Saturday, July 31, 2010


The world's great religions each have a body of behaviors that are rejected. These are called by different names-- sins, deficiencies, depravities, darkness -- but they all have one thing in common. They are deemed deviant from the moral norm...

Religion, however, is like every other great institution. It is almost never cast in marble. It is almost always poured out as a yeast of beliefs which continue to bubble and grow with time. And so it has been with so many of the religious "deviations." In most societies, they no longer stone adulteresses... burn those charged with witchcraft....bury widows with their deceased husbands...chain the mentally ill to prison walls.

Oh, there are some sins that insist on sticking around. Murder. Incest. Theft. Lying. Makes good sense to condemn them now as well as a hundred generations ago. But there remain some arguable deviations. Perhaps the most arguable is homosexuality, along with its corollary gay marriage. With Argentina's legalization of gay marriage, 250 million people worldwide now live in jurisdictions that recognize the legitimacy and sanctity of these marriages.

This means same-sex couples can marry in Buenos Aires; Mexico City; Pretoria, South Africa; even in small town America like Ames, Iowa. But not in my home city of Chicago. Nor in the gay capitol of the States, San Francisco; and surely not in the anti-gay capitol of the world, Vatican City. This is, we are told, because in these communities there are still enough god-fearing married men and women who are so devoted to the blessings of marriage that they will fight to keep them from the deviant hands of anyone not exactly like them!

Isn't there's something wrong with this theological menu? Oh, it will change some day not far off. It will change, simply because the yeast of good religions eventually yield up good breads. However, time is always required. Sometimes even more time than the time it should take.

Perhaps this will give the dissenters time to re-read their holy books. While looking up a few words here and there to defend their spite, they might also run across the message. The same message of every religion: Try to love one another.........

Friday, July 30, 2010


When you think of torture, you think of devices like the rack, the whip, and now water-boarding. Ah, but today we live in exquisitely sophisticated times in which technology can be marshaled to create the perfect torture. Gradual, bloodless, and ingeniously designed to drive great minds totally mad.

We speak here of your nightly news broadcast...!

There you sit -- after a quiet dinner and a glass of wine -- to visit your world. And what do you get? You get a 30-minute sun-burst exploding out of that screen like a laser aimed directly at what's left of your 9-5 brain. With the very first sounds of the music (yes, now the news comes with music), you just know this is going to be another night of rapid-fire disasters (with that little 60-second smiley tag at the end).

Oil spills...terror attacks...government leaks...leadership corruption charges...old corruptions charges...mayhem in the streets...and wars that are driving our troops into cycles of suicide. If you could see yourself sitting there, you would see a stunned victim of a mind-assault the likes of which our once isolated little communities had never experienced before.

What makes this psychological torture especially hard for the older generations is that at one time many of them actually saw their world not as chaotic but as their oyster. Unbelievable as it may seem now, people in the West once believed their culture was something special. Something good. Something to lead the world.

You know, the times of Aristotle, Augustine, Shakespeare and Newton; the days of Rudyard Kipling tales of British nation-building and Teddy Roosevelt agendas of American bravado. Not now. Now whatever is West is suspect. Even at home. And so older news junkies are left to wonder: Where did it all go...? Was it really all illusion and lies...? Is every culture and every person just as good as any other...?

Before you say yes, are you sure...?

Thursday, July 29, 2010



There is a new tower in Chicago. An elegant luxury hotel imperiously looking down upon our Magnificent Mile. Bursting at its architectural seams with slender beauty and self-conscious importance. Rooms that are luxurious, views that are majestic, and amenities that are boundless. Why they even offer guests wide- ranging choices of everything from imported cheese and chocolates to world-class chefs and menus.

But while the celebrated Trump tower -- a dedication and deification of modern material bravado -- there nestles a remarkably different kind of venue just a few miles outside the city. It is the Amish community in Arthur, Illinois. To travel from Trump to Amish takes about two geographic hours and two hundred light years.

Each venue a splendid representation of its own particular perceptions of the world and the way we can live in it. Trump Tower is a reflection of today's more expansive and powerful America; Arthur is a reflection of yesterday's more insular and modest America. One can't help wonder what it would be like for someone from Arthur to spend a weekend in Trump Tower. Even more, one wonders what it would be like for Donald Trump to spend a weekend in Arthur...


They say bridges are a metaphor for life. Some should be crossed. Others should be burned.

While wondering, one wonders if they are also a metaphor for the generations. The young see the bridge from one side...the elders from the opposite side. One looks ahead and imagines what it will be like to reach the far end. The other looks back and imagines what it was like to have stood on the first end.

Looking down from Trump Tower, guests can see Chicago's famous Michigan Avenue Bridge. Does it look like a metaphor from there...?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


All right, you want to find out who we really are as a society...? Quick, check the movies. Not scientific, but surely empathic in the way they can capture and reflect the times in which they are set. A handy example: "The Age of Innocence" vs "Crazy Heart."

Both award-winning films, but each reflecting an enormously different set of socio-ethical values. The 1993 Scorsese film is about the beautifully textured form & formality of Victorian America, The 2009 Scott Cooper film starring Jeff Bridges is about a 21st C America where form gives way to free-form, and formality is too absurd to even exist.

This is not to judge either the films or their times. It is, though, to stand back enough to recognize the astonishing social distances we've traveled in just a century. There was a time when we tended to live by rather than make up the rules. Propriety was so firm and fixed, much of what we said and did and dressed was according to what was "accepted & acceptable."

No, not everyone actually lived like they did in "The Age of Innocence," but its socio-ethical standards were generally deemed to be a worthy goal. A goal which even seeped down to everyday middle-America as reflected in the post-Victorian morality of America's radio soap operas and popular novels during the mid-20th C. Virginity, sentimentality, formality, and happy or at least honorable endings.

There are always two ways we can live in our world -- take it as we find it or take a second look wondering if it's heading in a good direction. Having lived in both worlds, I can accept the criticism that the Victorian world was one of considerable pretense and hypocrisy. On the other hand, when I see the anti-Victorian world in which something like "Crazy Heart" can be gently shrugged off as that's-just-the-way-it-is, I can't help missing at least a little of the old form & formality.

