Saturday, October 31, 2009


"An egotist is a person of low taste -- more interested in himself than in me...!"

When historian Ambrose Bierce said that, he had, oh, about 300 million Americans in mind. I mean, we all tend to think a lot about ourselves. Especially when we're presumptuous enough to write on the Web or on a Facebook wall. However, there are three guys who've turned self-centeredness into exquisite public affairs.

A man in Florida recently sued the manufacturer of his underwear for making "defective" garments. Albert Freed, 62, complained that during his Hawaii vacation, the fly flap was so poorly designed, it kept rubbing his genitalia "like sandpaper." When the judge asked why he hadn't noticed sooner, the 285-pound Freed said he couldn't see past his stomach, and he didn't want to ask his wife "because it might ruin her vacation."

Then there's ESPN baseball analyst Steve Phillips who was fired after admitting to an extra-marital affair. What gives an old tale a new twist is that the 22-year-old girlfriend has been harassing Phillips' wife with messages identifying the location of his birthmarks. He now reports he's entering rehab to "address his personal issues." When a reporter asked about the birthmarks, he was told "that's strictly personal."

Never a study in modesty, Reverend Jesse Jackson's ego was bruised lately when he was introduced by MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer as the Reverend Al Sharpton. Jesse exploded on the air, snapping, "Get it straight. I'm Jesse Jackson."

What might invite study here is that none of these affairs of ego had anything to do with the complainants' jobs. On the other hand, some of the most effusive public egos have everything to do with their jobs. Their jobs are their egos, and their egos are their jobs. Current cases in point: Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Anne Coulter, and Keith Olbermann.

A few generations ago, modesty was considered the better part of valor. At least, that was the recommended role to play in public. What might call for study is at what point in 20th century social time did the rules change? Who changed them? And where was I when it happened....?


Chicago Aldermen are objecting to being searched at the city's central headquarters "along with the masses" (SunTimes Nov 1). A small story with large consequences. If they succeed in bullying those operating these legal searches, it will be another body blow to this democracy we say we're waging wars to protect...!

Look at it this way. All through our history we've had the few setting themselves above the many. In the East there were the Boston Brahmin's and the New York 400; in the West, the guys with the biggest ranches and the most guns. Today the habit continues.

We've got "banks too big to fail"..."bonuses too valid to deny"..."games too important to expose drugged players"..."a government too essential to deny its illegal wiretaps"..."a military too set in its ways to allow gays" ...."secrets like Black Water and Halliburton too powerful to reveal." The mindset here is clear -- we're all equal except some of us who are more equal than others!

This small story is worth tracking to see if the big boys quietly win again. The only thing in a democracy that should distinguish one of us from another -- merit. When some of us excel at what we do, let the world know it. And respect it. But let the world still search us whenever necessary. Either that or stop calling this a democracy.

Friday, October 30, 2009


There's a special corner in the near-northside which for me is kind of a trinity-of-truth. Here -- all in one neighborhood intersection -- America's three major sub-cultures meet. All within a friendly few feet...!

On the southeast corner -- a busy new Fed Ex office. On the southwest corner -- a cozy old coffee shop. There tucked into the northwest corner -- one of those neighborhood walk-in health clinics. The first is where today's action is! The second, where it was! The third, where a lot of us end up regardless of age!
Some details to flesh out this trinity.

The Fed Ex office bristles with Internet stations, xerox machines, various print and reproduction systems, along with a thriving backdoor fleet of trucks taking in and shipping out important packages to all corners of the city. Median age: 30-ish. Standard dress: smart but casual. Usual conversation: Business and the Bears.

Now the coffee shop is hardly new. Its old signage goes with the age of the neighborhood. Nothing bristles here except maybe some cranky tempers when the coffee arrives too tepid. Median age: 60-ish. Standard dress: casual casual. Usual conversation: Body aches and children in their 3o's who never call.

That health clinic is one of hundreds popping up throughout the metropolitan area. Everything from bruises to burns to flu shots. I've been in one or two, and they're usually a sullen portrait in pain. They serve a 24/7 purpose as the locals keep bumping into their physical fallibility's. Pain, regardless of age or aspirations, is one of the great levellers.

There was a time when there were more levellers. And not quite as many sub-cultures. Funny thing is that now with so many electronic ways to instantly connect, we're often more disconnected than ever. Rarely do we share the same sports or movies or TV programs or books or comedians or even national missions like our incredibly brave GIs fighting to keep little intersections like this one safe.
I visit the Fed Ex office and the gray in my hair stands out as an exception; I grab a breakfast in the coffee shop but frankly here I'm still not gray enough. Strangely, the only visit that reassures and re-connects me is that clinic. Here there are neither generational nor aspirational gaps to get in the way. Sit here for a awhile and you quickly remember what modern living helps you forget. We're really all the same where it counts...

...inside. Inside the heart, the soul, the essence, or maybe the DNA. Whatever it is, it is; and we forget this at our peril.


The carefully detailed ranking of Chicagoland schools (Sun Times, Oct 30) was almost but not quite complete. The perennial puzzle to what-makes-a-good-school is always missing a piece. The gifted teacher...!

We're not the first generation that's tried desperately to figure out what makes schools good. National programs like No School Left Behind and local programs like magnet and charter schools do all they can. But what they usually don't do is keep the few indispensable gifted teachers by rewarding them outside the fixed union-contract box.

Sure, we can measure things like building budgets and equipment inventories and now the prima donna of all measurements: Achievement scores. However -- as with all fields and professions -- we can't exactly measure giftedness. To alter an old adage: "I can't define a gifted teacher, but I know one when I see one!"

So here's the secret piece to the puzzle you didn't report. Virtually every principal, every faculty member, every parent, even every union rep, and certainly every student knows a girted teacher when they see one. These special few not only teach subject matter well, they touch lives forever! You've had one or two and so have I. But we've got to keep them from leaving the system, because they're the flame that helps fire the whole system.

How? Just like we do in far less important fields such as sports and corporations -- bonuses. There has to be a new category in the city school budgets for bonuses for the gifted. Sure, we're a democracy, but while every person is equal in the law, not every teacher is equal in the classroom.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


I've heard of investigative reporters, but you now have a special-ops one as well (Sun Times, Oct 29). Her name is Sandra Guy, and her cunning report from behind enemy lines was tucked into page 18. Any counter-intelligence agency -- or holiday shopper -- will be glad to get their hands on it...!

A compact summary that could have been squeezed onto a carrier pigeon, this report lays out the retailers' battle plan for the big 8-week campaign coming up. Great espionage, and your reporter lived to tell the tale. For instance, the names of the large emporiums that will announce major discounts and deals...the retailers who plan to add on-line layaway packages...the company coming up with a Black-Friday deal every Saturday from now to Christmas.

Hey, any general should be so lucky to have such intelligence days before the battle!

Of course, intelligence is only as good as its user. Put these secret reports into the hands of holiday-greedy kids, and they'll gobble them up in a reckless buying spree. With all due respect, the same might be said for some of the thrifty women who traditionally have to do all the shopping while their husbands watch football. Probably the smartest user will be the grandmothers.

They remember something of the Great Depression, so they've seen retailers on the prowl like this before. They know something about their strategies and their small print. So grandma is probably the best one to study this document, and design a pre-emptive strike.

There are 00 days to go. Let the games begin....!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it's faced." Ever since James Baldwin wrote this, there've been enormous changes in the role of women and gays in our once- puritanical culture. And yet, progress has its backlash...!

Take the role of women. It's been growing as more and more leave the kitchen for the workplace. Now, however, this has ignited an intriguing backlash among some men. No, not the fading umbrage the male once took at the presence of the female in the workplace. It's now more a matter of money than mores. Today a whopping 26% of wives earn more than their husbands in two-income households. Among all married couples, that number hits 34%.

How is the fragile male ego responding...? In some cases, pragmatically. "Hey, whatever it takes to make the monthly rent," say many. Others, tho, have reported: "A funny feeling I'm not in control anymore" One wonders what these two categories of husband share in common. Perhaps the weekend tailgate parties where football is still played exclusively by the male of the species.

Of course there's always the argument that the women prevail here today, because, "No woman is dumb enough to play a sport in which the average career time is 6.5 years, followed by 20 years of arthritis!"

