Monday, November 30, 2009


"Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels...!" With that comment this week, British supermodel Kate Moss helped upstaged universal superguy Santa Claus. While the jolly old fat fella enjoys his meals, Moss is being accused of promoting thin over healthy. As one critic roared, "She's helping young girls go anorexic."

Meanwhile back here in the States, we have the stunning example of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania refusing to graduate 25 of its seniors for being too fat. The school contends there is a 4-year-old Fitness for Life program in which students are required to participate, and these students refused.

Then just when you think you've heard all the fat-stories there are, there's a study by the University of Leeds in England which has actually documented "what percentage of revealed female skin attracts the most males." Their conclusion is exactly 40%. "Any more than that," reports head researcher Dr. Colin Hendrie, "and the signal to the male changes from 'allure' to 'infidelity.'"

But wait -- there's more!

Right in time for the eating-holidays, another university has marshaled one of its scientific teams to really get to the bottom of this perennial battle of the bulging hips. All the way down to the intestines themselves, where they have discovered two main types of bacteria that will be helping us digest all that turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes. Turns out that Firmicutes is the heavy in this caloric plot, because too much of it means converting too much of our food into calories which the body then absorbs as fat.

So there it is, more data from more sources about more fat then I really want to know as I giddily prepare for a festive season of celebration. Look, I've already had to reconcile my Mother's good love with all her bad decisions about eggs, cream, red meat and her fabulous cheesecake. It's taken too much out of me. I'm simply not yet prepared to reconcile every meal I'm about to eat either with the smugness of Kate Moss or the science of university research.

Bottom line....the scale gets stored till January!

Sunday, November 29, 2009


The crusty old author-warrior Norman Mailer put it best: "Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of the clap...!"

Tuesday night, President Obama will announce his decision on the war in Afghanistan. I'll venture a guess, guessing it's 99% correct. His decision will satisfy no one. Which won't make it wrong; it will simply make it clear, once again, that wars solve nothing and breed everything.

Obama surely knows this. After all he has the tragic lesson of Lyndon Johnson who also had a vast social agenda at home, only to be suckered into a mistake overseas called Vietnam. So Tuesday night's speech will not be an easy one for the President. Nor is it one he wants to make. But he's the President, and the critics and pundits can Monday-Morning quarterback him to their hearts and pocketbooks content -- because they don't have to pass from the pocket.

The assumption in the West Wing is that our national security has no other good choice. Hopefully, though, it won't be a crazy Haily Mary pass like the last administration threw in Iraq. Time and the Taliban will tell. As will the courage of those GI's whose bodies and blood are smearing those wretched mountainsides. If you look closely on Tuesday night's closeups, it's likely you'll detect some of the very same pain that etched Lincoln"s and FDR's face every time they ordered young lives into combat.

As for those critics who are currently piling on the President, history reports the same thing always happens. Every wartime quarterback from Jackson to Bush has been piled on and sacked by his opponents. However, history also reports that its final judgment is not written until the last whistle blows. So maybe television's talking-faces after Tuesday's night speech might hold back some of their pomposity until closer to the 4th quarter. When they have something more concrete about which to be pompous.

To switch metaphors from quarterbacks to dancers, here's something Fred Astaire said to his critics: "The higher up you go, the more mistakes you're allowed. Then, right at the top, if you make enough of them, it's considered to be your style..."

Saturday, November 28, 2009


There are 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in our universe, and we're adding new ones every year. If you passed your algebra courses, which I barely did, you gotta calculate there are a lot of E.T.s out there, even more remarkable than Steven Spielberg would have us imagine. However, what would their arrival do to the Bethlehem tale we are about to re-tell? Here are my 5 favorite guesses...!

1. Atheists will say something like, "We told you so! Bethlehem is a sweet story to comfort the ignorant. Your idea of one god coming down to one planet for one species has been egotistically absurd from the start." [My question would be, so what do you do this season of the year -- sit under those stars algebraically contemplating how your DNA evolved from and will return to them?]

2. Agnostics might not say anything, reflexively shrugging with, "Good sense, and now good numbers, just prove there is nothing you can prove!" [I used to be impressed by such stoic silence, but lately I'm guessing agnostics are really just afraid to guess anything!]

3. Theologians actually love, more than fear, such challenges as E.T.s. I mean without our recurring doubts about a God, they'd really have nothing to do. [Frankly, theologians speculating in their ivory towers have always impressed me more than technologists poring over new plans to digitalize those old towers!]

4. The Vatican messed up their encounters with science starting with Galileo and Copernicus. They don't want to repeat those mistakes. And so the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Sciences is convening this year to see if there is some Starship Enterprise which might help discover the answers. [The one thing we can be sure is the Vatican won't be coming to any conclusions in warp speed!]

5. The kids of Christmas can be expected to simply laugh and giggle at the prospect of E.T.s. Not because of their religious implications, but all the fun they can mean. [Really, now, isn't a spirit of holy fun the best way to meet and greet any E.T.?]

Friday, November 27, 2009


We are now into the God-season of the year. Even if you don't believe in him, you have to admit he's got center stage for the next 30 days. Makes some of us think about what we'd do if we were God. Just for a day. I don't know about you, but I've given this 4-star scenario some serious consideration. My first trick would be a big one -- no more snow after Christmas Day....!

OK, OK, I realize that might upset the delicate balance of nature, but I figure if I'm God, I could manage that little problem. You see, my contention is that after the charm of Christmas Eve and the celebration of Christmas Day, there is simply no rational reason for anymore of the slushy, freezy white stuff.

Don't get me wrong. The stunning spectacle of a soft snowfall trimming the trees and coating the lawns is a thing of beauty. Especially just before our species has been out there tramping and shoveling and in general messing up this winter work of art. But you see, I (you too?) have lost the magic of my youth. Children, in their wide-eyed, no-car-to-drive innocence, harbor this delicious capacity to see snow as a gift not a grind. To see in a blizzard all sorts of snow forts, snow men, and snowball fights. Oh I remember....! So do you....!

But here's the thing about adulthood that I hate (well, along with taxes, mortgages and arthritis), and that's the dreadful reality that now winters are no longer simple seasons for happy imaginations. From now on, they are grueling times of snowed-in cars, snow-jammed traffic, and snow-hampered treks between any point A and any point B. If you live in places like Chicago and you're older than 13 -- winter is hard to love!

I am reminded that many adults still love the winter-time, but as I calculate it, this is only when they're skating and skiing, not when they're struggling to get to work.

So there's my fantasy. To be God for a day and make Chicago winter go away the morning after Christmas. What would replace it...? There would have to be some sort of a new season between December 26 and March 21. I'm still working on that. But I assure you it would be a season much warmer, greener and gentler than the one we're about to face. Oh I know -- I could call it Santa Barbara...!

Thursday, November 26, 2009


When Rene Descartes penned his celebrated, "I think therefore I am" in the 17th C, it was another tipping point in our understanding of our existence. It helped 20th C existentialists argue that existence precedes essence, or in effect, it is our individual existence on this planet not some supreme being that determines our essence. Loosely translated: "Hey, man, If I can dream it I can do it!"

