they've vanished in a blizzard of fat-content labels! I am no longer the happy Huckleberry boy of my uninformed youth. And I resent it.

OK, so my doctor is pleased. Maybe even Congress is, because I may now cost Medicare less. But while my numbers have improved, I ask myself -- what do my newly unclogged arteries do for my happiness...? My playfulness...? That rhapsodic gusto for food that once made me a jolly green giant of a man and a citizen? Instead, this medical knowledge/power has helped make me tense, short-tempered, a walking galaxy of gastronomical guilts. This is not fun. For either me or the nice citizens around me.

Yes, yes, I am persuaded by my doctors (and those conflicting medical studies that infest my daily Tribune) that I am now healthier. That I feel better. That I will live longer. That I will save Medicare added costs. And yet, I have my tummy-deprived doubts. I don't really feel any healthier. Or better. And as for living longer, everyone has an Uncle Joe who lived to 95 on diets of eggs, pasta and beer!

So I am left with a 21st century conundrum. Yes, we have important new access to more knowledge about more things in my life. But so many of them start with "no!" I can't help it. I remember my days of "yes." To eggs, ethnic sauces, chocolate cake, and cars from Detroit. Why, I ponder, does knowledge always seem to mean that whatever we like is bad for us, and whatever we don't is good for us? The Bible? the Torah? the Koran? the New England Journal of Medicine? I search them all for an answer in vain.

I just wish happy-go-lucky Uncle Joe were still here to tell me (and Congress) how he did it...!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009



Here's a question -- what do Joe Wilson, Kanye West and Jay Cutler all have in common? The answer is nothing and yet everything...!

Each one is a passing footnote in the news cycle. Good for a little water cooler conversation, but in the long run not much more. We chew up and spit out this stuff with awesome regularity. Such is the way of our 21st century American culture. We're a restless people who usually prefer quick soundbites to in-depth reflection.

However, there really is something lasting and enduring about these frivolous moments after all! Not the moments themselves, but the symbolism that often gets attached to the moments. Each one of these footnotes has what the news media likes to call "legs." Why? Because other people now take over and build upon these moments. Call it a "cause," a "movement" or a "mission," it all comes down to the symbolism that some people choose to create out of the moments.

Joe Wilson becomes a symbol for angry, anti-immigrant, anti-black feelings, and so his face and words get plastered on posters and in campaign ads. Kanya West becomes a symbol for the angry, anti- establishment younger generation standing up. Jay Cutler becomes a symbol of the cocky young newcomer who older players and fans use for a handy target.

See how it works...? These three guys are here today gone tomorrow. But what they symbolize to some, lasts. And gets used over and over again. To take an extreme case, what would Jesus be today without the symbolism he was given by the Apostle Paul? Now wait -- that's not sacrilegious. That's Christian fact.

So here's the point. The great 18th century English writer William Hazlitt once put it this way: "Nothing is more unjust or capricious than public opinion." It's something like the surf on a beach -- here one minute, changed the next. Just like the people and the moments that pre-occupy us. But what often lasts is the symbolism others find and infuse into these people and these moments.

Wilson, West and Cutler are little people who some choose to make large. Large symbols for their own agendas. In democracies, where there are no aristocracies, we are especially vulnerable to this habit. Taking peers and transforming them into symbols. However, given that symbols in a society can be of such enormous social power, it's always a good idea to pick the right people and moments to symbolize....

Monday, September 14, 2009



We can be sure the United States Postal service is not religion-based, because of the constitutional separation of church and state. But can we be sure about the US Postal artist....?

I raise the question only after studying the last several year's of celebrity postage stamps. They feature famous people from various walks of life. But always in their very best and most attractive persona's. Take the latest series of Hollywood stamps -- Bette Davis, Bob Hope and now Gary Cooper. While we may not know much about the private lives of the non-Hollywood celebrities, we sure do about the stars. I mean, that's why God created the paparazzi and the gossip papers!

Now here's where religion sneaks into these stamps. Subtly and constitutionally safely, to be sure; but religion nevertheless. Just notice how the artist sees these heroes without any hint of failure or flaw. Bette without her brawling record of cat-fights and studio intrigue...Bob without his celebrated womanizing on the USO road...Gary without his reputed trysts and boozing.

The way I understand God and religion, at the end of our lives He will judge us with as much mercy as justice. And so He is likely to see us in the same favorable light the US Postal artist does. At our smiling best, sans worries sans warts maybe even sans sins.