Now if I really want to get depressed, there's always today's glut of so-called reality shows like "The Housewives of New Jersey" and "The Jersey Shore." Not for a minute are these ever burdened down by anything even resembling form & formality...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


It's presumptuous to tell you who is the most important person in your world. But allow me to presume...!

It's not one of the usual suspects -- mom, dad, spouse, child, significant other; nor even Bill Gates, Donald Trump or Lady GaGa. When all is said and done, the person you most likely turn to in the epochal moments of your life is the clergy. Priest, minister, rabbi, imam, Yes, even if you are a non-believer. Why? Because somehow you feel these are the people who have some kind of linkage with the eternal, the transcendent, the important. Well, at least this is what they're supposed to be devoting their lives to.

Not a sign of our weakness. Simply of our humanness. It's all very well and good to sit over fine wines probing the existential issues of living in a godless world populated by only faceless cosmic laws. However, when our nicely sewn ideologies suddenly burst at the seams under the pressure of some unexpected joy or shift or death...well, that's when the child in us looks for the parent in a member of the clergy.

This is not illogical of us. Nor irrational of us. Nor is it some genetic aberration. No matter how confident today's articulate disbelievers write about the "final freedom" (AKA, cutting loose from our primitive religiosity), there is a deep-rooted part of us that asserts itself in turbulent times. The part that feels more than thinks, intuits more than intellectualizes, that seeks the cocoon more than the clouds.

Why else are members of the clergy standing there with us at births? Weddings? Illnesses? Deaths? For most of us, it just feels right. And thus -- to paraphrase -- if it feels so right, how can it be so wrong?

You'll pardon a sudden little epiphany here. If the psycho-spiritual support of clergy can give strength to the individual, might we extrapolate and suggest the same could become true of the group? If we can find -- if only temporarily -- something good and strong in those who have devoted their lives to life, might it be possible that this very same goodness and strength can become a beacon of light in the darkness of existence...?

Frankly, it seems foolish to turn off any light in the dark.

Monday, July 26, 2010


There are still a lot of people who insist the only way to be a patriot is to patronize everything their country does. To do otherwise -- say in the Nazi Germany of the 30s right up to the Islamic Iran of today -- is to face possible death.

And yet, there is also death by a thousand cuts...!Today, those who criticize this country often suffer a thousand deadly cuts. Oh, not all the critics, to be sure. Rageful critics (AKA, Tea Partiers) consider themselves the "real Americans" so therefore they deem their rage high-decibel patriotism. On the other hand, thoughtful critics (AKA, academics) often hear the ugly old chant: America-love-it-or-leave-it.

Perhaps the best way to really fathom America is to follow the classic tradition of Tocqueville. To look at this dynamic society with the eyes of a thoughtful foreigner. When you do, it's hard not to get a fascinating parallax view. A teeming land of enormous energy, creativity, optimism...side by side with enormous swagger, self-righteousness and a feeling the world is made up of only two kinds of people: Americans & those who would like to be Americans.

Hard to deny that both these Americas are in some way the "real America." Which is why so many populations in the world harbor this passionate love/hate complex about us. Perhaps best illustrated by the way half the world wept at 9/11 for us; the other half said, "about time someone cut you down to size."

The Bush presidency had a we're-the-one swagger to it; the Obama presidency speaks of reconciling the differences between the world's have and have-nots. Each has their followers. However, neither can claim to represent the Tea Party's so-called "real America." Because there is no such place. Unlike most lands, there is no one ethnicity to America. There are dozens!

Historian John Steele Gordon put it best: "What binds us together is that we all subscribe to the ideas so eloquently expressed in our founding documents. If you come to this country, subscribe to these ideas, then congratulations you're an American. Every bit as much of one as someone whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower..."

Got it...?

Sunday, July 25, 2010


The nice thing about captions is they're short...they're pithy...they seem to capture the lightening of big complex ideas inside small handy bottles. Oh and do we have the bottles...! Illegal immigrants. Gun Nuts. Creeping Socialists. And lets not forget such all-time favorites as: Punks. Seniors. Fundamentalists. Lately, two very complex ideas have been conveniently squeezed into three bottled captions:


The first half of the decade has found a hot new caption -- "Mad Men." The TV hit series begins its 4th season with a growing fan and critic base which has conveniently assumed this portrayal of a cigaratte-smoking, alcohol-boozing, amoral white man's world defines the times. Sounds right, looks right, but it ain't necessarily so. This handy take on Americana encompasses what, maybe 2% of the population? Sorry, folks, this is not sociology as much as it is one man's caption of one man's experience in a world that also beat with 200 million other and very different hearts.

The second half of the decade has also found itself a catchy caption -- "Revolutionary." Easy to see why the caption might fit when what is reported from these years are mostly the assassinations, the VietNam War, the violence in the streets of college campuses and Chicago conventions. As real as these all were, this is like the child peeking into the adults' party through only a crack in his bedroom door.


Now here's an idea older and more complicated than most. Which makes any handy-sized caption more desirable, but really less workable. And yet, work these captions must! Like jamming the proverbial round peg into the square hole. Not surprisingly, it has been part of our national history that government in America has always been seen as "too big." We didn't like it when it came from the King's London; and we haven't much liked it ever since.

Now we're witnessing yet another groundswell of paraders and self-proclaimed patriots who are making down-with-big-government their political religion. Right wingers...tea partiers ...neo-cons...Fox News ... Sarah Palin. Take your pick. Nothing really new. They all seem to briefly exist for one purpose. To shout down government as if everything from the IRS to Medicare to the Post Office to the cop on the beat are an evil force to be slain with either ballot or bullet.

The problem with trying to fit the Evil caption around Big Government is that if there is any evil at work, it has to do with the nature of bigness more than government. Bigness in anything -- from Wall Street to GM to the Military to the Vatican -- is where the trouble begins. Hardly a specialty or a monopoly of Government.