In the 21st, a legion of neuro-biologists have picked up the baton from there, carrying it to an exciting though arguable conclusion. In their research, many of these scientists have found a galaxy of genes and brain lobes which shape -- if not largely determine -- what we do and who we are. For instance, we have been brilliantly introduced to the workings of our god gene...our flight gene...our love gene...our comfort gene. Just recently researchers at the University of California, Irvine have concluded that (1) there is a bad-driving gene which hampers our brain's ability to communicate what we are learning on the road (2) up to 30% of Americans carry this faulty gene.

Here's where the argument comes in.

As science excavates -- like long hidden Egyptian tombs -- the amazing workings of these genes and lobes, we learn more and more about ourselves. But at what price? The danger here is almost mathematical in nature, for the greater the number of ID-ed genes and lobes, the greater the likelihood we may reasonably conclude we are the sum of our neuro-bioloical parts.

However, that argument must first dethrone an earlier one -- that we are the whole greater than the sum of our parts...! But while this wholeness is comfortably embraced by theologians, poets and artists of all kinds. It is not so easily accepted by the scientific empiricists who seem to say: If you can't see it or smell or test it, it ain't likely there!

Sir Francis Bacon -- a scientific thinker of no small proportions in history -- liked to say: "Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he isn't...and a sense of humor to console him for what he is." Using our best imagination, it is fiercely likely that we will read the results of these gifted researchers with eagerness. Yet at the some time with skepticism that their many individually researched trees can honestly fathom the grand forest that each individual human being is.

The next time you stroll a forest and find a tagged tree, remember the tagger (ranger, ecologist, whatever) surely cannot judge this forest from this tree. You can only do that by standing at the great distance from which the forest-maker first made this forest. Now that, Mr Descartes, is the real question...!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


We call Thanksgiving our most American holiday, and that it is. But here's a question between turkey breast and pumpkin pie. To whom are we so thankful? It's not the Puritan's good friend Massasoit, for that relationship's not Mother Nature, for she takes as well as gives...and it's certainly not the turkey who takes serious umbrage at being sliced up for your table. So who then...?

Well now -- might it be the God those Puritans so honored for their safe landing, safe crops, and safe harvest? With all due respect to today's atheists and constitutionalists, the Big Guy In The Sky was indeed the one to whom our early fathers gave thanks that autumn of 1621. Now nearly 400 years later our collective memories seem to have slipped off that powerful point.

Ahh, but wait, I can hear the rebuttal now. We have grown since then. Unlike those primitive Puritans we are far too enlightened to be lifting our cranberries in deference to something we can neither see nor hear nor test! And so it is that Thanksgivings -- even like Christmas and Easter -- have been neutered of their denominational religiosity.

The rejection of the denominational I can understand; the rejection of the religiosity, I have some trouble with. I'm reminded of the Dennis The Menace comic strip in which Dennis is saying to little Joey, "I can explain this to you, Joey, but the understanding part is up to you!"

Is it possible that America's relentless fascination with vampires, witches, ETs, and other supernatural creatures betrays a hint and a hunger for our lost religiosity...? As larger and larger swatches of the population place themselves in the none-of-the-above categories for Religion, do they sometimes sense that "none" is an empty place to live in...? To grow in....?

Today's sophisticated secular scientists and atheists and even agnostics can find some serious intellectual satisfaction in freeing themselves of old Medieval ghosts and ghouls. As an enlightened people, we also tend to look down on the rabid masses of Middle Eastern zealots willing to blow themselves up for their God. Granted, it's been a long maturing time since believers stood willingly in dens of Roman lions. On the other hand, it's been a long meandering time since even believers here felt any passion to "die for their God."

My head tells me this is perfectly reasonable and sensible. But my heart sometimes whispers a nagging question: If there is nothing so great as to die for, does this make my life somehow less to live for...? I can't help myself. I'll be thinking that as I enjoy another lovely -- but often aimless -- holiday.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Theories about Hitler's escape from his 1945 Berlin Bunker just won't go away. Evil genius always mesmerizes us. From Nero to Rasputin, from John Wilkes Booth to Charles Manson, from the witches of Macbeth to Cinderella's stepmother, we can't seem to let go of them. Why....?

Perhaps for the same reason Eve was seduced by the serpent, Stephen King writes horror stories, and as children we are forever fascinated by fire. It's this compulsion to touch without being burned. To wrestle with the Devil, but at the last minute escape his clutches.

So the question still lingers -- did Adolf Hitler get away?

To those who believe he did, their hideaway of choice has always been Argentina. Others have simply been satisfied to say he "lives on" in night-time cable television, for there is rarely a night when you can't find another black&white documentary on Hitler, Hitler's SS, Hitler's concentration camps, Hitler's lovers, and of course Hitler's mother (for ever since Freud, everyone knows everything wrong with the world begins with some insensitive mother).

I have a more practical theory. Adolf Hitler did indeed kill himself on that April night, but the spirit of his evil instantly left his burned corpse to infiltrate every paranoid, vengeful, disordered personality in the world. From Berlin to Budapest to Brooklyn; from then to now; from here to eternity. Because, you see, Hitler was less a disease, and more a symptom. A living, infectious symptom of what has plagued mankind from the beginning...

....his fears of inadequacy, his frustration with failure, his certainty that others are to blame, his rage for revenge, and his taste for tyranny.

When Martin Scorsese makes a film about the mafioso, these are his lead characters! When the media covers serial killers and campus shooters, these are their subjects! When little men and women dream twisted dreams at night of getting back at the world, these are Hitler's children! When street gangs kill...when Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck rage with unsupported fury about "them," they are unwittingly spreading the Gospel of Adolf....when the boys at the corner saloon and the big boys in the Wall Street bars wink at the "weak idealism" of Obama's agenda, they are the storm troopers keeping alive the capitalistic cabal that whispers survival-of-the-fittest-and-screw-the-stupid.

Want some evidence...? Some statistical data to prove my theory...? Well, no, they don't usually ask this in surveys or report this in the Wall Street Journal. But history offers us a pretty loud hint that evil in the world -- like some of the mists and fogs in a Gothic novel -- hover over the world, finding rest in whatever angry hearts they can find.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Ancient Rome was the greatest empire the world had ever seen, and servicing its greatness were its millions of slaves. Modern America wears that crown today, but our slaves are of a different nature. They are not flesh and blood, they are chips and circuits. They don't exist in the millions but in the billions. However, they too, by the sheer exponentality of their numbers, are growing restless. If ever they choose to revolt, we will have no Roman Legions great enough to quell their Spartacus...!

Who of us will be the most vulnerable? One guesses it will be the ones who depend upon the most slaves. Jon Stewart likes to quip, "The Internet is just a world passing around notes in a classroom." Funny; but upon closer inspection, maybe frightening.

Right now there are 200 million MySpace sites operating every day...200 million cellphone calls occur every month...there are 31 billion Google searches every month...the number of text messages a day exceeds the population of the entire planet...our technology information doubles every 2013 they predict a super-computer that will surpass the capacity of the human brain... by 2050, one that will surpass the brain capacity of the whole planet.

To stay with our Roman imagery, this is turning us into land of furious chariot racers hurtling forward by the force of galloping stallions barely held together by the reins we once thought placed us in charge of the race. We are told it is the destiny of mankind to advance, be it by the thrust of evolution or the will of God. And surely these advances have raised us from the primal slime of our one-cell origins to the glistening heights of our current civilizations. And yet, part of our destiny also seems to include running our mighty chariots into equally mighty ruts.