As for the role of the gays, this has not only grown in the world of the arts -- from Broadway to Hollywood -- but everywhere else as well. Take a first-of-its-kind lawsuit in Italy this month. An Italian couple is suing their cruise line for a $4500 refund.They claim they were not advised the ship was Italy's "first all-gay cruise of the Mediterranean." The plaintiffs argue they were the only straight couple among the 1500 guests.

Nowhere in the court proceedings has anyone decided whether the cruise line will continue the practice. Outside the Vatican, the odds right now are 20 to 1 they will.

This is just a guess, but maybe comedian George Burns put it best in describing what makes people happy in a changing culture: "Happiness is having a large, loving, close-knit family in another city!"


With all the great debates raging in our country, this is a pretty small one. And yet it's been given some pretty big attention (Sun Times Oct 27 & 28). Apparently it's over the "great trauma" the last generations suffered because they had to swim naked in gym classes...!

Frankly, isn't this an example of past nudity vs present narcissism? Today's generation seems to have this self-indulgent habit of deciding in retrospect what was and wasn't traumatic. Which, really, is presuming to judge what was by what is. In the real world, each generation has its own standards that fit its own times. Nude swimming classes were really no more traumatic for most kids back then, than body-piercing parties are today. Just depends on which generation you're living in!

Before getting so hung up on judging what is or is not traumatic, lets remember. Today's generation might find Marilyn Monroe "fat," but her generation thought she was just fine. Today's generation has fun at the expense of the "mean" Catholic nuns, whereas most kids in their generation found them devoted and loving. Today's generation often damns President Truman for dropping the atomic bomb on civilians, but before passing sentence they'd have to be one of the scared GI's back then facing a million-man casualty attack on Japan.

Having opinions...? Fine! Pronouncing judgments...? Better think twice. Or to put that another way, better be in Cutler's helmet on Sunday before you judge his game on Monday...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


OK, here it is by the numbers. The way the world's populations feel about Paradise...!

While many of the ancient religious books and traditions have their own version of the Genesis Paradise Story, a new research group calling themselves Around The World has reported their results on CNN about what people think of Paradise today.

The top 5 "hoping for heaven" are: Malaysia (98%), Philippines (97%), US (91%), India (86%) and Italy (83%). The bottom 5: Spain (63%), Germany (58%),China (57%), Netherlands (54%) and France (50%).

Those numbers weren't surprising, but there was a surprise with the ages of the respondents. While the researchers assumed more older people believe in a heaven, turns out in six countries (Australia, Brazil, China, Russia, Singapore and Spain) it was those under 45. In another surprise, the research didn't find the expected predominance in female believers, for in most countries including the US the male/female belief was about even.

So where does that leave us on the heaven issue..? Frankly, where most statistics leave us -- wherever you want to go with them. A good guess is that for anyone who wants to take this latest research seriously, there are still plenty of souls out there willing to be saved. On the other hand, most atheists, agnostics and covens will conclude their side of the argument is doing very nicely, thank you.

In the end, perhaps this can be said. If there isn't a heaven, none of these stats matter. But if there is, well heaven must be looking down something like the IRS does every April. Rich or poor, believer or not, our taxes still have to be paid,,,,!


The Victoria's Secret photo-spread (Sun Times, Oct 27) is more than a news report. This is really an entire sociology course...!

Where else can you and your kids watch together what was once called pornography now called marketing...? Where else can you find the mass magic that can convince size 18s they can look like this....? Where else can the female ego then go to be so totally devastated...? Where else can you find a hierarchy of male executives deciding what America's women should wear...? Where else can you find women being paid to perpetuate the objectification of their gender both on TV and Michigan Avenue...?

Oh, and where else can you study the silver stake being plunged into the last remnants of America's old Puritanical vampire...? In 17th C Boston, these beauties would have probably found themselves at the wrong end of a hangman's noose, and now they're given the city's best seats!

What completes the fascinating sociological aspects to this full-page story is the tell-tale fact a man not a woman did the reporting. You don't have to be a Puritan to wonder if that doesn't help prove what a lot of folks have always said -- Victoria's Secrets are more for the male than the female viewer. My evidence? I never miss a commercial!

Monday, October 26, 2009


The real headline story was buried on page 10 (Chicago Sun Times, October 26). Granted the Bears embarrassing loss and the city's budgetary woes are news, but theyll pass. What won't pass is the 24/7 technology by which our city and our world now lives. And which this helicopter rescue story accurately questions...!

Getting something new and shiny -- like these hikers' GPS system -- can tempt us to overuse them. In this case, the over-used rescue squads in the Grand Canyon call it Yuppie 911. Coordinator Matt Scharper touches a nerve: "Now they can send a message to a satellite and the government pulls your butt out something you shouldn't have been in in the first place!"

This story has legs, because it can apply to the way we use all our handy new technologies like cell phones, phone cameras, websites, tweets, security alarm systems, and the ever-available 911 operator. Each of these wonders has expanded and enhanced our lives, but sometimes at a serious cost. Scrambling rescue squads at the first hint of trouble or videoing everything that looks like a story or flashing out across cyberspace the latest gotacha rumor often means playing with a loaded gun.

Like the kids this coming Christmas -- wearing out their new toys until the batteries die -- we adults can get addicted to our toys too. But here's what makes this story so significant. The batteries to our generation's growing new technologies will never die. These wonderful adult toys just keep going like the energizer bunny. Somehow, someone has to start deciding at what point to turn them off. Right now, that best someone is probably each of us.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


In your October 25 edition you introduced Chicago to a whole new secret: "The Social Media." Not that thousands of locals aren't already into social media, but millions of others may never have heard the name. It's that hot, new sub-culture of bloggers, tweeters, and YouTube video-makers whose facts and feelings fill the Internet 24/7. That many people can't be ignored...!

Which is why, as you report, Coca-Cola is launching a worldwide study January 1 to find out "what makes these people happy." One good way to get them to buy your stuff. Who knows, in time others may follow -- Pepsi, United, Folgers, the Blackhawks, the local church, even Mayor Daley!

The next time we notice our kids or our fellow citizens tapping and clicking away, we just may be witnessing a whole new secret world of thoughts being exchanged. At one time this could have been the Delphic Oracles, the Knights Templar, the DaVinci Coders, the Society of Free Masons, or the Skull & Bones Society. Now it's just our fellow Chicagoans.

Eventually Dan Brown will get around to writing a hot, best-seller about them. In the meantime, here's a tip. We can already spot them in action. All day everyday, clicking away on their secret keypads. At air terminals, Starbucks, Paneras, or wherever else there's a free plug-in line.

While the Traditional Media -- you and the networks -- are reporting the news, these folks feel they're making the news. The only thing for sure is, most of them are already drinking Coke...!

Saturday, October 24, 2009


What are you going to believe -- me or your own eyes....?

The con man who joked about this wasn't really joking. Con men -- or women or companies or governments -- have this way of hustling the facts to make a point. Their point. I was reminded of that last night and then again this morning. Last night I watched a charming 8th grade play in one of our fine residential suburbs, and felt good about what I was seeing with my own eyes. But then this morning I woke up to a front page photo-story in the New York Times about 83-year-old Hugh Hefner, and I felt bad about what I was seeing with my own eyes.

The sharp dichotomy here sliced like a knife through my convictions about my country.

On one hand, these terrific kids -- supported by their terrific teachers and parents and friends -- seem to represent the best America we can be. Gifted beyond measure from so many of the inner-city school kids in crisis, these 8th graders seemed to capture the spirit of good and hope we like to find in our America. No doubt, from among these ranks will come many of tomorrow's brightest minds, richest entrepreneurs, greatest talents, and yes the men and women who will don the uniform to fight and protect us.

On the other hand, what my eyes saw on the Times front page was -- well, let me put it this way. A pathetic pajamed image of a man who sincerely believes he has done something important for America. I'm still not quite sure what that is, but at various times the Playboy Tycoon has spoken of providing: Men with a healthy sense of sexual freedom, writers a creative source of expression, and women -- lets see now, a pair of bunny ears!

This isn't meant to be cheap mockery. Hefner has been commercially successful. I've met his daughter Christie who seems to represent much of what the old man has claimed to be. However, the dichotomy remains. Healthy 8th grade kids growing up within the world of loving teachers, parents and peers, luckily far removed from the turmoil of the city's streets; in brittle contrast, a libidinous eighty-three-year-old bunny-chaser luckily far removed from the center of any real learning or creativity.

