Monday, May 31, 2010


Two sounds outside your bedroom window....

One, the whir of the military helicopter transporting President Obama to and from nearby O'Hare Field. You look up with awe at the meaning of such power. But then, the symphony of robins and cardinals are also up there. For the moment, they drown out the cacophony of blades and steel. In summer the songs sing themselves, and in these fleets of nature, the entire season is playing on key.

Our President bears the inescapable burden of office; down here, still the slightest of chances another summer will mean you won't have to bear anything except for its enormous joys. Escapism...? Probably...!. But oh what a fragrant escape. When you put down the newspapers, what is left is the catechism of Louie Armstrong smiling through: "What a Wonderful World."

Untethered from the responsibility to act and attached only to the irresponsibility to feel, you're in harmony with the freedoms of the natural world. Birds in flight...squirrels and rabbits in hunt...skies June blue...winds summer perfumes that intoxicate. The Tom Sawyer so long asleep stirs. Suddenly grass is once more for lounging...trees are for climbing...and girls, well girls with long flowing hair are for studying with the greatest of attentions.

You look up at the helicopter and the astonishing power it represents. You feel guilty in thanking God you are down here with summer, not up there with duty. But only a little guilty. Because in out-of-school summers long long ago -- with friends in the parks and lunches with Mom -- you felt not a care in your world. A feeling that has desire painted on it....

Sunday, May 30, 2010


That relentless roar of oil savagely gushing from the bowels of the Gulf is the image of our times. Our skills and our technology joined at the hip to our dreams and our greed keep poking the planet's Pandora's Box. Given a world of natural gifts, our species has continued to play fast and loose with them.

Horace Walpole may have trumped even Shakespeare when he observed: "The world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." And while we cry through our laughter, we may finally be ready to ask: Have we at last outfoxed ourselves? Have we not only over-played our planet's gifts, are we now over-playing even our own gifts? Especially the one we call the mind?

It is in our nature to seek and search and subdue. By these lights we have conquered continents and mastered oceans. We stand at the edge of someday perhaps conquering space. Mankind is progressing in ever larger concentric circles of accomplishments. However, like a conquering army gradually over-extending its lines of supply, we may be over-extending our capacity to manage what we are conquering.

Technical experts rush to the scene of every natural and human disaster. As it should be, for these minds are needed to confront the crises we have created. How much better, though, to call upon our best minds before not after! Minds best not simply in perspicacity, but in philosophy. Real insight as well as certified intelligibility.

Philosophers were once part of the monarch's retinue. Today, none such will be found in the inner circle of presidents and prime ministers. Why is this...? Why are those few best at posing the why-questions not there to pose them...?

Whenever a few quiet why-should-we-do-this questions are posed (e.g. drilling, cutting, legislating or fighting), the only ones there to answer them are the ones responsible for -- well, for the endeavor's bottom line. I mean, get real here; this is a no-nonsense, bottom-line world, right! And yet, as humanity keeps learning, there's a line still below that one.

It has to do with what is the right thing to do! To reach that line usually takes the kind of moral courage they just don't teach at MIT or in the military academies....

Saturday, May 29, 2010


They're all out there...looking back at every restaurant, truck stop, movie house and commuter train...the faces of the future... sometimes I'm afraid to really look into them.

Why? Because when I do, I see in them dangers beyond what I can bear, joys more than I would know how to handle. For you see, in those faces -- the eyes especially -- reside all our tomorrows. The good and the bad, the noble and the ignoble, the prospects for our species to leap boldly ahead or fall tragically behind.

In the ravished old face of the tired workman I see an end-of-the-day exhaustion which can mean either a stoic acceptance of the way of the world, or perhaps someday an explosion of in-the-streets rage. In the bearded young face of the student I see a crackling circuitry of dreams which can mean either another brilliant scholar, or perhaps the next mass murderer. In the lean clean face of the downtown executive I see a life swelled with accomplishments which can mean either thousands of clients well served, or maybe cleverly cheated out of their life savings.

Each person is more than a person. They are tomorrow's news stories. Heroes or vandals, rational or mad, willing to work with the system, or to plunder it. Scooping up my little life right along with it.

Each day hundreds, thousands of private faces behind which hide the world's great good fortune, or possibly its next worst nightmare. Who are these faces? They are us, really. And we are each ticking like some cosmic clock which, on some bright morning down the way, may ring loudly into a page of the history books.

One can only hope with all their hope that those pages will read of fine and worthy events. Up to now, the pages have been less than we'd like, yet always open to inserting some fresh new headline...

Friday, May 28, 2010


If the truth shall set us free, why do we lie so much...? In politics, in business, even to ourselves...?

As usual, Mark Twain to the rescue. The old cynic learned his cynicism the hard way. By living a long life. Near the end of it he said something only a liar will dispute: "A man will do many things to get himself loved; he will do everything to get himself envied."

Most people would stop there and just try to internalize this uncomfortable truth. But not Dr Kang Lee of Toronto University. Wouldn't you know it, the good doctor came up with conclusions that question Twain's ornery wisdom. Instead of finding lies a debit, his research suggests it's an asset. Apparently the earlier a child begins using convincing lies, the more likely will he be successful in life. Why? Because better lying "...indicates better cognitive development."

All of which raises this question: Was America busy lying to itself during the second half of the 20th C? During all those years of peace and power and prosperity? Today's generation often report the hypocrisy of their parents and grandparents generations. Back when radio, movies and television filled our lives with happy little lies like: Truth always prevails...goodness always wins....honor is always is always fulfilled.

To listen & watch those old programs today -- radio's soap operas & kid shows, MGM's Andy Hardy & Doris Day fluff, television's "Father Knows Best" & "Happy Days" -- is either to gag on the gush or maybe to envy the exuberance. At first, today's smarter tougher young parents are likely to gag. Until, that is, they find themselves preaching some of the very same values to their own children. As one mother put it: "How I wish this were still the time when I could let my kids play all day long wherever they wanted, ride buses anywhere they cared, then come home to an unlocked front door...!"

Is it possible that those so-called hypocritical lies were really hopeful ideals? Ideals that, even when not reached, helped light up a slightly better safer world? Aiming just a little higher than we can grab still has the advantage of making us reach just a little more than we might. And that's no lie...

Thursday, May 27, 2010


I'm ready for this weekend's soaring rhetoric. It's always a boost. And yet for some it's going to be a bust.

Memorial Days are usually about remembering our past in order to better anticipate our future. But right now, many historians are busy lamenting our impending future based on our recent past. To put it another way, they're saying: There goes the neighborhood!

The neighborhood is us some 234 years after a terrific start, but currently in a terrible stall. Things have been going from good to bad and now bad to worse. Like any troubled neighborhood, folks there always blame their handiest target -- the "other guy." As in the president, the bankers, the generals, the executives, the immigrants. But that's angry, simplistic Tea Bagger thinking. And that kind of thinking isn't thick enough to cut it.

More serious Memorial Day historians might instead compare the great American Empire with the decline and fall of the great Roman Empire. They have a point. During the 5th C that neighborhood looked a lot like ours. Too many debts and stresses inside; too many enemies and encroachments outside.

However, listen carefully for this weekend's Memorial Day oratory will be about the stout national institutions that have held the neighborhood together all these years. Such as the government...the banks...the businesses....the schools...the courts...the churches and temples.

All true. But now all in trouble. It's precisely these institutions which have been failing us lately. Government stalled in stalemate. Banks corrupted by greed. Businesses heading over cliffs. Schools failing to educate. Laws failing to hold. And religions losing the faith of their own followers.

