Sunday, February 28, 2010



As the Olympics come to an end, they leave us with this thought. The distinction between say the Luge and Figure Skating. In effect, the difference in life between raw power and delicate power.

Would it be correct to say raw power has helped tame the world and the animals around us, and that delicate power has then helped civilize that world? It's something like the image of our Wild West first being tamed by rugged individuals like trappers, miners and marshals; later being civilized by rooted groups like farm families, schools and churches.

Today's America has experienced sharp cultural shifts. The John Wayne images have in part yielded to the Tom Hanks images. We still cheer our rugged Charles Bronsons and Clint Eastwoods, but brains and gentility have won equal favor. Intelligence need not take a backseat to brawn; nerds are envied more than ridiculed.

Some call this the feminization of America. Perhaps Oscar Wilde put it differently: "America is the only culture that has gone from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between." Hmmm...?


Society lives not only by its laws, but also by its conventions. Collectively accepted habits whose use shortcut the need for a lot of explaining. The conventions employed in our films are especially interesting, for they not only reflect us. Sometimes they help shape us.

For instance, the convention of conveying the passage of time by the slow fadeout....the convention that in the world of action, men buddy-up...then there's the convention that getting in a car almost always means a wild chase, a fiery crash and bodies flying into the camera...the most enduring convention of course is that no matter how brutal and disastrous the plot line, we almost always end with boy & girl getting each other.

OK, no argument. Hollywood has the aesthetic right to choose it's own conventions; and, I suppose, to leave its audiences motivated to somehow match them in real life.

However, I'm desperately curious about one particular cinematic convention. Whenever any story takes place in the 30s and 40s, we're all in sepia tone! Has a nice visual effect, and by now it rigorously establishes the time frame. But when and where and how did my generation get to be sepia toned?? I just never noticed...

Saturday, February 27, 2010



Too flippant...? I don't know about that. Consider the expressions of our favorite movies stars. In some silent, sentient way, these cinematic icons speak to us. Shape us. Often by their expressions alone. Watching them up there on those bigger than life screens, we relate to their facial communication.

Who do we best relate to...? Our choices can be instructive, for they hint at who we are (or want to be):

* Clark Gable > A flair for the confident, cocky and maybe even conniving!
* Jimmy Stewart > A down-home, ah-shucks goodness that feels your pain!
* Clint Eastwood > A strong, brooding silence that's always master of the moment!

* Bette Davis > A compelling, no-nonsense bitchiness cool under fire!
* Marilyn Monroe > An innocent sensuality that fills your dreams at night!
* Diane Keaton > A smart, sauciness that draws you both body and soul!
* Nicole Kidman > A blend of hot and cool in one tasty recipe

Got your own list? Sure you do. Then check your morning mirror to see how much what you like, you begin to look....


I was regretting the past and fearing the future.
Suddenly my Lord was speaking:
"My name is I am"
He paused. I waited. He continued.

When you live in the past with its mistakes and regrets,
It is hard. I am not there.
My name is not...I was.

When you live in the future with its problems and fears.
It is hard. I am not there.
My name is not...I will be.

When you live in the moment
It is not hard. I am here.
"My name is I Am."

Friday, February 26, 2010


Invincibility comes in all different shapes, sizes and names. My brother feels invincible right after winning a racquetball sister-in-law right after serving another master nephews right after making the big score or kiss. Personally, I feel invincible right after nine hours of good sleep. But the message here is all the same...!

There will always be times in our lives -- and in the lives of our leaders -- when the surge of invincibility charges through us. A good and efficacious feeling, but one to be carefully understood before it blinds and consumes us. This is why, for example, triumphant returning Roman Generals always had a slave inside their chariot repeating: "Remember Caesar thou are only a man!" I would presume it's something like what the wives of presidents and prime ministers whisper in their beds at night.

Right now we have a dramatic example playing out before our Chicagoland eyes each new day. The slow yet irrepressible way in which Winter's death-grip on our lives is reluctantly yielding. Yielding to every additional daylight minute, to every additional ray of sun, and to every additional nudge from an insistent green Spring just beneath the white Winter.

The Wicked Witch of Winter is dying.....

When Winter is at its most invincible, we poor mortals wither before its furies. Plunging temperatures and bitter winds can subdue the mightiest of us. Lets admit it -- n any contest between our invincibility and nature's, nature usually still wins. And yet, there are the ineluctable laws of the planets against which even nature itself must bow.

So here's what I'm thinking over my breakfast coffee looking outside at melting Chicago Winter. In January and February you were master of all you surveyed; now with March, you've once again met your match. We call it Spring, and we yearn for its return.

As it does, we are reminded once again that nothing -- neither the seasons, nor the triumphs, nor the tragedies -- last forever. It all passes. What we have to do is wisely wait it out, pick up the results, and go on from there...

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Trumpets are always the hot instrument in a band or orchestra; cornets, on the other hand, are now rare. With the exception of the master player Bobby Hackett, this small horn gets fewer accolades these days. But there's one cornet which gets all my applause. The one my Grandfather used to play...

He migrated to Arizona in 1899 to be part of the immense copper mining industry burgeoning our of its ragged mountains. That was long before Arizona was even a state. Instead, it was Geronimo and Cavalry, saloons and shootouts up until 1912. But while Grandpa Bart carried the inevitable 6-gun, he always preferred playing his golden cornet. Weddings, births, baptisms, anniversaries. Any time there was an excuse to make a happy sound.

Gramps died when I was only seven, but we kept his now-tarnishing cornet. I never could play the darn thing, but loved holding it in my hands. A genetic link with my past, my origins, my pride. However, when the family moved out of the old home, somehow that splendid Tut's Tomb of a relic got lost. Never again to be seen or held or loved.

I report this for only one reason. A warning. When your grandparents and then your parents die -- now suddenly you are an orphan! In all orphanhood's cold emptiness! Your last immediate ties to the songs and secrets of your past have just slipped from out of your fingers. So you will want to remember....

.... any aging photo, wrinkled letter or especially cornet must now and forever be held tight.