Two events. two sets of values. two Americas. two ways of looking into our future. Hef -- in his mansioned satin and sex -- living out his days as do we all. Somehow wanting to believe he made the trip worthwhile. Off the front page and back here in Hinsdale, a community of concern, care and expectations that their kids represent a bright tomorrow.

No one dares presume to judge another or to predict a future, but here's a guess that these fresh-faced kids will never wear bunny ears...!

Friday, October 23, 2009


Have you ever heard of an old neighborhood reunion...? To appreciate the question, neighborhoods must be contrasted with communities (be the communities real or virtual). While one can argue definitions and distinctions, it's hard to argue that neighborhoods are fast disappearing...!

You would probably have to be over 60 to have lived in a neighborhood. Those were the 20th century years in which big cities were proliferating, but in order to be rooted in their bigness you attached yourself to something small. The front-porch neighbors, mom&pop stores, school, church and playgrounds all within a walk and a wish. Which is what motivated a dear friend's recent return to his "Jersey neighborhood reunion." Old and fast friends whose mother and father you knew, whose first loves you may have shared, whose scars and heartaches you know well, and all of whom made a lasting contribution to so many of the views and values you've carried with you ever since.

Today there is no lack of communities -- real and virtual -- because we have become more wings than roots. Cars, phones, trains, planes and of course the computer has shaped a staggering lacework of instant inter-personal connections.There are communities of lawyers, doctors, teachers, fraternities, sororities, artists, country clubs, plus those burgeoning digital enclaves in which we can live 24/7 with our websites, blogs and tweets. Each of these communities is pregnant with wonderful possibilities. They grow and they thrive, making the old 20th century notion of neighborhood a distant -- perchance dated -- affair.

Urban sociologists put different lenses to this phenomenon. It if frequently called: Change, progress, the reconstitution of urban interpersonal dynamics. They all sound right to me. Only I wish I had been at my friend's old neighborhood reunion party. There were so many folks gathered there that the local newspaper covered and caressed the event. Remember "Cheers" where everyone-knew-your-name...? Hold that picture and you've got my friend's coming home celebration...!

Now wait -- this is not some sentimentalized no-country-for-old-men complaint. Simply a thoughtful look over the shoulder to a time -- whether created by cultural imperatives or familial affections -- when life was slower, tighter, simpler, and perhaps more enduring. However, that was then and this is now. Now is where we are, and where we have to live.

Still -- have you ever watched grandchildren curl up around grandparents with curiosity in their eyes when the elders reminisce about an age they will never know? I have. I'm sure many of those urban sociologists have too. What's intriguing is to hear the kids -- surrounded by their PCs, iPhones and iPods -- react to your stories with their ultimate approbation: "Cool...!"

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Life is full of lines. Really. Just think back....!

As a kid, there were all sorts and sizes of lines. Your mother was always warning you "not to cross the line," and she surely drew plenty of them. Pay attention to your teachers...listen to your father...and, most dangerous of all her lines, don't cross me.

Then all those lines your little friends dared you with. Cross this line and see what happens to you...this is mine so stay out...remember who you're dealing with.

But then we become an adult. Now the lines grow, not only in number but in complexity.You never realized how many subtle lines there would be on the road of life. Consider the subtlety between good and and illegal...cunning or crookedness...candor and insult....creative and crazy. What's more, you never realized how crossing some of these lines would have such enormous consequences.

For instance, that candor/insult line -- how difficult to navigate. How do you respond when the boss growls, "Now be honest with me...!" or your mate asks, "How do I really look in this....?"

If life is a road and lines cross it at every turn, one can reasonably conclude this was the way it was meant to be. Is it the caring hand of God challenging our better angels...? Or the impersonal hand of evolution programming our survival...? Take your pick, either way the road and the lines remain! Mark Twain liked to say, "Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow." Funny line, Mr.T., but there are those times when some lines insist otherwise.

Oh.....there's one more line. Comes to all of us. That little line on the gravestone between the year of our birth and the year of our death. One particularly thoughtful writer said of that line: "This dash is all the things we've done from birth to death, which makes it is the most important line of our lives. Hopefully, those who remember us, will remember it with both honor and respect."

What better hope can there be....?

Wednesday, October 21, 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....


If you were born after 2000, you have a good chance of seeing 2100. But what may be good news for life-lovers, could be bad news for societies suddenly crowded with folks in their 80s and 90s. For one thing, it means almost everyone of us will live to become an orphan...!

This month's Danish life-expectancy study of more than 30 nations added that these numbers could go even higher with the development of stem cell research. However, it said nothing about becoming an orphan. Of all the searing, dislocating, desolating and tormenting moments in ones life, this is unique. It's the one that makes a permanent home in your heart at your last parent's funeral.

Dramas, operas, poetry and eulogies all give voice to this loss; but it's a loss that can only be understood once it catches up with your assumption they'll always be there. There for the parties, holidays, weddings, whenever we need them. And when finally they're not, this aberrant sense of both freedom and loss. Free to act without their judgment, but loss without their approval.

Right now we're busy arguing the merits of health care reform, for we know that with an aging population, something must be done to better manage the enormous costs and benefits involved. While some hysterically babble about killing grandma and others about their vested interests in this multi-billion dollar system, there's no committee or legislation that can address the demons of death. As always, that's an individual moment.

Medical science -- like all science -- represents some of the finest minds and noblest goals of our species. And yet, like justice, it remains blind. Neither fears nor feelings are part of the final equation. Those are for each of us to cope with as each day slips into the mysteries of night. To lose a spouse, a child, a sibling are each tragedies marked in our museum of memories. To lose ones parents, though, that's in some ways to lose ones self.

So there we have it -- the new numbers are in! We can all expect to live much longer! Which means to travel further and farther than any other generation ever dreamed of. However, life -- whether authored by god or by evolution -- is never one dimensional. For each achievement a price, for each accomplishment a pause, for each summit a clearer view...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


The Bible speaks of old men having dreams and young men seeing visions. Hard to argue with The Book, and yet this seems to emphasize the distance between visions and dreams. Between our future and our past. But there's also the connection...!

Watching climbers repelling their way up mountains, you see this connection in action. The grappling hook reaches up to the future of the mountaintop, while the hook boots on the way up depend on each dig of the foot. Futures don't happen without pasts to build on. One of the dynamics that comes with being human.

Which is why this time of year is so good for us. Young and old, visionaries and dreamers. We all get another chance to better appreciate one another. You see, this is the season for college weekends. class reunions. family holidays, and sacred holydays. That toe-squishing time when different ages and aspirations melt together if only for a little while.

Of all the infamous "gaps" in a country -- party, race, gender, income -- the generational one can be the most counter-productive. Read the bitter editorials about "spoiled elders" and "irresponsible kids." Watch the boisterous clashes when young and old bump into each another in street traffic or stadium crowds. The same-old-same-old. Each age grousing about the other. Too slow/too rushed; too irrelevant/too brash; too out-of-the-loop/too tied-up-in-themself.

What makes a city and a country work best is when it builds on its commonalities rather than its contradictions. Right now we're a nation with too few values in common. Politics...government...banks,,, schools...religion... gender. Democracy can be such a can of disagreeable worms, pretty soon we forget how to fish!

While some of this disagreeability may be beyond easy reach, this particular season of the year we get a most agreeable chance to agree on at least one thing. One another. The ageless fun of Halloween, families around the turkeys, and again around the trees, all help remind us. Visionaries or dreamers, young or old, future or past, Americans can still appreciate that the-way-we-were and the-way-we-want-to-be are not mutually exclusive.

If these three upcoming celebrations are the only times we poke our heads out of our own generational rabbit holes, so be it. Better than not. Better than always talking to our own. Better to re-discover that young visions and old dreams really do meet on the same playing field in this same game called life.

Ending 2009 with this thought could make 2010 a much better year...

Monday, October 19, 2009


We've got a problem. Unlike the problems of our ancestors -- lack of enough food, clothes, land, income -- our problem in today's technological age is a first in human history. Not lack, but abundance...!

True, no one has everything; but almost everyone has something. Foods stuff our stores, clothes are easily available, cars and vacations just a credit card away. Even low-income families have more access to more of life than the average peasant in the ancient world ever dreamed of.