There won't be many historians giving Memorial Day addresses. However, their institutional concerns are worth considering. When Rome's institutions fractured, a brilliant empire collapsed into a barbarous dark age where rogues ruled the countrysides of Europe. Perhaps reminiscent of today's al-Queda, Iran, South Korea, Somalian pirates, and roaming survivalist bands.

Will that be our fate by some future Memorial Day...? In the 4th C the Church took the role of Rome as the one only sustaining institution to which the people could look. That didn't aways work out so well. This time will it be science and technology's turn to play that role? Or if not them, who?

In another 20 or 30 Memorial Days we may have the answer. For now, I'm happy we have a Memorial Day I can still recognize....

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


The seed is as important as the flower...

That's the sort of comment you expect to hear from a Tibetan monk sitting cross-legged on one of the hills just outside Shangri-La. Actually, the thought is no further away than our front door. It's the way some of us out there -- astoundingly few -- have finally learned how to understand time. Not as some linear A-to-Z journey, rather as one continuous present.

All too often, though, the seize-the-day zealots seize it as though this day is the only day that counts on the road. That is of course nonsense. There have been many days before today, before we were here to have todays. Those yesterdays can no more be ignored than the grin on our face or the hurts in our heart.

How best then to travel time...?

Grandma explained this brilliantly. Unfortunately I was only about eight, and so her Italian wisdom was lost on me. I preferred concentrating on her scrumptious plate of steaming risotto more than on her soaring wisdom. "Remember that big sticky pot on the stove you helped me stir...?" Yeah, I remember; it was a glop of yellow rice or something; made my arms tired! "That glop, Jackie, -- and all the songs we sang and stories we laughed at while we were stirring -- that's how we got this"

Oh, now I get, Grams....! Only Grams died on me before I was old enough to tell her. Now I tell her every today.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


"60 Minutes" recently featured an interview with the 71-year-old inventor of the cell phone. He proudly noted that today's hand-held communicators hold the world in their hands, but he questioned instruments whose user guide is heavier than the phone.

So now he's designed the Jitterbug which is a little phone that is only a phone. No screens, no keypads, no nothing else except talking with someone. Kinda like inventing our way back to the future.

But just when you think it's safe to pick up your little phone again, he promised that sometime soon, phones will be chips implanted behind the ear. With this step, mankind becomes the phone and the phone becomes mankind. Which sounds like a cross between a Star Trek and a Woody Allen movie!

For those not born into the mobile-phone culture, it's customary at this point to smugly say, "Yeah, but no phone will ever take the place of a good hug!"

Enter Seth Pollak of the University of Wisconsin. According to her research, "Biochemically speaking, a phone conversation with your kid is as good as a hug..." Whoa! Were they right when they kept telling us: Reach out and touch someone? According to this study, yes, because in it the phone call and the hug released the very same amounts of the "love hormone" oxytocin.

So here at the crossroads of another brave-new-world leap, we are left to ponder whether anything we've learned in the past fits the future. Among those sacred absolutes was the firm conviction that moms hold the key to life and to love. However, now Ms Pollak (who does not identify herself as a mother) is suggesting that the "key" may be something you can buy at your local phone shop for $79.99!

I'm wondering here what my Mom would have said to a price tag of $79.99. Wait -- I know what she'd say. "Come over here and give me a hug...!"

Monday, May 24, 2010


Have you ever tried to bite your own teeth? That's how playwright Tennessee Williams answered my rather pretentious question: "How can we define ourselves?" We were sitting in the back row of the old Goodman Theatre in Chicago during a rehearsal of his play "Summer & Smoke."

You figure an artist with his insight would have had an answer somewhat grander. And yet the more you think about it, the grander his answer is. Just like when I had the chance to ask playwright Edward Albee how was it possible for him to have written such a mature play as "Delicate Balance" at such a young age. His answer was equally unpretentious: "I used to listen in to my parent's cocktail parties."

Did Belgian researcher Elke Vleminex have such perspectives in mind when she reported on her investigation of the human sigh...? In a comparably grand-less comment, she said, "A sigh is more than just a sigh. It changes our dynamics of breathing, and acts as a resetter of the respiratory system." In her comments to "Discovery News," she explained how under stress our breathing becomes less responsive to the need for more or less oxygen. But a sigh "shakes up the system, loosening up the lungs and allowing for more flexible breathing."

Another of those remarkable regulatory phenomena to the human species that invites -- insists -- on further reflection. Just as with the unpretentious explanations by Williams and Albee, Vleminex's explanation of the human sigh warrants more than just a nod and a note. Isn't it a delicious little curiosity as to what makes us what and who we are? Here circa 2010 the answer may come down to one of two: Darwin's evolution or God's generosity.

Then again, perhaps it's the two blended together in one cosmic recipe? Something to sigh over.....

Sunday, May 23, 2010



The most crowded place in the world is a bandwagon. Right now, the DNA bandwagon is gathering up new fans every day. Sometimes, though, its pickups invite some testing of their own!

An exclusive Baltimore condo is proposing they collect DNA samples of the residents' dogs so they will have solid evidence of which pups poop without being scooped. Scarlett Place would fine owners $500 if their dog's DNA catches them. As one condo owner said, "I think I'm living in a Seinfeld episode."

Actually, sir, you're living in a age when if something new is good, more is better. As in the case of street security cameras, Hollywood rehab facilities, buddy movies, and another round of reality shows.


Frustrated educators are always reporting on the dumbing down of America. Probably so, but there's more numbing than dumbing going on. Consider -- with compassion, please -- the average wage-earners sitting down at the end of a hard day in front of their TV sets.

The image of that oil relentlessly escaping in the Gulf is the perfect image of their numb sense of helplessness. Nobody can stop it. Just as it would seem nobody can stop the murders in our city streets...the corruption in our government ranks...the deaths in all our overseas wars...not to mention the unstoppable flow of more brain-dead cable news-panels.

But they say it's an ill-wind that blows no good. And so at least the sleep-pill-poppers have found a new rationale for their habit.


A high-energy 16-year-od Jessica Watson of Australia just completed a remarkable 210 day solo sail around the world. The Prime Minister and her family were there to greet and celebrate her. Much like we do those who reach mountain tops and swim oceans.

The zeitgeist always crowns such achievements. These are said to be among the better expressions of the human spirit. Or are these among the worst indulgences of the human ego? Nothing against Jessica; just wondering if the human spirit could be more being used to do more...?


We walk in the West at a time when we're being advised by existentialists that it's time we kick the old religiousy habits. Start enjoying the provable fact we are just evolved planetary dust -- like everything else on Earth -- so forget any harpy after-life, and get on with enjoying this life!

I think about that whenever I study the faces of the grievers at a cemetery service. There's no chanting here to the sun or to celery stalk. Or to the glorious way the deceased's energy is now recycled into the endless cycle of planetary nothingness.

Instead, what I see are earthlings in solemn awe of this unrepeatable life. And of the hopes it is now and forever more than food for worms.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


The three college students had un-dumped their backpacks, and were raising their voices over their lattes. Wasn't hard to hear their topic: What's the meaning of life? Now when I was about their age, I had that answer right in the palm of my hand. But somehow, over the years, it slipped out. So I tried to listen in...

The lanky red-head hooked his argument onto Camus: "The only real philosophical issue about the meaning of life is why shouldn't we kill ourselves?" The question is a prickly one. Considering life's relentless problems and pressures, we all wonder sometime.

The serious-faced brunette trumped Camus with Chekhov: "Life is a tragedy filled with joys." So for her the only reason to keep living is if there's some joys to live for. That was the meaning to life. The only real meaning.

