Thursday, December 31, 2009


Is there any connection between a tribe of Pacific Island cannibals and these annual lists we love highlighting the best & worst from the past year? I may be stretching, but I say: Yes....!

In 1839 an English missionary was cannibalised on the island of Erromango. This year 18 of Rev John Wiliams' descendants attended a reconciliation ceremony on the site of their ancestor's murder. Closure for the family; a lesson for us. It seems that human nature is inherently drawn to the appeal of orderliness. Things in their place, and a place for every thing.

Isn't this one of the subconscious forces at work when we try to make sense out of our life by making these relentless year-end lists? And usually in 10's. The 10 best dressed...ten best liked...ten best winners; ten worst looking...ten most hated...ten biggest losers. The 10's go on and on into a kind of silly infinity. And why...? Because making lists like these seems to give us a sense of order -- even control -- in this chaotic, random world we're stuck in.

Conspiracy theorists are another example. So are Monday morning quarterbacks. So are today's after-the-fact experts on terrorist plots. All these could-have-should-have prophets are actually imposing their sense of order on a largely orderless universe. Lets face it -- if we admit everything is out of joint and beyond our control -- that is where madness lies. And so we try to contain the madness.

Of course, while the philosophers wrestle with this human conundrum, the theologians are sure they have already found the answer. It is God, and the mysterious ways by which He imposes His order on things. I'm certainly not qualified to say who is more right, but I do remember my old philosophy professor who said: "By the time the philosophers reach the summit of truth in this life, they'll find the theologians got there just ahead of them!"

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Everyone I know believes in death (well, except those sweaty guys at the gym who are convinced science & diet will eventually find a cure). Here at the end of another year it's always a good time to take another look. If death is inevitable, what's your take on life after death? Some kind of paradise or just a pile of dust...?

Which bring my meandering mind to two different researchers: Kubler-Ross and Jody & Jeffery Long. Both medical experts, the first has researched the five stages of grieving after a loved one's death; the Longs study near-death-experiences at their NDE Research Foundation.

Kubler-Ross's work has earned a lot of respect. The near-deathers are just getting started. But what they all seem to report is what we've all heard -- bright inviting light through a tunnel-like experience often with loved ones vaguely seen down the way. (Hollywood's been doing this gig for years, research or not!)

Far be it from me to ruin your day with death...but lets face it. It's out there. The gnawing question for most of us comes down to this: Is it going to be a good trip or a bad one? Here's one interested observer's opinion: If you think there's something on the other side, it's probably good. If you don't -- well, then you've got your choice: Either it's going to be a frustrated "wait-a-minute-I-was-just-getting-to-like-this" or a comforting long-winter's-nap.

But now back to your regularly scheduled programming....!


In billiards the backcut shot ain't easy. Nor is it always easy to find something wonderful to say about the arrogant Ted Turner. But in addition to marrying Jane Fonda, he also made another sweet choice -- preserving the classic old movies for his TMC channel. He's made it easy for everyone born, say after Richard Nixon, to actually discover for themselves there was another America. An America different than the one they know today...!

This isn't to say that America was aways better than this. But it is to say there was once upon a time when neighbors talked with knew your milk/mail/delivery guys by rode the CTA safely down to the Loop....people slept comfortably in parks on summer nights... Enrons and Benie Madoffs were what you read about not invested in...and many of us actually did work for the same company until we retired with that gold watch and circle of lifelong friends.

I submit this assessment is more than a misty Norman Rockwell fantasy. The evidence is in the memory banks of all those elders in your family who you don't take the time to ask. Perfect lives...? Hell, no! But safer, sounder and simpler...? Hell, yes! Which is where Mr Turner comes in. If you watch some of those TCM movies at night -- you know, the ones going back to the 30s, 40s, and 50's -- forget the plot, just study the premise. It's largely built upon the assumptions above.

Yes, the plots had thugs and cheaters; yes, there were liers and deceivers. But catch sight of the back-stories. The way the people in the scenes dressed and drove and interacted. You'll catch the cadence of social mores and ethical values that were a given then, whereas they are often a gag today. I was there so I can at least postulate that most of what strikes folks today as dated and corny were the M.O. of the times.

Now if you calculate I'm sentimentally exaggerating a little, you may be right. My fear, though, is you'll never see those times again to find out if I'm right!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Every December I drive through my community and have this debate with myself: Should these lights stay up all year long or respectfully retire by mid-January? I always win the debate, because I always vote Yes to both....!

My rationale for keeping them up is self-evident. They provide a glow of warmth and friendship rarely seen throughout the rest of the year. Like they say, "We need a little Christmas right now!" and this way we have it all 12 months. You got a problem with that...!

On the other side of my debate, I'm sensitive to the fact that too much of even a good thing dilutes it. Lights, sunshine, blue skies, balmy temperatures -- they're all wonderful until after awhile they're all that is. Our peculiar nature can't seem to enjoy the good times all the time. Don't ask...!

Despite my private debate, the world out there will move inexorably into its scheduled January darkness and drabness. The lights will come down...the trees will be unceremoniously tossed...the black bleak privacy of each home will envelope them once again...and we will each be just a sliver smaller for it.

However, the rhythm of our lives is virtually pre-ordained. By nature? by habit? by choice? by God? I'm not sure. But I'm not fighting it. Buddha got it right a few centuries ago when he sighed: "Happiness is not getting what you want, by wanting what you get." I'm not fighting that either.

Monday, December 28, 2009


A television screen has been staring back at me for years. From the B&W innocence of "I Love Lucy" and "Milton Berle," thro the blood of '63 Dallas and '68 Chicago, right up to the mayhem of our new century. Then came cable and its 40 channels of wall-to-wall music. At long lugubrious last , an authentic purpose for this ugly screen -- mixing a jigger of music with its relentless bile of mayhem...!