What's more, most of this is a click away on our computers. Google...Facebook...E-Bay...YouTube...the shopping & news channels. There's no combination of ancient kings, emperors or popes who ever possessed all that we possess at the touch of a finger. And yet scan the book shelves and listen to the talk shows -- topic number one always comes back to our angst, our health, our insecurities, our desire to find those 10-top-steps to the happiness we assume our age of abundance has to offer.

No top 10's to be found here. That likely is the mission of religion or psychiatry or journeys to mountaintop gurus. There is, however, this thought. Can our very abundance be part of our angst. Everyone understands the emergency of having too little; now we are the first generations to confront the enigma of having too much. So much so that it has become difficult to sort through the choices. What's bad, what's good, what's best...? And who is to say...?

Best to begin at the beginning. Discerning the distinction between the true and the trivial, between what counts and what doesn't. Rather than plumbing the Great Books, a handy place to start might be the paparazzi on one end and the obituaries on the other. The paparazzi bring us a gluttony of half-truth trivia about half-talented celebrities. The obits bring us a litany of lives whose quiet achievements can stir our best thoughts about life.

Here's an example. First, consider that there is a cat that plays the piano on You Tube. The network reports 1 billion hits a day! In contrast, the website with Gandhi's obituary get 15 hits a day! I don't know what the cat has to offer our search, but here's what Gandhi does: "The thing that will destroy us are politics without principle... pleasure without conscience...wealth without work...knowledge without without morality... science without humanity...worship without sacrifice."

Sunday, October 18, 2009


The ultimate American game...? No, it's not baseball. Nor football. It's poker. No-limit, table-stakes poker!

This is the very reasonable conclusion drawn by James McManus in "The Chronicle of Higher Education." He argues that, "in addition to being a superb networking tool, poker is educational, teaching its players how to assess risks and other people's thought processes."

Among some of our better poker players have been Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Bill Gate. When he was a student at Harvard, Gates claims he learned more about business in his all-night poker games than he ever did in business school. Being a professional loser myself, it's not hard to understand how good Seven-Card-Stud players can become damn good entrepreneurs.

Then there's Draw Poker -- the game preferred in the Old West. Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson and Billy the Kid were fearsome players. Wild Bill Hickok was too until he was shot in the back while drawing. The essence of Draw Poker is very much the essence of all risk-taking. You get the chance to completely change your odds right in the middle of the game. However, always at the enormous risk of losing everything you held.

McManus and social historians point out that all-or-nothing risk-taking like this is in the national DNA. Why else would you uproot your life and travel to a raw new continent? Once here and settled in the East, why else would you uproot again to venture into the uncharted mines and forests of a Wild West?

Start with some of the East's Yankee values of diligence and self control, mix it with the covered wagon lust for land and gold. There it is! Then and now, life is a poker game, and a poker game is life. No matter our age or our stage, we all have a seat at the table.

So cut the deck and start dealing....!

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Now here's a documentable national conspiracy, but with a twist. In this case, no one pulled the trigger...!

Start with the facts. A few generations ago there were three major networks and no cable; today at least a dozen major networks and over 1000 cable channels. Then there were eight national magazines; today the number exceeds 100. Then there were a few great city newspapers; today aspiring ones proliferate in every byte on the Internet, Then the national conversations were informally held over backyard fences, barbershops and beauty salons; today they exist by the tens of millions throughout the virtual communities thriving on websites, facebooks, and tweets.

What do these have to do with the death of "I Love Lucy" and "The Nightly News with Walter Cronkite?" To be sure, it was an unplanned plot! No one trigger finger. It's best described as the inexorability of communication technology. Once unleashed, there was neither the will nor the way to stop it. Gradually national readerships that once gathered around their "Tribune," "Life," "Saturday Evening Post," and "Reader's Digest" drifted away. The vast national audiences that once gathered around their sets for Lucy and Walter to provide them a consensus of comedy and coverage likewise drifted away.

Technology has granted us the gift of choice. Three hundred million minds no longer tethered to any one common source of entertainment or information. Extending the logic of the Founding Fathers' freedom-of- speech, now humor and ideas have blossomed into an exponential symphony of sounds. It's the old neighborhood movie house and community town hall meeting become universal!

A foundational idea in democracy has always been there can never be too many voices; the only danger is too few choices. Choice is the fuel that fires the flame, that keeps the tyrants and oligarchs at bay. A spirit of freedom comes with choice, like the spirit of a stallion without a saddle its mane flying majestically in the winds.

As we now blow in the technological winds of our unlimited cablecasting, blogging, facebooking and tweeting, there's been the initial flush that comes with all freedom. This sense that at long last my voice, my ideas, my 24/7 spontaneity of expression have reached their inevitable apotheosis.

And they have, with all their stunning rewards....! But as always there's a but....!

As this brave new inexorability of technology frees us like 300 million school kids bursting out of class on the last days of June, we are left to consider what the mane-flying stallion must ask at the end of his race. Quo Vadis? Where are we going with this wisp-of-the-wind liberty of writing, blogging, and tweeting every hour of every day? We have each become our own citizen-journalist, our own citizen-government.

No nation in history has experienced quite this degree of choice. Or this size of challenge. A magnificent study in abundance in search of achievement. What will be the results?

Stay tuned -- you certainly have enough sources to tune into!

Friday, October 16, 2009


The Great Depression has a lesson for those of us now in the Great Recession -- it's good for your health..!

The University of Michigan recently completed a study of life expectancy during the 1930s, and arrived at the counter-intuitive conclusion life expectancy in those hard times went up not down. Watching my parents and extended family members struggle through the terrible thirties, I have little anecdotal evidence to support those researchers. But there it is -- if you believe in the signs of the stats, hard times mean mortality rates drop while life expectancy rates spike.

Even without any personal evidence of this conclusion, I find the researchers reporting that in timeS of prosperity (like the 1920s and 1990s) people "are feeling flush with money and so they tend to eat more, drink more, smoke more, drive more and party more, all of which lead to earlier deaths."

Study author Jose A. Tapia Granados notes that in times of depression/recession, "people eat and drink less, sleep more, and spend less time working, making them less prone to industrial accidents. Instead, they tend to seek solace from friends and family members, which could have a protective effect on health."

One is left to ponder the meaning of these statistics. If true, additional extrapolations might be drawn about our current recessionary prospects for raising healthier babies, remaining longer in marriages, and seeking the gratifications of religion. The Michigan researchers have remained silent on these matters. Also on the matter of the American military whose role flies in the face of virtually all these numbers.

You see, while at home the nation -- depression, recession or prosperity -- is one country, it's fighting men and women overseas are another. While we live in the relative comforts of domestic peace and security, hundreds of thousand of our fellow Americans stand at the borders of global conflict and danger. Right or wrong, wise or foolish, these wars are being fought in our name. But by them not us!

In their case, matters of life expectancy or mortality rates have little relevance. They're there and we're here, and this twain almost never meets. Just one more anomaly to deal with as we once more struggle with the recurring national question: What is America....?

Thursday, October 15, 2009



Here's one of October's ironies -- adults are writing about how adults have stolen Halloween from kids. Good intentions, to be sure, and yet these are adults writing to adults. If adults honestly wish to release the tethered tiger of kiddy magic this month, the best thing we might do is shut up and listen....!

The little ones are over-dosed on the adult-designed Halloween regalia already stuffing the aisles of their local stores. You know, that gaudy gorge of baubles thoroughly test-marketed by the big boys at the big toy plants. I mean, selling to kids is not kid stuff! It takes the profit-hungry skills of TV's "Mad Men" to plumb the psychic depths of ages 3 to scrape up every possible subconscious clue to their buy-me-this appetites... to run-it-up-the-flag smarts so as to find the most responsive greed-gene.

But for the parent who honestly wants to peer in -- maybe even share in -- the adult-free kiddieland of October magic, all we have to do is do nothing. Really! Just respectfully listen in on the little one's late-afternoon and early-evening conversations. On the phone, on their facebook, but if possible the ones they have dear to their magical hearts when cuddled up with a friend. Perhaps on the front porch (there are front porches still, aren't there?), or while tumbling through a rainbow of fallen leaves, or especially when looking out their bedroom windows at night searching for broomsticks in the sky.