This opinion probably carries little theological weight with any of the world's great religions. And yet, don't these same religions all have a way of reassuring us something better awaits us after this life....? And that the good we do here will help us in our journey there....? And also that whatever and wherever there is, we will arrive looking and being our very best....?

I tried to find out who the artist is, but couldn't. However, the way I figure it, some mystery is always to be expected whenever it comes to there.....


If you're like most people, you try to keep up with what's new in the world of science. We live and thrive in an age where modern science has created cures and technologies that would have baffled the great kings and philosophers of the past. And yet, could it be that the very wonder of these works has shut off another kind of wonder? The wonder of simply wonder itself....
In their dazzling dedication to decode our humanity, evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins continue to explain how various genes and brain circuits help trigger and explain our everyday behaviors. Behaviors ranging from which body sweat activates what we call hate or which evolved DNA makes us worriers or which genes incline us to believe or not to believe in divinity.

Knowledge like this is power, and the power of these neuro-biological discoveries is opening important new frontiers to us. And yet, have you ever looked up at a gathering thunderstorm on a summer day or studied the peculiar flights of clouds across the face of a harvest moon and wondered to yourself like the ancients did....? Wondered whether there were mysterious messages and messengers involved....?

The science of climatology on our 10 PM news tells us there are no mysteries up there -- only wind currents, cumulus formations and other physical forces that we can now chart, graph and use to predict. Terrific! Especially when the predictions happen to work out. (Statistically speaking in the northern hemisphere about 56% of the time). Still, the funny thing is even on the statistically correct days, I occasionally receive a gushy Hallmark Card in the mail. As I open it, I can't help contrast the science of weather forecasting out there with the sentiment of someone's caring in my hand. A cosmic difference -- but then that's just me.

Good to understand my world. Even more so to feel the thoughts of those in my world who care about me. I suspect my sentimental preferences here are one big reason why I never got an A in biology....!

Sunday, September 13, 2009



There's always been this debate among both theologians and scientists as to how good human nature really is. Are we an inherently selfish, self-gratifying species as Calvinist theology and evolutionary biology sometime suggest? Or are we in the end more decent than demonic as seen by democratic thinkers like John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln?

That's like asking whose lyrics do you relate to more -- the Rappers or the Beatles? Lil Wayne or Bruce Springsteen? Stephen Sondheim or Rogers & Hart??

Chances are this depends on where you are in your life at the time. Take your perennial optimists -- they're always the ones who tell you to look up because everything in life is going their way. Still, there are some objective reasons to take hope about old battle-scarred homo sapiens. One in New York and one in Arkansas.

Al Fisher, 75-year-old New Yorker, just passed a milestone when he donated his 320th pint of blood. The records show his grand total is 40 gallons! Al donated his first pint in 1951, because "Some people give money; I give blood." When all is said and done, money is of relative value; blood is an absolute value. Makes you think of the Biblical passage: You can do nothing greater than to lay down your life for a friend.

Then there's pastor Bill Eliff of Little Rock Arkansas whose parish takes in about $32,000 a week in collections. Pastor Bill decided to give some back last month when he put out baskets containing a total of $5000. He invited those in need to "help yourself." The congregation was a little stunned, but then gradually the
needy quietly accepted the reverse-offering. Mostly for unpaid medical bills.

Here's a thought...! Invite Al and Bill to meet with the Congressional committees wrangling over health care reform. The United States is still the only advanced nation in the world without universal coverage. These two guys seem to understand that shame even more palpably than Congress.


Now on the other side of this human-nature ledger, we have two different samples of our species in action. Their recent choices make you wonder where our best angels have fled. If indeed we ever had any....!

Bank of America -- you know the folks scraping by with million dollar bonuses on our tax money -- recently refused to cash a check in one of their Florida banks. They require a thumbprint for ID and Steve Valdez, who wears prosthetic arms, couldn't oblige. Well, like yeah.....!

In fairness to the fully-armed bankers, they later apologized. But you have to ask -- what were they thinking? Or were they thinking! This is where the theologians might refer to our "fallen nature," and the evolutionary biologists to our "aberrant genes." Either way, the bankers in Florida surely didn't help burnish the image of our inherent human nature.

Then there is Scott Mooney who coaches a Kentucky HS football team. Only Scott is a confirmed Baptist on a mission. When he recently drove his players to his church where he baptized nine of them, several of the moms complained to the school: "We feel like he was brainwashing our children." The has not yet taken a stand.