Now I get up every morning gifted with 40 options at my fingertips. Instead of the trip-hammer news reports and insipid talk shows, I can tap into the commercial-free sounds that soothe the savage beast. Music has been one of humanity's better achievements. From the primitive drums rhythms of tribal pasts, to the intricate Madrigals of the Middle Ages, to the genius of Mozart/Brahms/Beethoven, to the magic of Gershwin/Berlin/Mancini, plus the fire of Armstrong/Dylan/Springsteen. Among so many many others.

The essential power of music is its way of grabbing us directly, totally, palpably. No intellect to filter through, no language to translate; it simply envelopes us heart and soul. An escape...? Maybe....! More an elixir, without the crash. A time/space trip into each little planet of memory or hope in our life. An encounter with the gods who seem always to speak to us best in music.

So farewell to the morning claptrap of bad news and even worse chatter. I start my day with the sounds of interrupted music. God knows, there's still plenty of time left for the day's mayhem....

Sunday, December 27, 2009


In the last week of December the ancient Romans had festivals to their gods...the Huns and Celts sent altar offerings to heaven....the medievalists prayed through the 12 days of Christmas. In modern America we indulge in the recurring ritual of listing the-most-celebrated-people-of-the-year. A harmless exercise whose chief purpose may be reassuring ourselves there really is something important to all this.....!

Carrie Fisher -- herself familiar with celebrity -- puts it this way: "Celebrity is just obscurity biding its time."

Like you, I've scanned this week's names. All interesting, a few memorable, most will not even make next year's list. But the names do give one pause. NBC's Brian Willialms & the NY Times had several choices --

* Barack Obama earns the top spot simply by achieving the world's top spot against every racial and political odds. I mean here's a guy who first worked on the southside of Chicago for a friend of mine. and now he's the proverbial leader of the world in an age when the world desperately needs leadership...!

* Captain Sully Sullenberg piloted the "miracle on the Hudson" landing that seems to prove man can still snatch lives from out of the cold fierce hands of Death itself. I pray every trip there's another Sully at the controls...!

* The team at NASA discovered water on the moon, one more small step by mankind in its relentless search for meaning in our cosmos. These scientists take your breath away with their dazzling possibilities, altho I still sleep better at night holding on to the foundational probabilities of my faith...!

Lady GaGa has at the age of 23 stunned the culture world with what her admirers call the most unique fashion statement of the year. Their case is built on the conviction she's broken the existing social Gestalt. Without denying that, I remain amazed by how many young audiences return to the pleasures of their parent's Gestalt..!

* Twitter from Iran to Cook County has convinced many that this is actually the newest lobby to the biggest hotel of communications the world has ever known. Personally I can't challenge that until a verbose educator learns how to work within the valuable limits of 140 characters...!

My own choice for the-most-celebrated-people-of-the-year remains those I again witnessed this week at O'Hare Field. The gun-toting, scanner-equipped officers, security staff and medics whose thankless 24/7 task remains thankless only until the next foiled crisis. You're my heroes...!

Saturday, December 26, 2009


With Robert Downey's raucous re-inventioin of Sherlock Holmes, we have another hi-wire opportunity to discover that in our Age of Communication, we still can't communicate very well. Proof? Not the movie, the reviewers. They all saw the same film, yet obviously all experienced a very different one!

Now see here's the funny thing. In our 21st century we have more articulate critics with access to more studio facts, star interviews, Google data and Thesaurus' than ever before. And still they can never seem to report on the same movie. The critics aren't the disease, just the symptom. They -- all of us! -- simply have too many filters between any event and us.

For any print-audio-visual message to travel from sender to receiver it has to travel through a complexity of receiver filters. All the accumulated filters of highs and hurts. Come on face it -- you and I are no tabula rasa! We are the sum total of our past, of all the built-up layers of positive and negative feelings ever since childhood. So naturally receiver A isn't going to experience the same message as receiver B. Or C. Or any of the rest.

We've had Great Communicators in our history. Lincoln was one...Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt were too...just like JFK and Ronald Reagan... and yes Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and apparently Sarah Palin. But have any of these received reviews that were 100% in agreement...? Hell no; nor would we expect so. Why then expect it from anyone who's seen "Sherlock Holmes?" Or a gazillion other movies? plays? games? teams? marriages? children? laws? loves? well, you get the idea!

We are each hopelessly floating in an experience-bubble of our very own making. Can't be helped. Can't be penetrated. Senders -- from Robert Downey to General Patreaus -- can simply send what they have to send. If there are a million receivers, you better believe there will be a million ways of receiving that message.

That's just who we are. Maybe computers can do a better job. Trouble is, someday soon they probably will. Hmm, then what I wonder will we be here for...?

Friday, December 25, 2009


Christmas, even for non believers, raises our thoughts to the matter of birth and birthing. But also carries them into the realm of death and dying. Here's how...!

Birth and birthing are of course what first come to mind. The birth of a Savior, coupled with the very idea of birthing something new in our world. Today's Darwinian evolutionists offer an exciting new Bethlehem when they say: Evolution can only take us so far; we should see how we can do the rest; now is the time to cross our new medical frontiers toward more highly evolved bionic creatures.

Given the genetic engineering we are just now starting to tap, Bionic Man does seem possible. The challenge, of course, will be discovering whether this new species will be so "bionic" it will no longer be "man." At least not the version swaddled under that starry might in the original Bethlehem.

On the flip side of these thoughts on birth and birthing are those about death and dying. Even bionic creatures must confront these. All of which brings us to the current debate about "death panels killing grandma." When the Alaskan prophetess raised these boogie-men during the recent health reform shout-fest, it was like recklessly throwing some of her state's oil on the country's bonfires of vanity. It does however remind us that the current cost-of-dying is wildly irrational.

Consider the UCLA Medical Center spends on average $50,000 on a patent's last 6 months, while the equally celebrated Mayo Clinic spends about $25,000. The reason for the difference? At UCLA they speak proudly about "no one dying in our facility;" whereas at Mayo they team doctors to avoid repeated and overlapping treatments that have little chance of altering the situation.

Perhaps two conclusions can be drawn here.....