Please, don't misunderstand. This isn't a pitch for eavesdropping; consider it only an invitation to get into honest touch with their intuitive magic. And -- Wall-Street-forbid -- this is not an indictment of adult American free enterprise. Simply one adult-child calling out in the October winds to those adult-children still left. We have already adult-ized our children quite enough. Personal computers, mobile communicators, pre-teen proms, grown-up clothes and courses and camps. Why rush them...? Is our adulthood really so much more desirable and compelling than their childhood...?

George Bernard Shaw famously said: "Youth is wasted on the young." I see his point, but I don't accept it. Youth -- unfettered and at least briefly protected -- is not at all a waste. It is that terribly brief flicker of flame that lights up vast wonderlands of magic, mystery, and uncynical happiness. We travel it only once. However, just because we can't travel it anymore, that's no reason to rush it along for them by dressing it up with the things of adulthood.

October and its day-counting-days up to Halloween night is perhaps the last real childhood corner of the world. We adults have appropriated Thanksgiving and Christmas; why not let the kids have October. And if in doing that we may also wish to listen in a little, that's perfectly fine. It certainly can't hurt us. It might just help heal us.


No one likes lines. No one likes being in lines. However, have you ever considered some of the eureka messages hidden in these lines...?

Post office lines are, without doubt, the very worst. The clerks don't want to be here...the customers don't want to wait for clerks who don't want to be here...and the environment has all the antiseptic charm of all government buildings. But scan those customers and you can get a lesson in life. The impatient businessman who actually thinks what he's planning to mail is actually important to his world. Or the teenager who doesn't even know she's here, because she's a world away giggling on her Blackberry. Or the sweet little old lady who looks sweet until she thinks you're trying to rush her.

Supermarket checkout lines are a tad better. Impatience, sure, but at least here the customers are lined up in an environment rich with tantalizing displays and appetizing aromas. You sense the message of hope in their eyes as they envision eventually enjoying what they've just purchased.

The worst of lines are those at the pharmacies. Watch the computer chaos at the counter when customer and pharmacist have to wait for the screen to tell them if this prescription is approved, rejected, referred to another source, requires further identification, insists on cash. At least when you buy a book of stamps or a bag iof apples, everyone gets the same thing. When it comes to health care coverage, there are a gazillion plans, forms, deductions, pre-existing conditions, small-print escape clauses, and enough delays to kill half the patients still waiting for an answer.

If ever there was a battle-cry for universal health care reform -- you can hear it at the lines at the pharmacy!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


'Tis the season to be holy, happy and positive. Granted. But sometimes it helps put into better perspective what you like when you remember what you don't...!

Herewith some life-long dis-likes. Small burrs under the saddle of my post-Eden joy, pimples on the seat of my spiritual progress. Come let us together re-count the ways:

* Headlines, which gleefully herald the most vile human action of the day
* Tags, those hypocritical little smiley-stories at the end of the gory newscast
* Candlelight vigils, not only featured but usually posed by the media
* Index fingers, arrogantly jabbing the air after each and every accomplishment no matter how small
* Health reports, because no two ever agree therefore leaving us sicker than ever with confusion
* Sealed plastic, man's evil design from protecting things to making them totally inaccessible
* Automated phone lines, insisting every 15 seconds how important this call is to them

The best unused antidote I've discovered for such annoyances is try imaging the person behind the annoyance. Yes, there really are good and decent human beings involved in each of these petty irritations. People who are simply doing what they're paid to do. No better and no worse than me. It all comes down to that very appropriate Golden Rule.

The one big problem with this Rule, though, is it's never quite as satisfying to love my neighbor as it is to complain about him. Which only goes to prove the congenitally nasty side to human nature. Well, at least mine ever since I learned there was no Great Pumpkin, no Santa Claus, and that dear Beatrix lied about Peter Cottontail.

Until second grade, my little life was rather in keeping with that of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Then one sunny day on the way to school, a wretched serpent! I can't speak for theirs, but mine was a snotty little kid by the name of Andy Vail. Ahh yes, he's the one. The one who sold me "genuine" General Custer kerchiefs and Joe DiMaggio baseballs for "only a quarter" each...the one who always tripped me going up the aisle to the blackboard...the one who possessed -- for as long as I knew him -- this dubious talent for making musical noises by cupping his armpits.

All of which I could tolerate, you see, until his contemptible revelations about Santa and Peter. (You remember the little film classic "A Christmas Story?" Andy was their prototype for the neighborhood bully!) And so to this day I attribute my dialogue of dislikes to him. Now is this disingenuous of me...? Well, I'm very much like you. I certainly don't intend to put the blame for my human shortcomings on me when Adams and Eve have the serpent and I've got Andy....

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Two celebrated American authors...! two famous quotes...! two big mistakes...!

In his sprawling LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL Wolfe lamented, "you can never go home again." In his later life, Fitzgerald lamented, "in America there are no second acts." And while their words have quite understandably resonated with millions of readers over the years, there are times when even such catechestical wisdoms fail the test of time.

For most of us, yes, life is limited to a sparse first act. Born, loved, worked, died. In all too many cases, we may actually have only a prologue, for our lives never develop into a full script. And while such lives are like gardens that never bloom, Fitzgerald's own experience was a brilliant first act, then premature obscurity. He understood the American psyche's love affair with brilliance, but how it turns shoulders once the light goes out.

And yet, history gives the lie to Fitzgerald's despair. It is rich with the lives of those whose second acts fired even brighter than their first. In religion we are acquainted with Abraham, Moses, Paul, Augustine, Francis of Assisi and Luther. In government there is Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Eisenhower, and Jimmy Carter. In the arts, consider those who were great in their early careers only to be greater still in their second careers: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Paul Anka, Clint Eastood and posthumously poets like Dickinson and painters like Van Gogh.

Equally haunting is Wolfe's sadness about never again being able to retrieve the youth that we all lose. How many times we taste the brine of this truth when we gather for family holidays and school reunions. So much of what we have played on the screens of our memories turn out to be mere illusions. Worse yet, sometimes delusions. Which is why, despite Hallmark's best efforts, holidays and reunions all too often fail the test of our hopes.

And yet, history hints that some in our midst have never lost the key to this locked door, nor misplaced the maps that can guide them back home. We sense this in the way so many seem so young despite their years. The twinkle of fun coating the wrinkles of their eyes...the flair of wonder that lights up the stories they tell...the happy way they watch little children, small puppies, lemonade stands and snow fights. None of these elders seem to have forgotten how to find their way back home again. And, better still, bring something of it back with them.

These thoughts come from one small example of tens of millions who, I believe, have found second acts after their firsts. Nor have they ever had to evacuate their best memories of home and youth. And -- to push the case a joyful speculation further -- these happy souls perhaps envision a second, look-homeward act even after they at last close their earthly eyes.

Now who can really tell them they're wrong.....?

Monday, October 12, 2009


We move in a world bursting with conflicts. Between rich & & white...West & Islam. However, perhaps the most persistent conflict is the ancient one between belief & doubt!

We of today's technological age of wonders, wonder how the medieval peasant could wonder about perfectly explainable phenomenon, then call them "miracles." After all, once the magician's trick has been duplicated by the audience, the audience should now know better.

And so, once again, the so-called miraculous Shroud of Turin has come center stage in this belief vs doubt debate. Italian chemist Luigi Garlaschelli reports he has been able to "duplicate the trick by simply using the materials available at the time the Shroud was discovered in 1360." For him, and other scientists, this finally nails it. Anything man can make is no miracle!

But of course this nails nothing. It only parts another veil. If the Professor's premise is true -- anything man can make is no miracle -- then we are left to wonder about other "miracles" scattered throughout history. Consider all the times people survive a crisis plunge from the sky or into the ocean, live through a fatal disease, beat impossible military odds, salvage broken bodies and marriages, save ghettoed lives, repair shattered families, prevail over defeat, love an irreparably damaged child. How does one find the authentic definition for such remarkables?

Professor Garlaschelli may be able to duplicate step by step the very human ways in which these very human moments were achieved. Thus his very correct summation would be: Nowhere the hand of God! However, if this summation is correct, its conclusion is intriguingly inconclusive. For if making these various impossibles possible is not a kind of human miracle, then surely the word must be once and forever retired from our dictionaries.

To return to the good professor -- who works in the Italian city from where my mother's family originated -- he might be asked this followup question: Even if the image was made by man, what other name than "miracle" would you attribute to the millions who have been so deeply moved and motivated these last 700 years?