Lets all say it once and for all -- captions are always cute, rarely comprehensive. That's what minds are for.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Dr Kevorkian's crusade to legalize suicide is not really new. It's been going on in quiet hospital hallways for generations. It is known as "letting the patient go." Doctors who have consensus-ed that there is no real life left in this body, often permit the body to comfortably slip away in as much comfort as they can provide.

The irony of Kevorkian's mission is that it may prove counter-productive. More doctors now taking fewer chances with their humanitarians decision, because now there is a spotlight shining in those hallways.

After all the debates about health care, government death panels, national budgets, and medical ethics, what it all comes down to is what everything always comes down to in our lives. Our lives...! Are they important enough to protect and preserve at all costs?

The young think little of this; after all, for them death has no real meaning. The very old often think of little else; after all, death is what sleeps with them in bed every night. Perhaps the most bone-deep defense of legalized suicide is the irrefutable refrain: "They shoot horses don't they?"

if there is no God and there is no soul, than surely we are little more than a higher form of horse. And, yes, why should we weave elaborate theological justifications for enduring end-of-life suffering? On the other side of the bed of pain is the possibility that we are creatures of a God who rightfully insists that He alone owns the gift we have been given.

However, perhaps none of the words count a hill of beans until they are spoken from our final bed. Only then is it likely the question has authentic meaning: "To be or not to be...?" That was not only Hamlet's question. In the final measure, it will be ours as well. What sayest thou...?

Friday, July 23, 2010


Words are stubborn little powerhouses. A few letters assembled into an enormous and enduring galaxy of meanings. Consider for example: "Love." It means remarkably different things when you use it to describe how you feel say about: God...Mom..summer...tomatoes...or painted toenails. The same may be said about that powerhouse word: "Loser."

These days, the loser label covers a monument of ridicule. To be a loser today is to be what what we once might have described as a sinner...a heretic...a social outcast. And not only the person, but most everything the person lives by.

One way of defining a loser circa 2010 is to consider his or her social values. A few leap to mind: Virginity... sentimentality...strict morality...happy or at least honorable endings. I mean, lets get real! People who say they live by such values and expectations are surely out of step with our more honest less hypocritical times. What else can you say...? Loser!

The problem some of us have with this impetuous judgment is it seems to equate behaviors with beliefs. Today's losers don't suggest they and previous generations always behaved this way. What they seem to say is we always believed these were the ways to behave! Idealizing your life and your times is not so much a lie as it is a goal. Humanity forever falls short of its ideals, but without them what is there to reach for?

Every night we have this extraordinary dichotomy on our television screens. The reflections of our America, cinematic-ally captured either in black&white or in color. The old B&W films from mid 20th C Americana weave romances, comedies and dramas around the stuff of virginity, sentimentality, strict morality, and happy or at least honorable endings. The box-office hits from today tend to reflect alternative values (AKA, free love, hard-swaggering cynicism, bendable morality, and endings in which there's often not a dime's worth of difference between the hero and the anti-hero).

Movies aren't life. And yet for a visitor, they are perhaps the handiest way to see and sense how differently we live our lives now long removed from the felicitous ethos of a post-WWII America. For those who have lived in both Americas, it's been an arguable trade-off....

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Telling stories is as old as the human race. Parents tell them to children, elders to youngers, novelists to readers, even doctors to patients and judges to defendants. It's a way of reaching deep inside the other person -- getting through those emotional filters like fear or ignorance or stereotyping which can all stand in the way.

The earliest stories I can recall are about a God that loves me, but at the same time keeps a watchful eye on me. Fair enough! But as the years and the books accumulate, simple stories seem to require more complex elaborations. As to this God thing, our scientists have been working ever harder ever since about the 17th C to add some important empirical footnotes to the old Judaic-Christian stories.

Which makes perfectly good sense. As we assemble more historical, archaeological and psychological expertise, it's time to re-visit our simple stories with our new advantages. And so the seekers among us read new studies, attend new seminars, and pore over the increasingly popular magazine pages and TV hours devoted to what modern science can tell us about our actual origins and purposes on this planet.

But here's the snag! Saying that empirical evidence is what is required to justify this term "actual," seems to be saying only the what-is-here-and-testable Natural can verify the what-is-unseen Supernatural. Which almost sounds like the child has to be a parent to understand what the parent's stories are saying to him.

Instead, how about this? How about a God [creative-force, higher-power, whatever] trying to communicate the staggering realities associated with an all-powerful cosmic entity to mortals who have barely any idea about the cosmic? Say like Dad trying to explain to 10-year-old Suzie the facts-of-life. Where do you begin?

With a story....

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Once upon a time, a long time and way ago, there was this tiny green island. It doesn't appear in anyone's map, and yet it floats somewhere on everyone's map. It's that ever-so-brief mooring during our journey that we call for lack of a fuller name: Childhood.

Small islands in large oceans are rarely for settlement; mostly for taking on provisions for the rest of the trip. But provisions which need to have some heft and substance to them. For instance -- some truths to hold fast in storms, a few convictions to follow even through headwinds, and shores to see and seek no matter how dark the nights may grow. Most seafarers will look back and count these cargoes as among their life-journey's most indispensable.

So while Thomas Wolfe warned us, "You can never go home again...," even he learned that home and childhood are not places you go to. More places you carry with you. Which is perhaps why conversations in senior homes in front of the evening television set are accented with an occasional sigh.

Watching "The Simpsons" version of family life is a time warp from "Father Knows Best." Reading that Time Magazine's most-influential list features Lady GaGa, Sarah Palin,Taylor Swift and Glenn Beck is hard to reconcile with names from earlier years like FDR, Churchill, Gandhi and Billy Graham. As it turns out, most of the folks I know here don't really try.

"This is their world now," smiled my friend, "I only live in it!" Not spoken with cynicism; perhaps stoicism. Yes, that was it. A lenient but proud been-there-done-that stoicism. Just then his son came in with his two teen daughters. Daughters raised on a menu of Simpsons and GaGa's. And yet to them, Grandpa wasn't really old and torpid; he was, well, he was fun. Fun in a wispy way they don't find on their video games or in their reality shows.