First, thanks to the President's health-care proposal, we are at long reluctant last talking about death and dying in our medical culture's emerging new Bethlehem. Second, thanks to the the infant of the original Bethlehem, we are still talking about the rapture of birth and birthing.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


"And the days dwindle a precious few...September.... November..." When Walter Houston sang that classic in the 1938 "Knickerbocker Holiday," he gave us an anthem to aging. However, aging -- like ripening -- comes in a wide variety of stages. Which stage might you be in right now...?

If you're one of tonight's restless Christmas kids, age blissfully has no meaning. You simply are who you are and expect to pretty much be this way forever; except maybe taller...

If you're one of tonight's Santa-Parents, age is simply a hint of shadows to come; for now you easily remain convinced there are far more sunrises than shadows ahead...

If you're one of tonight's street crews and underground teams, age is defined largely in terms of muscle mass; so long as you've still got it, you're still able to play your indispensable part in the great drama of the city....

If you're one of the clergy preparing for services, age on earth as you will remind your flock is but an instant when compared with age in the eternity to which we must inevitably look...

If you're one of the frail elders somewhere alone, age is not a concept, it is who and what you are. Depending upon how you've prepared for it, age is your companion or you enemy...

And if you're President Obama, your youth is your best weapon against age; for you will need all the vigor and vision of youth to carry the punishing burdens you asked to bear. And while the world of both friends and enemies roar in the stands, you are the one who must now stand in the arena. To face the lions you chose to confront.

May the stands offer a prayer rather than a curse tonight, for young or old we're all in this coliseum together.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


By most reports, the book-of-the-year is Richard Holmes' "The Age of Wonder." He recalls an earlier time when science and scientists were more of a cottage industry in which amateurs could speculate about their world and its mysteries. Today, however, it seems science and scientists do not deal in wonders to experience, but rather problems to be solved. Personally, I think there's something missing in that...!

Granted, if you are of the mind that our cosmos and our species have somehow evolved out of time and space, then yeah everything around you is a problem which invites science's mantra: Truth-by-testing. On the other hand, if you too got C's in chemistry, you may be more amazed by what you don't know than by what you're sure you can know.

Sounds anti-intellectual...? Probably is. And yet, the intellect is not necessarily our greatest gift. I'm inclined toward our imagination. And so when I stand in awe of a furious winter sky or a rhapsodic spring garden or a brilliant summer harvest or a young long-haired mother cherishing her infant, I slip into this conviction that there's no chemistry test for this. I don't really have to define its parts to experience its totality.

I don't remember who said this, but I know I would have enjoyed a long Italian dinner and wine with him/her: "Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived!" I know it wasn't my chemistry teacher...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Am I the only one drowning in more stuff than I know how to name let alone use? I think not, but I think I am perhaps more shameless in admitting it. Let me explain, and see if you can throw me a lifeline...!

I am engulfed with phones of all shapes and sizes -- growing smaller by the year -- which advise me I can perform 101 apps with the flick of my thumb. Trouble is, my thumb is too thick to locate the apps, and my brain too 20th C to understand why I will ever want to access the weather in Iceland or the YouTube in Singapore.

I am faced with a TV set whose simple on/off, soft/loud controls have had multiple births. I am advised -- in fact I am ordered -- to zoom and pan across this program while recording up to 4 other programs simultaneously for later playback. What the set doesn't advise me is how to find programs worth watching in the first place.

I sit in a car with buzzing features, talking controls, automatic parking, plus the hands-free opportunity to call all my relatives in Florida and Arizona who never answered my calls even when they were in Chicago.

I sit in front of an Internet screen featuring keys I have never understood and dare not touch, coupled with periodic pop-ups which instruct me what to turn on and turn off; plus periodic shut-downs while someone inside this contraption performs things that sound positively pornographic. Actually, this entire panoply of glittering gadgetry intimidates me in the same way my controlling mother-in-law once did. But at least in her case, she slept at night. I'm convinced this machine never sleeps.

I know, I know, this harangue can easily be dismissed as some antiquarian grousing about progress. Maybe. But how do you know these systems actually sleep at night, and not plot with one another for the next day...? Laugh if you will, but it's the same question you've never been able to answer about the light in your refrigerator...!

Monday, December 21, 2009


OK, I admit it. Despite my best Luddite instincts, I've succumbed to the magic of cyberspace. Emails ... websites... facebooks. But now suddenly when this same magic keeps me from buying the Folgers Coffee I like, I feel morally obliged to post this condemnation as an apocalyptic warning for all to see...!

The plot is simple enough. I've been buying Folgers Singles in my local supermarket for years. Suddenly, it's no longer on the shelves. I wait a week assuming it was just on back-order. But no, it's still not there. Nor the next week. Enough! I corner the manager with, "Mike, what's happened to the Folgers Singles?" His answer slams home like a missile. "You don't like it, so I don't stock it."

"Wait a minute, I never told you that." "Sorry, but yes you did." "What the hell are you talking about?" "About the computer tally on our coffee sales. 34.7% of you no longer buy Folgers Singles." "So then that means you -- " "That's right, it means I drop the item. Done, through, finished!"

My point? My outrage? Well, if I have to explain it, than you too have been mesmerized by the magic. The black magic of the computer which now marshals all its enormous digital powers to analyze, decipher and decide for us!

Mike knows I like Folgers Singles. But never mind that. Mike's computers report I don't. And so, fellow coffee-drinkers and quasi-Luddites, you and I have lost the war. Our computer slaves have risen up with all the coiled fury of a Spartacus or a Hal. From coffee to health-care, from eBay to Hollywood, from peace to war, they not we now have the final word.

Laugh if you wish, but I tell you this is no laughing matter! We're on the cusp of an ominous new age! And I can't even get my cup of Folgers in order to confront it....!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


When we're young, everything is different. Days are for playing. Nights are for dreaming. Time is a butterfly you cup in your hand. Danger is what your parents protect you from. Life seems forever. But it's not, and so at each year's end, we have memories....

Can you remember the day you heard there was no Santa? That was the day you began the prickly task of differentiating fantasy from reality. How well you've learned to accept the world as it is, without forgetting the world as it could be, is surely one of life's greatest lessons.