Yes, the professor might call upon names like: coincidence...serendipity...mass hysteria...and other quite proper terms. And at first blush, few if any could dispute them. Well, except those same millions who over those same centuries have drawn from this "miracle" what they have believed were answers, insights, comforts, cures and enormous joys. None of which are forthcoming from most chemistry labs.

My grandmother used to tell of her great, great grandfather from Turin who almost died in his childhood of epilepsy. He offered prayers to the God of the Shroud, and he lived beyond the expectations of his doctors. He called it a "miracle!" The Professor would call it coincidence! I -- well, I would have to call it one of the reasons my grandmother happened. And therefore why I happened.

Now I realize this is not a definitive hypothesis. But to me -- and my three children and three grandchildren -- that's "miracle" enough, Professor.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Our 24/7 media likes to simplify America. Therefore, you're either Liberal or Conservative. The terms have degenerated from their rich, original meanings (see John Locke & Edmund Burke for details) into little more than quickie captions to stick under a photo-op..!

Reluctantly bowing to our disingenuous caption-culture, here are three recent stories that have been attributed to the Conservative school of thought:

* The Conservative Bible Project has launched a Wikipedia-style search to exorcise all Liberal taints from the holy text. Their team believes current translations have "emasculated" Christianity by inserting Liberal terms like "comrade" and "laborer" which project "the pervasive and hurtful myth that Jesus would be a political Liberal today"
* A Conservative Christian group called the Liberty Counsel has a nationwide prayer-chain underway for Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi so that they may be "restored to right thinking"
* 80-year-old Republican Ralph Needs was pistol-whipped by burglars, but when his son tried to teach him how to use a handgun for future defense, he accidentally blew his hand off

This cannot be substantiated, but it is understood Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are now in negotiations as to which of them will lead a cross-country crusade that include these folks in Sarah Palin's forthcoming book-selling tour. When asked why they criticize Obama for not deserving to win the Nobel Prize but not Palin for not deserving to write anything, neither Rush nor Glenn were available for comment.

On the opposite side of the ideological ledger, Liberals today suffer their own embarrassments. For example, David Letterman has joined the ranks of other liberal-thinking celebrities to offend our country's moral sensibilities. He, along with even more free-wheeling toughs and tarts from the opposite coast, seems to prove that being open-minded often means just being empty-headed. Carrie Fisher -- no stranger to the celebrity cult -- says "celebrity is just obscurity biding its time." Right now, Dave and other life-loving Liberals might wish for a tad more obscurity.

When trying to put our bizarre Liberal vs Conservative feud into wiser perspective, one always has the famous psychiatrist Carl Jung. He famously wrote: "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves."

Hmmm...?Jung -- Liberal or Conservative -- makes a lot of sense. And he never even appeared on Oprah,

Saturday, October 10, 2009


It's a law of nature. Bear fans hate the Packers, and Cub fans hate the Cardinals. Hatred is a powerful and destructive emotion, but oh how we love to hate..!

What's more we don't hoard our hatred. We spread it around. One of our favorite targets is our presidents. Not just Obama. For all his shatterbrained haters, Washington, Adams, Lincoln and FDR had two and three times the number. It's symptomatic of democracies where everyone is told he or she is constitutionally entitled to their hatred. (To give it a nicer touch, we call it the 1st Amendment).

Democracy's defenders say hating our presidents this way may be messy, but it's healthier. It represents a free collision of views in the marketplace of ideas. Better, they say, than all the hatred just coming from one place -- a dictator. And they have a good argument. Only democracy's defenders have never quite figured out the line at which democracy becomes mobacracy. They say that's the court's job.

True, our constitution and our courts have struggled mightily to find and draw that line. Fo example, they allow public protests, but only with specific distances between protestor and president, preacher and abortion clinic, Holocaust victims and Nazi marchers.

These and other "lines" have been scrupulously designed to keep our right to hate within reasonable limits. However, in this latest tsunami of presidential hatred, the haters are not so much dangerous as they are silly. Obama's Nobel Prize has driven them absolutely nuts. Why? "Because the man hasn't done anything to deserve it!!"

What's silly about that is "doing" is not simply a present action. Anymore than seeding the fields in springtime is of lesser value than harvesting the results in summertime. It takes the first to accomplish the second. Hello....?

Friday, October 9, 2009



Okay, no argument....! John Edwards turned out to be a smarmy disappointment to all. However -- as with the old stopped clock -- maybe he was right at least twice. I'm not sure about the first time, but the second has to be his claim we're "Two America's."

There's something historically valid about that image. Test it for yourself. Begin any discussion you want -- business, arts, athletics; crime, violence, drugs -- and before you know it we're all talking past each other. Why? Because we're all talking about very different examples.

If the subject is American free enterprise, are we talking Bill Gates or Bernie Madoff? Is the subject crime? Are we talking ghetto crime or Wall Street crime? You see where Edwards was going with this. With any subject, there are good guys and bad. Inspiring examples and tragic examples. There's simply no one way of discussing any one of these issues. Each issue is clearly rent right smack down the bloody middle. In effect, there really are Two Americas. In fact, two England's, two Russia's, two anywhere's.

Why is this important? It means today's simplified, one-size-fits-all sloganeering is not only futile, it's counter-productive. It's the way to win an argument, but lose a cause. The way to catch a headline or make the Late-Night monologue, but mis-lead not just others but worse -- yourself!

Even with all their efficacy, cablecasting, blogging, facebooking and twittering are sometimes the culmination of generations of yellowed, squeezed, condensed and re-constituted reporting. From senators to anchors, from pundits to experts, everyone has a phrase-maker or a spinmaster on staff. I oughta know having been paid for years to be one. However, the danger in this kind of instant packaging is that while it gets its message across in a few hot sound-bytes, so did promoters from Barnum to Hitler!

With 24-hour news cycles, instant Internet communication and tweets by the bazillion, time has collapsed and space has disappeared. Everyone and everything is so Now, we have little time or inclination to reflect on what we report. If I think it, it must be right! If we package it, it must be dispatched!

This often leaves small opportunity to fathom our way through such complexities as Two Americas. Hey, that means twice the work and twice the time. Don't bother me with details. I've got another thought and another deadline to deliver...!


Well, they just did it again. The Republicans once more voted an angry "No!"

Now this, remember, is the great party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. And yet, most of them simply can't find it in their heads (and especially their hearts) to approve of any bold social legislation. They said no to Social Security. They said no to Medicare. They're saying no to government sponsored health care. And just yesterday they voted no to a Democratic bill making anti-gay attacks a "hate crime" under the law.

Never mind the tens of thousands of gays and lesbians being denied equal rights under the law in workplaces, courtrooms and hospitals. Never mind the spew of vicious gay tauntings and killings throughout the land. The GOP spokesman Representative John Boehner called the proposed legislation "radical social planning."

There's a long, valid history in this country over when and how much government can legislate for the protection of the marginalized. Fair enough. But when I listen to Boehner and his cablecasting cohorts say, "Social planning is inappropriate in a land where we are already free and equal," what I hear is,"We've got ours. As for you -- suck it up!"

I may be wrong, but I'd hate to be living on the margins of John Boehner's America....

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Maybe it's not exactly a lie. Instead, call it a hope mixed with confidence plus a big dash of Yankee hubris. It's America's traditional mantra: I'm Master of My Fate...!

We tend to surge with this feeling be it in business or in war, be it in love or on the playing fields. Not a surprising mantra for a people who -- then and still today -- come from all over the world in the expectation that America is where they'll find their future. Even more, where they'll make their future.

Truth be told, it's been working out this way for over 300 years now. For millions. Of course, we tend to hear and read about them much more than the many more millions who don't. That's because Americans love a winner.

In arguable contrast to this master-of-my-fate catechism are my old Sicilian relatives. Back in the old country -- a psychological part of which they proudly took with them here -- there's another and very different mantra. You have to picture this now. When confronted with life and its many ill-starred twists of fate, first comes the stoic shrug. Then the even more stoic words, "Eh, so whatta you going' to do?!"