Do you remember walking? Not exercise walking, but just easy walking from one neighborhood point to another? But then, like domesticating the horse changed us forever, so did inventing the car. And while I love my car, it's changed me and my little world forever. Often in unfortunately irrevocable ways....

Is this beginning to sound like waxing sentimental about the-way-we-were...? Uh, yeah I think it is!

When the people and places you knew were only a wish and a walk away, some extraordinary little things happened along those ways. Experiences no longer as accessible as we speed in our gleaming steel chariots as fast as we can. After all -- getting there is what cars are all about, right?

It's not always esteemed to look over shoulders in an age which prefers to look straight ahead. And yet, when I do I recall meandering to school every morning with enough observational time to notice those green and growing things you can't quite see and study from a car (or a school bus).

Going to the store -- it was usually a gentle jaunt past neighbors, not a hurried highway trip to the mall. Movies -- they weren't sprawling multiplexes at the end of a long crowded parking lot. Family and friends -- without cars, they tended to cluster close by where they were reachable within walking time versus inter-state time.

Lets be clear. Time does not hold in place for anyone. Nor should it. Still, even the most progressive and aggressive trail-blazers will happily concede that speed has its limits. Slow can often be just as good for us as fast.

Oh, and when it comes to the superiority and splendor of our cars -- my recalled Toyota makes me really wonder about that...!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


A fascinating thing happens when you personally know a few Oscar, Tony and Emmy award winners. You're suddenly and palpably made aware of the enormous difference between the person and their new public image. In a way, you're present at the birth of a myth...!

Myths are not really lies, rather they are the powerful, collective beliefs by a society in something or someone that takes on an important life and truth of its own. Every society has them. Here we have everything from the Puritan Thanksgiving myth to the Founding Fathers myth, from Lincoln to Jesse James, from Charles Lindbergh to Neil Armstrong, from JFK to Elvis. In my case there are such additional family myths as my grandparents and parents migrating to America where with courage and conviction, they grabbed a piece of the myth we call The American Dream.

There are even those who would go so far as to say this is how God came into being -- the human race imagined him into mythic existence as the great parent we need in a violent, uncertain world.

Here's the point. Joseph Campbell was perhaps our generation's greatest student of mythology, and he examined its causes and consequences in delicate detail. But whenever he was asked if any particular myth were true or not, he would simply smile and say: "Yes."

The fact that my friends are still my friends even though they have now become living legends makes me suspect the issue here isn't whether or not we can empirically prove our myths. Rather, can we share them in our common pursuit of the good life together.

All of which leads me to this curiosity. I wonder over lunch what George Washington, Jesse James, JFK and Elvis would have to say to one another...?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Very often there's this problem distinguishing between fame and fundamentals, between those who are briefly famous and those who become fundamentally important. Learning the difference could save us a good many mistakes. The pages of history bulge with examples...

A quick test: Can you remember Marcus Coelius, Caravaggio, Thomas Crapper, or Francis X. Bushman? Now can you remember Buddha, Aristotle, Shakespeare or Einstein?

Actually the first group were remarkably more famous in their lifetime than after their death. Coelius a brilliant Roman general...Caravaggio a celebrated Renaissance painter... Crapper a highly successful inventor.... Bushman the most popular film star of his time. Today hardly any remembered.

What the first group had in common was their fleeting fame. The second, their enduring concern for the fundamentals of life and living. How helpful it would be if we were more adept at making these distinctions before rather than after the fact.

Oh wait....! Thomas Crapper's temporary fame has become memorable. He invented the flush toilet, and to this very day we remember him whenever we shout the universal expletive: "Oh crap....!"


There have been doomsayers since the day Adam lamented to Eve on their way out of the Garden: "We've got serious problems here!" The refrain was picked up by a chorus of Old Testament prophets, Delphic oracles, Medieval gypsies, and even modern day cosmologists calculating the laws of probability as to circling asteroids.

It's perhaps not known what the percentage of right vs wrong calls have been made since Adam's time. One thing though is irrefutable -- we're still here. To some that's a compellingly good sign. To others, it's simply the mathematical probability that the odds are building up against us.

Optimists are the people who always tell you to look up whenever things are going their way. Lately, though, the number of optimists is thinning, as the world enters into yet another of its steep psychotic declines. And who wouldn't be a little psychotic when you count the number of wars, terrorists, angry unemployed workers, free-spending Wall Street bankers, oh and a gazillion melting icebergs up on top of this tipsy world!

The other day as I was desperately seeking technical support from the young camera clerk at our drugstore, I thought of hiding my embarrassment by complimenting his expertise. "Our generation has to depend on your generation to learn about these new technologies," I smiled weakly. He didn't exactly smile as he replied, "And our generation has to depend on your generation for the mess you're leaving us."

A few minutes later he apologised. I shook my head and honestly replied, "No need. You're quite right." But then needing to offer some of that wisdom that's supposed to come with age, I added this: "The best I can do is tell you I used to say the same thing to the adults in my time...and they did the same in their time...and so your frustration isn't anything new. The one good thing is that this has been going on for such a vary very long time, and yet we're still here. Somehow you get the feeling we're going to keep making it. Maybe just by the skin of our teeth, but sometimes that's good enough."

I don't know if he believed me. I'm not sure that I do either. But I'll keep trying....

Monday, February 22, 2010


There are some black dogs prowling our world. Anxious followers call out for better leadership. If only we were better led, we would better follow. And would better subdue our economic and political perils before they devour us

Here's the problem with that logic. It's a lie...!

Followers hear the leadership they choose to hear. They follow the leaders they choose to follow. To say their lack of fight is a lack of leadership is like the losing pitcher who's reluctant to listen to his catcher.

We're instructed by the nattering punditry that no one's in charge anymore. Our gods have been discovered to have feet of clay, our emperors are marching without their clothes, our clergy are no longer being attended, and the Bully Pulpit so mastered by the likes of TR and FDR stands empty.

If the indictments be true, where do today's followers turn? To what voices do they respond? Tell us so we can catch their cadence so as to better stave off the dogs?