Can you remember the day you met that special teacher in your life, the one whose gifts he or she lived to share? That was the day you discovered knowledge is power, and sharing is power-squared. How effectively you've learned and shared ever since is what has helped define your character.

Can you remember the day you first met love? That was the day -- and the person -- that opened an entire new frontier to your life. One that has, ever since, meant the verdant valleys of joy mixed with the parched deserts of loss. How well you have learned to endure the deserts without missing the valleys stands at the core of your being.

Can you remember your first job? That was the day you understood the lesson of Eden, the proclamation that we must earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. However, one of the prophets added, "If we find a job we love, we will never have to work a day in our lives." How clearly we have learned that wisdom has surely shaped our lives.

Can you remember the day you first buried a loved one? Parent, mate, child, friend. That was the day you came to grips with the steel-cold fact that we do not have all the time in the world. Time is a fragile gift which must be spent with care. How wisely we have learned to value the gift is, of course, the ultimate lesson.

Happily, each new year we get a new chance to remember these things. Happy, hopeful 2010

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Ever since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Israel, and the Gnostic Gospels in Egypt, and Dan Brown in virtually every best-seller list, there's been archaeological/theological disputes over exactly who wrote what, when, where and why. But now with the furious arrival of the Internet, you have to wonder if anything anyone writes is actually worth anything anymore...?

When fellas like Homer, Aristotle, Mark, Luke, Paul, Augustine and Dante wrote, they helped change the world. The same is true with the later likes of Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Hemingway, and Mailer. But wait...! Now anyone of us can write. Anything...anytime...anywhere. On websites...facebooks...twitters that instantly circle the globe. What the hell's going on here?

Washington Irving -- another writer of some consequence -- once wrote: "Great minds have purposes; others have wishes." Made me think of myself. Oh, and you too! Because today don't we all tend to write and write and write? A deft endeavor once reserved to those great minds that had something great to say. The Internet -- god bless all its wonders -- has somehow entitled each of us to do what I'm doing right now. Write and write and write some more.

Cyberspace is choking with each of our thoughts and musings, our causes and complaints. After awhile don't we become mostly a matter of quantity rather than quality? What brought this home was Dana Hanna of Maryland. Just a few weeks ago, the dashing Dana interrupted the minister conducting his wedding ceremony to yank out his iPhone. He enthusiastically sent the following Tweet: "Standing at the altar with @TracyPage where just a second ago, she became my wife. Gotta go, time to kiss my bride."

I ask you now -- in the name of every publisher in every generation in every country of the world -- what the hell's going on here? Frankly, I'm too embarrassed to write another word.............

Friday, December 18, 2009


The season again of gift-giving. The question is when is a gift a gift, not simply a habit or obligation? I find myself thinking this as I'm elbowed in and out of lines begging the attention of disinterested cashiers...!

I've spent enough time in those lines to write a novella. At least to conjure up 4 different categories of Christmastime gifts:

* There are always the ones you feel obliged to get for someone in a position of authority in your life. You know, boss...important customer....cleric....teacher... Congressional representative (ahh, scratch that last one). By their very nature, these gifts are perfunctory gestures of respect and/or sucking up. Fruit baskets are easily the gift of choice. For added panache, the ones that tuck in a few nuts and chocolates!

* Moving up the scale are the gifts you want to get. For the ones you love. Mate...parent...sibling...favorite relative...close friend. Can't be perfunctory here. These gifts actually invoke your best customised feelings for the person. I emphasize feelings, for gifts at their very best are not so much functional as they are loving. What will the loved one truly cherish about what you give them? Perhaps my most cherishable gift was to my Mother when in third grade I won a 1936 white & red double-boiler. Functional...? I thought so. But cherishable...? She used it in her kitchen to the day she died, and now it's in my wife's kitchen!

* Moving up the scale still higher are the gifts you can't wait to give the children. I mean, after all, is not the sweetest joy of the season the joy you reap from the eyes and giggles of the little ones? Ever since say about college, I've had this dichotomy in my life -- savoring the merits of adulthood vs missing the magic of childhood. I've stumbled into the conclusion kids have the better of the deal. So giving them a gift that will most enthrall them most enthralls me (well, unless they come with the dreaded warning "some assembly required)!

* Finally -- first, actually -- is the gift of self at this time of year. Macy's and Nordstrom's be damned, where this whole notion of gift-giving originally began was in a stable in a no-nothing town we think was called Bethlehem. The gift of God Himself to his planet. And perhaps to many other planets as well. Now if you believe the story, it is surely the most extraordinarily mind-bending gift of all...!

Now if you don't believe it, that's OK too. Only you're sorta missing the whole point to this season in the first place. And that's no gift!

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Think about it. If Dad hadn't moved from Rockford to Chicago...if Mom hadn't met him at that Chicago afternoon party...if they together hadn't moved into the west-side parish of St Angela...if a Rosary College theatre graduate hadn't been mounting a parish variety show that Christmas....well, I wouldn't have been there to play the piano for this auburn-haired singer who would someday become the wife of my dreams and my children. Now that's serendipity...! And that's been happening to you too, all your life...!

Thornton Wilder's novel "The Bridge of St Luis Rey" is but one classic dramatizing how all the littlest What-Ifs in our life bring us together... tear us apart...keep us off that doomed plane....put our immune system in harm's way... place us at the dawn of a new idea...transform a failure into a success... bring us to that particular mountain where was heard the whisper of destiny.

Well, you get the idea.

Every life is an unrepeatable act, each life is an exception, and all lives are somehow bound up in all other lives. And yet for all of that, there isn't a one of us on this spinning blue planet who hasn't been largely shaped by wondrous serendipity. So while the most rational and empirical among us plan and plot, anyone with any scrap of life experience comes to the ineluctable conclusion that this gift of life is always wrapped inside layer upon layer of astonishing surprises.

And so it is that each of us spending this gift must decide how best to do so. Cautiously guarded in expectation of legions of little and large terrors....or passionately open to battalions of little and large joys. I once met a wheel-chaired man in a nursing home who no matter what, always smiled. When I asked him one morning why, he gave me the right answer: "Because I haven't lived this day before!"