As for Scott himself, he offers both the theologians and the biologists an arguable case-study for good intentions violating good sense. But, then, homo sapiens has been doing this ever since we were kicked out of Eden. You have to wonder if the serpent is smiling....?

Saturday, September 12, 2009



How do you define paranoia? Generally it means irrational suspicions. But while we can easily describe a suspicion, it gets harder to describe what's irrational. I mean think about it -- they once called Jesus, Mohamed,
Michelangelo, Darwin and my Uncle Terry irrational. Well, Uncle Terry was, but that's off-point...!

Sometimes being paranoid can be useful. For instance, when my pc screen abruptly stops to instruct me it is -- entirely on its own accord -- about to re-program itself, my suspicions about Big Brother are wisely re-awakened. I am now better prepared to turn off my President, boycott my post office, send back my Social Security check and rush a donation to the Joe Wilson re-election fund. I say, thank god for a little timely paranoia, because it bolsters my all-American right to life, liberty and the pursuit of dangerous government cabals.

Some high-energy paranoia also comes in handy whenever any local elected officials start to do me and my bank account harm. Take crazy Richard Daley trying to bring the Olympics to Chicago, or squinty-eyed Cardinal George trying to call Catholics back to the faith, or Oprah trying to do anything. Once your paranoiac juices are flowing, you're better ready to resist these irrational conspiracies. You're reminded once again that in America, freedom means being free to suspect everything and everyone.

I learned a lot from Uncle Terry. He always said that if you ever go to a doctor, you'll get sick. If you ever go to a hospital, you'll die. And if you ever let anyone stick a needle in you, it sucks all the testosterone out of your system and you'll never be a parent. They laughed at the old guy -- but you can see for yourself how right his paranoia was. He made damn sure he never saw a doctor, a hospital or a needle. He died at age 37 leaving a wife and six kids!

According to my Aunt, Uncle Terry died proud of his paranoia, because it always made him feel like a real American....


For the first time in a century, Florida is losing population. Its real estate boom started in the 1920's and stopped only this last recessionary year. Almost 60,000 Floridians left. The question is where did they go....?

One has to hope not to New York City where the great metropolis still houses some one-of-a-kind American silliness. Consider New Yorker Ruth Zafrin who is suing her daughter-in-law comedian for telling mother-in-law jokes. In her court filing, Zafrin explained: "Sunda's stand-up routine is malicious, intentional, and based on her hatred towards me." We have no details on the judge's reaction, but one wonders if his own mother-in-law will come to mind when he reaches his decision. Knowing what I do about mothers-in-law, I'd dismiss the case, and buy a ticket to the show!

In another only-in-New-York moment, the city police arrested a model who was posing naked for a photographer. Where...? In the city's famed Metropolitan Museum of Art which features artworks of nude women on virtually ever floor. The arrest has to give "silly" an entirely new meaning!

Meanwhile, back in Florida, we will watch if this new migration heads for Chicago. After all, we can be as silly as New York anytime...



How do you define paranoia? Generally it means irrational suspicions. But while we can easily describe a suspicion, it gets harder to describe what's irrational. I mean think about it -- they once called Jesus, Mohamed,
Michelangelo, Darwin and my Uncle Terry irrational. Well, Uncle Terry was, but that's off-point...!

Sometimes being paranoid can be useful. For instance, when my pc screen abruptly stops to instruct me it is -- entirely on its own accord -- about to re-program itself, my suspicions about Big Brother are wisely re-awakened. I am now better prepared to turn off my President, boycott my post office, send back my Social Security check and rush a donation to the Joe Wilson re-election fund. I say, thank god for a little timely paranoia, because it bolsters my all-American right to life, liberty and the pursuit of dangerous government cabals.

Some high-energy paranoia also comes in handy whenever any local elected officials start to do me and my bank account harm. Take crazy Richard Daley trying to bring the Olympics to Chicago, or squinty-eyed Cardinal George trying to call Catholics back to the faith, or Oprah trying to do anything. Once your paranoiac juices are flowing, you're better ready to resist these irrational conspiracies. You're reminded once again that in America, freedom means being free to suspect everything and everyone.