The big thumper with the ratty hair sealed the deal with Wood Allen. He quoted him from his movie "Manhattan" in which Allen explains how we all know in our gut things that give our life meaning. His personal list was Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement to the Jupiter Symphony, Louie Armstrong's 'What a Beautiful World,' Swedish movies, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne, and Spencer Tracy's face.

I could identify with every one of them....! That suddenly made me feel really good. In the case of Woody Allen and Camus, their list wouldn't include a God. Fortunately for me, my list did. Which made me feel really really good. I even thanked the three of them on my way out.

The looks on their faces suggest that I will not make their lists. But that's OK, I still feel really really good...

Friday, May 21, 2010


Have you ever gotten lost looking for your car in a parking lot? One reason is they all look alike. Same molded profile, same chromed front, same glamorous interior. Especially those interiors.

Check out that front panel. Big, bold, gleaming with screens and switches, packed with purpose and power. Power is the name of this game. Not just transportation, but finger-tip power! The power to maneuver this mechanical monster wherever you want; the power to access data from its engine and computers, all the way up to those GPS satellites at your command.

A moment of reflection here.

Isn't this a little like the feeling you got with your first prom night, first campus honor, first job promotion, first sexual conquest? Never thought about it that way? Try! In those moments, weren't you wrestling fate into submission? Getting what you wanted from it? And getting it right then and there?

Next time you sculpt your body into that cushioned seat, place your hands on that low-swept wheel, and feast your eyes on this banquet of controls, you might consider the same question most presidents, prime ministers and popes do: "What can I do with this much power...that's worth doing?"


"He who fight the future has a dangerous enemy." [Soren Kierkegaard]

That was written by a man already old enough to fear the future. However, the young don't see the future as an enemy, but as a friend, for the young shall inherit the earth. They find their poets in pop lyrics, their religion in music concerts, their preachers on stage and on screen, and their philosophers on campuses and in coffee shops. Like every religious movement, they are bound to come into conflict with authority. Somewhat like the youth from another time and place who saw their future sitting at the feet of Buddha, or later walking in the streets of Galilee.

The thing to watch is the historical fact that from out of newness, there always emerges the old. We are all products of all that went before. Something to hold close as each of us -- young and old alike -- move curiously down the yellow brick world into tomorrow.

"Long is the story of our natural world, and we are but a page in it that turns. Glory is written on us, for we are kings. But out kingship is a limited sovereignty, for we are but a part of all things. We stand upon creatures lost in pre-Cambrian slimes and our genes still reflect their ambitions." [Robert Ardrey]

While we sip tomorrow morning's coffee and shake our heads over the headlines, there's not a thing in them that's actually new. Except you...

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Everyone has an opinion about racial profiling. But there are two other kinds going on every day.

Mathematical profiling can be explained this way. 1 + 1 = 2000. Whenever something happens, like it did with two New Trier HS students in a recent hit-and-run case, an entire group of humanity gets judged in the media. In this case the entire 2000+ New Trier student body. Crazy! But often that's the one-and-only image the public takes away -- be it New Trier, France, China, the entire oil industry, or whatever else is too big and complex to really think through.

Editorial profiling is equally absurd. News channels like CNN shoot thousands of feet of action and on-site interviews. Like the Gulf oil-spill, the Kagan court nomination, the wars overseas. Next, the news editors sit down and assemble all this raw footage into a tightly-packed mix of dramatic moments sure to generate maximum impact on the audience. Violent longshots, bitter he-said-she-said disputes among the people being interviewed, plus as many closeups of hurting, crying victims as we can get. Bingo, you've got yourself a news program with a touch of explanation plus a ton of excitement.

Both these types of profiling are meant to tear at the audience's heart more than their head. I mean, Isn't this what news in America is all about these days? Action! Drama! Conflict! If a few facts slip in, well that's OK so long as they don't slow down the action.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Remember Robert Redford in the film "The Candidate?" He wins a brutal political election, then at the end of the rib-rocking campaign stands there alone and asks himself: "Now what...?" The same question thousands of college seniors will be asking themselves this month.

In contrast to generations before them, the answer today is an infinity of answers. So many choices, so many opportunities, so many horizons just waiting for someone to snatch them. Looks like the best of all possible worlds.

The Conundrum of Choices

why then do so many twentysomethings feel so much angst about their career choices? Is it ever possible to have too many choices? Here in the 21st C, literally thousands of careers available in hundreds of countries. For both female and male alike. However, in centuries past careers were not so much choices as they were paths. Most compassed out for them by families and traditions which flourished long before they were even born.

There was the trade union your father was in, or specific apprenticeships you were eligible for, or family expectations for marriage or medicine or the clergy. Slots carved out of the marble of life into which you were expected to -- and usually did -- fit comfortably.

So much for today's angst of the unknown. Back then you were already in a comfort zone of knowns.

Comfort or conformity

What may sound like a rigid conformity to us today, generally sounded like the siren call of security back then. Professions, vocations, husbands and wives -- most of them had already been scouted and psyched out. With or for you. Not too differently than today's best campus guidance counselors.

Who is to say which way is the best way? Times change, tastes change; but the human passion for feeling solid and safe does not change. This is why life, over the generations, is circular not linear
. It's why tastes in clothes to tastes in careers often recur again and again. Each time as for the first time.

In the last measure, it may simply be a matter of at what point in the circle you happen to hop on this thing we call life. Are hats back in style...? Arranged weddings...?Stay-at-home moms...? Careful how you use the "Never" word!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010



Life is a question mark. When we're taken from our mother's womb, the question is: Why am I here? As we move through our days, the question is: What am I doing? As we age, the question is: Where am I heading?

There are all shapes of answers out there. Plenty to choose from. Especially with today's 24/7 media pounding against our sensorium with talk-radio, cable pundits, editorials, great uncles, and Oprah. But like Pilate asked Jesus: "What is truth?"

Today's existentialist thinkers tend to say -- in their books and plays and comedy -- truth is situational. It's pretty much what we believe to be true for us. They are the there's-no-answerbook-to-the-test folks who find it terribly cool to dismiss absolutes in life. In fact, they are absolutely sure there are no absolutes. Those of us who believe in absolutes are usually dismissed as "medieval."

However, when some of us recall the medieval world, we remember more than the ignorance and poverty of the masses. We also remember the cathedrals and monasteries and seminaries and pilgrimages in which millions looked to something bigger and better than just themselves. Something (someone) beyond their own genes and brains circuits, and whatever else secularist scientists have begun to define us with.

Here's the scene!

It's a warm summer're out in the countryside...under a billion blinking stars...with only the hush of the black silence and the hint of the fragrant fields. Totally alone. And yet, not really alone. Because you feel and sense and experience some kind of "otherness" out here. That profound, deep-rooted experience that there is an otherness present which has neither voice nor face. But you're sure it's here!

This otherness is what most people call God. The cosmically huge yet intimately close sensation that you all by yourself are simply too small to be the alpha and omega of all this. So, yes, that's Medieval to the extent that it means feeling slightly smaller, slightly inadequate, slightly less than the proud, self-help hubris which Moderns insist upon.

And yet, today's so-called medievalists don't feel diminished by this sense of subordination. No more than good soldiers feel about generals, students about teachers, and children about parents. What we have here is the very crux of the crucifixion. Can we once more feel comfortable inside a kind of medieval subordination...? Or must we fight divine subordination in the name of human superiority...?