For the cantankerous, been-there-done-that crowd of stoic elders, they advise calm in the face of change. They remind us, the law of life is change itself. However, in our generation, change has changed. By our own genius, it gallops faster and more fiercely by the microsecond. When the quantity of changes reaches a tipping point, we find the quantitative actually transforms into the qualitative. Like fire, the wheel, the printing press and the computer's cybernetic breakthroughs are changing not only what we do, but who we are!

To put a homey face on it, think of who you've become when you have to ask the youngest member of your family or firm to explain all this to you. As I've said to my grandchildren, "This is your world, I only live in it." But as they have wisely replied, "How can it be ours, because every time we learn all the answers, they change all the question?"

If Charles Darwin and his 21st C advocate Richard Dawkins are right -- we'll survive this changing world so long as we're fit. If my religion is right -- I'll survive it, because there's more than this world to survive....

Sunday, November 22, 2009


"Science is organized knowledge; wisdom is organized life." When Mark Twain wrote that, he was surely opting for wisdom. However, our giant pharmaceutical industry is surely more intrigued with profit than either science or wisdom. Especially when it comes to sex...!

Ever since Pfizer became a major player with its development of Viagra, everyone's been looking for a pill that will do the same for women. You see, the problem with some women is -- are you ready? -- Acquired Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder. Otherwise known as, "I've got a headache tonight!"

The boys in the white lab coats at first tried using Viagra with women. No dice, and no sex! So the race was on for something that would custom-fit the headachey women of the world. What better place than France -- where they take their sex seriously -- to announce a new prospect called Flibanserin. The name doesn't quite have the pizazz of Viagra, but interestingly it was discovered the same way. By accident.

Viagra was accidentally discovered in a search for a treatment for angina. Flibanserin was an accidental result of a search for treating depression. Which only goes to suggest that sometimes something can come out of nothing, which is of course the basic premise to science's Big Bang. But I digress...

Flibanserin (their marketing department simply has to come up with a sexier name) has gone through three clinical trials involving more than 1900 women. Their report reads: "Although the results were statistically significant, they amount on average to only a single extra-satisfying event per month."

Women will have to decide for themselves whether this makes the new drug worth their while. Needless to say, the final word won't come until Oprah does a splashy special on the matter. In the meantime, women will simply have to take the word of sex therapist Lenore Tiefer from NYU's school of medicine. He notes that the psychological appeal for this pill may exceed its actual medical benefits, therefore "women may be tempted -- or pressured -- to take the pill."

Lets see now -- at the rate of one "extra-satisfying event per month" times 150 million American adult women, that could total 1.8 billion more "events" every year. The mind -- and the libido -- boggles at the implications for population rates, climate change and the Viagra boys!

Saturday, November 21, 2009


In a land far far away, in an age long long ago, there existed a splendid little time right after Thanksgiving during which parents and children, grandparents and neighbors could together experience the joy of holiday/holyday anticipation. With the air so crisp and the sugar-plumb fairies so active, everyone became like a giddy straw-man flopping excitedly toward an enchanting reward.

Not any more!

Carl Jung liked to say, "Hurry is not of the devil, it is the devil." And yet our culture has devilishly indulged in hurrying Christmas more and more each year. Starting right after Halloween, and in some insidious ways right after Labor Day. The convoluted logic...? When something's this wonderful, you mustn't waste time waiting for it...
But, you see, anticipation is the very essence of life's wonders. Like the play you've waited for all season; but then as the curtain finally rises, you're struck by the realization it's the beginning of the end. Likewise the magic of Christmas, when it's rushed there's less chance to value each little bell or bough or giggle.

Because perception is reality, today's hurried-up Christmas season has very different realities for very different participants. The giggling kids love it so, altho after awhile a bit of psychic ennui can settle in; something like the way the last licks of candy and cones are often less thrilling than the first.

Elder's reality at this time of year is more recollection than anticipation. A warm-all-over sensation; and yet this glow often dims when relentlessly imposed upon every aging body part 24/7.

Merchants of course experience Christmas in ways that would annoy Charles Dickens right down to his paper and quill. After all, didn't he brilliantly explain this season to us once and for all?

Still, the kids and elders and even the merchants take Christmas very seriously each in their own particular way. But then -- would you believe! -- there are those among us who prefer not to take it at all. Oh, they will deny this, but I can't help but suspect it is true. First there are the purists, then the grinches...

The grinches are fairly uncomplicated. For various regrettable reasons, their hearts are too small to embrace anything so large and holy as Christmas. And so they ba-humbug their way throughout. Theirs is perhaps a lost cause. The purists, however, might still be saved. These are those who so claim they so honor Christmas that their fury over its terribly rushed exploitation keeps them so angry that they miss the whole wondrous affair. Be it in the good name of theology or psychology, they spend their days analyzing what 2000 years ago was simply meant to be appreciated...

Friday, November 20, 2009


Take your choice -- life is either cartoon or tragedy. Probably a little of both...!

At first I was thinking cartoon, because this week is the 50th anniversary of the classic TV cartoon "Rocky and Bullwinkle." If you're too young to remember, it piquantly squeezed life into breezy 30 minute episodes. There was Evil (the snarly Boris Badenov)...Innocence (the loopy moose Bullwinkle)...and Reason (the lovable flying squirrel Rocky). I ask you now -- when it comes to the basics, really what else is there?

Kids -- of all ages -- laughed and learned from Rocky's daily misadventures. The best kind of learning, the kind you don't even suspect is learning. But many of today's cartoons and comics have grown considerably more serious. And pretentious. Almost as if laughing at ourselves is now deemed less valuable. Comedies almost never win Oscars, master humorist Neil Simon just watched a revival of his play die on Broadway, and comedians from Bill Maher to Jon Stewart are intentionally edgier and angrier.

Of course we still have the gentler comedians like Newhart and Cosby, the softer cartoons like Peanuts and Blondie. But by and large, we're a much richer yet bitter society. Is there a connection here, I wonder...?

However, then there's the distinct possibility we're living in a tragedy. The ancient Greeks spent a lot of time writing tragic theatre in which little Man was constantly being buffeted by angry Gods. There were Greek comedies, but it is their tragedies which have echoed down the centuries. So that by the time of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov in the 19th C, his conclusion was: "Life is a tragedy filled with joys....!"

With all due respect to comedy and to my Christianity, I really believe that pronouncement catches the cadence of what this is all about. Doesn't make me stop laughing or hoping or praying. But it sure helps me explain a lot of things. Among which are why the smoke from burning fall leaves is both perfume and poison at the same time...why we can cry at weddings...laugh at wakes....doubt the God we believe in....oh, and miss "Rocky and Bullwinkle."

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Like the ancient Babylonians, modern scientists admirably seek to build grand towers of truth. The question for those of us watching from down below -- are today's towers beginning to crash like theirs did? Have the builders reached too high, ironically leaving the rest of us in the confusion of their collapsed efforts...?