I learned a lot from Uncle Terry. He always said that if you ever go to a doctor, you'll get sick. If you ever go to a hospital, you'll die. And if you ever let anyone stick a needle in you, it sucks all the testosterone out of your system and you'll never be a parent. They laughed at the old guy -- but you can see for yourself how right his paranoia was. He made damn sure he never saw a doctor, a hospital or a needle. He died at age 37 leaving a wife and six kids
According to my Aunt, Uncle Terry died proud of his paranoia, because it always made him feel like a real American....

Jack Spatafora

Thursday, September 10, 2009



The setting was strictly high-drama Hollywood -- joint session of Congress, embattled young president, then right out of central casting a Joe Wilson screaming out "you lie!"

There will be many takes on this Capraesque moment. Bad taste...Congressional censure... folks muttering "go Joe!"... perhaps a White House secretly pleased the fiery South Carolina Republican illustrated how dissent in Washington has become more maniacal than intellectual.

Permit me my own take. Can't prove it, only feel it. Feel it deep in my bones, because Joe's indecent yelp came from deep in his bones.

Most of us don't know Joe (altho he should be making the talk-circuit any day now), but we do know here's another Joe (like the plumber) whose public actions betray some private rages. Joe Wilson might easily be seen as the face of white, southern, America's state-of-mind. A state which has evolved ever since the Civil War freed the slaves, white Jim Crows tried to replace iron chains with legal chains, and the WASP idea (White Anglo Saxon Protestant supremacy) arrived with the World War II flood of blacks into northern cities.

I don't know how much or how well Joe reads the statistics, but Joe and all the other Joe's know damn well that Sarah Palin's "real America" (small town WASP America) is disappearing. By 2050 it will have totally shifted into another direction (big city non-white majorities). Joe the Plumber and Joe the Southerner don't like that. It's different! scary! rife with black and immigrant people rising up to kill us in our white beds!

I feel sorry for Joe Wilson. Not because his nightmare is demographically approaching, but because Joe Wilson and all the other Joe's out there would seem to be living in a permanent state of angry terror. Rather than meet and work with this statistical reality, they seem capable only of screaming it away.

Doesn't work, Joe! I live in a city which tries this, perhaps to its future peril. I once lived in another city (Oak Park) which long ago decided to replace screaming with planning. Today, Oak Park (and its sister suburb Evanston) are neither WASP nor Ghetto. Somewhere intelligently in between.

Joe -- you ought to come visit sometime to see that the future really can work!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009



We've each heard the story of the class beauty sitting at home for the prom, because every guy was sure someone else had already asked her....!

As has been said, all stories are true and some even happened. This one happened to the girl-of-my- dreams who, years later, smiled: "Why didn't you ever call?" Omigod, if only I knew then what I know know. But then such foolishness is the way of the world. Especially the world of hormone-charged adolescent boys.

Now at this age, however, we have less excuse. And yet recent surveys among Northwestern freshmen suggest there is still a kind of beast in being beautiful. The intuitional male reaction to beautiful females is a schizophrenic one that often lasts right into adulthood. Sensual attraction, but sentient repulsion. You want them at the same time you resent them.

That would seem to explain some of the reasons men find it hard to vote for or work for smart attractive women. For some, she's still that cool beauty on campus who never gave me a second look! For details check with the attractive, smarter-than-their-looks-convey women who have tried to become senators, CEOs, news anchors, and university presidents.

When the Gloria Steinem's of our times correctly spoke for the emancipation of women, they tended to speak of women in general. But the bright attractive women in particular sometimes got lost in the revolutionary shuffle. Cursed with the bimbo-syndrome (from Marilyn Monroe to Goldie Hawn), they often face the irony of having to beauty-down to be taken more seriously.

Sounds like another Oprah special, only even Oprah has suffered the curse by becoming too famous too fast. Now if only I had called Peggy for that prom, I wouldn't be writing about this stuff...


A great many pundits are psycho-analyzing the electorate these days. Why in the name of Richard Nixon are so many people so suspicious of everything the government does....?

Well, straight off, lets put issues aside. I mean, actual fact-based issues are not really what's at the heart of most of the political hysteria. Serious thinking is much too complicated. But what's not complicated is serious fearing. Ever since we got dumped from the Garden, we've been a deadly-serious fearing sort of species. We fear the night, the storms, the tribe across the river, the nation across the border, the religion down the street, anyone who looks and acts differently than us. Hey -- we're advised that's just how our evolutionary genes have programmed us for survival!

The evolutionary history of our nation is pretty short compared to other civilizations with their longer track record of suspicions and fears. But we're catching up fast. And in a democracy, your suspicions and fears have the added elegance of being heralded as the "voice of the people."