I sat back feeling really good. Because watching the playful interaction, I came to the encouraging conclusion: It was still both their world. And for both their sake, that's a very good thing...!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Don't know about you, but personally I just love today's tsunami of polls and surveys. They're so much fun to have around. Not always accurate or functional, really, but they make the statisticians happy in their jobs; and they give the rest of us oh so much to argue about at water coolers and over dinners.

Take this latest from which reports 1 in every 5 adults in Great Britain is in love with someone other than their partner or spouse. Usually it's a co-worker or the spouse of a friend. How perfectly delicious! Never mind the dubious motives for the study, the implied consequences titillate the imagination...excite latent aspirations...conjure up whole movie scenarios featuring you with, say, Tom Cruise or Cameron Diaz.

The somewhat frayed institution of marriage has been going through some rough times lately. Millions don't bother with it...other millions want it to include same-sex couples...still other millions prefer to use it as the classic public camouflage for private dalliances.

However, this pert little survey may open this issue to something even deeper and more innate. Humanity's perennial restlessness with whatever it already has. This relentless appetite for some forbidden fruit that can add hedonic spice to an otherwise bland daily diet.

The central plot to Genesis speaks to this very point. As did Augustine several centuries later when he said: "My God, we are forever restless until we eventually rest in you." In the mouths of a thousand prophets and poets, the message has remained much the same: Humanity is an unsatisfied lot, forever wired for something more.

Until, that is, we somehow come upon it along our journey. As have those who have left trail markers for the rest of us. For some of them, the satisfaction of nature, of love, of children. For others, the gratification of power, celebrity, success. For a sacred few, simply the calm that comes from looking back over the journey believing you traveled the very best routes you could find.

Not likely many surveys will bother tracking these routes. Too bad, though, because we could all use a good compass...

Monday, July 19, 2010


Ever see one of those Plavix commercials on TV...? You know, where the carotid artery is clogged with all that gunky red plaque getting loose and hurrying toward the brain. The camera doesn't show you the results -- a stroke -- but you get the idea.

The idea becomes grossly personal when you're being wheeled into surgery, told that 95% of your artery is clogged with this stuff. But then, a few weeks later after a grateful recovery, you read about the annual July Fourth Hot Dog Eating contest in Coney Island, NY. Where this year's winner stuffed down an orgy of 68 hot dogs in just 10 minutes!

Now here's the irony to this sanctified gluttony. The same NY Mayor Bloomberg who banned city restaurants from using artery-clogging trans fats, welcomes this annual event on ESPN. Equally ironic is that one of the sponsors is, you guessed it, Pepto-Bismol.

How one wonders does deep-throating 68 hot dogs become something to celebrate...? A fun fest for already over-weight spectators...?

Different theories abound. One has to do with denial -- filtering out reality with this inner voice that whispers but-not-me. Another has to do with good intentions -- starting right after tonight's prime rib I'm going to start-watching-my-diet.

Long before we ever heard about trans fat, Ralph Waldo Emerson thought this thought: "For everything you have missed, you have gained something else; and for everything you gain, you have lost something else." Could it be that in gaining today's vast array of exotic medical knowledge, we have lost some of our old, un-exotic common sense?

You know, like when Mom used to tell us, "eat your vegetables!"

Sunday, July 18, 2010


The fabled cities of Jerusalem and Hollywood share few things in common. One, though, is the way they get to set the tone and taste for vast numbers of people. Also, the way they get to change those tones and tastes whenever they wish...

Jerusalem is a fountainhead for three great world religions. However, in the case of Christianity, a funny thing happened on the way the 21st C. Once regarded as an extraordinary even revolutionary faith, today many see it is old and worn out. That thing you do on Sundays if you're not playing golf. That thing that has lots of pomposity and piety on display. That thing that the young find anything but extraordinary and revolutionary.

What happened here?. The flames of zealotry that helped martyrs go bravely to their death have sputtered into the embers of habit. The staggering notion that the God of the Cosmos once walked among us has become so familiar it has a ho-hum feel to it.

How is it that Jerusalem today has become little more than a military fortress housing opposing ideologies and competing antiquity hunters?

Meanwhile, Hollywood -- the confectionery world capitol of beautiful people -- has decided that beauty must be rationed by gender. In the case of the beautiful actors it manufactures, the cameras can keep rolling well after ages 40, 50 even 60. In some shadowy ways, Hollywood has decreed that age with men is actually character. Jack Nicholson can grow puffy, Harrison Ford thick, Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks craggy-faced; but they still get the sexy closeups. And the audiences still get titillated.

Now quick change lens, and consider the beautiful actresses. Here beauty is much stingier. It is defined much more precisely. Complexion, hair, eyes, cheekbones, and especially weight need to meet the unwritten codes that hide inside every screening room in town. Here, puffy, thick and craggy are not character; simply old age. And nothing is quite so discard-able in Hollywood as aging sex kittens (see Lana Turner, Bridgette Bardot, and Goldy Hawn for details).

A tale of two cities and two conceits. And no challengers in sight. Somehow, we must like our world just the way it is...

Saturday, July 17, 2010


The future ain't what it used to be...!

That's because the future is always a moving target. Just check all those popular predictions in 1900 about what the new century would be like. 80% wrong. Like the now-forgotten director of the US Patent Office who in 1900 predicted they might just as well close up shop, because all the world's great ideas had now been invented.

There is, though, one prediction about the future which is always verifiably true. Today's children help shape tomorrow's future. So is it any wonder educators fret over reports like this: "26% of young Americans don't know that we won our Independence from Great Britain. Answers range from France to China to Mexico."

The fret and the fright isn't over the test answers. Rather, over the new generation's capacity to answer the questions that will really count. How to listen? How to learn? How to relate? How to create? How to invest? How to slice through the razzle-dazzle to elect the real-thing?