Pilate's question is still around 2000 years later. "Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails..." [Proverbs 19:21]



Here that ornery old hag, Mother Nature, got angry this year. Just like she has over the Icelandic centuries. Of course back when there were no planes, there were no airports to shut down, and millions of passengers to dislocate. So her timing this year was really awful.

Whenever nature does her thing, what counts now is how well humanity times its response. In this case, it seems like folks did what they had to do in time to get it right. That's the way it is with things like volcanoes -- people still haven't learned to prevent them before, so the best they can do is manage them after. And they did.

Score: Mother Nature 0...Humanity 10!


Here the timing was lousy too. Only here it was not Mother Nature's fault, it was strictly humanity's. A fault now being angrily divided up among several culpable parties. Slice it anyway you wish, but here we're learning the human race botched things very badly indeed.

The botching prospects rise in direct proportion to the quantity and quality of technologies mankind has to play with. I mean, the club and the wheel didn't provide a lot of opportunities to mess the world up. However, modern zip-dee-do technical feats are miracles of ingenuity just waiting for some hammerhead to mis-time and mis-use them. The timing of the technological talents in the Gulf couldn't have been worse. Now a big part of the planet suffers.

Score: Mother Nature 10....Humanity 0!


A third place where timing is everything. In a democratic society, the public square is supposed to provide a free and full contest of ideas. Currently, though, the contest has swelled into a war. America's "culture war."

Here the sound-bite and the headline are the foot soldiers of the campaigns. Timing your attacks are critical, and style is almost always more essential than substance. To be remembered, you have to say it memorably. Even at the expense of accuracy. That's why everyone has their own stable of ghost writers.

But now here's the problem. Perfecting the timing of a great line or a scathing joke is OK for movies and standups, but surely not for serious national figures, right? Wrong! Some of the very same ghost-writers are working for the pols like they do for the stars.

Score: Everyone ...0!

Monday, May 17, 2010



Everyone has their own special corner of the world. It's where you go to hide from that world in order to find the compass you lost. Bearings are important on this journey, but true-north is not easy to find. And so we pause here.

One of the most paused-in corners of the world is Jerusalem's Old City. Home to three of the world's great religions, it's filled with teeming, seeking humanity all year round. Enter through the Damascus Gate and you enter a city of "furious passions, visions of holiness, and longings for something better."

Forget the little tour-groups from Texas and Spain. It's the noisy locals who you need to drink in just as you find them. Orthodox Jews readying for the Western Wall...Muslims gathering for prayers at the Temple Mount... Christians with crosses along the Via Dolorosa...even Coptic priests in black skullcaps from a world not even Dan Brown has tried to fictionalize.

Even those who proudly insist they are not religious, seem to get religion here. If only for a little aromatic while. Later, the mere curiosity-seekers leave the city behind. However, there are those who take the city back home with them. Who now begin to put legs to their prayers. You wonder if the UN were to meet here, would the delegates feel the same way? Or would they simply pass another resolution about old borders rather than new bearings...?


Far from the graying Holy City are the glittering new cities. Cities of light and glamor from Paris to London to New York and on to Tokyo and Shanghai. The histories here are not of prophets and bearings, more of profits and boasting. These are where the action is, where the decisions are made, and where the appetites are sated.

In the great metropolises of the planet, people engulfed with people are engulfed with the here-and-now. And why not? All we have is the here-and-now. Oh wait...for just the littlest of whiles, that's not what visitors to Jerusalem feel. There their compasses spin into whole new directions. Back here they spin back into their thousand different directions and pursuits as usual.

One may ask: How would Abraham, Jesus and Mohamed fare in today's modern cities. Chances are, what they had to say would be drowned out. Nobody would have bothered to persecute them. Probably just pass them by on the way to the new mall...

Sunday, May 16, 2010



The smash TV hit "American Idol" is changing the lives of its contestants. But perhaps the culture as well. Somehow people are getting the idea that being popular is the same thing as being good. And so the best singers -- like the best candidates and employees -- often lose out to their more popular rivals.

Nothing Americans love better than someone to love. Talent can actually be a turnoff to voters who like their entertainers and politicians to be better than them, but not too much better. Easier to support someone you can love rather than someone you have to respect. That's often called democracy, and yet our Founding Fathers would never have understood it this way.

Constitutional democracy has always been about the will of the people, yes, but that will marshaled in support of the best or at least the most informed people and principles. Otherwise...well, otherwise we might just as well have cute, lovable Jennifer Aniston as president!


Pilate asked the ultimate question at Jesus' trial: "What is the truth?" Folks have been searching -- and claiming they've found it -- ever since. But where in modern America is truth most likely to be found today?

Constitutions? Research laboratories? Opinion polls? Chances are none of the above, for each of the above are too much a part of the world. Better to stand apart and see the world from a totally out-of-the-box perspective. Which almost immediately conjures up the image of the artist.

Artists -- even the bad ones -- are not of this world. From Emily Dickinson to the Rolling Stones...from Walt Whitman to Walt Disney...from Anton Chekhov to Mel Brooks...these little chugging engines of creativity are always chugging up tracks no one has ever traveled before. Or wanted to.

But these artists -- and all the thousands who have chugged before them -- are God's (or Darwin's) gift to the rest of us. The rest of us who hardly chug at all. Instead we more or less stay in place hoping to find our comfort zone as close by as possible. But these funny few among us somehow need to do more, to be more, to chug more.

Good thing, too. Otherwise we might all stay comfortably -- and stupidly -- in place.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


It's been a long time since any book was banned in Boston. But Boston's Brahmin class once proudly considered their city the last bastion of good taste in America. A carry-over from the city's early Puritan days, these starchy standards seeped all the way into the first half of our 20th C under the new name Victorianism.

Strange as it may seem at first blush, this is the very culture Sarah Palin and her Fox News peers want back...!

They may not understand or say it in quite this way, but when you de-code their "bring back our America" battlecry, they're really saying we should once again be mostly small-town WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). You know, Mayberry USA. And while millions cheer her, other millions jeer and fear her. Is such a Bostonization of America actually pending? And is this a simple either/or choice for the rest of us?

True, WASP America was neat and nice. But mostly for the America Ms Palin wants back. The America that left out most blacks, women, immigrants, gays and big cities. Palin's romanticized over-simplification of "the real America" is in many ways poisoned fruit. But on the other hand, there are some plants in that garden worth re-considering. Not the hypocritical racial/ethnic practices, but the high-toned principles that were held up as the American ideal.


Like the best-selling novels, movies, television, and national magazines which after WWII spun a shiny tapestry of right over wrong, honor over compromise, Biblical and Lincolnian wisdoms wherever possible, and always always ending with saluting family and flag.

Sarah's simplistic siren-call today is touching some very serious cultural nerves. I could hear the hoorays from her 10-minutes-away-from-us Rosemont Auditorium appearance on May 12. Don't ask the cheering crowd that day to explain exactly why they were cheering -- they can't -- but do consider what deep-down nerves she was touching.

Those nerves don't have much to do with the actual historic practices back then. But they have everything to do with those shiny principles we believed in so passionately. Even without always practicing them. If true, here's the question -- how can the rest of us now begin salvaging the second from out of the first...?

Friday, May 14, 2010


Spring is the time for showers and flowers. Sometimes, though, showers explode into storms. Black skies...rolling thunder... relentless downpours. The lyricism of gentle rain suddenly shifts keys. To darker, more discordant notes.

Shutters close. Windows lock. This is not nature at its kindest. And most people understand it that way. But not all!