To put it simply -- science is truth-by-testing. And so modern scientists doggedly test every hypothesis from apples to zebras, from our brains to our barbarity. Often they arrive at great summits of truth in the forms of better tools, newer understandings, broader vistas of cosmic knowledge. But now, you see, this is where the Biblical story has relevance, for in these tireless efforts to soar ever higher, scientists begin speaking in different tongues. They test, they question, they re-test and very soon their different conclusions trigger academic arguments among themselves that leave the rest of us in a Babel of confusion.

Just listen....!

In the latest examples we have highly qualified experts giving us a learned conundrum of conclusions about mammograms.... a bustle of theories about climate change....a clash of opinions about the psychology of the mind and the pharmacology of cures....a bazaar of choices about how to lose weight....a hundred-and-one conflicting ways to decipher the archaeology of the Bible...second opinions about second opinions about medical procedures.... all enthusiastically mis-reported by a lay press whose goal is more titillation than information.

I ask you -- what's a poor Babylonian to do....?

Well, here are some un-scholastic murmurings from my over-whelmed psyche. Without holding a grudge about our dedicated, but Babel-ling scientific investigators, my best informed instincts beckon me to a few of the time-tested truths with which you and I have grown up. None of which are scientifically valid, you understand, but gosh they just feel so damn good.

Like the comfort of fat foods....good wines....taking naps instead of exercising....drinking too much coffee and eating too many sweets...reading the Bible as coming from God and not skeptical archaeologists ...finding a doc I trust and just turning off the Babel of on-line doctoring that disagrees with him/ for leaders to whom I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt rather than always doubting their benefits.

So okay my self- indulgence makes me a little primitive. But in world of too many differing towers of truth, sometimes I need the comfort of belief. Belief in what I know even more than what I read!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Americans love their labels. You know, captioning people so you don't have to really understand them. Comes with our sound-bite mentality. And yet, sometimes we get it right. Like The Boss and The Barracuda...!

Both Springsteen and Palin are creatures of their own conscious making. Both wear jeans, turn on crowds, and represent low & mid Americana. The difference is, one has a talent for providing lets-all-get-together entertainment; the other, a penchant for lets-all-argue trouble. The Boss gives voice to the crowd's best instincts (camaraderie); the Barracuda to some of their baser instincts (confrontation).

I'm not sure, but I don't think The Boss wants to be president. I suspect the Barracuda would either love to be or at least become the media counter-force to The Oprah. Springsteen seems to find his psychic energy from the sights and sounds of his blue-collar Jersey roots; Palin from the energy she was accidentally bequeathed in last year's presidential campaign, a campaign she now denounces for misusing that energy.

Intentionally or not, The Boss personifies yesterday-and-tomorrow-America all in one throaty explosion of high-decibel sound. He is yesterday's farmers and toilers; at the same time, he is tomorrow's urbanized, multi-racial society. He is the best of yesterday's Currie & Ives Americana while he is also the best of tomorrow's harder-edged nation. However you look and hear him, he can make you feel proud of what we were at the same time excited about who we can yet become.

Sarah Palin is far more intentional. One has to assume she never dreamed such instant celebrity, but now that it's hers, there are those advising her to run with it for all it's worth (after all, celebrity in this culture collapses even faster than it's created). And so, Ms Palin taps into some of her deep-seated political passions that we all can share to one degree or another. Namely, that purer America-that-was which President Reagan also saw and sold. I mean, who can't love the small town innocence and goodness of the America Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kincaide paint for us...?

But here's where that "trouble" comes in with the Palin Doctrine. While Springsteen's crowds are black and white and brown, Palin's are definitely all white. You know -- the way America was, is and always was meant to be! I'm white. so I hear her. Loud and clear. But the US Census Bureau speaks still louder. By 2050, America's whites will be in the minority. Which suggests we've got about 40 year to learn how to live and sing and hunt together somewhere beyond the nostalgic borders of Mayberry, USA....

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I have a good friend who says "the best cure for democracy's current problems is more democracy." At first it sounds good, but listen closer and you can pick out the discordant notes in his melody. A discordance that is killing us in 4/4/ time...!

What my friend, an experienced lawyer, means is that our democracy operates as as a great bawdy orchestra of ideas and power. Clashing voter ideas and competing vested-interest power get a little messy, sure, but in the long run the performance comes out for the best. Something like the verdicts from an arguing jury. Well, at least that's how lawyers and the Founding Fathers want to hear our constitutional composition.

In reality, our 18th C democratic composition isn't playing all that well given our 21st C cacophony of off-key rival players. Democrats vs vs poor...labor vs management...white vs others...warriors vs peaceniks ...big business vs anything in the way of big profits. When our democracy was smaller, these discordant notes eventually came together in a kind of successful coda. We survived our civil war, we conquered our continent, and we beat the bad guys in two world wars, didn't we?

However, the melody line of our democracy has grown ever more fractured. In each of those contentious times, we eventually found a conductor who could somehow help orchestrate the disparate parts into a smashingly successful conclusion. There was Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson and FDR at the podium wielding the baton. In our times -- just when the issues at home and abroad have grown exponentially more complex and dangerous -- the players are less willing to watch any baton!

Reagan, Clinton, Bush and now Obama -- each stands at the podium trying to conduct an orchestra in which the strings don't play with the horns, and the percussion section totally ignores the bass section.The explanation...? Well, after all this is a democracy in which solos are what count...!

With so many soloists insisting on their own sheet music -- each backed up with hundreds of millions of media and lobby and blogger support -- it sounds like there will never again be another maestro. My lawyer friend sniffs that would mean "repressing" the players' rights, and "stifling" the free flow of notes which constitute the essence of a democracy.

Look -- I applaud the principles of democracy with as much grateful self-interest as the next player. But it's the performance that frightens me lately. When every lobbyist or international corporation or powerful privateer can marshal hundreds of millions of dollars to manipulate public opinion, stage calculated protests, and scream lie in the halls of Congress -- well, we have a problem Houston! And simply saying more democracy is the answer to the crisis is something like saying to a drowning man: "More water!"

Monday, November 16, 2009


I once asked Edward Albee how was it that he could write such a deep play ("A Delicate Balance") at such a relatively shallow age (35)? I thought his a profound kind of insight gifted only those few we call artists. His simplistic answer surprised me. "Well, as a kid I used to listen in to my parents' parties...."

I thought to myself, well yeah so did I, but whence this staggering wisdom in referring to "the terror" taking up residence in the lives of his play? Unlike today's terrors by terrorists, Albee was alluding to that nameless, faceless terror that inevitably and inexorably seeps into our very being. As life gets shorter and death gets closer. How wise of him -- of any of us young or old -- to candidly confront "the terror." Rather than simply try to drink, drug or delay it away as if it doesn't apply to me!

Americans are by history a pragmatic people. We like to see what we're dealing with, give it a name, find a solution. Preferably quickly. Say, like, buying a hot quarterback or firing a cold coach or blowing up the bad guys with shock-and-awe. What we don't like -- what we don't really understand -- are problems that are vague and open-ended and demand persistence. And so the "terror" of a global jihad war makes us as angry and impatient as we are fearful and unsure.

Albee's "terror," though, is vastly different.

