Thursday, September 30, 2010


Here's a test. What do you think/feel when you read this report: "There are now 8% more millionaires in the US than last year; 243,000 of them right here in Illinois alone."

Admit it. All kinds of images and judgments click into place. Tainted with all sorts of admiration and resentment, respect and envy. What's more, if they were to publish these new millionaires' faces, your thoughts/feelings would register even faster and more strongly.

That, my friend, is called profiling.

You see, profiling is not simply what cops do tracking different drivers, or what neighbors do watching new occupants. or bosses do meeting new applicants. Everyone is and has been profiling everyone else ever since the beginning of time. Only now -- astonishingly armed with 24/7 images from both the news media (TV & Papers) and the social media (Blogs & Facebook) -- we can profile faster and more impetuously than ever.

Historically, we've profiled people largely by what our senses could process. Their face...their body...their smile ...their voice...their strut ...their fragrance...their touch. But now -- well, now technology has scooped everything and everyone up into this giant maelstrom of bytes and pixels whereby we can instantly access and profile millions of people from wherever we are sitting with a hand on a keypad.

We have them all right there in the palm of our profiling hands. Not only what they look like, but where they come from...what they have done and said years ago....what they buy and who they like. Be they candidates or elected officials or university faculty or players or past lovers or present competitors. Damn, this kind of digital power is amazing. Is fun. Is downright God-like!

A respectful pause here.

That little burst is not to Amishly argue technology is bad.Technology has never been either bad or good. It's the users who determine that. But therein lies the big plot to this little burst. Lets be honest. It's not just giggling teens misusing this vast storehouse of information for the vile pleasure of snarky little gotchas. It's the googling celebrity magazines. Political operatives. Campaign managers. Corporate rivals. Legal rivals. Lobby groups. Just about anyone with too many resentments and too many hours on their hands.

What we have here is not a failure to communicate. Rather, it is an obsession to communicate. A national obsession which has transfigured the neighborhood gossip behind pulled curtains into a cosmic role model that virtually anyone of us can replicate. Which prompts the qustion: What the hell is wrong with us...?

Too big a question. Too small a space.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


It is estimated the average child laughs about 400 times a day. The average adult only 15. What happened to the other 385 laughs...?

This is serious. If becoming an adult requires us to frown more than laugh, where's the promised advantage? For instance, right now I'm frowning at more bad news. Some growers in South America believe the banana that we know today will be extinct in another generation. For me, that's a frowning piece of news!

But while we can, let us thoughtfully consider the magnificent banana. One of those fruits for which ripening is an art. A little too green or a little too black, and you don't have a banana; you have a bust. You see, the ripening process is a matter of exquisitely delicate timing.

And so it is with people and programs. Too little or too much of a good thing can quickly become a bad thing.

Children are emphatically this way. As goo-ing infants and charming youngsters, a delight. As they become adolescents, delight can become disaster. Parents find themselves wondering who snatched their bodies. However, parents too can be guilty of over-ripening. Notice how happy indulgence is the rule with young parents; suffocating over-sight often takes over later on. Big-name athletes are no less guilty. As rookies they play their hearts out. Once they've achieved star status, they play their contracts out.

This too-green-or-too-black phenomenon flairs elsewhere. Take your average Hollywood celebrity. At the start, they can't get enough of the fans and the paparazzi. This is their food, their fuel, their raison d'etre. But wait awhile. If their star continues to ascend, fans and photographers shortly become the enemy. The G-men are no less susceptible to over-ripening. Young FBI and CIA operatives leap from the starting gate with national pride in their eyes. In time, it has become clear the stars often turn into swagger as many become drunk with their unpoliced power.

And so it goes. Liberating armies turned occupiers, and occupiers turned indiscriminate killers. Visionary presidents turned bitter when they feel they are not fully appreciated. Popes and Dali Lamas whose power at the pinnacle deafens them to the people on the slopes below.