Kids are infamous for splashing and splurging in the rain. Defying the odds. They can often be spied doing the craziest Gene Kelly things out there. But even more surprising are the adults out there. Poets or neurotics, you'll see some of them trudging easily through the downpour under the merest of umbrellas. What's that all about?

Here's a guess.

Some of us in our vintage years get more in touch with what for so long we took so much for granted. Sunshine... trees ...grass ... kids...dogs..lilac bushes...starlings...worms...oh yes, and rain storms. If ever you get caught out there and find yourself getting wet, this is the thought that might come upon you. Not all of you, to be sure, but to the more poetic and/or neurotic:

Life is not about surviving the storm; it's about dancing in the rain

Thursday, May 13, 2010


There are really only a couple dozen people in the entire world who have seen the entire world....!

Only the American and Russian astronauts. Neither presidents nor prime ministers, neither pundits nor popes, have had the experience of seeing -- feeling and sensing and fathoming -- the astonishing reality of 6 billions of us all clinging to the same tiny spinning ball in black space.

That has to inflame the mind, even more dazzle the soul, with our desperate need to begin desperately needing not fighting one another.

Try it this way. Assume we 6 billion were mathematically condensed into a village of 100 people. Exactly how would Arizona profile us? Here's the precise proportional breakdown according to the UN:

* 60 Asians...14 Africans...12 Europeans...8 Latin Americans...5 North Americans

* 51 males...49 females

* 82 non-whites...18 whites

* 89 heterosexual...11 homosexual

* 67 non-Christians...3 Christians

* 80 would be living a sub-standard existence

* 1 would hold a college degree

Interesting village. The way one of Hawking's ET's might see us if they were to actually bother with us. Hardly the way we see us. Or read about us in our daily newspapers. Or hear about us in our incredibly self-centered, self-absorbed 24/7 cable channels and websites (like this one).

Hollywood has spun hundreds of cinematic yarns about what ET's might say to us, just before they lifted off and returned to their own far-better worlds. When you scan the scripts, the dialog seems to all come down to this:

EP (earth person): "We're in kinda of mess here. Any advice...?"

ET (extra terrestrial): "I've looked around. Watched you letting the village go to hell while you were busy waving guns at each other over the silliest of arguments. Doesn't compute. I'm going back."

EP: "But wait, don't you have anything to say to us?"

ET: "I read some of your ancient holy books. I think it's already been said. Look it up. Fast...!"

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Twenty-year-old Laura Hall just may be the face of modern western culture. She is the first person to be banned from every pub, club and liquor house in the U.K. Talk about a swinging secularist! Her police blotter shows she's done it all. And more than once.

A few hundred miles from London are the ancient walls of the Vatican. The oldest continuing institution in the world. If Catholicism stands for anything, it stands for resisting secularism. Pointing instead to a lofty heaven of moral absolutes by which mankind should live.

Somewhere midway is author Susan Sontag who spoke existentially for many: "The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything."

The Church points upward to a natural moral law written in the stars...Sontag pointed to our personal choice of the words written in books...and Laura, well, Laura probably doesn't bother much with either. She represents the seize-the-day pragmatist who squeezes life like a ripe fruit.

All this is today. What about tomorrow? Quo Vadis?

Now here's the funny thing. Today's secularists and existentialists are heavily invested in personal freedom and self-fulfillment. Life is for living, not for breeding. So they have fewer children. Meanwhile, religious people -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim -- tend to have more. A variation on the old theme: the rich get richer and the poor get children.

While the Vatican struggles with the weight of inexcusable crimes of commission and omission, the number of Catholics around the world grew last year by 12%. The Church is not about to go away anytime soon. And if some extraordinary leadership really begins to refurbish a house in need of repair, who's to say what the future holds for faith.

Meantime, existentialists will keep reading Susan, and pubs will keep barring Laura. This sounds like a story worth following....

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Rabbis are famous -- infamous, perhaps -- for on-the-other-handing. No matter what the subject, they always take the judicious approach which first considers the issue from one side, then from the other side. As one of them told me: "There's nothing in the world you can slice so thin that there's only one side to it."

Great. Point taken. Now what? Armed with both "hands," how do we proceed from there? In the case of the law, we take a vote. Be it in a jury room or in the Supreme Court, someone votes to determine which "hand" carries the day. Just as it will with the Senate now considering President Obama's new court appointee, Elena Kagan.

On the other hand....

What works in the law can be perplexing in other fields. Take medical research. New reports pour out of research labs every day. The media usually headlines it something like: "Major Breakthrough!", "Dramatic Results Extend Life!," "Science Finds Secret Gene!" Then you read the small print. That's where the on-the-other-handing judiciously qualifies everything to the point where "major breakthroughs" comes down to "good possibilities."

Bottom line...

When all is said and said, it's eventually time for something to be done. A choice, a decision, an action. But not only in the case of law and medicine, also in the case of everyday views and values. Take for example the two "hands" judging Hollywood's current spate of comic-book-hero movies. Are these healthy cinematic outlets for the young audience's repressed rages, or do they ignite wannabe heroes in our already tough streets?

This either/or has been debated ever since video games got bloodier. Concerned parents read on-the-one-hand reports; but before they can put down their "O" Magazine with some conviction, another "hand" is heard from. [In earlier generations, parenting was so much easier, because parents just said No and went to bed at night content that they were right, end of discussion!]

Today -- equipped with layers of informational armor -- parents and other members of the human race march out into daily battle, forever unsure of anything. Actually, it often becomes a badge of honor to be unsure, for this is often considered the wiser "hand" in contrast to the one raised with absolute conviction. [In some cases, this lack of surety has been raised to the profundity of Agnosticism!]

Back to the rabbis. I've known several brilliant rabbis, and whenver I've asked which "hand" they take on the subject we're discussing, they usually smile and say something like: "So who says there are only two...?!"

Monday, May 10, 2010


This is only a guess, but it's safe to guess the last time most people thought about philosophy and philosophers was in their last college philosophy course. Still, there usually are a few names that come to everyone's mind. Aristotle, Plato, Oprah. OK, scratch that last one and insert Nietzche...

Friedrich Nietzche -- the 19th C German philosopher who became infamous for reporting "God is dead" and for providing Hitler with the notion of a "superman" -- added to his legendary luster by slipping into madness at the end of his life. Misunderstood or not, Nietszche's messages cast a very long shadow across the western world.

Even among those who can't spell his name!

Which brings to mind anyone in a position of authority and power. From Presidents and prime ministers to bankers and biologists. If there is no God (most existentialists and humanists today start from there) the conequences are enormous. Yes, it frees us from a long history of suffocating clerical traditionalism and the outright repression of ideas. And yet at the very same time, it frees us from the "ties that bind" as is sung in the old gospel lyric.

The ties of fixed moral views and values which trump even the best improvisational work of evolution...the ties of the equality of human dignity which make the most sense only if we are creatures of the same God....the ties that hold us close to the conviction we are each a part of an organic whole, and not simply a super-force of rugged individuality.

It's not likely Neitzche gets mentioned much in Wall Street's coffee shops and in the corridors on the United Nations building. Nor in the discussions at the various international summits. And yet here the Nietzchean shadow is strong and thick. Because here the un-spoken premise is that our world has become a vast, self-regulating economic machine motivated by the greed and/or good of profit.

Not one in 100 of the attendees are likely to consider the economies of the world are also ethical human enterprises. Say, in the same way that perhaps their fathers once sold a car or a house or a washing machine, and sealed the sale with the shake of an honest hand.

OK, now this is getting silly. Suggesting that major corporations and national banking systems be motivated by objective ethical standards as well as by making a buck? Lets get serious, things don't work that way!!