It doesn't come in bombs or in rage. Rather, it comes in silence and in the night. When you're younger you can catch a brief whiff in your darkest hours of defeat. At the job, in your relationships, in your goals. But when you're older -- like those glass-clinking friends of Albee's parents -- "the terror" often arrives un-announced. Most often when you're alone, when you're studying your mirror, when you're burying your parents and your friends. There comes this tick. Not the ticking of a bomb-strapped on a jihadist, but of your own clock next to your own bed.

Time happens. No one gets more than 60 minutes an hour. But at the same time, no one gets less. So life is the gift that keeps giving just so long as you know how to spend it. Albee's parents and their friends were apparently spending it well at these over-heard parties. And yet, it took a 35-year-old artist to hear -- and to dramatize -- what even they may not yet have heard. The terror of ticking time.

I don't know what happened to those friends once they did...but I do know that a young Edward Albee went on to capture and tame that terror. For everyone -- young and old. rich or poor -- to see and study as it moved across the theatre stage. Makes you think -- maybe there should be a prominent place for attending the theatre in any future health plan...!

Sunday, November 15, 2009


"Our Town" playwright Thornton Wilder once called his 1938 Broadway hit "a nice little play." The man under-valued himself. His later comments struck closer to the artistic truth. "The play is reminding us the ice cream is melting" and "we can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures!"

When I was young, Emily's third act look-back from her grave struck my heart, but its sad wisdom never quite seeped into my head. Since then, time has parents have died...and my head has caught up to my heart. In those final 18 minutes of the play, Emily's brief return to life in her parent's kitchen transmutes from play to prayer. As she peers longingly at her parents -- busy with their daily trivia and unaware she is confronting them from beyond -- Emily at last realizes the enormously painful truth about this life: "We don't look at one another!"

Wilder becomes profound in saying here that only God -- and we only after we're gone -- have the perspective of seeing life as we live it. Otherwise -- and understandably -- we're simply living it. As if it will go on this way forever. In fact, aren't pragmatic Americans usually urged to "seize the day" and "live in the moment" for this all you have...?

Eric Erickson speaks of the stages of life as does Shakespeare, only with a psychological twist. While one of the early stages is his fight-or-flight, the last stage is integrate-or-despair. Once you've lived both, you can see each day and each moment as the unpolished pearl we usually forget it is. A raw jewel that calls not only for consciously burnishing it at the time, but then lovingly placing it alongside the rest in this necklace of memories we call life. And that we wear for such a short duration.

When Hollywood did the movie, of course it had to impose the appropriate happy-ending for the life-loving public. In Hollywood, Emily lives. But in the play she dies....and in the world we all die. Wilder's third act requires no confectionery editing anymore than does the brooding "Book of Lamentations" or the bleak records of Notre Dame and the Bears. The play duly reports life for what it is, death for what it is, and the opportunity we have to better fathom each, if only we take the time to do what Emily learns: To look at one another while we still can.

So what's the next pearl you're about to add to your necklace today....?

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Now when would anyone dare test something so sacred as our 1st amendment...? Well, perhaps when it's being abused as often as it's being used. I dare to call to the witness chair (1) the media (2) the ACLU.

In the case of the media, a free press is without question essential to a democracy. But a carefree one? We could bring the New Media to the stand, for god knows bloggers tend to stretch the boundaries of truth and propriety at the click of a keypad. However, lets stick with the more responsible Old Media. In this morning's Chicago Tribune and New York Times the headlines raise alarms about "making Illinois the next Gitmo" and "one of the highest-profile, highest-security terrorism trials in history" to be set in the heart of the New York.

Our right to free speech has been tested by the courts many times, but lets take this Gitmo scare as a handy case in point. If indeed the Feds buy the Thomson Correction Center 150 miles west of Chicago, how fair and valid is it to stir the fears and passions of the citizenry, when this will mean little more than adding to an Illinois prison population already studded with dangerous and demonic criminals? It is entirely reasonable to expect a safe, secure transfer that warrants no more hysterical attention than when even more heinous murderers were locked up throughout our state's history.

Ahhh, but it makes good copy. Fear sells. And under the flag of free speech, every barbershop, beauty salon, cable channel and talk-radio station will bubble and babble for weeks. And for what? Come on, guys, it's sillier and less productive than Monday morning quarterbacking about something far beyond most of our expertise. So why not let the folks we elected do their job without the fury and frills of useless public rage?

Then there's the ACLU. A prince of 1st amendment applications, the ACLU can boast a proud history of public service. However, how many times have they been intoxicated with their own selective interpretation of the 1st amendment at the cost of the human hurt their court actions have impacted! Organized religion is of course one of their major concerns, but how often has their constitutional fury been unleashed without much concern for the emotional toll on the defendants?

For example, there is a federal park in the Southwest where a large cross has been planted in monumental memory to deceased World War I veterans. For generations, people here have held this to be a sacred memorial. Now, however, young tailored lawyers with no personal knowledge of World War I have swooped in to demand the federal government remove the cross. Why...? Well, of course, the operative explanation is their bristly interpretation of separation-of-church-and-state. When asked about the resulting separation of sacred memories from this cross, the lawyers I'm told had little to say.

Bottom line -- for every right there exists an obligation. To use it your right with a sense of justice and compassion for the other side. A
s it's been written: "My right to my fist ends where it meets your right to your nose!"

Friday, November 13, 2009


We move in a world of many prisons. The prisons of our bodies and our minds, our dreams and our fears. And of course, a nationwide prison system in which 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated. This makes us the nation with the most citizens behind bars...!

If you're impressed by statistics, these will stagger you. When you include those on probation and parole, there are 7.4 million people in our criminal justice system. The inmate population alone has tripled over the last 25 years. With only 5% of the world's population, the U.S. has 25% of the world's prisoners. As the land of the free and home of the brave, the numbers are as troubling as they are tragic.

A specialist in the field, Professor Glenn Loury of Brown University, puts it this way: "The current American prison system is a leviathan unmatched in human history." When asked why we have so many prisoners, two answers kept recurring: (1) the tough-on-crime policies since the 1960s, 25% of which involve drug crimes (2) politicians at all levels of government who insist on these policies, but resist increasing prison budgets and reforms.

The politicians can point to statistics which show crime rates have dropped significantly since the 1960s, especially violent crimes. In New York alone, the rates plunged 40% between 1997 and 2007. And yet, in those same years, its incarceration rate dropped 15%, "proving crime and incarceration rates can actually drop in tandem." However, New York is the exception that proves the rule by which most states just keep locking more and more people up.

There is also a demographic factor. While blacks are 12% of the national population, they constitute 38% of the felony convictions. However, ghetto poverty rather than race is the chief explanation, with most of the crimes black-on-black. One result is, "poor black neighborhoods brutalized by crime and torn by the removal of loved ones to prison."

But while the statisticians understand the problem, the experts have failed to find the reforms to turn the situation around. It's not unlikely that when the conservative critics find the time, they will somehow lay the blame on our first black president.

In contrast to the blame-makers are the reform-makers. I'm thinking here of the black preacher who asked the question: What makes corn pop...? His explanation goes something like this. The kernel's outer shell is hard to change from the outside, but when properly heated, it expands from the inside. Which means breaking the shell and producing the happy results.