If surveys are correct, a growing percent of the followers are responding to a whole new breed of leaders -- our comedians. Late-night TV hosts and concert hall standups have taken on a new voice of authority. Like the ancient temple priests of Egypt and the oracles of Delphi, these new Mark Twains and Will Rogers are reaching in one week more followers than any manager, senator, or president.

What's more, they have no reporters' questions to answer, no Sunday panel shows to face, no editorials to endure. An entirely new brigade of leadership whose voices massage the national mood...shape the national agenda...use the scalpel of humor to operate on the national psyche. Hey, no more the ragamuffin, baggy-pants clowns of yore. Today's comedians have become the leadership everyone's looking for.

Have I told you the one about this congressman's alcoholic wife....?

Thursday, February 18, 2010


All right, Springfield isn't Paris and downstate isn't Tuscany; but about every March I try to celebrate my birthday by including a special kind of solo. A lazy drive from one of the world's most vigorous centers of steel and glass to experience one of the world's most fertile, black-earth-basins of food production. The byways between Chicago and the hamlet of Cairo can be an Aladdin's journey for any city boy...

Can't travel them all, just enough to breathe something besides asphalt and exhaust fumes. There's the fragrance of Columbine, Cone Flowers and Nodding Onions; not to mention the pungent smell of the turned earth, the grazing cows and the mounds of feed. All missing in our cities, but each a little link with the planet the rest of so take for granted.

And there are the winged surprises like the Harrier Hawk, the Harlequin Duck and the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. Back here, to find a Robin in March is a special discovery; to find scores of different species flooding the downstate skies is an everyday delight.

No, I'm not going to move downstate. Wouldn't know what to do once I got there. But what a spectacular outdoor museum for a kid who's never really plunged his city-neat hands into the soil, or watched the furrowed fields yield up their gifts. If only once a year, it's a magic carpet trip that makes me feel just a little like Tom and Huckleberry. Finding and feeling their way through little empires of natural ecstasy. Whereas the city confines you, the countryside releases you.

And so this city boy plays Thoreau for a few hours. The rolling fields of planted crops...the parade of red barns...the speckling of pickup trucks and tractors gathering together for their annual victory march. It's something you shouldn't forget to feel. After all -- they and that all came well before this and us!

Like visiting the distant aunts and uncles you never see, but whose genes you share. Against your first instincts, it's usually a trip well worth taking...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


One of our busiest national habits is writing letters and editorials -- in the paper, on the Internet, especially to whoever's in charge of whatever we're trying to change. School board member, mayor, member of Congress. president, whoever's the handiest when we're out to complain about something.

What's interesting about most of our letters and editorials is we're always demanding something we're absolutely, positively sure is absolutely, positively necessary. The school's textbooks teach the wrong things! the teachers are making too much money! the snow removal is too slow! the taxes and regulations are all wrong! you're misusing our military! hey, and another $50-100 million could really fix this road/track/canal/beach/park/fishery!

Now take that last group. The ones asking for government funding. In just one day I totalled the money-demanding letters and editorials. If everyone got what they demanded, the national debt would have spiked another 10% by sunset. I mean, there is absolutely no limit to the number of expensive ideas floating around out there; but there is an absolute limit to what we have to spend.

So what's the result...? Does all our money-demanding fury accomplish anything...? Probably not, except it gives the demandee the passing satisfaction of having demanded their demands in public. Bingo - good citizenship in action, end of story!

Actually, though, the real story would be if more of us demanding citizens offered to help spend what there is to spend, and stop pretending our demands are anywhere near as important as our duty.


Traveling is getting harder every day. Passports, security checks, screenings, waiting. However, there's one kind of travel that's a wide-open, passport-free adventure whenever and wherever we choose. The travels of the mind

Day-dreaming, musing, contemplating, call it what you will, it's instantly available to any mind that hasn't been calcified by the demands of the immediate. True, we must live in the world's immediate reality, but we should never lose the gift for living in the realities configured by our own minds and memories. That would be like denying Christmas, Peter Pan, the Wizard of Oz, and all those sacred moments you shared with the people most important in your life up till this very minute.

Riding the train, waiting in an airport, drifting off to sleep? These are those anointed moments when you alone hold the cosmos in your hands. To recall, reflect, re-live, re-discover. It's drugs without the cost! Highs without the crash! Travels without the hassle.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Now that the city is publicly admitting more about Al Capone (2/16), I can admit to a little family secret. In the late 20s my young father had opened an auto repair shop near Cicero. Big Al decided Dad was going to be one of his "speed guys" (meaning mechanics who would regularly soup up his mob cars).

Dad made sure Al's first visit was his last. My Father quietly messed up the accelerator so that the next day Capone stormed in and said, "You're the dumbest mechanic I've ever seen!"

Exactly the way Dad wanted to be thought of by the mobster and his goons. They never came back, and my Father went on to live a safe enough life to help achieve a different kind of product: Me...! Dad, like a lot of other good men, never made headlines, but they did help make Chicago.


Psychologist Erich Fromm snatched the truth from out of our lives when he said: "Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties." The funny thing is how many certainties we've arrived at without one iota of evidence. Simply sheer intuition...!

Intuition is as essential to our survival as strong arms and fast feet. On the other hand, it often tugs us into all-too comfortable certainties. Absolute convictions with which we go through life like a leopard does with its spots. No need to question them, for they are us.

Among the certainties some of us have grown up with and eventually out of: bacon & eggs are good you...don't swim right after eating...BB guns will poke out your eyes...wait till next year....oh and Aunt Margaret is only drinking that stuff for her cough.

OK, so we survived such little certainties. But there are larger ones: you can't defy the law of can never go faster than the speed of light...America: love it or leave it....if I can dream it I can do it.

Certainty and uncertainty, faith and doubt, they stand together in our lives. But shoulder to shoulder, not toe to toe. They are not the natural enemies they seem to be. Yes, we live with faith in what we have reasonably come to believe, but always with enough doubt to question even what we most believe. It is precisely why our world honors such believing doubters as Abraham, Jesus, Mohamed, DaVinci, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Newton, Einstein, Buffet and Gates. Not to mention virtually every bright-eyed valedictorian at this spring's graduation ceremonies.