I keep trying to remember him. I think his name was Charlie...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


The number 2,920 may not strike you as especially significant. But believe me it is. It's the approximate number of hours you spend in your bed every year. Now the question becomes: Exactly what do you do there...?

I'm afraid the bed is a rather taken-for-granted piece of furniture in our lives. It's there...we fall into at night... hate to get up from it in the morning...and so it goes 365 times every year. However, have you ever considered your bed in all its splendid and nuanced features and functionalities? It warrants more than a perfunctory change-of-sheets every week. I submit, it calls for some serious reflection. Consider >>

* It's most obvious function is, of course, to sleep at the end of another gallant 16 hours in the raucous coliseum of everyday life. Hats off to its inventor whose name has been lost in the fog of history

* Don't forget its auxiliary function. A place to nap when age and/or trauma sometimes exhaust your resources in the middle of those 16 hours. Cats are famous for this lovely artform

* Then there's Shakespeare's wisdom: "To sleep, perchance to dream..." Science as yet has no sure grasp of what dreams are all about, but you and I intuitively know understand. Dreams are fascinating but shadowy worlds we can travel only in bed

* Depending on your philosophy of life, dreaming not only scoops you up into remarkable time/space travel, but sometimes into even more remarkable personal epiphanies. The ancients believed such encounters were the voice of God whispering to us... Freud believed the voices were in libidinal codes... my disgusting Army sergeant believed they were just my excuse for not getting to KP on time. I calculate they each had a point

Oh, you're wondering about that more primal function of bed...? Well, yes that too! However, as the "National Enquirer's" sophomoric tattletales prove issue after issue -- that function is always best done in your own bed in your own home.

Oops, is my Victorianism showing again...?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


In today's America, everyone wants to be in show business. It started when Huckleberry kids once chased after circus trains, young girls left home to rent a room in Hollywood to become a star, and now when even grownups can't pass up a chance to wave at a TV camera or worse yet go on a reality show to spill their dirty libidos for a giddy nation to watch...!

You wonder when oh when does the madness finally peak and peter out? I think Freud and Donald Trump have proved: Never. Consider three current examples --

* Susan Boyle -- sweet insulated cat-lover -- gets into the slick hands of Simon Cowell who has now packaged her American arrival with every obvious (yet successful) gimmick in the old B.T. Barnum handbook. Heavily promoted album...staged crowds at the airport...out-of-nowhere Susan sweatshirts and hats...blushing network interviews and concerts...all precisely timed to keep paying off her handlers until either the public tires or the handlers find a new Susan!

* Tiger Woods -- international icon tumbled from its altar -- is currently the target of every "I-feel-his-wife's-pain" mistress from Hawaii to the 19th hole at Augusta. Between their well-paid-for angst and Tiger's well-planned-silence, we are voraciously eating up every salty morsel. Of course, sanctimoniously shaking our heads on cue. But not to worry. The PR boys know exactly how to schedule a bigger-than-before comeback for gullible us. You know, in proper sequence: statement....the inevitable decision of who gets the closeup contrition statement, either Oprah or Barbara...finally the triumphant come-from-behind PGA Tournament victory!

* Jesus -- unmarried Jewish son from Galilee who everyone from preacher to politician loves to quote. Only if he were to make a comeback in America, they'd make him hire a PR firm. You can be sure this second coming would call for a space shuttle arrival on the White House Lawn...blessings while walking from shuttle to entrance... lunch with the President and special liturgical guests...blessings again while strolling to the waiting helicopter... flight to Hollywood to sign contract with Steven Spielberg for Christmas 2010 blockbuster movie....then jet to the Vatican where he would give his internationally televised second Sermon on the Mount!

American show business -- everybody wants in the act....! You and me -- we're the suckers in the audience...!

Monday, December 14, 2009


The great grim philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously wrote: "The first 40 years of life give us the text...the next 30 supply us the commentary on it." I try to remember that whenever the news of the world really rattles me!

Take three very disparate reports this month alone:

* Since 1980, the White House security has been breached 91 times by publicity-seekers, according to The Washington Post

* A New York city HS teacher is suing the Board of Education claiming she was injured slipping on free condoms the school has passed out to the students

* A group of American Indians want the University of North Dakota to CONTINUE calling its teams The Fighting Sioux, because according to tribal chief Frank Black Cloud, "It gives you goose bumps"

Now in my first callow 40 years of life, I would not have been able to reconcile such bizarre inconsistencies in the human condition. But now well into my final 30 years, I see it all bright and clear in my mind's eye. The Lord God did not actually make us in His image and likeness. He made us into the peculiar species we are, because He enjoys funny stories. And may I say with my Schopenhaurean enlightenment -- reports like these just go to prove how damn funny we are.

I say this just in time for the funniest story I can think of -- the world's forthcoming Christmas family celebrations where everyone's expected to look like a Hallmark Card...!

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Is there a Rosebud in your life....? There was in the life of "Citizen Cain" (at the moment of his death, the precious memory of that tiny sled) in the 1942 film classic. There are a thousand Rosebuds in my life. How many in yours?

Look, I understand that yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not ours. But yesterday -- and its inexhaustible harvest of memories -- is not to be dismissed too lightly. Even by the young. As the poet reminds us: Memory is what lets us have fragrant roses in the dead of winter. So the best of our memories deserve to be treasured for when we might need them most.

If loneliness is the great disease of our age...memories can be the great cure. However, like all antidotes, they must be administered properly. Too few -- confusion; too many -- apathy.

A recent University of Chicago study found that "loneliness is as infectious as a physical virus, spread by a pattern known as emotional contagion." Lead researcher John Cacioppo reports, our odds of feeling lonely are strongly influenced by our contact with lonely people. "Having a lonely friend makes you 40-65% more likely to feel lonely yourself," Cacioppo noted, "and the effect is stronger for women, more powerful through friends than through mates."