Astonishing information tools lie there at our feet in a thousand thousands ways. Books, journals, Internet, Google, schools, universities, think tanks, family and informed peers. By some studies, today's youth are not only better informed, but better thinking than most. As a corollary, another study showed that whereas in 1950 only 12% of teens thought they were important, today that number is closer to 60%

Enter the world of those wise-faced folks who like to parade the title prognosticator, futurist, or (if you like them cheaper by the dozen) cable-news analyst. How do they reconcile a generation more informed and at the same time more confident than any before them. Good...? Mis-guided?...? Arrogant...?

The University of Michigan recently added their own study to the mix, reporting that "empathy among today's college students is about 40% lower than it was in 1950. Perhaps " the de-personalization that comes from connecting on-line, and from playing ruthlessly competitive video games."

As usual, rolling the dice in the casino of life is never a sure thing. (My Uncle Vinny tried, and tans today in Boca Roton still counting all the pots he almost won!) However, a bigger example comes to mind. In the late 1930s, America's teens were a goofy, self-indulgent lot in saddle shoes, butch haircuts, old jalopies, and Andy Hardy silliness. Then suddenly came Hitler and the madness of a global war that would consume 60 millions live.

Nobody predicted it, and yet these same goofy kids faced down both the Depression and Hitler enough to earn the felicitous label "Greatest Generation." And, surprising almost everyone, earn it they did! I know, because I was there proudly watching...

Friday, July 16, 2010


It was a spicy gift, there steaming on my dinner plate, from almost 200 years ago. From the small Italian city of Turino, where my grandmother's grandmother's grandmother had first learned to make Risotto all these storied generations ago. Now their very same gustatory delicacy sat before me for my birthday dinner; here in Chicago, six generations and 6,000 miles away.

A member of my family had made it, because she knew it would be a grander gift than some token or trifle. And she was right. But to tell the truth, spooning into this traditional North-Italian rice dish was so much more than a meal. It was a memory. A memory of memories, carried and carried out by generations of my Mother's family.

Here's what I say...

I say, you can't simply spoon into a culinary masterpiece like this without reflecting a little on the master hands and hearts that first created it. Then carried it on, all these years and all these miles. You see, what's going on here is a kind of sovereign continuity that defies cooks and clocks and even celebrity.

This traditional plate of North-Italian Risotto is a tiny reminder of a great truth. That we really don't merely live, eat, then die. There is something lasting, even immortal, about us. Otherwise, why this exacting replication of a family recipe that not only pleases the stomach, but empowers the soul.

Some transcendent part of me is in quiet communion with hundreds of family members who once cooked, served and shared this very same experience. There are fiercely more than genes and brain circuits to explain this unbroken continuity. Simply put, for me this is la famiglia at work! Linking them to me and me to them in ways that shout: I am not a cosmic accident!

Can I prove this to you...? Maybe not at first. But maybe by the time the Gelato is served.....

Thursday, July 15, 2010


The easiest-to-learn but hardest-to-live-with law of life is simply this: There are the Haves & the Have-Nots. The immediately corollary to this law is: There are more Have-Nots, Always have been. Always will be....!

Sociologists and revolutionaries can argue late into the night over why this eternal law is so eternal. Some take the Nature position -- a few are born to privilege. Others take the Nurture position or -- the survival of the fittest. Whatever your theory, the facts blaze across the pages of history. For every pharaoh, caliph, emperor or aristocrat, there are millions of slaves, followers. servants or serfs.

Consider our own current comparisons between today's Great Recession and yesterday's Great Depression. In 1928, the richest 1% of Americans got 24% of the nation's total income. With FDR's New Deal and subsequent reforms, our richest 1% were getting only 9% by 1970.

But what makes this law so seemingly eternal can be seen by the fact that by 2008 we were right back to where we were in 1928. Our richest 1% were again taking in 24% of the nation's total income. Economist Robert Reich draws a troubling conclusion: "Each of America's biggest economic crashes occurred the year immediately following these twin peaks -- 1929 and then again 2009. This is no mere coincidence. When most of the gains from economic growth go only to a small sliver of the population at the top, the rest simply don't have enough purchasing power to buy what the economy is producing, and therefore to keep that economy growing."

OK, so here are some statistical facts as presented by one celebrated economist. Other equally celebrated economists draw different conclusions. And thus another corollary to the Have/Have-Not law of life persists: Once you have all the facts, you may have only part of the truth. [AKA, your facts may not be my truth].

If so, than it's pretty clear why sociologists and revolutionaries sit up so late at night arguing. However, I can recall to this day the illuminating conclusion one of those late-nighters finally agreed upon: "The rich get richer and the poor get children!" Now there's a fact that's also the truth....

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I slammed down my morning newspaper. Enough of the bad news. Enough of the lousy Cub scores and the grim obit columns. I need to break out of my aging ways. Approaching 80 doesn't mean approaching death. Maybe it's time to test the hot new headline: "80 is the new 60...."

I opted for a simple, hands-on strategy. The local sports bar...!

Surely this scene would immerse me into the vibrant rhythms of the cool carpe diem crowd. Sure enough, there they all were -- young beautiful bodies, tight blouses and even tighter pants, throbbing music, clinking glasses, popping TV screens, bubbles of exuberant conversations all around me. Wow, these boomers and generation X-ers are really having fun. Look what I've been missing all this time.

I sat down, ordered some exotic drink being promoted by some exotic young waitress and being mixed by some exotic young stud behind the bar. Really cool! I even started to cheer the team that was scoring all the runs, although I'm not quite sure who was playing what, where and why. But in sports bars that's what you do -- cheer the winners, high-five your buddies, bump into the girls.

Like, this 80-is-the-new-60 pop psychology is pretty intoxicating, man!

The thing is -- even before I woke up the next morning with a jack-hammer headache and a pair of cottony eyeballs -- I began to sense something disconcerting in the place. I mean, was all that noise and clinking and high-fiving actually as much fun as it looked...? It looked that way; and yet as I studied the happy young warriors closer, I had the strangest sensation that the frivolity may not exactly have qualified as fun...the beautiful bodies may not have really felt as invincible as they pretended....and the look in their eyes may have been just as anxious to find approval and security in their companions as I do approaching 80.