The human spirit has been demonized by thinkers from Calvin to Nietzsche, glorified by everyone from Norman Vincent Peal to Oprah Winfrey. Somewhere in between these extremes lies the truth. A persistent truth by which we hold fast to our certainties, but just as often re-test whether they are still able to carry our weight.


Monday, February 15, 2010


The difference between a symphony and a cacophony...? The first is a coordinated blend of individual notes which come together into harmonic themes. The second is a disconnected clash of individual sounds which never come together into anything remotely harmonic...!

Translate this from the concert hall to our public forums, and the point is clear. There's little these days in these forum that ever harmonizes. Teams and athletes, parties and politicians, bankers and CEOs, clergy and celebrities, visions and missions -- in these forums there's mostly a relentless drumbeat of angry clashing sounds from the crowds with nary a note of harmony anywhere.

Not only do we spend a lot of time disagreeing, we do it so disagreeably.

This is just a theory you understand, but is it possible the last time a great mass of us ever cheered for the very same thing was that last big college football game? Or maybe that day we lifted a toast to our marriage, our first baby, our first home, our first anything? Or very possibly after Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the Twin Towers in 2001? However, now as of the early 21st C, it would seem the only thing we all still agree on is our right to disagree.

No need to define this as what defines a free society. That's a given. What's not a given is that this right must be frittered away in dead-end furies at dinner tables, sport bars, country clubs, public meetings, City Hall, Congress, oh and on 24/7 Cable and Internet. I expect even Thomas Jefferson to rise from his grave some day to yell out in his best 18th C harmony: "ENOUGH!"

One has to suspect the Fathers of our Constitution would agree there is a powerful difference between liberty and license. License is an excuse to go wherever I can. Liberty is the opportunity to run go wherever I should. Olympians do it, teams do it, survivors do it, congregations do it, lovers do it. How about the rest of us...?

As both fan and voter, I honestly wonder if Voltaire would still say: "I may disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it."? Come to think of it, he probably would. After all, he's never been to a Cub/Sox game or spent an entire term in our Congress....

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Each of us spends only a little time on this planet, but while we do we just may be around for one of history's more remarkable intersections. Serendipitous moments when two great forces somehow meet. On occasion, the collision will mean burnt ashes, but other times fiery sparks. Here's a case still open to debate.

The first force-factor here is as old as Eden -- human pride. We tend to think well of ourselves, react to approval, respond to flattery. "Scientific American" reports that flattery really will get you everything. A Hong Kong research team found that shoppers respond positively to compliments even when it's obvious they are designed to make you buy.

Now lets face it, it's statistically impossible for everyone to be above average. And yet the research shows this above-average effect is in play time and time again. Most of us believe we're at least above-average. If someone tells us we look good we believe it. If the boss approves our work, we work harder. But now what happens with this above-average effect when it meets the IPhone or the IPad....?

Alexander the Great felt great after conquering half the known world. Caesar felt great when he became, well when he became Caesar. Now, however, virtually anyone can feel great holding one of these astounding little technologies in the palm of their hand. Pride has now met Power!

Tell me, is there anything the holder can't now do? Phoning...viewing...texting...resourcing ...gaming... investing...filming...restauranting...jibbigooing...home managing....dieting. The little bugger can do virtually everything but have your kids (and who knows, someday?).

Here's the point.You and I have lived long enough to have become a one-of-a-kind collision point between Pride and Power. All the pride of our above-average affectation; now plus all the power with which Alexander and Caesar could have surely conquered the rest of their world.

What will we do with this astonishing moment? Hopefully more than while away the hours YouTubing our latest hairdo or haiku. This new potential pulsing in our palms is virtually god-like. Maybe, then, it's time to act more god-like than beast-like. Kinda the way I'm assuming the real God originally meant for us...


Saturday, February 13, 2010


America has been rightly called a nation-of-nations. Unlike most countries, we're not one race & nationality; rather, a melting pot of dozens of races & nationalities. Lately, though, we are only mixing more than melting...!

It's never been easy for different races & nationalities migrating here. Always the same hard ascent struggling up from loathsome immigrant status eventually to some kind of respectable status. Especially true of the later waves of 19th & 20th C Irish, Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Asians, and now Latinos and Middle Easterners. As for the African-American, assimilation has been the most complicated and troubled of all.

And yet, while we grapple with this recurring national assimilation of newcomers into the ranks, there are daily examples within our ranks themselves. Examples of little sub-sets of Americans who seem to have evolved from within more than from without. Consider the examples all around us -- not planned or pure, but surely each a kind of social-economic sub-set.

Warning...! The danger here is in over-generalizing and/or profiling. Whenever it's tried, it usually means a fight. But then we've been fighting among ourselves along these lines for generations. So OK here's one more generalization. Not to put too fine a point on it, but have you noticed -- generally speaking -- the following patterns seem to hold true in our large metropolitan centers:

* hospital service staffs are often Black & Latino
* hospital nursing staffs Asian
* restaurant service staffs Latino
* restaurant waitress staffs East European
* home care-givers Asian, especially Filipino
* home lawn-service crews Latino
* police & security services African America
* cab drivers Middle Eastern
* barbers Italian

How to test this very unscientific speculation...? Very often it's simply a matter of listening to the language spoken. But why bother, you ask? Doesn't this come down to profiling? I don't think so. It's mostly an impressionistic appraisal of how we Americans continue to drift into traditional patterns. Groupings. Comfort zones.

Although such groupings have always been natural in this multi-national society of ours, the habit has and still does create problems for our union. Ghettos -- whether physical or cultural -- tend to preach only to their own choirs. Often failing to hear the ones that once helped bond us together with syndicated family radio programs, studio-generated family films, and a few national family magazines.

The challenge of holding this great big bundle of national/racial energy together has never been more essential. Yet more difficult. What to do? Keep on trying...

Friday, February 12, 2010


Think of a pole vaulter who has to step back far enough to leap forward far enough. That's something like our challenge of change today. To move ahead we have to step back. Not too far, but not too little. Which is exactly how it is with every new generation deciding just how much of the last generation is needed to make the great leap....!