Being a man of God, he concludes this way: "Getting at people from the inside will always do more to make them pop than forcing them from the outside!" Have you noticed in your own life, how true that is...?

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Al Gore has proudly predicted the Internet the next great leap for democracy. We remember how Dr Frankenstein once predicted his creature would be the next great leap for mankind. Making predictions is always dicey -- especially about the future....!

Now here I am using the Net presuming to analyze the Net. Takes guts, or is that gall! But then analyzing everything from apples to red zones is what Net users do. Which is precisely why we can always get a few hundred arguments about Gore's proud prediction.

As originally conceived, Athenian democracy was an assembly of citizens in open 18th C New England it was the assembly of citizens in open town meetings....ever since the Constitution, democracy has been squeezed through the filter of a republic where our representatives speak for us. But if the Net has now permitted everyone everywhere to speak out on everything, has this energized or crippled our democracy? In other words it's the old old dilemma: Can we have too much of a good thing?

This has been the conundrum at the heart of our government even before the ink was dry in Philadelphia. Our government has had to wrestle with two companion but often conflicting principles: Equality and Liberty. If everyone has the liberty to be all they can be, very quickly we have the inequality of those who excel and those who can't. The few A-team players and all the rest of us!

Is that saying Dick Durbin and Barney Frank are better or wiser than Huffington or Salon,...? Maybe not, but what about Frankie the barber, Sally the stripper, Craig the the cop, and Harry the happy hacker...? I mean, now they and millions of other they's like you and me have equal access to millions of homes and heads out there which we can stuff with our own particular brand or babel of reality. Too much of a good thing? Too much of a bad thing? Or just too damn much for 300 million citizens to ever again rally around a few good men and causes?

Journalists have traditionally been trained for their work, and screened by their editors. Who s us? Who screens us? I'll tell you the options on the table: Our own sense of citizenship...our own sense of propriety.... our own sense of what's good and right and interesting. And all that does have a nice democratic ring to it.

Only...only it's the words "our own" that worries me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Every Veterans Day, as a young man I would wonder about having a conversation at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Now as an older man, I wonder about having a conversation at the tomb of my Father...

This is a solemn day which has, over its 90 years, grown much more forgetful. Millions of Americans served with courage, and hundreds of thousands died with honor. Here's what my Father might whisper to me in the autumnal hush of Hillside, Illinois:

"I came to Chicago from Sicily at the turn of the century. Too young when war broke out in 1917, too old when the next war came in 1941. But this was sacred soil to immigrants like me, so I had to leave Momma and you boys to volunteer. The Army needed motor pool experts like me, so what else could I do?

"I'm still surprised how few people remember these wars and these dead. And how they forget so many of us were immigrants just like the ones they seem to hate today. Blood is blood. All our blood -- Whites, Blacks, Latinos -- spilled for the same reasons. Not for the speeches or the politicians. For one another, and the people we left back home. Can you tell me why so many folks today think only: Me?

"A few years back these cemeteries were busy with people and flowers and flags. Today -- well, I guess people aren't any worse, just busier. Of course, they wouldn't have so much to be busy with if a lot of these crosses weren't here. Which is another thing I don't understand -- why do some people want to take the crosses down, and call that 'the constitutional thing to do?'

"Oh, there's something else -- the way everyone is so angry about government helping with health care and inoculations. I didn't live long enough to have things like Social Security and Medicare be in effect, but I sure wish I had. We all need a little help sometime...."

If by this point in my imaginary conversation I had a few tears in my eyes, it would not only be for Dad. More for all of us. On a day like this when you think about these cemeteries -- if you think about them at all -- you kinda have to wonder about us. Are we and what we're always so busy doing actually worth what they did for us?

I'd guess sometimes some of us are. But a lot of trivial, tacky times we're not. Which makes this day a remarkably apt time to put down whatever we think is so important. And -- just like the President laying the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier -- we might place one of our own at the tombs of all the soldiers, past and present, that we know.

Then, getting back to what was so important, we might have a much better idea how to define important.

Monday, November 9, 2009


How do you connect these dots -- Rene Descartes, Dales Carnegie and Barbara Ehrenreich? Here's a clue -- they're each what you see in your morning mirror...!

Descartes penned the famous "Cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am). Carnegie wrote "How To Win Friends & Influence People." And now Ehrenreich has come out with "How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America." Each in their own way is telling us how we think helps explain who we are.

Americans, ever since pioneer days, have been deeply and unchangeably convinced we each hold the reins of our destiny in our own hands. It's all those If-You-Can-Dream-It-You-Can-Do-It mantras we hear from all those How To books on the shelves and all those motivational speakers at the sales meetings. I speak with modest authority, having scanned some of those books and written many of those speeches. Frankly, neither ever helped me close a sale or a wound.

Ehrenreich reports, this "mystical positivity" is not only used to pump up eager sales forces, it even translates into the current "gospel of wealth" in our mega-churches. She insists it's good to feel self-reliant, but where is the courage to withstand the" inevitable defeats in life and the Christian call for humility and sacrificial love for others?"

Ronald Reagan will be remembered in our history books, but perhaps even more so in our popular culture. That's because of his 1941 portrayal of the Notre Dame football player Gipper in the enormously popular movie "Knute Rockne." It helped forever embed in our psyches the conviction that coaches can win teams and teams games with the right dose of get-one-for-the-Gipper thinking.

When you're 25, positive thinking makes enormous good sense...when you're 45, it can be confusing to learn it can't stave off the defeats and disease of life...when you're 65, you're compelled to try reconciling the positives with the negatives in your life. Still, it can be done. Probably by remembering that the Gipper was gifted with better legs than most, but he still needed 10 less gifted human beings to score.

Being less gifted and less positive is no reason to be less hopeful....

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Bismark may have been an autocratic old militarist, but he understood governments. He summed it up this way: "Never believe anything in politics until it's been officially denied!"

To date, the government in Washington has neither confirmed nor denied GPS satellites are being used to track its citizens. But they're up there -- spinning and beeping and watching every second of every minute of every day -- and so one has to wonder.

The receiver in my car talks to me in a clipped Oxford accent which is in itself intimidating even before she informs me I've just missed my turn for the third straight time. The one they now want to provide parents for their children's backpacks apparently will squeal on the little tykes the minute they stray from Mom's pre- progammed agenda for them.

But here's my problem. GPS has now made it virtually impossible for any of us to ever get lost again....!

Yes, yes, I understand the amazing geographic advantages to all this, and yet I can't help mourn the loss of ever being lost again. Just think of the sorry consequences.

Now there's no chance of making a wrong turn on a city street and driving into the refreshing mistake of a neighborhood you never knew existed (like when I found myself in the surprising pastoral charm of Ravenswood)....or getting lost west of O'Hare and discovering a necklace of tight little communities I never heard of....or heading for Lake Geneva and miscalculating my way into some small-town main streets straight out of a Norman Rockwell calendar.

You see, today we've corsetted ourselves into this splendid lacework of satellites and security cameras wherever we turn. At intersections, at airports, in schools, in the cellphone pocket of every B-movie character in every gin joint in all the world. If Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus had tools like these, what wonder would there be left to lure them on to new worlds? Or if I hadn't incorrectly driven into Park Ridge one day, would I be here in this house right now asking you these questions? Or if Joan and I had not gotten lost on the way to that cast party so many years ago, would we have ever ended up watching the sun come up upon our happy realization we were destined for one another?