Now wait a minute, this doesn't compute. You mean all those loud, back-slapping folks having all this fun body-to- body in that crowded corner of paradise were really just searching for some of the same soul-to-soul reassurance I do that someone cares whether I live or die?

Gulping the morning-after aspirin, why you wonder has it taken 80 years to realize the obvious. To get comfortable with the realization that regardless of stage or age or venue, we are after all, all so very much more alike than we thought. A thought so enormously comforting, you would like to share it with all those hard-working young warriors from last night.

But you really can't, can you? Maybe they'll find it long before you did...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


All you need to understand the role of order in our lives is to come upon a busy intersection where the lights are out. Chaos. With the eventual arrival of a police officer, order is restored. We get on with our lives.

Funny thing about order, though, we tend to approve it only if it's on our terms. Order, yes, but customized to our needs. Otherwise we have other names for it. Authoritarian, tyranny, fascism. But now what if we are told that the very concept of order itself is simply a cosmic illusion?

This is what string theorists like Erick Verlinde of the University if Amsterdam are suggesting. Newton's old dependable law of gravity may not be a law but "simply a byproduct of nature's propensity to maximize disorder."

While cosmologists wrestle with this next chapter in the design vs disorder argument, the issue is being played out every day in our city streets. Usually at night. Usually without press coverage. Usually in poorer, minority neighborhoods. It's the stop-and-search protocol of our large-city police departments, a protocol that's been around long before the Arizona immigrant law hit the headlines.

Consider just one small neighborhood in just the one New York borough of Brooklyn over just the last 4 years. The New York Times reports 52,000 separate stop-and-search events. On darkened alleyways... in apartment building parked cars.

Why is this not reported more in the press...? Well, the residents aren't that visible, the police aren't that willing, and the public aren't that interested. Order in big cities really means: Keep me safe, and I don't need to know how you do it!

Local college campuses like to study the sociological/economic/racial cause-and-effect of these events. Their libraries overflow with these documents. No one reads them, though. Not the police, nor the residents, nor even the lawyers who occasionally envision class-action suits. Frankly, in most cases the stop-and-search was totally justified. When you live near the jungle, there's little time for writing about how we are surviving it. For most, it quietly becomes a fait accompli, thank God, end of analysis!

New York, Chicago and Tuscon aren't much like the Eden that Genesis speaks of. But then Cain slew Abel, and other Cains have been loose ever since. So if it takes Wyatt Earps to bring order to what's left of Eden, seems like there are few prophets to protest. Lets get back to summer baseball, where order comes a whole lot easier...

Monday, July 12, 2010


Size matters. The size of our bank account, our car, our waistline, and especially our aspirations. At least this seems to be the case in the history of large nations like the United States. In a sense, our culture has been largely shaped by the large spaces within which it has been able to emerge.

Unlike the tight cluster of small nations say in Europe, here we have had more room for more of everything: Larger farms, larger cities, larger cars, larger highways, larger homes. One pregnant example of how sizes matters is the way in which many American families could spread out so that each person has their own room. A sociological factor rarely in play in denser cultures.

In recent decades, though, the pendulum has shifted sharply. We still have large farms and cities, but cars and homes and even dreams have shrunk. The metallic gluttony of our old gas-guzzling cars is today dismissed as conspicuous consumption. The average size of homes has decreased in some regions by more than 200 square feet. Surveys reveal Americans now believe this and later generations may never again reach the same rates of growth and security marked by our post WWII years.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is frequently quoted as warning, "In life there are no second acts." In nations too...? He went on to say, "At 18 our convictions are hills from which we look; at 45 they are caves in which we hide." Any way you look at it, the life of a person and a nation changes with time. Like a roaring river, it shifts beds and carves out unpredictable new tributaries that find their way to entirely different shorelines.

Here in a new century, a good deal of unpredictable national shrinkage is occurring right before our eyes. Jobs, incomes, Gulf seafood supplies, Alaskan oil reserves, the number of teachers in our city schools, the number of course options, even the number of school districts that can still hold classes for full 5-day weeks.

To some -- a healthy national reckoning with reality. To others -- a painful diminishment of the American colossus. I can live with either assessment. What I can't get comfortable with is that some of Mom's old rules of engagement might likewise be shrinking in the face of new realities. Mom always preached and poked: "Sit up straight or you'll ruin your posture!" Now -- I can't believe this! -- now Canadian researchers are telling us that moms may have been wrong, and that "slouching when you're sitting is actually better for your back."

I swear, I may never again believe in anyone's predictions. Including this one...!

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Our species has moved from "homo sapiens" to "homo computerus" and now "homo celebritus." Which is to say, a new life form stands before us, bathed in a thousand kleig lights and in a million adjectives of constant attention.

This, however, is not to re-state the obvious. Not to flaunt the already-flaunted. The real raison d'etre for today's celebrity cult runs far deeper than idle curiosity. Or than indulgent pleasure in dirty little secrets. 21st C "homo celebritus" stands before us as a living museum piece. A sentient illustration of our modern Western world, moving ever faster toward its destiny.

Here's the point...!

All this salacious attention to Angelina and Jen, Brad and Tom, J.Lo and LinLo, is actually instructing us as to what is happening to us. Lately, as go the stars, so go our own lives. Ever more self-centered...self-indulgent...self-serving ...self-righteous. Were an E.T. to visit our planet, it might correctly conclude that we as a species have little interest in our planet! Our populations! Our value systems! Even our collective fate!

Our biggest interest -- exactly like our celebrities biggest interest -- is simply and solely about self. Thus -- as their little Roman Candles of fame shoot, flair, and fade -- so also may be the Western fate of the rest of us. Obsessing so furiously about the trivial to the exclusion of the vital, we may be the first culture since Pompeii to ignore our Vesuvius while busily gossiping and golfing under the summer sun.

Lets see now. Hair just right...clothes properly records and career resumes washed clean... camera-ready smiles on our some well-rehearsed ad libs for the public. Perfect. Global warming, complex legislation and other un-simplified policy issues be damned. We're ready for our closeup. After all, what else is there to life than our closeups...!