The pages of history are crowded with compelling examples. Governments...armies...religions...schools.... teams ....even your local PTA and sports bar. I was thinking about that as I watched the kids pouring out of classes this afternoon. Each clicking and clacking away at their smartphones. Now imagine their parents getting out of school in their days? How did they function without these amazing little tools? What were the pluses & minuses?

+ They couldn't have their dreamy meanderings through the neighborhood interrupted!
- But then they couldn't be reached for news about a family alert!

+ They couldn't have their intimate conversational efforts to impress Julie or Johnny interrupted!
- But then they would have missed a handy prop to use when they ran out of clever things to say!

+ They couldn't be rushed to their homework, because home couldn't reach them about the lousy homework!
- But then this way they might miss Aunt Emma's surprise visit, and her usual little folding green gift!

+ They couldn't have their fun messing around in the snow interrupted by some silly spam!
- But then they couldn't check their screens to catch sight of the big news flash about their favorite celebrity!

I don't know...I guess it would have been a tie. However, as life turns out, we never get a chance to tally scores like this. All we get to do is catch the wind of change and ride it as best we can. Then, when we're old and fussy enough, we try to make comparisons like this...

Thursday, February 11, 2010


The auto show in town helps remind us that what's going on right now with car owners is not simply anger, it's love. Anger is always a secondary emotion which, in this case, is being triggered by unrequited love...!

In America, the car took the place of our beloved horse. Men (many women too) lived and died with their one, true horse. To steal a man's horse was to steal a part of him, and the lynch mobs drove home that point time and time again. Even when the car replaced the horse, we still couldn't quite get over our love affair, and so we continue to talk about our cars in terms of horsepower.

Now, however, with all the shrieking headlines about failed Detroit and flawed Toyota, it's like a lover turning their back on us. And so the anger. An anger that can change only once we feel our cars are starting to love us back again...!


Right now America is in one of its periodic snits. Oh, we may call it a great populist uprising, but really, today's Tea Party conventions and parades are really just one more blip on the screen which records the way Americans have been bitching ever since the Constitution.

Within months of the new Constitution, President Washington had a whiskey rebellion on his hands, requiring federal troops. Our bawdy outbursts have continued by the scores from then right through the rebellion of the Confederacy, through the 20th C Progressives, through FDR's problems with Huey Long, through Ross Perot in 1992, right up to Barracuda Sarah today.

Perhaps the only thing different this time, is Sarah is sexier than General Lee and certainly Ross Perot. Dumber but sexier. Now what to do...?

Well, we can never (nor should we) ignore such anger from the streets. Who will ride the tail of this tiger and to were is open to debate. As always, time will tell us. One frightening thing to watch for would be the serindipitous possibility that President Obama -- elected to change and raise the course of our history -- might ironically become history's setup guy for the proverbial Man on the White Horse.

That terrifying thought stops me right here in mid-sentence ----


The auto show in Chicago helps remind us that what's going on right now with car owners is not simply anger, it's love. Anger is always a secondary emotion which, in this case, is being triggered by unrequited love...!

In America, the car took the place of our beloved horse. Men (many women too) lived and died with their one, true horse. To steal a man's horse was to steal a part of him, and the lynch mobs drove home that point time and time again. Even when the car replaced the horse, we still couldn't quite get over our love affair, and so we continue to talk about our cars in terms of horsepower.

Now, however, with all the shrieking headlines about failed Detroit and flawed Toyota, it's like a lover turning their back on us. And so the anger. An anger that can change only once we feel our cars are starting to love us back again...!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Nature has been understood and misunderstood throughout the centuries. Early on, our ancestors worshiped it as a god. Later, poets and pantheists concluded it was only god-like. Today, modern science considers it a chorus of dynamic cosmic laws which they seek to understand and perhaps even orchestrate.

Frankly, it seems safe to presume nature has no interest in what we think of it. It simply is, and we must simply accept its reality. Be that reality the rhapsody of a spring sunrise over the Grand Canyon or the cacophony of a sudden earthquake in the Caribbean. How best to accept it...? That can either be the wailing resignation of a childless mother in the wake of a catastrophe or the silent ecstasy of a climber reaching the summit.

When still a youngster, the enormous forces of nature whiplash us with feelings ranging from might to mystery. When older, the might remains, but perhaps the mystery lifts. We now know more about its capricious ways, ways we can mark and chart and sometimes even anticipate.

A modest suggestion... During nature's more benign moments -- a spring rain, a summer moonlight, fall's funeral of colors, even winter's avalanche of white -- we might do better to put aside our charts and barometers. Simply walk in it.

Oh, and sometimes rejoice in the unexpected ways it helps. For example, take the way its 30 inches of snow blessedly shut down all Washington DC!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


It's a dirty job, but someone's gotta to do it...!

Once an adage, now a joke, the idea actually applies to a great many jobs. Right now I'm thinking the news media. Once one of the pillars of a free society, today the media are seen by many as the messenger worse than the message. Faith in the mass media has fallen lower than that of Congress, and that in itself is a message.

Here's the problem. The message -- the daily drone of news -- is virtually the same day to day and year to year. Lets admit it, the stories never really change; just the names. Drug bust...gang fight...domestic violence...hit-and-run...graft in high places...pol caught cheating...celebrity in rehab...gridlock in Washington. Which is why the messenger -- print, television, Internet -- is forever looking for some outrageous way to package it for an easily distracted audience.

OK, got it....! This is why your explosive headlines, melodramatic lead-ins, gaggle of 24/7 websites. And yet even you have become predictable. Come on, fellas, you're predictably always going for the most embarrassing gaffe, the most lurid scene, the most contentious moment, the smarmiest off-camera details, oh and of course the prettiest face.

All right, we get the hook. And sometimes we even bite. However, there's a limit to even our gullibility. The same-old-same-old eventually wears bare-thread thin. Occasionally our jaded appetites crave for messages -- and messengers -- who can lift us out of the mud! shine a light on something higher! offer a boost toward something better! Right now all you're giving us are a few 2-inch columns on page 12 and a cuddly 60-second human-interest tag at the end of the newscast.