If we can't always achieve the perfect banana for can we ever hope to achieve the perfect anything for life? Apparently the answer is what I do every morning. Pick the banana that seems the best from the outside, then take my chances as to what I will find on the inside.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


It is said the night has a thousand eyes. It can also be said, the day has a million images. Every pair of daytime eyes recounting what they believe they see. But, incredibly, everyone is seeing something slightly different. From Monday morning quarterbacks to morning-after lovers to next-day theatre reviewers to long-after historians.

Oh yes, historians too! Scholars studiously trained in assembling the facts, but always the facts as they see and sense them. Churchill said it wisely: "History is always written by the winners." He added even more wisely: "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." I always told my history classes: "History is the greatest story ever told, and retold, and retold."

Over 3000 years ago the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses the Great wrote the history of his dazzling defeat of Egypt's last remaining challenge: the Hittites. An Indo-European empire sprawling from present day Turkey to the Gaza. And for over 3000 years, this eclat of Ramses has remained intact. We've believed what he believed.

Then archaeologists came upon long-buried Hittite cuneiform records. Whoa, they were doing it even back then! Twisting the facts, re-writing the stories, changing history. Because, you see, the Hittite records of their war with Egypt was a whole different thing,

This conflict, about 1200 BC, was perhaps the world's first great war between nations, not simply tribes. But while Ramses has portrayed himself, in the Egyptian hieroglyphics in the Valley of the Kings, as a mighty victor, the Hittite record reports it mightily differently. In fact they write the Pharaoh barely survived the battle with his life.

Who then to believe...? As the great huckster P.T. Barnum liked to say: "Who you going to believe -- your own eyes or me!" As with economics, the so-called science of history is hardly comparable to the science of mathematics or chemistry or biology. With them, when you mix X with Y, you can be pretty sure what you will get. With the so-called facts of history, that simply is not so.

In today's miasma of conflicting national values and visions, hopes and hysteria, our free society is free to arrive at a million different conclusions about any single image. That's because each of us cherishes our own particular apercus by which we find what we hold to be the truth. When our Declaration of Independence states "we hold these truths to be self-evident," Jefferson's rhetoric rings so lyrically; but not even his fellow founding fathers could have defended the claim.

I have three children and several close relatives and friends who have all been raised in the very same country, century, and culture I have. But do you think there is anything from these last seven paragraphs likely to be "self-evident" to them? I can't...! And they can't....! And I'll hear about it from them right after e-mailing this to you. You who won't find much that is self-evident either...!

Monday, September 27, 2010


Someone who should know -- Richard Nixon -- put it this way: "You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose." While his poetry left something to be desired, his prose was insistently present. Like so many other presidents: Washington, Adams (both father and son), Woodrow Wilson, Eisenhower, and Bush I. Each known as cool-at-the- controls. Actually, cool has grown in prestige when you think of other post-Victorian public figures: J.P. Morgan, Albert Einstein, Humphrey Bogart, the Playboy ethos, Clint Eastwood, James Bond, Gloria Steinem, Bob Dylan, Bill Gates, Mr. Spock, Google, plus all those nerds-now-become-news in American popular culture.

President Obama has lately been stuck with labels like brainy, detached, scholastic. In other words: Cool. Who's out of sync here: Obama or his critics?

But lets put aside specific names, simply stick with general nature. The general nature of the people we tend to respect these days. There will always be a place for charisma, but throughout generations of increased schooling and literacy, cool has found its own pedestal in the pop pantheon. In a world crammed with fingertip-controlled inter-continental missiles, guided drones, GPS satellites, computer banks, security networks, and genetic engineering technologies, cool sounds, well, it sounds cool.

Shamans have been replaced by scientists. High priests by automation. And even though our rockers blow the crowds away at their passionate concerts, it's the cool technology of all those amplifiers and light boards that permit them to do it.

Granted, there are still remnants of our Victorian past, our sentimental Currie & Ives image of America. Giant operations like Hallmark Cards and Disney Studios are still dedicated to charisma more than cool. Who doesn't enjoy a fluff of poetry or a cuddly Bambi! But have you ever met a Hallmark manager? A Disney park operative? These guys didn't get there by charisma. From personal encounters, I don't think there's enough charisma in any of them to melt a marshmallow.Today's eclat has changed with each new complexity.