True. Which is, perhaps, exactly why things always ends up this way....

Sunday, May 9, 2010


A Harvard University research team under neuroscientist Robert Stickgold reports that when people face problems, napping helps. He explains it to 'Science News' this way: "If you're studying something tough, get the basics down and take a nap. If you dream about it, you will probably understand better."

The napping part is known by every college freshman, but the dreaming part inspired me to dream my way to an idea. Historians have long debated the forces that shape history. Generally the scholars fall into three camps: Determinists, ideologists, and the great-man theorists.

The first take the measure of the determining forces of a country such as its climate, natural resources, national genetics. Factors over which a nation has no immediate control. Favorable or unfavorable, these factors largely determine your fate. The second camp argue that national ideologies are the essential driving force in a country's achievements or failures.

The last group postulate that the occasional appearances of "great men" in history are what largely shape the course of the times. These historians have a suite of examples to lay out: Alexander the Great, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, Philip II, Henry VIII, Washington, Napoleon, Bismarck, Mao, Hitler, Churchill, FDR. [There are those who push this envelope all the way to the prediction of a world-changer known as the anti-Christ ]

Right or wrong, the "great man" theory of history crept into my dreams recently, Here's what I found. Th landscape of a stressed world in which climates are changing, economies are faltering, institutions are cracking, and confidence seeping away faster than my 401K funds. In my dream -- nightmare? -- I saw the shadows of great men and women looming over the scene, raising their voices to confront the challenges and lead "the people."

At first, exciting...!

But then in my dream I saw and heard "the people" drowning out the calls from the leaders. "Why go that way? What about this way? We have a right to take you down! We don't like too many orders, too much arrogance!" A discordant chorus of free voices freely expressing their 101 different alternative ideas.

And so everyone raised their own battle flag and pointed in their own direction. "We are a free people, so no one has the right to lead...!" As my dream faded, I no longer saw or sensed any "great men" at the head of "the people." Only a thousand-points-of-light each illuminating a thousand different paths.

Just then I woke up. I'm still trying to sort through my dream. How's your dreams?

Saturday, May 8, 2010


On these fresh spring mornings, optimists and pessimists wake up with different expectations. The first with enthusiasm -- I haven't lived this day before! The second with dread -- what new crisis took place while I was sleeping! There's a third group -- those who prefer to roll over, and get back under the soft safe covers.

Eventually all three of us will be stepping out our front door. Out here are at least four changes we'll face. How we do it is up to us, but we will have to face them:

* First, spring proms have now and forever changed. Once a college campus promenade, they have trickled down to high schools and elementary schools where girls are outfitted with some of the same flair and finances of a bride, and guys chip in for sleek white limousines and midnight boat rides. Style was once the standard; now it's splash. The bigger and richer the better!

* Second, telephone pages are about to disappear. Who needs a ten pound lump of book cluttering up your closets, when you can look up numbers on the Net. No more curious let-your-fingers-do-the-walking. Soon it will be, let your keypad profile whoever you're tracking down!

* Third, post offices are about to diminish in size, hours and especially bravado. Whoever's left isn't guaranteeing anything anymore. Oh, maybe except for longer lines at stations staffed by fewer people!

Fourth...well, this change is a little off the charts. The wonderful world of research has been sifting through our brain circuitry and genetic cell pools for years, coming up with the most extraordinary solutions to some of our most intimidating problems. But then again, when you unleash the tiger of scientific inquiry, you can't limit where it will take you. Right now, laboratories like Mind Research Network in Albuquerque is taking us into the mysterious realm of human creativity itself. The realm of Plato, Dante, Newton, Einstein and Lady Ga Ga.

According to team leader Dr. Rex Jung, "Creativity is kind of like pornography -- you know it when you see it." Now his team is trying to know it even better by figuring out precisely which biochemicals, electrical impulses and brain regions are being used during those special Eureka! moments of discovery and creation.

Those first three changes are something we can all learn to live with. But this last one...! Every instinct and historic experience in you just knows what comes next. If we can understand creativity, then we will soon be able to unleash it. Hmm, exactly why and how and who would we slip this creativity chip into...?

Friday, May 7, 2010


This comment from author Ellen Glasgow will make little sense to anyone under 40: "No idea is so antiquated that it was not once modern. And no idea is so modern that it will not someday by antiquated."

Take the land-line telephone, for example...! Or as Henny Youngman would quip, take my wife, please....! Or for those of you under 40, take Henny Youngman...!

OK, lets hang some numbers of the point here. Someone in the government conveniently reported the following up-beat, be-glad-you're-alive-today mumbers:

* The remote Brazilian tribes had no more than about 300 products like baskets, arrows, and bowls; today residents of any big city have access to about 10 billion

* Anthropologists estimate hunter-gatherers earned the equivalent of $100 a year; today's average in urban America is $40,000

* Our homes have doubled in size from 1950 to an average of 2200 square feet

* Since 2000, crime rates have dropped, our air is cleaner, and we have four times more leisure time than in 1880

This giddy, anonymous statistician titled his report: These are the good old days!" Like you, I have some dear friends who have access to zillions of products, earn well over $40,000, stride in homes easily more than 3000 square feet. However, I've never asked them the question I ask myself every night slipping into bed: Are these the good old days for you...? If not, when...? Where....? Why....?


Michael Douglas personified, for many, the idea of American free enterprise in the 1987 film hit "Wall Street." A sequel is in the making right now, but frankly I've already seen it...

I have this friend who does something in the financial markets. [Right there is cause for concern, for no one I know knows exactly what this "something" is; but then, lately we're learning not many people making money on Wall Street can explain exactly what they're doing there with other people's money]. In any case, my young rich friend personifies what young rich Americans often say America is all about.

I once asked him whether he agreed with H.L. Mencken who said, "If given a choice between liberty and safety, a man will always choose safety." As expected, he dismissed Mencken with: "The only way to be me is to let me be me; as for the rest, I'll take my chances!" Spoken like most free-wheeling heroes from Davey Crockett and Andrew Carnegie to Steve Jobs and, well, Michael Douglas.

My friend surfboards in Hawaii where I can picture him riding the big ones. And yet, if swamped, I can also picture him loudly calling the shore patrol for help. Just as he does the police when stranded on a highway or the medics in an ER or even his old-fashioned parents in old pensioned Florida when his last big roll of the dice busted.[ By the way, that last picture played out only two years ago].

His story is really an American archetype here on the bloody ideological field of battle between those economic warriors who say greed is what made America great...and those collective planners who say the European social safety net is what Americans now need in a global age of uncertainty.

Politicians, economists, pundits and street marchers all bring their own battle flags to this field. Capitalism vs vs deficit-spending....Main Street vs Wall Street...Obama vs Palin. Through this daily din, I keep thinking how my young, free-wheeling friend stayed within the security of Mom and Pop's modest Florida home all those dead-broke months.

They played it safe with their dollars; he played it risky with millions. They found a cove of seashore safety in their lives; he's back in the game throwing Hail Mary passes again. It's looking at America from two different generations...from two different idologies....from two different personalty types. In the long run, though, there's only one fundamental life-choice available: You either put risk or welfare first!

In the European welfare states, they've made their choice. Here in a maturing America, we're in the process. It's far bigger than simply parties or pundits or politics. It's philosophies. It's how we believe life should be lived.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


America may be dying a little bit each day. Perhaps not your America, but the America the rest of us knew during the last half of the last century. A pretty good America when you consider it tamed a Depression, won a World War, became the most productive economic empire in history, and along the way began to free blacks and women and gays and ghettos.