Not enough to satisfy this hunger. This appetite for something good about our strange struggling species. Look, you guys have just such messages somewhere in your filler files. Maybe the time has finally come to try leading with them. What do you have to lose? In case you haven't noticed, you haven't much left to lose; but a lot to gain. Just try us....

Monday, February 8, 2010


Wow, it just feel so good it must be right! What...? Well, the public sacrifice of Scott Lee Cohen, that's what.

We can tell ourselves this is the will of the people, democracy in action, justice rendered. But who are we kidding? This is just one more public blood lust for the latest public figure we've decided is not up to our own remarkably high standards. Politician, celebrity, athlete -- makes no difference.Whenever we in our collective self righteoueness decide they gotta go, they gotta go.

Now I'm not saying I know how good a job Cohen would have done as lieutenant governor. But here's the point -- neither do any of you! And now we'll never know.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Our nation's -- actually our world's -- biggest problem today is the mounting danger from our person-to-person disconnect. The less we understand and like one another, the more probable will be today's incessant crises. From paralyzing political nihilistic protest bloody border cataclysmic global wars. How in God's (or Darwin's) name do we avoid this...?

There are no lack of solutions or saviors. Lately, anyone with a placard or a website is ready to qualify. OK then, here's a couple of simple suggestions: First, bring back the comedians! Second, bring back the Martians!

No lack of clever comedians today. We've got everyone from Chris Rock to Bill Maher to the 101 below-the-belt standups on cable and in clubs all across the nation. But these guys are all angry. They all get their laughs out of knocking down icons, and ridiculing everything their mothers used to wash out their mouth for saying. Funny...? Well, yeah like we used to think pulling off scabs in the schoolyard was funny.

However, not so long ago our comedians played the laugh game in reverse. They poked fun at themselves and at the world in which we all move. Jack Benny...George Burns...Gracie Allen...Phyllis Diller...Danny Thomas...Bob Newhart...Bill Cosby. Funny ...? Yeah, but not because they were machine-gunning libidinous jokes about the all the authority figures they felt didn't like them, and all the people they knew would never go to bed with them. It was a gentler more we're-all-in-this-together humor that tended to bond not infuriate their audiences.

Also, not so long ago we believed there might be Martians who could invade our earth. They were perhaps the single most likely force or fear that might finally overcome the perverse differences among our planet's disputing populations. But once we learned no such attack is likely, we just may have lost mankind's last best chance for standing shoulder to shoulder instead of toe to toe.

Bringing back our comedians and our Martians -- are these two unlikely suggestions still possible? Well, they may not be as impossible as they sound. The gentler-kinder comedians are no further away than an old-time cable rerun or a re-released recording. Then see how angry you still feel! As for the Martians, take a big breath-taking look at our little blue planet from the Space Shuttle. Then see how long you can still pretend we're not all in this together!

I'm thinking both these ideas should be required at the next UN Security Council or session of Congress. I mean, it's not as if these guys have found anything better to do with their time lately...

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Look, this has to stop...! Not the use of our foundational 1st amendment, but of its 24/7 misuse...! Scan even the most erudite newspapers, magazines and websites. Count for yourself -- 9 out of every 10 comments is a negative. A blistering critique of a questioned politician or policy, of a short-of-the-mark artist or athlete, of any celebrity that's handy, and of any city or campus or country the writer feels qualified to dismiss in a few acidic paragraphs.

It's that adjective "qualified" that sticks like a bone in my throat. At the ball park I can endure the bombastic buffoon catcalling the pitcher. I can tolerate the passionate protesters who raise their voice in a town hall meeting. But my Aunt Matilda barking orders over the shoulder of the surgeon operating on my Father? Look, lady, free speech and carefree speech are two enormously different phenomena. Who the hell let you in here!

So, no argument with the principle of free speech. It's the current practice that has me worried. Like a passenger in a leaky life raft listening to the raging dissenter whose rage is rocking the boat. Maybe the seaman at the controls would be better served by helping not hectoring him. Have you ever thought about shifting your mouth into forward rather than always reverse? Put another way, a navy of all admirals isn't going to win many battles.

If the boat-rockers' explanation is "majority rules," how does their rocking majority help us get to shore by shouting down the navigational expert at the helm? Dissent, discussion, debate, yes! Venting your spleen just because you have one, no!

Here's the problem. We can see many of the shores we all want to reach. Only we disagree on many of the routes. That's a constitutional and moral right that we have and hold dear. But, look, can we life-rafters at least agree on this much? We're all -- each and every one of us -- is in the same damn leaky boat!


Ask anyone whose been in an earthquake -- the very world beneath you cracks open and you desperately lose all sense of control. Several notches down on the disaster scale is suddenly plunging into a total white-out...!

What a few minutes before had been a snowy county highway abruptly exploded into the white violence of a Midwestern snow squall. Incredible! The flood of white is smashing into your windshield with a force that nearly drives you off the road. The road...? You can't see it. Not the road, not your hood, not a blessed thing even though you know you must be sardined into a stream of speeding cars in front and behind you. Each equally blinded, each trying to slow, but each unable to judge the precise speed of the cars around it.

The cliche about your life speeding by you -- entirely true. As you face the prospect of careening into a 50-mile an hour collision on a jammed highway you can't see or hear, images flash into your mind. How short a life it's really little I've understood...the people I love somewhere far far many of us out here in white hell will end up in a tangle of many will survive...God almighty am I dreaming all this!

In fact, the next thing I clearly recall was my head hurting as it pressed down on a horn that wouldn't stop blaring. Something, somebody, was pounding on the car window. Words? Screams? At first not sure.

The point is this. Our cars did survive the squall. All 10 or 15 of us. The thick blanket of snow somehow cushioned the collisions enough so that cars not drivers were crumpled. A miracle? A coincidence? A 30-minute winter aberration? Take your choice. All this driver knows is your life actually is a play that actually does have a plot line.

The thing of it is, we small players rarely take a seat in the audience to realize this. Or to know which act of it we're in right now. For a little scary while, that whirlwind of snow on a dangerous highway suddenly tornadoed me off the stage and into the seats. Is that a little like how God sees us...? If so, now what do I do about it...?