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Basketball player LaBron James forces the human race to once again pause and take stock of itself. Here's a perfect 25-year-old specimen of the species about to make hundreds of millions of dollars because...well, because his wonderfully coordinated hands can plop a basketball into a hoop better than just about anybody.

But wait. Aren't there other wonderfully coordinated hands in the world? From casino croupiers to symphony conductors, from lumberjacks to architects, from oil riggers to brain surgeons. In both little ways and large, these hands actually serve society, even save lives.

How is it then that the nation gives its heart and its treasure to a kid from Cleveland who has neither changed the world nor saved a life...?

If life were fair, say some, other hands would much more deserve what the kid will get. Like the hands of the high school piano teachers, the 24-hour druggists, the YMCA summer camp directors, the priests elevating the host, all the moms soothing crying infants and comforting frightened children.

Others say, not in this lifetime. Not where value is determined by no more sophisticated a rule than simply: What the traffic will bear. It's not the quality of the skill nor the breadth of the service that counts; just the quantity of the crowd and the depth of the curiosity. Hell, if a gorilla could sink baskets with LaBron's regularity, he'd get the contract instead. Come to think of it, maybe for even more money.

Wisely, James seems to understand his fellow man's qualities and quirks. Changing them is not his calling; sinking baskets for the passing cheers is. For now, the traffic will bear whatever he costs, so it can be left to others to argue the human injustice of it all. The sort of injustice that has plagued our kind ever since the first cave man with the biggest fire caught the best girl.

Put it this way. Until either Kong learns how to master the hook shot or Paris Hilton learns how to extract her foot from her mouth, the Kid from Cleveland is still one of the best shows in town. Just check your box seat ticket prices!

Friday, July 9, 2010


For centuries, weary life-travelers have been calling it a jungle out there. One good reason for the metaphor is jungles are so totally wild and unpredictable. As life itself. The lack of reliable constants to depend upon make the trek difficult. Frustrating. Even terrifying.

When you're young, that's what mothers are for! But, the journey gets riskier every new year you walk. And to be sardonically advised, well, you can always count on death and taxes is hardly the reassurance you're looking for.

Take hope, though, frail traveler, for there really are some things that never change. At least here in 21st C America. One can be found in the Book of Genesis; the other in the daily tabloids.

Genesis profoundly explains for all races and for all times how male and female were created one for the other. Whether from dust or rib, the message encased in these few pregnant verses speaks of how the two are incomplete without the other. How they spiritually and sexually yearn for union. Find a novel, a movie, a TV program or a ballad that doesn't somehow, some way, end with the anticipated aphrodisiac clinch!

Actually, it makes no difference. Be it bloody war story or bloody medical drama, there is always sexual tension somewhere at the start. This way, be it Danielle Steele or Tom Cruise, there is always sexual tension relieved at the end. must be so, for the reader and the audience need it to be so.

The companion constant we can rely on out there is a tad tackier.

This is the exact same, air-tight way every new 15-minute celebrity follows the exact same arc of fleeting fame: Shocking headline! Secret lover or nude photo from tawdry past! Interview with Oprah! Book deal! Three-month in rehab! Finally, total oblivion to make room for the next 15-minutes!

Who says life's an unpredictable jungle? Jungle, yes; unpredictable, no....

Thursday, July 8, 2010


The Venter Institute has made headlines with its recent efforts to create synthetic life. You know -- the Sci-Fi dream in which a few chemical compounds are added to a bubbling beaker, and suddenly some smoky reactions occur. Behold, man has finally caught up with God...!

Well, not quite. And very likely, not ever. What Venter's team actually did was boot up a cell from a synthetically created genome. A far step from the process which allows inert undirected compounds to assemble into living, self-replicating cells. However, the quintessential issue here is not if or when this can be done.The break-point issue is why are we trying so mightily to create life when our priority should really be to enrich life. To enrich the life we already have.

In other words -- replicating what we already are is far less stunning than finding ways to become better than we already are. I mean, isn't that the real dream? The real mission? The real breakthrough?

Funny thing, long long before dreamers were experimenting with their bubbling beakers, other dreamers were experimenting with our bubbling essence. Not scientists, these dreamers were known as prophets ...messengers ...founders. Buddha, Abraham, Jesus, Mohamed. They looked at our flawed humanity and chose not to replicate us, instead to improve us.

To be sure, their methodology has become so altogether flawed and familiar, it seems rather dated by now. "Oh, yeah, that religion stuff!" But simply because their dreams have yet to be fulfilled does not make their dreams one whit smaller on the scale of human existence. And while their dreams are far more elusive than Venter's, we should think them not one whit less spectacular....

Monday, July 5, 2010


Quick, behold Hannah Montana....! Before it's too late....! For soon now the perky Disney kiddie-concoction insists she will become herself "and live my life as Miley Cyrus the way I've always wanted to."

Actually, young Miley doesn't quite have a life. Not apart from her creators at the Disney Studios, where they are perpetually creating other kiddie-concoctions like the Jonas Brothers. At one dark time, celebrities were the results of hustling Colonels (Elvis) and muscling mobsters (Sinatra). Today they are the elaborate sausage-factory results of well- tested and well-marketed film corporations who know their young audience's every taste and tick.

Nothing new here, for P.T. Barnum was concocting make-believe headliners as far back as the circus days of the 19th C, and Cecil B. Demille in the Tinseltown of the 20th C. But what may be new in the 21st C is the more informed opportunity for audiences (and the celebrities) to take stock of what's happening here.

Given that today everything comes down to show business -- from presidential appearances to Alaskan governors to Hollywood premiers -- there is a lesson here for the rich-and-powerful: Don't take yourself too seriously, because as a public commodity, you better know when to leave the stage and count your take...!

Author Norman Mailer put it oracularly when he said of his world of celebrities: "The only things truly worth writing about here are sex and death." When and if you think about it. Miley, he pretty much got that right...