The young have addressed their loneliness in different ways during different generations. Dating was once the tribal ritual by which young males and females bridged their valleys of loneliness. On today campuses it's hooking up (otherwise defined as as sex first, friendship later). Some sociologists theorize this pattern is seeping out beyond college days and into the youth culture itself (see Craiglist, Fling and AdultFriendFinder for arguable details).

In the dating days, sex was the payoff; in hooking-up days it's the prologue. Keeping score of the number of partners you bed is in the end a numbers game which by its very nature generates more loneliness. Because the game lacks emotional attachments.

Which brings us back to Rosebud, and all the many comforting Rosebuds in our own lives. Nurturing them properly can keep a life grounded and, in turn, a lot less lonely. So check out "Citizen Kane" at least as much as you do Craiglist...!

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Einstein famously said, "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything they have learned in school." Perhaps a little harsh on educators, but those of us who call ourselves educators know very well how true it can be. And yet, we do have a role in planting the seeds for later harvests...!

An educator, Ian McGilchrist of Oxford, has just written a seedling study he titles: "The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World." He makes the case that we all have a little Jekyll & Hyde in us -- the brain's left hemisphere being the villain, and the right hemisphere being the hero.

He dismisses the pop science idea that the left brain is rational, dull and male; while the right is creative, impressionistic and female. Instead he sees the left as an "ultimately narcissistic world of power expressed in such efforts as the industrial revolution" while the right "deals with ideals in harmony with a local, agrarian and communitarian conception of democracy."

OK, so how to apply Mr. M's theory...?

Well, Shakespeare and Thoreau would be righties. Descartes and Hitler would be lefties. Maybe... Or maybe it doesn't really matter much, considering everyone of us has both a right and a left brain. Perhaps McGilchrist's theory is simply a handy metaphor for the way the human race has always been good/bad, passive/aggressive all along. In other words, we're all kinda schizophrenic.

I imagine, then, that two schizophrenics reading this book might agree: "All four of us like it!"

As for you and me -- especially in this holy season of the year -- it's another chance to take a hard look in that morning mirror with the question: "Who do I want to be today?"

Friday, December 11, 2009


Yes, we're gifted to be living during such break-through times when we've conquered both time and space with the electron. What could be more exciting...? Well, next to conquering our stupidity gene which our species has somehow failed to do over the last 14,000 years. Just to prove it, consider what we're about to do next with GPS...!

Apparently no longer content to tuck dulcet-talking GPS satellites into our car dashboards, now some restless soul [check that! restless DNA! In our digital age, soul has become so antiquated!] some restless soul has an idea for putting GPS on-line with Wikipedia. Say what...?

The theory seems to be that in this way, everyone with a GPS can add and/or subtract geographic data. [Think of what might have happened to Columbus. His unhappy crew would probably have re-aimed the Santa Maria right back to Spain which they wished they had never left in the first place!]. The only problem with this latest break-through is what Cornell Professor Gilly Leshed said: "Instead of experiencing physical locations, now we end up with more abstract representations of our world." Representations which now can get scrambled by whoever plugs into the system with their own traveling opinions.

We now know the human hippocampous of the brain stores geographic information. The professor argues that "over reliance on GPS will soon result in our using the spatial capabilities of the hippocampus less, and in turn it will get smaller." You shrug, "So what? I don't even kow where my hippocampus is." However, the Professor's response is a little scary" "Atrophy of the hippocampus increases your risk of dementia."

OK, did that got your attention...? Bordering on my own homespun state of dementia, it got mine....! I already can't remember phone numbers without a speed-dial, and I can't add up a grocery bill without a calculator. I, the mighty master of all I survey, has become slave to my slaves!

Besides, what's so wrong with sometimes just relying on our own God-given [check that! Darwin-given!] native talents? At least as much as our new toys under the Tree?

Thursday, December 10, 2009


No matter what your take on Oprah is, she's a nationwide force to be reckoned with. Women of all races, religions, and politics find in her a daily fountainhead of ideas, values and purposes. Then when you consider she has no Congress or Supreme Court to deal with, that almost adds up to more undisputed influence than the presidency. Which is precisely why Sarah Palin wants to be the White Oprah...!

She's well on her way. Consider the tens of millions who find in her precisely what their deepest unexpressed yearnings yearn for. For some -- frankness. Others -- perkiness. Still others -- the voice of the forgotten "Real America." Folks like this come along every decade or so. There was Charles Lindbergh...Arthur Godfrey...Walter Cronkite... Bill Gates. Each one touching a bottomless psychic nerve.

When you take a closer look, you find other historical parallels. Palin like Oprah suddenly rose out of nowhere from the margins of the culture. Napoleon, Lenin, Hitler, Huey Long and Bill Clinton were the same. Raw, undistinguished populists who suddenly burst upon the social firmament like a Haley's Comet.

Comets of course have spectacular but short lifespans. Everyone of these "comets" has come and gone. And yet, their trail of light has left its mark (and its shadow). Their times would have been vastly different without them. Palin's genetic gifts are the incontrovertible fact that people can find in her whatever they're looking for. A voice for their own embarrassed thoughts...a face for their squaeky-clean image of America...a mind uncluttered by all that arrogant knowledge pretense...even someone who you can laugh with when she's being laughed at.

That's powerful stuff, folks, and Barracuda Sarah smells it. Just like Oprah did back here on small-time Chicago television not so many years ago. We all have a front row seat from which to watch....

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Philosophers are supposed to explain why we're here, and help us know what to do about it. If true, then here's my un-schooled theory on how -- after a certain number of birthdays -- we become de facto philosophers....!

It often happens some quiet evening after you've put down the last of the bad-news papers, and turned off the last of the bad-taste television. Gradually -- like a Marley's Ghost -- you are visited by strange but epiphanic images. Like oil paintings in which all the distinct colors begin to melt into one scientific formulae in which all the precise numbers start to tumble into each suddenly finding yourself in a personal space shuttle peering down at the little moving specks on our little blue planet. Comprehending for the very first time how we are all very much alike. Prince and pauper, Oprah and bell ringer, Hollywood and Peoria. All living and dying in very much the same way.