As I say, you have to experience it for yourself. Its staggering wisdom is in dark contrast to the sprightly American feel-good seminars on PBS, and the chirpy everyone-wins-the-game in today's gym classes. In quiet contrast, Uncle Joe and Aunt Rose have within their flesh and bones the 3000 year-old DNA of Sicily. A land great before America was a glint in the eye of history, Sicily has known grandeur but also the bloodshed of competing armies and repeated occupations. At times the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the Mafia.

Like our America, it is stunningly beautiful from sea to shining sea. But, unlike our America, it's tasted the bitters of defeat, destruction, and despair. America's is the world's young, hubristic adolescent; Sicily is the wise old relative who watches the family celebrations without saying very much. Sicily -- like scores of other ancient cultures -- beams with its history of pride, yet at the same time has the lore to wear its pride with caution. It's slammed into Fate more than once, and each time it's learned that Fate (AKA, destiny, fortune, luck) is owned by no one. It's the guest at the table who you woo but never own...!

Now to be perfectly honest, I'm saying more about the wisdom of this reality than either Uncle Joe or Aunt Rose. They don't have to argue what they know. It's just that being a proud American of Sicilian descent, I straddle both our vision of Fate and theirs. On the one hand -- this creed that I can grab Fate by the throat and submit it to the power of my positive-thinking. On the other hand -- this suspicion that Fate is simply another word for what I can never really own, but what, with patience and purpose, I can learn to accept as it comes.

And it will come! To each of us, on its own terms and in its own time. Which makes a non-Sicilian by the name of Buddha worth listening to: "The truly contented person is not the one who gets what they want, but wants what they get...."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once wrote, "Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." This intuitive conclusion was recently verified by scientific consideration. At least so claims John Jensenius of the National Weather Service. He reports that of the 648 people killed by lightening in the U.S. in recent years, more than 80% were men....!

Instantly I can hear an eruption of very different theories from men and from women. The male of the species will be inclined to find external factors like we're-taller-so-we-attract-lightening-quicker. Behavioral psychologist Peter Todd -- himself a male of the species -- argues not so fast. He hypothesizes there are internal factors at work. The male's evolutionary sense of daring, risk, bravado and therefore carelessness.

At which point, men, might counter-hypothesize, "The male is always the bold risk-taker who puts himself in places of great danger." To which the contemptible traitor Todd might (and does) reply, "Sorry, guys, but the victims so far include men struck down simply while fishing, playing baseball and mowing the lawn."

Now here's my problem.

The Bible, Evolution, and especially the guys down at the gym all seem to insist the male of the species is the stronger and gutsier of the two genders. Why then does such a large majority of us die sooner? fall off ladders more often? break more bones and get more hypertension? Could it be that among the countless genes being studiously decoded and mapped by our evolutionary biologists there is a Stupid Gene...?

You understand, I have no firm conviction in the matter. All I know is that while my younger brother -- clearly the risk-taker in his family -- has yet to be struck by lightening, he has aged and grayed much faster than his more risk-averse wife. You see my confusion here.

As for Douglas Adams, he did not die by lightening, but he did receive a lovely tribute from scientist Richard Dawkins. In his 2001 eulogy, Dawkins said, "Adams thought like a scientist -- but was funnier." I might have added, "And wiser."

Why...? Because what Adams said about human experience in one sentence, Dawkins would have taken 50 plus footnotes. Which, in turn, probably means neither I nor my brother would have read this. However, now that we have, we keep walking around always looking up...!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009



Everyone knows what a bed is for. Sleeping. Oh yes, and sex. But have you considered it in all its startling peripheral possibilities...?

Whether you're aware of it or not, your bed is actually better than your gym. Workouts are fine for they tone and toughen the anatomy; but it's in your bed where the anatomical parts are being refurbished with every minute of restful sleep. From the molecules and genes right up to the heart and brain. It's why the most dangerous deprivation is not food or water, but sleep.

Along with the physical there's also the emotional. Jangled nerves and jostled feelings from a cruel world can be tucked into your comfortable bed at night. Here, the blessings of solitude and sleep become the great elixir. By most mornings you're ready to -- if not take on the world -- at least give it one more chance.

A third gift is the gift of dreams. True, psychiatrists still debate the causes and meanings of our dreams, but most agree these coded, nocturnal mysteries are necessary itineraries for our psychic health. Then as you become more adept at traveling these mysteries, you can learn to recall and relate to them in your most reflective waking hours. No, not a substitute for therapy, but it is cheaper.

Finally the ultimate use for your bed -- prayer. For those finally humbled enough to have learned that creatures in some way must come from a creator, praying in your bed at night can be a remarkably productive disposition. It doesn't take a lot of memorizing, just a little practice.

Oh, and there is one postscript to the study of sleepability: Diet! Yes, when confronting the dragons of diet in your life, close the refrigerator, turn off the lights, and go to your bed...!


[Invited to enter the Washington Post's "America's Next Great Pundit" Contest, I sent them this]

Call it the through-line connecting the dots. Call it the back-story to today's headlines. Or simply call it for what it is, the force driving most of today's new.


With 90% of all the scientists who ever lived living today, we are gorged with promising new technologies. But, unlike the technologies themselves are not the core story. Rather, it's the way each of them helps both explain and complicate the great issues of our time. Whether these be health, energy and education reform; or matters of warfare, democracy and philosophy. By its very inexorability, technology gives shape, purpose, and challenge to each of these.

So while this synergy of technology is relentlessly released from history's Aladdin's Lamp, a Genie also appears, demanding we learn how to co-exist with these wonders. Consider....

In health care -- we know the rich rewards from medical technology; but the question looms, will the benefits of impersonal technology come at the cost of personal care? With energy -- the newest and greenest technologies hand our economy enormous opportunities, while at the same time the other hand yanks the stability of traditional careers and jobs. As for education -- today our students have the omnipotence of an information-accessibility ancient emperors would have raped entire nations for; and yet, teacher and student must now work to distinguish between information and knowledge. Between faster data and perhaps poorer decisions. Then also consider....

In war -- our technologies have forever altered the face of combat, but ironically not the need. As for our democratic system -- the exponential explosion of Cable and the Internet has made voters more functional at the same more manipulable. As for our 5000 year Judaic-Christian philosophies -- they have been whip-lashed by modern technologies capable (and willing) to challenge the veracity of these ancient truths.

What then is the meaning to this contest between the progress and problems of technology? Perhaps this. Technology is one of the great gifts from the mind of man, but as with all great gifts, it requires of its recipients a measured appreciation. Otherwise, gifts become mere baubles in our hands. And the Lamp sheds more darkness than light in our path.

And now what's this...? Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell envisions electronic devices that will record everything we do during a day for our instant recall. Does this mean technologies that now make it impossible for me to forget those things better forgotten? Without this human talent, I fear I may become less human and more machine. Is this then the point at which my better angels pull the plug on my technology....?

Monday, October 5, 2009


What a perfect metaphor for our America today. Bambi -- spirit of a young country. Great pristine forest -- new world of opportunities. "Man" -- word that sends Bambi and everyone in the forest into flight....!

Somehow, somewhere, things in this forest went terribly wrong. What had begun as an exciting adventure between our new people and our new world has arced over time from adventure to conquest to rape. And now we are all waking up to another of those morning-after consequences.

"Man" killed Bambi's mother in the story. Unfortunately "Man" is doing the same thing in real life. Under the glowing marquee of Free Enterprise and Yankee Capitalism, "Man" has continued to exploit not only the land and its resources, but over time all the Bambi's who dwell here. Every new climate-crisis headline, every new Wall Street and banking fraud, every new lobbyist revelation, every new fat-cat executive or Ponzi-scheme hustler, echoes like the gun that felled Bambi's mother.

Somehow, somewhere "Man" took the wrong turn in his newly discovered Eden. After years of pastoral Jeffersonian peace, he began making new Hamiltonian discoveries. How to clear the forests...squeeze the fields... empty the mine shafts... manipulate the suckers...short-change the customers.. own the politicians.... build economic empires here and wherever the Yankee dollar could reach under the flag of the-good-guys.

If this sounds like the old angry "Communist Manifesto," not quite. The Commies got some of their criticisms right, but their solutions wrong. And so, unimpeded ever since World War II, "Man" here has developed a proud, ambitious mind-set: When you're the good guys, the world -- here and abroad -- is there for you to lead. Of course, in leading you may have to be tough, strong, willing to win at all costs. But that's how the game is played. You know -- like the NFL. You know -- like the big boys with the limos and yachts do. And if some of the Bambi's get hurt or fleeced along the way, well that's just how the evolutionary spirit of unregulated Free Enterprise operates. Deal with it...!