Kids still think it's all magic. And once you get really old enough, you may try once again to believe it's still largely magic. But in between times, it's a cold world that seems to respond best to cool hands...

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Science Daily just published a credit warning to all husbands: "When women are ovulating, they unconsciously buy and wear sexier clothing."

That's not a joke. Well, unless you find science in the cause of pairing ovulation with consumption a joke. That's the result of a new scientific study by researchers at the University of Minnesota working with 100 women at different stages in their menstrual cycle. Their conclusion, explains study author Kristina Durante: "If you look more desirable than your competition, you are more likely to stand out."

One can only pause in breathless amazement at the power of such stunning data.

Power, though, comes in all different shapes and sizes. Consider for instance the power of our fellow citizens in places of great prominence. Judges...members of scholars...religious leaders....celebrity performers and athletes. What they say and do casts long influential shadows across the land of the little.

It has been rightly said, to those whom much has been given, much is expected. However, even the researchers at Minnesota won't advise you hold your breath when it comes to these rich and famous!

If one feature stands out among them, it must be: Hypocrisy. Why else are sin-condemning politicians repeatedly being found in compromising hotel rooms? Why else are gay-bashing preachers consistently being discovered with gay prostitutes? Why else does a sin-damning church constantly hide sin-committing members? Why else are star athletes charged with skill-enhancing drugs in their bulked up bodies?

On the other hand -- for there is always another hand to these matters -- could even the researchers at the University claim hypocrisy is a monopoly of our times? Not likely. All throughout the history of humanity's alphabet, the H of hypocrisy stands right alongside the H in hate, heartache, harm and hell. Perhaps those same researchers can question Genesis, but really weren't all these H's spelled out by those ancient writers? Weren't they trying to express the inexpressible creator and the flawed created right then at the get-go?

I'll tell you this. If the good nuns had not put such a loving spin on that first sorry story, I might have realized much much sooner how sad sad is the tale of our species. But fortunately for me, H is also for the hope I still feel, because of their happy happy spin.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Who would have thought...? doing good is mistrusted...? Worse than that, according to a new study at Washington State University, do-gooders are often dismissed by their peers as "trying to make me looK bad" or "having ulterior motives" or even "being deviant rule-breakers."

Wow! That may help explain why Socrates made Athens angry, Jesus was crucified, and Obama's attempts at calm are dismissed as cold.

The University was using video games to test their subjects, but we don't have to look any further than the daily news to see this phenomena playing out. Charity and altruism may be smiled upon, but competition and ambition are really much better understood. Take this morning's New York Times front page: "Japan Retreats in Test of Wills with the Chinese: Sign of Beijing's Rise."

This storyline is repeated every day in every way. The "other" is understood mainly in terms of different...danger... challenge... competition...rivalry. Anthropologists tell us this began with the very first tribes where the "other" tribe across the river or the mountain was understood largely in terms of fear. There has been -- and is now -- the insistent sense that "we" and "they" are essentially different. And, more often than not, different is dangerous!

Prophets and messiahs, philosophers and poets, usually see it otherwise. And yet, throughout the recorded history of humanity, the overwhelming evidence is that being "other" than me is cause for concern. If you come from some "other" place or race, country or nationality, class or religion, well chances are this isn't going to work.

Here's the question...

How in the name of all things tranquil does a vicious circle ever get broken....??

Friday, September 24, 2010


If Halloween is a day of magic, surely October is a month of magic.

If you squeeze October really closely, you can feel the occult almost everywhere. Copper-burnished suns in the morning, bloody-harvest moons at night. The spectacle of the afternoon leaves, the sudden burst of the midnight winds. Scampering kids with quirky looks in their eyes when they meet yours. I'm sure of it -- witchery, voodoo, talismans, and sorcery are all loose in the land. And if you don't notice it, you've grown up too much too fast!

To allay any doubts, travel the aisles of neighborhood stores where knots of small children giggle secretively in front of orgies of masks and costumes, hoods and capes, evil gadgets and unearthly noise-makers. Something is going one, you can be sure. Exactly what, though, is impossible to know; for as the song has it, once you've passed the borders of childhood, you can ne'er return again.