Now to a Schopenhauer or a Nietzsche, such a burst of cosmic perspective is reason to mourn and grieve this insignificant planet of insignificantly identical creatures. Little room for hope, joy or God. Their readers may quickly nod in resigned agreement. Just so much evolutionary stardust settled, struggled and eventually blown away to make room for the next wave of dust...!

On the other -- and happier -- hand, if you are Thornton Wilder, this night-time cosmic viewpoint just might lead you to write such cosmic plays as "Our Town" and "By The Skin Of Our Teeth." Do these plays -- and similar ones by other gifted playwrights -- explain why we're here and what to do about it...? Well, actually, that's supposed to be the role of the philosophers and theologians.

But inasmuch as they don't often get read after college.....the theatre may be the next best venue for your next best epiphany! And thankfully, the theatre in this land of greedy Philistines is still alive and well. That's why -- right along with religion -- I spend a lot of time there....!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Tis the season, once again, for believers to believe with deep commitment, and constitutional lawyers to disbelieve with law suits against Nativity Scenes. Damn, but Christmas isn't how I remember it as a kid. Come to think of it, nothing is. Which makes vintage men like me wonder if their young memories ever really happened...!

Joining this clash of Christmas Pasts now are the economists. You know, the guys with the exotic graphs who botched 1929 and again 2009. Take economist Joel Waldfogel of the Boston Globe. He has this theory. Well, all economists have theories.... only some of them remind you of the sex expert who developed 35 theories on copulation, but never met a woman!

Mr. Waldfogel estimates $$65 billion in holiday spending this year. He calls this "an orgy of value destruction," because "research shows people do not much like the gifts they receive." In fact, his research tells Mr. W. that people value these gifts "20% less than the purchases they make for themselves."

Now keep up with me here, for this is how economists think: "Therefore our $65 billion holiday splurge generates about $12 billion less satisfaction than it would if we spent the money on ourselves."

Frankly, I can't think of anyone this side of Ebeneezer Scrooge who could suck more life out of this holiday than an economist. However...! With all due respect, the man has given me a great new weapon with my consumer-advocate wife. Concludes the great man: "Therefore, few gifts can compete with a gift card that empowers the recipient to choose for themself."

Exactly my argument every time I have to load another dozen gift boxes into the car for delivery. I love my wife....but, honestly sweetheart, ribbon-ed gift cards are just so much lighter...!

Monday, December 7, 2009


Now follow me on this. Have you ever heard of the New Mexico Bowl, Poinsettia Bowl, Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl or the Eagle Bank Bowl....? Well, neither have I, and yet these have suddenly become legitimate yearend football events that somehow warrant scheduled network broadcasts. What's going on here...?

Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset explained it all in his 1931 book "The Revolt of the Masses." In it he explained (warned?) that the inevitable conclusion of modern democracy is the overthrow of the upper class by the lower class. However, the revolt would not be a bloody one in the streets, as much as an inexorable one in everyday life. More people gradually acquire more access to more of the old status symbols (fancy colleges, fancy cars, backyard pools, world cruises, a night at the opera, hi-def TVs, oh and a bowl game of their own).

Everyone applauds democracy, right? Taken to its logical conclusion, everyone then should have what everyone else has, right? As this begins to happen, the old historical distinctions between the best-and-the-brightest and the least-and-the-rowdiest blurs. Oh, the rich still get richer and the poor still get children, but the everyday socio-political gap between them narrows. Their special education, expertise and energy...? hell, forget it, because I'm just as good as they are, say the good ol' boys bellying up to the bar.

Gasset's (and my) problem is this. In the name of this populist democracy, smart becomes arrogance... wise becomes pretension... experience becomes elitism...talent turns into vanity. It follows, then, that an Obama is "aloof" while a Palin and a Beck are "real." Anyone can crash a White House dinner, get on "American Idol," have the mind-stunning right to go on network television where their self-degrading bug eating or asinine behavior can warrant an audience-approving closeup. I mean, after all anyone's as good as anyone else, right!

I am left to wonder then why we still seek out expert surgeons, experienced lawyers, trained professors, esteemed artists and gifted performer/athletes? The boys at the bar are a great bunch, but I'm not sure in the noble name of democracy I'd go to them with my most important needs. Besides, they're busy watching the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl....!

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Hollywood loves movies about time and space travel. And who hasn't dreamed about it? But as science-fiction becomes more science than fiction every new day, maybe it's the time and the space to realize we can already do it. Every Christmas season...!

The trick -- really, the art -- of time/space travel during this month is to permit your heart to control your head just long enough to allow magic to replace logic. Best place to try this might be strolling down the Magnificent Mile at its seasonal height...or watching faith-filled kids line up for department store Santa's...or studying the gentleness in the face of that relentless Bell Ringer...or shedding a sweet tear at a midnight service...or perhaps just in your bathrobe alone at night sitting next to your living room Tree.

These are those small shards of the interior life when your heart suddenly feels the whoosh of "travel" back to your un-examined joy at sighting what you were sure was the sleigh in the sky...tearing open your first Christmas morning gifts from the jolly old fella, with Mommy and Daddy so very young and so very close...giddily explaining to your friends how amazing Santa was to have remembered all you asked for...then years later, sharing these same moments of magic with your own newborn.

If Ebeneezer could do it with his ghosts, we can do it with our hearts. Travel in both time and space to those indelible flashbulbs of life when this was a season in which troubles were tamed, music was everywhere, love crammed the hearts of anyone you met, and somehow somewhere you just knew that the Babe of Bethlehem had forever made our little complicated lives worth living.

Well -- that's my theory of relativity. What's yours...?

Saturday, December 5, 2009


There's a report out of Istanbul that should tell every American voter a lot. The 97-year-old heir to Turkey's powerful old Ottoman Empire lived and died in Manhattan obscurity ever since the empire collapsed after WWI. But what happened this week might help us explain today's emotional grip on millions by the Palin's, Beck's, Limbaugh's, Dobbs and Southern white Republicans....!