Friday, February 5, 2010


Grandson to grandfather, perhaps eager to hear evidence of a better America: "Do you think your times were better than mine? People were kinder, gentler and more willing to give back to their country...?" Grandfather to grandson, eager to be honest without self-serving: "Not always, but a lot more than what I see today..."

Now I could have smugly reported some of the irrefutable statistics from "my times" (circa 1930s,40s,50s). Fewer crimes of violence, sexual assault, drugs, handguns; fewer unwed mothers, abortions, divorces, sexual predators. All this coupled with safer homes, safer schools, higher church attendance and more frequent public service.

But no...! Stats aren't the best way to prove a point so diffuse and important as the one Ben just presented me. Besides, numbers can always be sliced and diced and disputed. The best -- actually the only -- evidence for defining the times is to look elsewhere. Don't list the laws and the GNP. Instead, tell me the stories. The stories people were reading, singing and watching on their screens!

Our best-sellers included "The Good Earth," "Grapes of Wrath," "How Green Was My Valley," "Mrs Miniver," "The Nazarene," "The Cardinal." What might they have most in common? Unlike today's harder, darker themes, we were collectively moved by their basic valor, sentimentality and good endings. Not exactly the stuff that hooks readers today, Ben, but they spoke to our times and our tastes.

Our songs and singers...? Well, usually they too were distinguished by a simpler more sentimental ethos. "Happy Days Are Here Again," "Sunny Side of the Street," "Coming In On A Wing & A Prayer." Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby. Perry Como, Doris Day. By today's Presley-Beatles-Rap zeitgeist, most of this was pretty tame and gooey. But you see, Ben, it sold. To hardened Depression workers and toughened GIs alike. To touch our times you have to sing our music.

Hollywood, of course, is easily the best pulse reading of the times. What are people crowding in to see, and laugh, and cry over....? There was "You Can't Take It With You," "Sullivan's Travels," "Mr Smith Goes To Washington," "Gone With The Wind," "Sergeant York," "Gunga Din," "Best Years of Our Lives," and "High Noon." Just a few of the movies which won our hearts in those times, largely because each itself had such a large good heart. Hearts and feelings and visions and love of country were perhaps more common then. Corny, true; but it was the kind of corn we relished.

So, Ben, lets just say your times are exciting and pregnant with possibilities. My times helped make your times possible. Ours weren't always as rich and comfortable, but I'd like to believe we heard the trumpets of decency, honor and service clearly. Trumpets which have become more muted in today's jangle of gold and guns.

My suggestion -- try listening to them again

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Arguably "Casablanca" is the greatest Oscar-winner in history. Less arguably, it has the most remembered lines ("Here's looking at you, kid," "We'll always have Paris," "Play it, Sam"). Of these the one most often repeated may be, "Round up the usual suspects." Now, finally, I've decided exactly who those suspects are.

My best guess: Fear! Love! Honor! To round up these three is to round up the entire plot. Not only to "Casablanca" in 1942, but perhaps to America here in 2010.

Fear -- and its ultimate achievement, terror -- haunts each of the leading characters. Elsa fears for her hero- husband. Victor fears for his heroic cause. Rick -- the world weary cynic only Bogart could personify for both our generation as well as his own -- fears he has lost the feeling fear itself requires.

In the screenplays of our own lives, we're continually haunted by the 101 faces of fear. Threats to health and wealth, to personal philosophies and political parties. From the moment we're born, it would seem the blind forces of nature conspire to annihilate our little physical existence. Then when the forces of human nature join the conspiracy, there are probably few nights we can really lay our heads down to a perfect sleep.

Love -- and its ultimate realization in that someone we find is our other half -- fuels different flames in "Casablanca." Very much as happens in the scripts of our own lives. The loves in war-weary 1942 intersect and eventually rip into each other. Secrets slip out, passions seep forth, the nobility that was once patriotism turns cruel. Everyone's heart bleeds. Exactly as in 2010.

Honor -- now this is what eventually salvages the individual tragedies in "Casablanca." A misty airport finale in which Rick finds what all Americans still would like to believe beats within us. The courage to say no to personal passions, and yes to a greater passion. Hokey...? Not the way it happens in those last few moments in the Casablanca fog. And not the way it could still happen if enough people would re-find our recently lost sense of honor

Come Oscar Night, most everyone watching -- from Hollywood to Chicago to Washington -- might try recalling that foggy finale in war-ravaged 1942. And say to one another, along with Rick, "I think this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship..."


The 10 Oscar-nominated films are all good and worthy choices; but this is to assert, not a one can surpass the movies of our own mind. Think about it. We get to pick our own stars, our own sets, our own on-location countries, and most important our very own endings...!

Now take "Avatar." Glistening with all kinds of special effects and 3-D spectacle. But when I curl up under winter- time bedcovers, the screen of my mind flashes with the time I too traveled -- in dazzling 18-year-old romantic flight -- into the three-dimensional world of the first girl I learned to love. And -- not unlike Mr Cameron's plot -- I too saved her from a disastrous fate. OK, so her "fate" was only Ray Korzon; but if you ever saw his body fill out a tux, you'd appreciate how disastrous my chances would have been had I not asked Bonnie to the prom first.

So I like this particular movie, even though neither Ray nor Bonnie remember it in quite the same way. But you see, that's what I mean by getting to pick your own endings!

"Inglorious Bastards" turns out to be another movie I've lived in my mind for years. The raw, devil-may-care courage to take on the Nazis. When you're growing up as a kid with the daily images of these sleek, black-uniformed bastards ruling the world, who wouldn't want to sweep them off the face of the globe. Especially with Bonnie and the other heroines in my script watching?

So this WWII storyline is already perfect as is. The only thing I need to do in my dreams is replace Brad Pitt with me in the role. Yes! when I watch this version, it's a sure winner. Even Angelina couldn't argue with Jen about it!

By now you're probably getting the drift of this thing. Hollywood is good, but in the movie house of your own mind, it can be even better. It's an artform you start perfecting at an early age. In my case, that meant casting myself in the roles Clark Gable and Tyrone Power used to play. But for the younger set, nothing's wrong with Tom Cruise or George Clooney. As for the heroines, my Lana Turners and Hedy Lamars are easily interchangeable with your Nicole Kidmans and Catherine Zeta Jones. Just remember -- you're the director and the cinematographer.