The "death" is the dying off, one by one, of all those brilliant little pieces that somehow fit together to create the enormous 20th C American mosaic. Lets me count the brilliant little pieces as some of them begin to disappear...

Live national radio national television broadcasting...weekly national magazines like "Life," "The Saturday Evening Post," and now perhaps "Newsweek"...national news services like the UP. The operative words are live and national, meaning most everyone from sea to shining sea once heard and saw the same things at the same time. Regardless of race or nationality or gender or region or party.

One of the few times this now happens is tragedies like 9/11. What happened that day is precisely what is dying off. That sense of immediate participation by almost all 300 million Americans. When there were no filters, no intermediaries, no cable pundits and bloggers to get between us and an event which binds and bonds us together. As a people, as a nation, as a force.

Without such togetherness, a diversity-rich society like this becomes all centrifugal thrust outward into a thousand different directions with all too little gravitational force drawing us inward. To beat a Depression, win a War, conquer space, or change history, 21st C America may want to use some of its 20th C American ways.

Coming from the 20th C tends to make you recall such ways. Then again, most of America's proudest national holidays are also about recalling...!



Picture a Little League game where the kids are playing their hearts out. Among the adults watching are the coaches....some parents...some neighbors...some guys with cameras. The coaches are advising the kids between innings. The parents are cheering their hearts out with every play. The neighbors are politely indifferent. Now about those guys with the cameras -- they're sitting sullenly by until one of the players makes a dumb mistake.

Metaphor for modern civilization!

In this game of life there will be a total of at least 5000 pitches & plays. A few of them outstanding, most routine, two or three really dumb. The parents and neighbors (that's you and me) are observers...the coaches (that's the people in a society with some game-of-life skills) do what they can to help improve the game....the sullen guys with the cameras (today's gotcha media) seem obsessed with the idea of catching any dumb mistake with which to show the world how really dumb "the game" is. From city politics to airport security to oil rigs.

If those gotcha pictures are all about the-people's-right-to-know, I'd counter with this. What we the people really want to know is not more about the occasional dumb play, but more about the plays that were good enough in the world today to make this game worth playing again tomorrow....!


If you don't understand these codes, you probably don't text. You use the phone instead. Oh, but that's so 20th century!

The Pew Research Center has now validated what most parents have already learned. Kids text more than they talk. In the survey, up to 80 messages a day vs only five phone calls. The one exception is with parents. Most teens call their parents, because they understand this is the easiest mode for them.

The question then arises: What about adults? Is texting between adults (say on Facebook) an effective mode or not? On the No side is the lack of vocal nuancing. On the Yes side, Facebook can put you in touch with hundreds, maybe thousands, of fellow adults who are really interested in in-depth conversations about a wide range of subjects. Usually considerably more than tea-time talk or locker-room chatter with face-to-face friends.

For good or for bad, it's a new day and a new way. OMG!!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Myths (collective beliefs in something that often becomes larger than mere reality) lead in time to legends (remarkable stories) which are populated by heroes and heroines. To wit --

* the myth of female sensuality is captured in the historic legend of Rome & Egypt with Cleopatra as the heroine
* the myth of the wild west is captured in the historic legends that made heroes of Buffalo Bill & Jesse James
* the myth of Camelot is captured in the legends of Arthur brought forward into heroes like John F Kennedy

So here's the question: Are myths lies? Are legends illusions? Are our heroes and heroines frauds? Here's the answer: Yes and no! Yes, by most scientifically objective standards, these are lies, illusions and frauds. No, by the standards of the human heart, these are all true and real and staggeringly authentic.

Make of this contradiction what you will, but there are times when some things and some people tower taller and more real than what smaller minds insist is reality. We need heroes and heroines to believe in, to embrace, to imitate. History reminds us that we don't follow titles, we follow courage...we don't invest in birth certificates, we invest in leaders...we can't spend all our time in libraries, but instead must spend our lives in causes.

This is why as a kid I dreamed of great heroes and heroines. Now as an adult, I've learned that some heroics can actually happen once you discover the headwinds of cynicism are often just that -- wind in your way!


Some years ago my favorite writer, Thornton Wilder, penned the prize-winning novel "The Bridge of St Luis Rey." Robert DeNiro later made a movie of it, The theme is classic -- why have i survived in this scary old world when others just like me haven't?

The story has been told a thousand thousand times. Travelers -- in this case crossing a weathered rope bridge in old Peru -- are suddenly caught in an unexpected tragedy. Crack, crunch and the bridge collapses under their trembling feet into the abyss below. On this bridge on this day, some lives are lost; those who did not take the trip, survived. Why some and not others? Why them and not me? Why? Why? Why?

My grand-daughter recently experienced the question when a school bus she was on hit a power line, and broke into flames. Forty years earlier, her own father experienced the same question when a tornada out of nowhere smashed into his car. In both cases, they walked away to tell the tale; others did not.

Does God or Fate or Evolution have a reason? Is there even such a thing as a reason for the random? The answer always lives somewhere in the future. What will the survivors do with their survival? How will they choose to live their extra days? Where will their existence make a difference in the lives and events to come?

Almost makes their lives a unique kind of opportunity, maybe even obligation, doesn't it...?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I once saw -- thoroughly experienced, really! -- Michelangelo's astonishing statue of David. Enough to put any man (even an NFL quarterback) to embarrassed shame. Funny, though, how the image of this magnificent sculpture comes back to haunt you...

There I was sitting in my car waiting for Joan to come out of the store. A procession of human anatomies passed my way every few seconds. Entering and leaving the supermarket, each one less like a David (or an Athena) than I cared to ever imagine. Too tall..too short...too lean...too thick...too much sticking out here and too little there. Being altogether too human myself, it was a depressing mural of the imperfections of our lumpy species.

Hard to avoid the question stepping out in this procession -- why are we so far from the ideal? Why does God or Darwin give us such stunningly evolved forms in the hands of great artists, when we ourselves remain so deformably distant from the ideal? How fair is that!

Later, munching on some of the precarious comfort food we brought back home, it suddenly struck me. How simple. How obvious. Ideals are goals not givens. They are about what we can be not what we are. And so ideals quite properly are meant to be-- just like the vaunted David -- a little further than we can touch, A little more than we can hold. As Michelangelo himself wrote in later years: If all beauty were possible here, then why a heaven...?

I absolutely agree. Only does this mean I absolutely have to give up the greasy comfort food...?


I once saw -- thoroughly experienced, really! -- Michelangelo's astonishing statue of David. Enough to put any man (even an NFL quarterback) to embarrassed shame. Funny, though, how the image of this magnificent sculpture comes back to haunt you...

There I was sitting in my car waiting for Joan to come out of the store. A procession of human anatomies passed my way every few seconds. Entering and leaving the supermarket, each one less like a David (or an Athena) than I cared to ever imagine. Too tall..too short...too lean...too thick...too much sticking out here and too little there. Being altogether too human myself, it was a depressing mural of the imperfections of our lumpy species.

Hard to avoid the question stepping out in this procession -- why are we so far from the ideal? Why does God or Darwin give us such stunningly evolved forms in the hands of great artists, when we ourselves remain so deformably distant from the ideal? How fair is that!

Later, munching on some of the precarious comfort food we brought back home, it suddenly struck me. How simple. How obvious. Ideals are goals not givens. They are about what we can be not what we are. And so ideals quite properly are meant to be-- just like the vaunted David -- a little further than we can touch, A little more than we can hold. As Michelangelo himself wrote in later years: If all beauty were possible here, then why a heaven...?