So what do we the people focus on? Well, naturally, anything that seems suspicious and fearful. Over the last century that's included the Kaiser... Demon Rum...Hebert Hoover...FDR...Adolf Hitler....Elvis Presley....Barry Goldwater... Richard Nixon...the CIA....Bill Clinton...and every American's favorite bogeyman since King George III: the government!

Ask some of the indignant, poster-waving, democracy-in-action folks addressing town hall meetings and picketing presidential address to their children. They'll tell you what they're most afraid of. That's right! The same government who builds their highways and roads, inspects their food and water, guards their national health, and all that other subversive stuff Oliver Stone movies and Glenn Beck exposes report.

This is not to say the government is always the solution. But it is to say it's not always the problem. In a democracy, the people in their suspicious, fearful misinformation may be the biggest problem of all.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009



Who says cliches and catch-phrases are silly...?

The reason they're still around is they somehow encapsulate a powerful piece of the truth. Take a pair of Chicago newspaper stories this week which bring a pair of age-old sayings right up to date: "I've got mine," and "Generals are always fighting the last war."

* A front-page story in the Tribune reports that local residents approve of neighborhood traffic cameras, only not in their neighborhood. Pretty consistent with our discouragingly consistent human nature. Ask the people about any bold new idea, and likely they'll react the very same way. A new health reform...? a new tax proposal....? a new environmental initiative...? I love it -- only not in my neighborhood. I've got mine, so stick somebody else with this.

* A sports story in the Sun Times reports that Mike Ditka and Dick Butkus are predicting the Bears won't be divisional winners this year. Why? Well, the two old pros are essentially saying: Because this year's Bears aren't doing it like we did it." They may be right, but the eternal risk of old age is instead of becoming smarter we only become stubborner.

Reading this stuff makes your recall Charlie Brown's little burst of wisdom: "I love humanity, it's just people I can't stand..."


Now here's a thorny issue our species has been tangling with for eons. What best to do with something new....?

There's a long history to this question. No doubt including our first encounter with fire, the wheel and the alphabet. And it continues today. Only today, the rapidity with which the question slams into our lives is exponential. Never before have there been so many scientists and so many discoveries. They estimate, 90% of all the scientists who ever lived, live today. And the rate of their published research is 60,000 a day throughout our website world.

Which raises the question about trying to manage today's avalanche by multi-tasking. Like all thorns, this either produces beauty or blood. For the last many years, the consensus has been beauty -- the beauty of smarter work and greater efficiency. Only now Stanford researcher Eyal Ophir reports to BBC News: "Multi-taskers consistently score poorer than others. They are less able to ignore distractions, have more fallible memories, and can't switch to new tasks as readily."

Co-researcher Clifford Ness adds: "The shocking discovery is that multi-taskers are lousy at everything that's necessary for multi-tasking. What's more they're suckers for irrelevancy."

Perhaps all this comes down to another conundrum in our modern world: If you want to get more done, try doing less.

Monday, September 7, 2009


Right now the signs are all around us. Little and large, they are speaking with growing autumnal insistence. Deep fall and then winter are closer than we may want to believe. And yet as with all signs, we have the choice either to take them casually or seriously. I choose the latter. When I do, September's and October's annual resplendence of crunch and color seems to bring a far deeper message.

Early falls in our Midwestern cities explode with tartans of tints, orchards of apples, World Series games, and college football weekend; but let us look and listen more intently. Beneath their everyday rhythms, our cities are already starting to turn inward. Bringing us with them into a special time of the year.

It's the approaching interior-ness of deep fall and winter.

Backyard animals are hurrying weather-tight nests, families stacking picnic baskets, children storing swim suits, resorts scheduling their final weekends, and the beckoning holidays will eventually lure us ever more inside and inward.

Life in other cities, cities of perpetual sun and summer, don't speak to their residents in this same way. Possibly that's why it's harder for the folks in Miami, Phoenix and Santa Barbara to be as ready for the shorter days, longer nights, and colder weather that gradually keep us closer to home. Closer to the silence, reflection, and yes appreciation for the gift of life which in the sun and summer we often use up a little too quickly.

Just as many of the world's great religions were born in the silence and reflection of deserts, so have many of the world's great works of art and science in the silence and reflection of deep fall and winter. There's just something about the interior-ness of this time of year. The exterior distractions of our greener world now give way to our own inner voices. From which mighty things can emerge if only we allow and nourish them.