Important footnote...

Movies-of-the-mind are an artform worthy only of those who can authentically appreciate the realm of the imperishable imagination. Especially in the case of a glory-bound narrative coupled with an MGM happy-ending. In today's tougher age of neither, the young may have to work a little harder at this. Still, from my directorial seat on the boom-camera, these are the only movies deserving my Oscars.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


When the ancient Chinese divided the world into the two energy forces of yin and yang -- dark and good forever interacting -- they didn't likely anticipate some of today's examples. Examples, incidentally, which are almost always broken down into statistics. In our modern age we have a passion for statisticalizing everything...!

For instance, here's a yin (or is at a yang?). Sixteen-year-old's passion for getting a driver's license as a status symbol dropped between 1998 and 2008 by almost 15%. Reason? Well, texting of course. In today's Internet culture the electron has replaced the wheel. A fact which makes some of us elders wonder exactly how -- without the parked car under the stars -- we would have ever discovered the infinite mysteries of the female..

In another yin, bank robberies declined almost 20% last year to their lowest level in a decade. Reason? Inter the Internet again, for today's stolen cash can be tracked by implanted GPS devices. Besides, who needs to steal by car when you can do it on-line, and never once dirty your hands.

There's a third statistic that's hard to label. But it certainly is a first. A British government employment service turned down a company's ad which read "must be very reliable and hardworking." The London official explained
the company could be sued for "discriminating against unreliable people."

Now if that last one makes sense to you, you may be altogether too much a part of this yin-yangy post-modern culture. You need immediate attention at your closest ER, which, by the way, is statistically busier than ever in these days of statistical stress.


OK, I was in the service. Many of you were too. Now here's the question: If you were under fire, would you tell the guy that had your back to change places with "one of my own?" If you were flying in tight formation, would you insist your wing man only be "one of my own?" If you were getting shots, would you ask the doctors be "one of my own?"

No more than today's NFL players would refuse to huddle with gay players or voters to elect dozens of gay mayors throughout the country.

Oh, but they don't have to live together...? Check the records which show up to 9% of all the scouts and students your dormed with were gay. And by golly, look you're still here! Even luckier, they are too....

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


There's a war going on. No, not that one. The bloodless one here at home in which the stakes are not about security as much as style. The style of a culture which has lately replaced Mozart with Rap, Shakespeare with Disney, Steinbeck with Twitter, and Rodin with billboards. Is this simply cultural evolution or a whiff of extinction...?

Some of the battlefields are the college classrooms, the professional journals, the New York Times best seller list, and Charlie Rose. There's where effort and elegance still combine to speak to a style that has long made the American culture a continuing burst of the best. Now, however, our best is often Blackberries, iPhones, iPods and iPads whose priorities are essentially process more than product. Shorter, faster, cuter.

It's grossly predictable that one generation should rally to its style over that of the next. However, this war is more than generational. It's foundational. Its battle lines criss-cross almost every field of human endeavor -- from how we write, speak, compose, paint, dress and eat, to how we explain our very body and being. You've heard of total-war...? Right now we're so totally engulfed in so much so fast that we're likely to become not simply more but actually different. To emerge as that "new human" each generation is always projecting, but never quite realizing.

Change of course is nothing new in the affairs of our species. Today, however, change has changed! The culture is exploding exponentially to the whoosh of more new facts, feelings, functions and furies than ever before in the history of humanity. Not only have the limits of our brain circuitry been reached, so also our capacity to navigate this whoosh.

The young see visions, the old dream dreams. Either way, we have all been scooped up in this rush of changing reality. What to save...? What to discard...? What to blend...? Do we even have the time or inclination to ask...?

This much I know. From Beethoven to Tony Bennett to my old bathrobe, some things belong on this battlefield with me....

Monday, February 1, 2010


In our high-energy America, we're usually told to "jump in with two feet." Maybe. But on the other hand, isn't it a good idea to use that second foot for other possibilities?

Here I'm think of one of my heroes, John Updike. He always said the writer is never quite "in" the world. Rather just outside it. Observing, reflecting, recalling, composing. That's my second foot, the one which stands just beyond that exhalted "moment" everyone talks about.

For some of us, being-in-the-moment can plant you so deeply and completely into what you're experiencing, you really have no creative resource left to capture and share that experience with others. Does this make a writer a kind of lonely outsider...? Well, I guess. But take it from me -- stepping just outside the moment lets you see and smell and feel something quite extraordinary. Namely the world! The one you love in your favorite books, poems, plays and music.

So, no, don't cry for us if we look like we're "missing the moment." We're just savoring it.


The Tinman wished for a heart, and the Scarecrow a brain. Whose wish was best? A few words on behalf of the heart in this month which celebrates matters of the heart.

Yes, yes, doctor, the heart is simply another organ; but the Tinman and I speak here of the heart in its fullest metaphorical meaning. It represents all those feelings rather than thoughts within us which help account for what and who we love...what and why we we experience the drama of nature, of life, of death and of whatever lies beyond.

Here's what the brain can do -- think, compute, analyze, reach cognitive judgments. Nobly, it distinguishes us from the animals. Here's what the heart can do -- feel, experience, arrive at human relationships. Nobly, it distinguishes us not only from the animals, but in some ways from the brain. While the brain can inform us about the mechanics of the cosmos, it often defers to the heart when it comes to the meaning of that cosmos. And of those in it to whom we are drawn by our deepest and most lasting loves.

Dorothy quite properly left the Scarecrow in charge of Oz, because of his great intellect. But she also reminded Oz to listen to the beat of the Tinman's great heart. Which is precisely why I have framed in my room a powerful letter I received from Cardinal Bernadin as he was dying in 1996 from a cancer similar to mine. He said in part: "Like you, my head has doubts at times, but never my heart..."

The good Cardinal died a noble death. The good Tinman, I'm sure, lived a noble life. Here's to good hearts, not only this month of hearts, but every month. And not only medically, but meritoriously as well.