I absolutely agree. Only does this mean I absolutely have to give up the greasy comfort food...?


When you watch those riggers and seamen working against that Gulf oil spill, you're watching first responders at their very best. In their rugged arms and steadfast eyes you're seeing the kind of valor so missing among the sleek masters-of-the-universe who decide fates in soft mahogany conference rooms, and vacation in exclusive summer resorts.

Here in Chicago, considerably north of the Gulf, I had a brush with a similar breed of first responders. A morning at the ER for symptoms that required different kinds of arms, but the same kind of eyes. ER's can be like that. A measure of the merits of our species, because here -- like in the Gulf -- you can find a proud community of skill and spirit at work.

Things went fairly well here; down there the final results are not yet in. But whether every patient survives or whether every oil spill is salvaged is not the point. The point -- indeed maybe the whole purpose -- is that some among us have committed their time and talents to save what most needs to be saved.

Something all too few professions can claim.

What I always liked about the old Frank Capra movies is what I still like about today's first responders. An everyday can-do elan from the everyday people of the world. Corny...? You bet....! Indispensable...? Damn right...! Now if only more well-heeled masters-of-the-universe -- be they on Wall Street or on K Street -- would believe this, Capra's "what a wonderful life" might become more than a movie.

Well, here's one ER patient who can at least dream, can't he!

As I left there I noticed most of us patients were in our 60s and 70s. But just then I heard a small child crying in her mother's arms. Reminds you the elderly
on this dangerous planet aren't the only ones who need first responders. Young or old, we'll all need them one time or another. Be glad they're there....!

Monday, May 3, 2010



When Dorothy and Toto left Kansas, they couldn't imagine what they would find. But neither could they imagine what they left. Not only school boards wary of Darwin, but churches panicked by porn!

Oh, not the usual kind. This is female porn. Evangelical churches there have found organized porn for women which they say has become epidemic. In Christian theology, women are the non-sexual member of the species; but things haven't worked out that way in Kansas. And now some religious groups in cities like Chicago are also concerned.

The question isn't where women can find pornography, but why they're looking for it? I'm old enough to remember Sinatra's crooning voice and Elvis's grinding hips. Seems to me the only difference between young women then and now is now they've kicked their swooning and screaming up a notch. Lets see -- the same Darwin Kansas so dislikes would probably say: "It's just the female of the species evolving..."


According to Ron Howard and the Fonze, the Fifties were the "Happy Days." The greatest boom-decade in America's history when we were number one in the world, with jobs, salaries and chromed convertibles everywhere just for the asking. Like we were portrayed from the 30s & 40s in cozy sepio-tones, in the 50s we're usually pictured in crisp black&white. The fizzy fun of "Uncle Miltie,"I Love Lucy," "The Honeymooners," "Ozzie and Harriet," "Make Room for Daddy," "Dobbie Gillis," and my particular favorite "Father Knows Best."

I loved Robert Young in that role, because as a young father I looked forward to when I too could come home in neat suit & tie to my waiting white-fenced family, mother in dress and earrings, children agog with young wonder. Unfortunately, as things turned out in the 60s and 70s, most of us discovered fatherhood didn't come with Robert Young's script and dialog.

Other things were similarly out of joint with the gradual arrival of Rock n Roll, the Beatniks, pink shirts, perfect Debbie and Eddie getting divorced, gritty foreign films without patented happy endings, the mushroom cloud dictating daily duck & cover drills in school, and the oozing virus of McCarthyism.

Yes, there were little dispiriting signs all around us. If we dared pay attention. Like the characters did in the recent film "Pleasantville" in which the placidity of their black&white 50s gradually gave way to a whole new reality. Now I perfectly understand the audience is supposed to celebrate this dawning new reality pushing aside the banalities of our 50-ish ways and days. And yet as I watched Pleasantville mature before my eyes, frankly I wasn't entirely pleased.

Call this reaction a foolish nostalgia refusing to embrace the world as it's actually becoming. On the other hand, have you ever asked yourself what Dorothy really felt once she returned from the technicolor glories of the Emerald City to the gritty reality of dusty Kansas? I have....!

Sunday, May 2, 2010


For one small sad moment, imagine a world like this.

A world of wombs without fetuses...hearts without loves...minds without thoughts...Springs without birds....Junes without marriages...Winters without Christmases...moons without lovers...pitchers without batters...organs without choirs...pianos without fingers...newspapers without readers...."The Wizard of Oz" without "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"...dreams without dreamers...oceans without beach parties...passions without purposes...prophets without followers...teachers without students...parents without pride...kites without kids....and constitutions without devotees.

A perfectly dreadful place. A world with all potential and no payoff!

One has to wonder sometime if this has not become the fate of our own hard-earned 1st Amendment. To have shed blood to achieve it, to have spilled ink to compose it, to have fought to preserve it, what are we left with...? Perhaps you hear and see what I do. Blind, blistering arguments in Congress, in sports bars, on commuter trains, on college campuses, in board rooms, in backrooms, in the Wrigley Field bleachers and on the worldwide web.

A cacophony of ranting voices exercising this sacred right like a fraternity gang chug-a-lugging vintage champagne. There's something almost sacrilegious here. Oh, we are assured that this is how democracy works; that such public-forum messiness can eventually translate into legislative majesty; that when Mr Smith goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart can eventually warm the cold heart of Claude Rains in the final reel.

I'm no longer sure.

And so it is that we live in a great irony. More freedom of speech being exercised by more citizens in more formats than ever before. From the office water-coolers to the family dinners, from our barbershops to our beauty salons, from our town halls to our street marches, and from talk radio to 24/7 cable. And yet, I feel the restless stirrings of our Founding Fathers in their graves who hear this babble of angry dis-informed voices, and whisper: "Don't you yet understand? Reason not rage is what we tried to enshrine in this amendment. If all you can bring to it is your rage, how will your reason ever prevail...?"

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Nathaniel Hawthorne put it aptly when he said: "Easy reading is damn hard writing...!"

Which calls to mind several stories that bubbled up over the last few weeks. Each has an easy-reading feel to it, and yet in each simmers some intriguing consequences for the rest of us. Take renowned physicist Stephen Hawking's warning about ET's. He was commenting on our enduring fascination with contacting alien life. Fine, said the master, but think what contact might mean? "If aliens ever do visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America. That didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans!"

Which in turn may have something to do with "Star Trek" star Leonard Nemoy retiring at age 79. Perhaps his role as Mr Spock all these years finally convinced him the Hawking's prediction made sense. But while he steps out of the Starship Enterprise, scores of Tekkie Conventions around the world will now miss his ET presence.

There's a third easy-read story which also carries consequences. A New York man is suing the police, not for what they did but for what they didn't. Matthew Ortiz claims he wouldn't have been shot in the leg from a stray riot bullet had the police intervened in time during an Italian street festival. His lawyer, perhaps implying a new precedent here, argues, "This was pre-emptive negligence.":

Finally comes one more easy-read story from Taiwan. A group of female students staged a "Boobquake Day" to ridicule the Iranian cleric who claimed earthquakes to be divine intervention for immodest dress. The students paraded bare-breasted to make their point. Later that same day a 6.5 earthquake struck the island.

Four easy-read stories each with its own consequences for the rest of us. If only Hawthorne had lived in these days of instant world-wide reporting, I am stunned at the number of tales he could have labored over. In the meantime, today's writers often have to be content with writing about the ways and wiles of Hollywood starlets and macho wannabes.

Nat, be glad you didn't make it to the 21st Century...