And so it is -- the deep fall and winter will challenge us. Our thinking, praying, and producing!

However, for those who will miss the exterior-ness of their summers, not to worry. There's a ready remedy to your longing. I'm not thinking tanning beds or local spas. I'm thinking local produce markets. Really! You see, while chilling fall mornings and raw winter days may keep you more interior than you'd like to be, consider a trip to your neighborhood supermarket. There summer never really ends. Walk its produce aisles and smell its bins, you're right back in July! at the height of summertime! still in the middle of God's splendid bounty.

So there you have it.....! Another on-coming Midwestern interior-ness in which our Faith and our Muses have an opportunity to thrive at their very best. But at the same time, we never really have to leave the exterior-ness of our summers behind. Sounds like the best of both good worlds.



I can't help but recall Mark Twain's pithy wisdom: "Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination." It makes special sense when you consider how many Americans are happy about Lingerie Football's big success and Christie Brinkley's white-after-Labor-Day cause c'elebre....!

You can't make this stuff up. Mike Ditka is touting the new ladies football league, and Ms Brinkley is touting the new fashion breakthrough. We are left breathless here at the edge of these two new trails-to-glory. Who said progress has slowed?

In the Lingerie season's first game, the Chicago Bliss beat the Miami Caliente 29-19. The crowd at Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates was predictably mostly male. The players were predictably mostly naked. I speak with authority on this matter, for I recently fell in serious love with Misty May of beach-ball fame where the players also perform mostly naked.

This is not to play male chauvinist, simply to admit evolutionary genes have determined the male of the species incapable of watching mostly naked female athletes with their eyes mainly on the game. Coach Dikta, who has ownership in the new Lingerie League, didn't address this neuro-biological matter directly. He only remarked, "This is a pretty unique opportunity," without defining any of his terms.

As for Ms Brinkley, it has been reported she will boldly wear white even after Labor Day, thereby smashing another old social prohibition. Brinkley's decision reflects a recent survey in which 66% of the women believe the rule about no-white-after-Labor-Day is outdated, and 21% never even heard of it.

Does this make Mike and Christie America's new champions of change....? I thought we had elected someone else for that job.


In a recent survey, 80% of Americans said they favor a "public option" health insurance plan. In the same poll, only 40% could correctly define what a public option means. God bless the people....!

But while there may be some confusion about healing, there seems to be less about killing. Ammunition makers report they will produce 9.5 billion bullets this year, a 2 billion jump over last year. Lawrence Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation says, "Nobody has seen this kind of demand before."

We are left to decode what this trend means. Are gun-touting American stocking up in expectation of new federal gun restrictions? Are they reading the ancient Nostradamus/Inca stars about cataclysm striking the planet December 21, 2012? Or are we just ready to shoot more animals and people in the name of the 2nd amendment?

I was an educator before the days of campus metal detectors and mass shootings, so I never heard any governors or even NRA officials recommend students pack weapons for self defense. But then maybe I'm missing something. Maybe the idea has caught on, and the ammunition makers are just keeping up with their teenage market.

You gotta love the way the free market works....!

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Evil in the world goes by many different incarnations. Satan, demonic spirits, psychotic behavior, your mother-in-law, the Yankees, whatever forms your fears allow it. If you're spiritual, you resist with incantations; if you're secular, you do it with refutations. Either way, you know you have a war on your hands....!

But how to fight what is mostly nameless and faceless? what is so deeply embedded in our evolved sub-consciousness, we can't quite articulate it, only sense it?

Philosophers, psychiatrists and Captain Ahab alike have each sensed their own icons of evil. So have the national parks in the West where this year they have renewed the right -- actually, the need -- to hunt the wolf. Like the shark and the serpent, the wolf has remained hidden inside our deepest chambers of fear, invincibly resistant to the knife of logic.

And so today, the hunt is on once again. Not only for the wolf, but for any wolf in sheep's clothing. No matter the wolf's actual instincts nor ideologies, no matter the authentic pros and cons of his place in the ecology. The quintessential here is simply the hunt.

In recent fly-overs by the park rangers, they have identified the "king of the wolves" out there as black! young! intent on establishing his will over the packs! One helicopter shot could bring him down. But the hunters' primal fear demands direct retribution on the ground. Where they can see the downed prey for themselves.

And so it is that there is an evil in the land. The wolf...? The hunters....? The rangers....? Right now, there's so much heat and so little light in those hills, it's not yet possible to say.