Plato long ago tried to explain we come from a previous life. As children we can occasionally catch its cadence, and ride its emotions. As adults -- well, at this stage of the journey, parents and teachers and clergy have taught us how to "grow up." Even Saint Paul insisted, "I have put away the things of a child."

To be sure, there are hints of our child. Its splendid little loves and lies and liberties. This happens especially around Christmas time when we actually can feel full-force those little gurgles of kiddish joys in our tummies as we watch the children watch the tree, tear open the gifts, squeal their unbearable happiness.

However, this is still October, and October has its own ecstasies. It's the warm-up to Halloween. The prologue to Thanksgiving. The first of the great year-end trilogy. Thirty-one days to feel and smell and taste stuff your intellect has been instructed to keep under control. We are rational creatures, and in an age of so much spectacular science and technology, being a kid again is untoward. Quite unacceptable.

On the other hand -- or is that, on the other brain lobe? -- there are peculiar little things that stir inside all adults during all Octobers. A curiosity? An envy? An admiration? Yes, that's it! An admiration for all things small. Children. Candy. Dreams. Giggles. The admiration is of course unspoken. Adults don't tell children how much they are envied. Adults don't slosh around in the gush of sentimentality. I mean, living as a grown up in a complicated world is damn serious stuff!


October just has to be some of the best 31 days in the year!


If Halloween is a day of magic, surely October is a month of magic.

If you squeeze October really closely, you can feel the occult almost everywhere. Copper-burnished suns in the morning, bloody-harvest moons at night. The spectacle of the afternoon leaves, the sudden burst of the midnight winds. Scampering kids with quirky looks in their eyes when they meet yours. I'm sure of it -- witchery, voodoo, talismans, and sorcery are all loose in the land. And if you don't notice it, you've grown up too much too fast!

To allay any doubts, travel the aisles of neighborhood stores where knots of small children giggle secretively in front of orgies of masks and costumes, hoods and capes, evil gadgets and unearthly noise-makers. Something is going one, you can be sure. Exactly what, though, is impossible to know; for as the song has it, once you've passed the borders of childhood, you can ne'er return again.

Plato long ago tried to explain we come from a previous life. As children we can occasionally catch its cadence, and ride its emotions. As adults -- well, at this stage of the journey, parents and teachers and clergy have taught us how to "grow up." Even Saint Paul insisted, "I have put away the things of a child."

To be sure, there are hints of our child. Its splendid little loves and lies and liberties. This happens especially around Christmas time when we actually can feel full-force those little gurgles of kiddish joys in our tummies as we watch the children watch the tree, tear open the gifts, squeal their unbearable happiness.

However, this is still October, and October has its own ecstasies. It's the warm-up to Halloween. The prologue to Thanksgiving. The first of the great year-end trilogy. Thirty-one days to feel and smell and taste stuff your intellect has been instructed to keep under control. We are rational creatures, and in an age of so much spectacular science and technology, being a kid again is untoward. Quite unacceptable.

On the other hand -- or is that, on the other brain lobe? -- there are peculiar little things that stir inside all adults during all Octobers. A curiosity? An envy? An admiration? Yes, that's it! An admiration for all things small. Children. Candy. Dreams. Giggles. The admiration is of course unspoken. Adults don't tell children how much they are envied. Adults don't slosh around in the gush of sentimentality. I mean, living as a grown up in a complicated world is damn serious stuff!


October just has to be some of the best 31 days in the year!

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Look, America began as a game. A tough, head-knocking game of who could best survive the World we discovered and decided to call New. In time we found some catchy labels: Free Enterprise, Capitalism, Social Darwinism. But always the same survival-of-the-fittest theme. A theme in which winners are cheered, losers are pitied, and victory is what it's all about.

Using sports as the template by which we understand ourselves has a lot of appeal. Plus a lot of bravado. A bravado periodically enshrined by the survivors into what they call a "movement." At one time, the Whig Party. Later, the various laissez faire schools of economic thought. Recenty trickle-down economics.Today, the mixed-marriage of Republican and Tea Parties.