So please -- might all you brilliant technocrats just for once stop pushing the envelope!!

Saturday, November 7, 2009


I had the privilege of writing for the last two White Houses. Were I to have the honor to write something for this good president, here would be my first draft for the first paragraph!

"My fellow Americans, this week two tragedies hit home at the same time. Together they send an inescapable message. First, the horrific events at Fort Hood remind us there is pathological but understandable confusion about more deployments in overseas wars. Second, our unemployment rate hitting 10% reminds us lives are being lost daily here even faster than over there. It's time for me to fulfill my pledge for Change. It's time for us to gather our natural, economic and human resources to invest here more than there. It's time for us to take most (altho surely not all) of what we've planned to pour into overseas nation-building, and pour it into our nation. In other words -- nation-building at home! My administration has already started in small steps; now it's time to invest ourselves in big steps. Here's how....."

Sir, I'll leave the rest to you, for I believe you know what we need to do.

Friday, November 6, 2009


There's a terrible thing starting to happen in a most unlikely place -- Disney's Magic Kingdom. Something almost unbelievable...!

Word out of Hollywood is that the Disney imagineers are thinking about giving Mickey "an edgier persona" for their forthcoming video games. Now look, I admit the law says they own Mickey; but lets remember, we need Mickey. All 300 million of us ever since the little fella was born on Walt's drawing board here in Chicago over 80 years ago.

Every society has its legends and icons. The happy little mouse -- who brightened our movie screens during the Depression and the War, and whose Mickey Mouse Club delighted children on television screens thereafter -- has always represented the stuff dreams are made of. You know, good cheer, good will, good intentions, and plenty of good laughs. Now, now, they want to make Mickey "edgier?" That's like giving Santa a scowl or grandma a hatchet!

Okay, so the world isn't a cartoon, and real people aren't very nice. But, you see, that was one of the very reasons we fell in love with Mickey. His movies, his theme parks, his thousand-and-one collectibles all help take the edge off reality.The very edge they now want to give him. Something's wrong with this plot!

We're told by neuro-biologists that our instincts and appetites are genetic expressions of our evolutionary history of survival. Maybe so. Or maybe it's just that everyone has a funny bone that needs to be tickled a little while we travel so many of life's darker roads. I say -- millions say -- don't mess with our Mickey.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


I'm not sure of the IQ ratings of the members to our US Congress. Assuming they read great writers, here are some passages their congressional staffs may be feeding them these days (by the way, the staffs are all those young serious faces sitting behind all those old pompous faces during congressional hearings):

* The Republican staffers have Soren Kierkegaard: "The thing that cowardice fears most is decision!"
* The Democratic staffers have Friedrich Schiller: "A merely fallen enemy may rise again, but the reconciled one is truly vanquished!"

This is another example of how measuring ones times is a strictly subjective gig. All you have to do is just pick the quotes or the statistics or the facts or the rumors or the bloggers of your choice. Funny way to run a country, but that's the bad that goes with the good that comes with free speech.

Now, however, we may have discovered some objective evidence concerning the perennial battle of the sexes. The importance of women throughout history has just picked up some strong support. Historians already can point to the vital roles of women like Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and now Hillary Clinton. But recently the archaeologists also came riding to their rescue with "cave woman" evidence tracing back as far back as 13,000 years.

Researchers in the pre-historic caves of southern France have taken the time to measure and calculate the finger sizes of the artists who finger-printed their images on these walls. While we have traditionally referred to "cave men," they tell us we better include "cave women." The measurements here prove many of these drawings were done by females.

When the boys at the corner saloon get wind of this, they may have to stuff their standard taunt: "Show me how many women ever did that...?!" Frankly, I don't know who will be bellying up to the bar to answer that question for the boys. I'm pretty sure it wont be me. Besides, m y wife and my daughters have been explaining this to me for years....

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Seems like folks have been trying to kill God ever since He threw us out of Paradise. First the pagans, then the scholars, now the nones....!

Those are the millions who check "none" when asked about their religious affiliation. Emerson smartly wrote, "A man is what he thinks about all day long." Well, to the "nones," it ain't God. In one of those unrelenting surveys in which someone insists on getting us to think about important questions, Trinity College has found 34 million adult Americans, 15% of our population, has no religious affiliation. Up sharply from 8% 20 years ago.

Different people react in different ways to different surveys. Atheists and agnostics must be delighted. Churches, temples and mosques must be concerned. Sociologists mainly just like to debate these things. To date, no one has heard from God.

Maybe that's because a slim majority of the "nones" say they believe in God, and a third assert they pray on a regular basis.Trinity study co-author, Barry Kosmin, explains: "People, especially the young, are skeptical about organized religion and clerics, while still holding to the idea of God." Is that something like saying you believe in baseball, just can't stand the Cubs?

Okay, so attendance in church, synagogue and mosque plummeted from 41% in 1971 to 31% today. Even the hot evangelical mega-churches seem to have maxed out. But what can we extrapolate from these data...?

As more young people swell the population, there is likely to be more skeptical, liberal-based "nones." Which sets us up for one of two hotly discussed possibilities. Either the "end of Christian America" as Newsweek proclaimed last April, or another "great awakening" as is being prayerfully planned in places like the Vatican and the Deep South.

There's a third prospect. Trinity study co-author Ariela Keysar speculates America may simply catch up with the religious indifference of Europeans, where churches are either empty or rented out to music concerts. "We're not there yet," she says, "but we're going in that direction."

Oh, a budding fourth prospect is "home churching" something like "home schooling." This is very much how both Judaism and Christianity first began -- with small home gatherings where worship came from holding hearts rather than heralding hierarchies. Hmmm, sounds interesting....


Second City is dated. No, not the team, the title...!

They're celebrating their 50th anniversary next month with a gala of famous alums like Stephen Colbert and George Wendt). But isn't it time they reconsider their title. Everyone knows it was a clever taunt of New York which has always considered itself the first city. And yet, over these 50 years, both the team and the city here have passed New York up in so many ways. Arguably, Chicago is first in the number of stars on television and on Broadway...the number of city parks and lakefront splendors...the number of innovative outdoor architecture ....the height of our skyscrapers...and the bravado of our political corruption.

Oh, and we're also the home of the nation's first great city fire...the first 100-year-old baseball curse...the first family....and the first Second City.

Chicago has always been the place where ambition turns good todays into even better tomorrows. Like you've done at Second City. So, congratulations, and here's an idea for a new name. Instead of Second City how about First Tomorrow...?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

THE 1%

I'm not very good with statistics, but I'm guessing there's always been about a 99 to 1 ratio in history between us and them. The record suggests that while 99% of us go through life working and hoping, about 1% of them are working and controlling. Yet the 1% rarely make the headlines...!

Headlines are for the obvious -- big crimes or celebrities or exceptions. The 1% don't -- and don't want to -- qualify. It doesn't take a Dan Brown novel to suspect who the 1% are. On one side of this 1 are the masters-of-the-universe who ride in limos, jet in Lear's, convene secret board meetings, and gather at exclusive spas throughout the world. The 1% are almost always above the law, above the recessions, and above the regular playing fields of life. About the only thing the 1% share with the 99% are death and taxes (and usually not that many taxes).