When I traced our family history back to 11th C Constantinople (Istanbul), I was reminded of the grandeur of this magnificent city right up to the Ottomans. So I could understand the way tens of thousands greeted the funeral of this old exile. They call it "Ottomania" -- a longing for their country's glory days. Which, if we think about it, is very much what feeds the crowds today who rally to our anti-today-pro-the-Real-America populists.

Personally, I like yesterday as much as anyone, and more than most. But the trouble with yesterdays is the way you can lasso it, saddle it and ride it exactly how you wish to. So when these high-decibel critics of today's "socialist/fascist America" ride the range, they are intentionally heading for lush green valleys that never quite were!

Take the holidays. For the next few weeks we are happily immersed in the ginger-bready feel of Hallmark Cards and Currier & Ives scenes. Warm wondrous scenes to be sure! However, if your holidays don't quite match the scenes, don't despair -- it happens to everyone. Well, except our current legion of political populists who are tapping into their own version of Ottomania for the masses. You know, their passionate clarion calls for returning to the Real America where there were no drugs, no gangs, no government, no illegal immigrants, and no socialist-fascist deathers in the White House.

Hey -- you find me that America, and I'll travel there with you. Only it didn't, doesn't and won't exist.

This -- this fractured and furious America -- is the only one we have. So the sooner these glamorous range-riders turn their rage around to collectively face it and fix it, the better we'll all be.....

Friday, December 4, 2009


We're told jihadist terrorists are bred in Middle Eastern slums and mosques. But I'll bet you never suspected how this same terrible rage against America can also be bred right here in America. Where...? Every day right inside every innocent-looking, coffee-brewing waiting room in the country...!

I just spent four enraging hours trapped inside one of them, waiting for my car to be repaired in a local dealership. Just like thousands of other waiting rooms -- in doctor's offices, clinics, ER's -- you're literally compelled to sit there sipping their cold coffee and staring at their hot television. Physically unable to escape its insane and inane babbling, you sit transfixed by a cacophony of scenes that could make anyone hate America

First, those never-take-a-breath newscasters glutting the airwaves with frenzied reports from campus killers to gang attacks to the latest smarmy sex trysts. All cutesy tagged at the end with one of those darling human-interest stories that are somehow supposed to leave you with a smile after the last 29 minutes of teeth-grinding crisis...!

Next, one of those soaps oozing its sugary plot line into every trapped pore of you body. You know, those heart-rending traumas with the bosomy, big-haired ingenues and bulky, bare-chested hunks. Somehow these insipid sagas are supposed to be projecting young America at its best...!

You're also likely to get stuck with one of those yelping game shows where otherwise grown adults break into baboonish rituals as they act out their lust for money. Somehow these greedy oafs are supposed to reflect well on the American character of success....!

And while you sink deeper into your seat-of-no-escape, you're bombarded with the inevitable barrage of TV commercials in which -- whether they're pitching toothpaste or tuck-pointing -- everyone is constantly and relentlessly smiling at you. Somehow their grinning, instant-solution assurances are supposed to speak to the American spirit of optimism...!

I don't know about you, but at the end of my hours of imprisonment, I gotta admit -- this version of America could drive me to violence too. Not angry bombs, but angry letters like this one. Better this than smashing all those television sets. Then again, smashing sounds good...

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Lately I've noticed how the Sun Times comics sections are getting more serious, and your serious sections are getting more comical. Maybe the place to be is somewhere right in the middle. If the media can locate that, then -- New Media or Old Media -- they just might find a whole new definition for journalism...!

Take your comics. In an obvious effort to be more thoughtful, some cartoonists are becoming more pretentious. Now if you have to re-read a comic strip to get its point, it's lost its point. The art of humor is to strike its blow quickly; like a rapier, not a broadsword.

On the other hand, the news section is not only getting more comical, it's becoming downright absurd. I mean, how in the name of all the editors in all the gin joints in all the world have Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, Sarah Palin and the latest smarmy "other woman" become news? Gossip, yes. Scandal, of course. But news? Give me a break!

The real world's on fire, so professional journalism really needs to get a grip. If your cartoonists can just remember their job is to bring a needed smile, and your reporters can just remember their job is to bring some needed facts. After that, we can all read the supermarket junk magazines for some needed therapy. You know -- reading their nonsense and being able to say to your libido: "Thank God that's not me...!"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


President Obama's Afghanistan plan can be debated -- and it will; he can be compared to FDR -- and he will. (SunTimes Dec 2). But here's where both the debate and the comparison end. When FDR called Americans to close ranks on December 8, 1941, we did. Today our ranks are so rankled, we have weakened our chances for any sort of victory.

The critics say our economy and unemployed can't bear the strain (in 1941 our economy was just as fragile and our unemployment was 20%, double today's). The critics say our sour politics and public mood can't bear the strain (in 1941 Republicans hated FDR just as much as they seem to Obama), The critics say our people are weary from eight years of war (in 1941 Americans were not only weary but exhausted from 12 years of the Great Depression).

None of this proves Obama's risky plan is moral or smart or viable. But it is to say the critics need a better cop-out for not closing ranks behind a commander-in-chief who has no love for war. There was a pop song right after Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941: "We Did it Before and We Can Do it Again."

The difference is FDR's call was the day after we were attacked. Obama's call is 3000 days later. Americans have always been known for being long on courage but short on memory...!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


This current jungle of opinions about Tiger Wood's silence tells us more about the tiger-chasers than the tiger. Lets face it -- this is not a sports story as much as a psychology story. And we're the patients...!

Water cooler gags and barbershop stories betray the usual neurosis of gossip. But neurosis leans toward downright psychosis when the major media and their jungle-hunter reporters fan out in all directions for the dirty little details they just know have to be hiding out there.

Different reports are now trickling back from the hunt and into the garish racks of checkout magazines. However, whatever conclusions we prefer to draw, lets remember that it's what lurks inside our minds and not his that constitutes the real story. This relentless story of little people desperately needing to feel larger if only they can bag a big one. You know, be the first to reach the wounded prey, and sniff their way to 15-minutes of fame.