The problem is that all we Bambi's are (once again in our history) waking up to an America that doesn't quite look like it does in all those wonderful Fourth of July celebrations. And if that shouldn't surprise us, somehow it still does. Then when a ragtag army of Pied Pipers by the names of Limbaugh and Beck and Hannity come piping along, they seem to be telling us: "Man" isn't the bad guy at all! He's just doing what Americans always do; and it's called it free, unhampered enterprise.

To say that "Man" here has built the world's greatest, most successful economic system in history is entirely true. But with every bright truth, there comes a dark back-story.

Now with the forests around us in the flames of economic failure and fraud, the Pied Pipers have decided that the real enemy in all this is the government. Whose monstrously un-American idea is that "Man" sometimes has to be watched. Otherwise he may, in his ambitions, lay waste to his forest and many of its Bambi's....

Sunday, October 4, 2009


The October 4 edition of the New York Times features another in one of America's favorite past-times -- worrying about whether or not we worry too much...!

Of course we worry. Too much? Well, that's a judgment call that depends on how you define and defend worrying. The evolutionists remind us that what we call worry was that instinct for self-preservation that kept the best of us safe all these eons. The spiritualists remind us that worry is a form of guilt and guilt is a derivative of our species' original sin in Eden. Atheists and agnostics remind us that worrying is irrational and therefore a waste of our materialistic time here on this materialistic planet.

Hard to pick an answer. So -- as has become modern man's predilection -- we turn to our statisticians. These are the fine folks who not only work with numbers, but wax with almost shaman-like eloquence about the power of these numbers to speak truth to us. Oh, they don't put it quite that way, but honestly now, don't some of these statistical reports that flood our media remind you of grandmas hovering over tea leaves to decide whether or not Emily's child will be a girl or a boy?

But now in perfect contradiction let us resort to one of the latest statistical reports: America's Most Used Drugs.

For a people impressed by stats, AARP has just published the pharmaceutical tea leaves of our time. If we sort through them, perhaps this will afford us some concrete evidence of what really worries us. While these statistics report only our actions, our actions at the pharmacy counter certainly must reflect what we most worry about, right? (Well, to answer that question you'd of course have to assemble another statistical study; but why bother inasmuch as every study breeds at least three contradictory studies).

Instead, simply going to the heart of the matter, here are the top ten drugs prescribed in America today. What their name and rank tell you about our worries is for you to worry about:
* HYDROCODONE pain ($1.78 billion)
* LISINOPRIL hypertension ($686 million)
* SIMVASTATIN high cholesterol ($1.45 billion)
* LEVOTHYROXINE hypothyroidism ($546 million)
* AMOXICILLIN bacterial infection ($439 million)
* AZITHROMYCIN bacterial infection ($ 1.28 billion)
* LIPITOR high cholesterol ($5.88 billion)
* HYDROCHLOROTHIAZIDE hypertension $ 288 million)
* ALPRAZOLAM anxiety/depression ($468 million)
* ATENOLOL hypertension ($274 million)

Did your pills make the list...? Not to worry, there are more where these came from. Harder to report, though, inasmuch as some of them don't exactly come from your friendly local pharmacist.

All things being equal, statistical reports like these make everyone happy. The users, because it reminds us we're not the only sick ones. The pharmacists, because it's music to their cash registers. To the pharmaceutical industry, because it means more executive bonuses at the end of the year. And to any kid who happens upon this study, because when you're young and indestructible, numbers and illness like these are always good for a good laugh over your next beer and deep-dish pizza...!

Saturday, October 3, 2009


At a recent computer expo (COMDEX), Bill Gates reportedly compared the computer industry with the auto industry saying:

'If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.' In response to Bill's comments, General Motors issued a press release:

If GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving cars with the following characteristics (and I just love this part):

1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash. Twice a day.

2. Every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to buy a new car.

3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason. You would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue. For some reason you would simply accept this.

4. Occasionally, executing a maneuver such as a left turn would cause your car to shut down and refuse to restart, in which case you would have to reinstall the engine.

5. Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, was reliable, five times as fast and twice as easy to drive - but would run on only five percent of the roads.

6. The oil, water temperature, and alternator warning lights would all be replaced by a single 'This Car Has Performed An Illegal Operation' warning light.

7. The airbag system would ask 'Are you sure?' before deploying.

8. Occasionally, for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key and grabbed hold of the radio antenna.

9. Every time a new car was introduced car buyers would have to learn how to drive all over again because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.

10. You'd have to press the 'Start' button to turn the engine off.


If 90% of our universe is still missing from our telescopes, imagine how much is still missing from what we call our history. The best way to realize this is to spend time with someone 30 or 40 years younger than you...!

Three instructive incidents come disagreeably to mind. My days teaching US History...the day I took my daughter to see Casablanca....and the day my grandson told me about the Bible. With each generational encounter, I was reminded there is a solemn distinction between teaching and learning. You see, some things can't be taught, they must be remembered.

In an American History classroom you try to use the usual suspects -- facts, dates, maps -- but only for what they actually are. Props on a human stage crowded with the most amazing heroes and villains Hollywood ever imagined. Unlike disciplines such as math or chemistry, history is a flesh-and-blood drama which changes each time you take a different seat in the audience. One strategy was to invite the students to check the obits for people who had lived during some of the periods we were studying.

Sometimes this succeeded, sometime it flopped. But at minimum the students could catch a sense that the 1929 Crash, the WPA, and the GIs at Normandy were once far more than data and dates on a page. When you're teaching the young and the restless, you take your successes wherever you can find them.

There was much less success with my Casablanca caper. To those from my generation, the film has it all. Personal conflict played out against an epic historical clash, including love and loss, courage and failure. But while my daughter seemed to enjoy Bogey and the bad guys, the layers of historical nuance were lost. And how could I have expected otherwise?

The rape of Europe by Hitler, the passion and purpose of the Resistance, and Bogey's inner struggle over discovering a great cause at the expense of a great love -- this is the stuff that dreams are made of. But to invoke the classic cliche, you really had to be there.

And then there's my college-agnostic grandson who one day reminded me that before there was Christianity, there were many christianites. He had learned that during the first 300 years after the Cross there were competing Gospels like the Gnostic, the Coptic, and those of Peter and Barnabas. When Dan Brown gave the world The DaVinci Code he helped reinforce the doubts of the young.

To counter these doubts with debate is hardly the way to help the young soften their indulgent doubts about the old. And so you suck it in, and wait for a day when what you'd like to teach them they will learn for themselves. But then you remember -- as all these reflections --you're not likely to be here when they do!

Friday, October 2, 2009


You'd think bullfighting in Catalonia and tsunami's in the Pacific had nothing in common. But you'd be wrong...!

Throughout the history of Catalonian bullfighting, the matador has been the symbol of insistent humanity confronting the forces of raw nature. In Catalonia, the matador almost always wins. But half way round the world, nature once again wins. The human toll from the latest earthquakes and tsunami's write large on our hearts the cold reality that man is actually very small.

While great leaders of great powers stride the globe with their great fame and finery, in their hearts they have to know there are forces beyond their reach. And yet, like today's thinning number of matadors, the best of these leaders face off with those forces they are dedicated to subdue. As with the Catalonian Fusta Sword, they seek to bring them down one by one.

Be it God or evolution, our species understands no other way. A good thing, too, for to stand in place in life's arena is to die.

However, human bravado eventually has to come to terms with the meaning of the diminishing crowds in Catalonia and the swelling body counts in the Far East. Is raw nature inexorably catching up with and passing by our best intentions...? If the environmentalists and historians are right and we are destroying both our planet and our progress, is this the twilight of our civilization as well as our matadors...?

The Catalonian Parliament is debating whether to close off the bull rings forever. However, in the case of nature's disasters, there is no way of closing them off even temporarily. Still, to watch the silent fervor of the relief workers out there, is to be once more reminded our species will not -- cannot-- yield without a fight. Watching these men and women enter collapsing buildings and nursing collapsing lives is to sense what the crowds must sense when they cheer the plunge of the sword. It is to feel: In the end, we shall overcome!

Now the real challenge for humankind is learning how to overcome without adding any more body counts....!