On the flip side of this 1 are covert agents of governments working 24/7 to monitor these masters. Those intelligence and counter-intelligence agents operating in shadows armed with wire-taps, code-breakers and hired guns. All privately assembled to bring down these masters-of-the-universe whenever they look like they're going to become even bigger than the governments which are willing to co-exist with them so long as there's enough pie for both players.

Hollywood loves to model movies after these cynical plotlines. It's art imitating life imitating history. A recent example, the Clive Owens & Naomi Watts hit "The International," ends with that now-patented what-the-
hell's-the-use fadeout. The new genre in which the good guys lose while the bad guys just keep winning. If, that is, you can even tell anymore who's good and who's bad. Or if it even makes a difference anymore!

Maybe it still does. Just so long as we believe it does....


After a legendary 90 years, Don Roth's restaurant will close forever (Sun Times, Nov3). That follows the recent closing of 80-year-old Kiddieland plus a galaxy of Loop traditions from Fields to Carsons to Henrici. This is starting to hurt...!

Chicago, like America, is a sunrise society where the new trumps the old. Nothing wrong with that, but why I wonder are there legendary sites and stores in other countries which survive for centuries? Maybe they sense it's their yesterdays which shape their todays and make possible their tomorrows. And so they give up their past more reluctantly.

What's past is still important to most of us. It's why we have reunions and vigils, anniversaries and family albums. And yet, for every one of our memories there's a wrecking crew ready to dig it up. So here's an idea. With the holidays coming, notice how the kids and the seniors can still share a talk and a turkey together. As long as this is true, we'll by okay.

Only there won't be any more Don Roth "spinning salads" to go with the meal....

Monday, November 2, 2009


It may not seem so, but today's comedians and atheists have much in common. They're both so damn angry....!

Take comedians. At one time they may have been blue, but not angry. Bob Hope, George Burns, Shelly Berman and Bob Newhart were busy laughing at the human condition. Flash forward to George Carlin, Lewis Black and Chris Rock. They're angry right through their entire act. Actually, anger is their act.

Notice, though, the audience is angry right along with them. In some clubs, the patrons leave the place tanked with booze and ready for an argument with anyone they can find. Cop, politician, religious zealot, Wall Street banker, often The Man. They've just paid for the weapon of public rage with the currency of private frustrations.

This rage now seeps out into the most surprising places. Into their jobs, in their votes, at football stadiums, on the Internet, with dinner, even in bed. Angry people don't make especially happy citizens. The Germans were angry in the 1930s, the Russians in the 1940s, the North Koreans in the 1950s, and now the Iranians. Get the picture....?

Atheists too have grown terribly angry. At one time they just wanted to be left alone. These days, that's no longer good enough. Atheists have grown so angry with the rest of us, they're always demanding we do something about it. Kill the Christmas tree, banish the creche, stop public praying, and prevent public crosses. These days their defense is offense. They no longer want to avoid the prom, they want to call the dance!

Of course it's true, one person's anger is another person's cause. Now if there were just a few more un-angry causes. Oh but wait -- those are precisely what the comedians and the atheists are so angry about!


Columnist Esther Cepeda (SunTimes, Nov 2) is on to something that's been foolishly eluding most Americans for generations: Death!

She speaks openly -- and reverently -- of the November 2 Hispanic Dia de los Muerto honoring departed loved ones. Oh, but not with black bunting and neurotic denial. Instead of keeping death at a nice antiseptic distance, this celebration embraces it with heavy food and hearty drink. Why pretend death isn't here? And isn't for all of us?

So America's polite, arm's-length convention about the dead is not altogether universal. Attend most Irish wakes and you'll find plenty of food and drink too; plus a roguish dash of dark humor. Also our Mediterranean cultures take death pretty seriously; and pretty loudly. And yet, the mainstream WASP tradition in America has mostly been keeping a dispassionate distance between the living and the dead. Keeping it clean, keeping it quiet, and most of all keeping it quick.

Maybe one of the reasons we're so glutted with so many tales of vampires and witches is they permit a little release for our uptight reserve and dread. However, as Cepeda wisely suspects, some of this may be changing. And why not! When you're planning a long trip, you usually want to get to know something about it ahead of time, don't you?


Sunday, November 1, 2009


Some time back, they brought a petting zoo to our school playground. A small, portable pen replete with small petable lambs, goats, chickens, piglets and a soft, furry, beige donkey. It was Brookfield right in our own backyard, and every passer-by was deliciously compelled to stop, pause, and pet....

What's the point? Here was a one-of-a-kind moment in which all the clocks stopped, all the age differences melted, and everything in this crazy, cockeyed world suddenly made a little sense!

The first thing was our senses were quickly flooded with the sights and sounds and smells of nature. Of God's green earth which somehow manages to exist and thrive even without all our magnificent man-made devices and technologies. You were instantly in touch with the rhapsodic reality that there really is something behind the Wizard's curtain. It's called planet earth. Amazingly, you remember it was here long before us, and will be long after us. There's something so foundational and permanent about this simple but often forgotten fact. We need it more than it will ever need us.

As I made mystic contact with Jimmy the Donkey's steady brown eyes, it was reassuring there's actually something quietly enduring in our oh-so-busy-little-lives-of-restless-ambition. Nothing wrong with ambition, but it suddenly all slips into comforting context when you realize -- remember? -- that traffic jams, Bear losses, sinking markets, cratering war efforts, ugly Wall Street hustlers, and Google crashes are not forever. Why they're not even a blip on the great big scoreboard in the sky.

Jimmy and I took a long time sizing each other up that sunny, manure-fragranced afternoon. I can't be sure if I did anything for him, but he and his little friends sure did a lot for me...


When the Music Man sang, "We've got problems right here in River City," he was worrying about small-town stuff. Now comes a free-wheeling gang called CME which worries me about their big-city stuff. Their plans to make money on human disasters (Sun Times, Nov 1).

That's right -- not trying to manage them, trying to make money on them. CME is run by the same free- wheeling gang that owns the Chicago & New York Mercantile Exchanges. As the story reports, "CME has been a pioneer in weather-related trading" for years.Translated: Wall Street mentality now helps you bet on blizzards, hurricanes, and heat waves. Pretty soon, maybe on body counts too!

Am I crazy or does this have a familiar Yankee ring? For generations, we've been betting on everything from stock and commodity prices, to sport and election results. But now we're going to start putting money on human disasters...? Halloween is over, but to me this sounds permanently ghoulish.

Still, I'm betting the betters will come. And do you know why? Because we've been a gambling kind of people ever since our forefathers gambled their lives by picking up and moving to a whole New World. Just maybe that's why so many zealots from Sarah Palin to Glenn Beck hate what they call "big government." Like the cop on the beat, government just might try to re-channel this national gambling streak inside us into some higher purposes.

You know -- like organizing for better banking, safer streets, finer highways, renewed educational opportunities, nationwide flu shots, and a green revolution before our make-a-buck bravado lets other nations pass up our economy.

Here's a thought for the gang at CME. Instead of shooting craps with human disasters, get a real job and join something like the Peace Corps...!