Sunday, July 4, 2010


OK, it's time I stepped out of this closet I've been confined to by my society's harsh and terribly moral standards. I admit before all the world I am now and have always been a devoted Norman Rockwell fan. As counter-culture and perhaps even counter-biblical as that sounds, I feel free at last to say so in public....!

Maybe George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg helped me step out like this, for they too have told the world of their Rockwellian affections. There is a new exhibit of their Rockwell collections at the prestigious Smithsonian. And you just can't get any more out-of-the-closet than that.

Of course, the Hollywood twins are late-comers to this addiction. I began my love affair in the 40s when I delivered those wondrous "Saturday Evening Posts"
featuring Mr. R's charming cover illustrations. As the new exhibit states: "Rockwell's cheerful America has lately acquired a startling relevance both inside and outside the art world; in part because it symbolizes an era when connectivity did not require a USB cable."

All these decades I have had to gather my modest collection behind closed doors, for fear of the laughter of more hard-nosed, sophisticated friends. Their derisive dismissals were always the same: "Grow up, kid, that America never existed!" They smugly pointed to all the crime and violence and poverty that Rockwell's sentimentality "covered up." And yet, I tell my friends -- and now the entire world of cyberspace -- idealization has been a reputable tradition in art at least from the times Greeks spent whole lifetimes erecting their Parthenon. As have countless artists, teachers and

Rockwell's "idealization" of America does not embarrass me one whit. Nor Lucas and Spielberg. We've seen it! Lived it! Valued it! Seems to me, if you reach for the stars, you'll never come up with a handful of mud..

Saturday, July 3, 2010


On a recent summer night, high above the night lights of Chicago, a remarkably unremarkable event was playing out. A festive wedding reception at a swank downtown hotel. What made it unremarkable is that thousands are taking place every day -- same gowns and flowers and toasts. What made it remarkable is I was there -- shattering an old man's vow about these affairs.

However, poking over salad, this old man gradually found a succulent metaphor in all this. In a country and in an age when so many rancorous divisions are tearing at the body politic, here was an evening where union seemed at work.

Just looking down at the great city, it was joyfully apparent that old and new Chicago were in architectural union. Soaring glass & steel towers standing comfortably next to century-old, red-brick constructions. All blended together as if they were planned this way.

Looking around the room, a sense of union was here too. Not only the union of an eager young bride and groom, but also of far-distant families and uniquely-distinguished generations. Faces and fortunes and feelings that up until this night had walked their separate ways; now, at least for this brief shining moment, the many parts seemed to fit into one.

Might the metaphor have legs...? Is there something about such an unremarkable event that can be a remarkable model for additional unions and harmonies...? Who's to say. One thing the old fella learned tonight was the new God Apps. Oh yes -- now every person in this room with an Iphone (can there be any without?) can now get a brand, spanking new application that accesses information and data about God!

Voila, today's passionate believers and non-believers alike can access clever arguments and rebuttals right on their phone screens! Say, whole new vistas of theology can now be accessed right wherever you are. Cliffnotes for the seekers & scoffers. One staggers at the thought of Aristotle, Augustine and Descartes themselves having nifty, fast Iphones in their otherwise slogging pursuit of ultimate truths.

Well, back to my salad. And to new doubts about ever showing up at one of these affairs again...

Friday, July 2, 2010


"Are you kidding...? That ain't never going to happen again...!"

Which is how my friend expressed his mix of anger and schadenfreude. An aching mix many elders share these days when they share their park-bench stories of how folks used to sleep out in these parks on hot summer nights. What with today's drugs and violence, the thought is now unthinkable.

And yet, somewhat unsinkable as well. For there are always those reformers who have visions of a gentler and kinder America.Those thousand-points-of-light. Politicians...educators...clergy...oh, and those ever-hopeful parents who have heard the happy tales from their own parents about kids playing all summer day on their own.

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict offers some admonition: "The trouble with life isn't that there is no answer; it's that there are so many answers." And so it is there are those who would clean-up-the-streets by "knocking some heads together like we used to." Others would teach-in-the-streets by "putting education to work in the ghettos." Still others want to preach-in-the-streets by "spreading the Gospel."

What they all hold in common is the obvious -- to change a city you have to start with its most unchanged citizens. Those unwritten values everyone once inherited from birth (because their families had inherited or at least been dictated by them)...those social values have broken down. It's happened under the weight of so much political weakness, educational failure, and church&home neglect over the last half century.

In all the dazzling economic and global power taken from our stunning WWII successes, older stuffier values gave ground. Now our large cities are reaping the wind from those foundation-shifting successes. Grandness laced with crime, glamor tainted with poverty, authority thinned by liberty. It's still the same America ...only now fragmented into so many different stories
of America.

Something like traveling in different foreign countries, each with their own language and laws. Exciting, yes. But sorry, sleeping in parks at night just doesn't seem to make as much sense (or safety) anymore...

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Two vastly different sets of words may distinguish today's generations from earlier ones. Without imposing any value-judgments, they are: Change & Challenge! Consistency & Commitment!

Today's generations were born into a state of change where the subsequent challenges have made life a skittish journey. The young travel with the cliffs of uncharted disaster on one side and the slopes of extraordinary opportunity on the other. If you like drama, this is the time to be born.

Earlier generations were surely not without drama, but the rates of change were considerably slower. As a consequence, values like consistency and commitment made more sense. And so consider 95-year-old Chester Arthur Reed of Redlands, California....!

Chester is the oldest postal worker in the nation. After 37 years years of faithful service, Chester is retiring this month. His sense of consistency and commitment blinks like a marquee for all the young to see. Not only the same job for 37 years, but never took a single sick day off work. Chester started and finished his career without a blemish on his record.

A record not likely to be challenged by any newcomers soon. In this career or any other. Of course while some cheer this kind of "devotion," others can sigh "how dull." Take your pick! Only know this. Chester is not retiring without something to pass on to both the cheerers and the sighers: "I've stayed healthy all these years from a daily diet of watermelon, alkaline water, and onion sandwiches with mayo."

I may not like your menu, Chester, but I do like your style. Congratulations from one of the cheerers.....