This omelette of ideas is too complicated to simplify into any one metaphor. But try this one on for size -- football without the huddle...!

To put it in more Darwinian lexicon -- playing this body-battering game without any helmets. Without any planning. You see, helmets and planning and surely referees all smack of being told what to do...being expected to listen to a quarterback's signals....being directed by some sidelines strategies.

Survivors in this game don't much like helmets and whistles, quarterbacks and coaches. Un-natural. Counter-productive. Not the American Way. And so it has always been conducive for the star players in the game to remain stars more than mates. Too much mating can be bad. Communism was rejected as evil. Socialism is rejected as nanny-ism. Even Christianity is given more lip service than support, because of its anti-Darwinian turn-the-other- cheek craziness.

If we give our overall metaphor here some specific names -- like Notre Dame, Alabama, Michigan -- we may get sidelined by the names. Thereby miss the message. The message has to do with the overall sport, not any particular member of the sport. A message that can be summed up this way. No team huddling, no team team plan, no team team purpose, every player for himself.

Now the strongest players like the sound of that. Other players, well, this way they may not even get a chance with the ball. Good way for a few to become stars; a lousy way for the team to win many games. But no matter. Forget the helmets...ignore the quarterback....kill the coach. After all, it's the American Way.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


At first...slowly, sluggishly...sound somewhere...rain...yes that's it, the insistent rat-a-tat-tat of rain beads slapping against the bedroom window...can't see them because it's infinitely black under under my Saturday morning covers from where I intend never again to least never on a cloudy-black Saturday when the rain and thunder and falling leaves outside make noble this cocoon inside...with enough dedication, perhapswhile the cocoon can become a castle whose drawbridge forever denies access to the world.

The mind travels back...even hidden inside all the shes it has known and loved before...Mom's brown darting eyes on Saturday mornings just like this...up and about a spic-and-span spinning in a bacon-and-eggs warm kitchen after breakfast...the object of her affections the German Chocolate Cake she's making for tonight's get to lick the spoon while together we listen to the radio...a radio world whose people and places and plots are soon to become real...child becomes adolescent...Barbara, Rosemary, Judy, Peggy, Bonnie...mothers are security, girls are sensuality...Sister Mary Ursala belongs in there too...but not exactly female...more fidelity...nuns bring devotion...girls, remember it all so well...under the castle covers here, the mind tries to unravel whose role was the more remember them all with equal warmth ...feeling warmth in a cold world can't be bad...too bad the cold rain and wind and leaves refuse to go.

As the mind travels, there are also hes along the way...the ones I'd look to as they scrambled up the thick oaks and elms which cherished our leafy city blocks...always up where I couldn't quite the years unspool, those differences there are assets other than muscles...words and music and ideas flourish after muscles fade...there was Johnny and Tommy, Jim and Bill...gone now, but you remember how your grew together ... explored together...instead of tracking old routes, carved new ones together...Dad of course was the he who defined all the others...migrated here for the American Dream...proved it was never noticed at the time how far and hard he had to travel to make it so...but the quiet strength and gentle courage forever shapes you.

Can't stay under these covers all day...well, maybe all morning...nothing wrong with castles...or drawbridges... especially when yours is shared by the supreme she in your life...right there next to you...and just down the hall, the sweet memories of the three adult children she bore... who have reaffirmed the vintage wisdom: The best thing we do is give them roots and wings.

So someday they too have a castle of their own...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

WHEN 2 + 2 = 10

Groucho Marx -- like his admirers Woody Allen and Dick Cavett -- has this philosophical twist to his humor. Sayeth the irreverent heretic: "What have future generations ever done for us?" The answer it would seem is absolutely nothing. But, oh, what past generations have done to us!

Consider how the mass media have for years taught us that 2+2 = 10. A clever piece of math if there ever was one. Basically it comes down to this. Find a few instances out of the ordinary...headline them with a lot of splash and sizzle...then leave your stunned audiences with the clear implication that these exceptions prove the rule. The rule being whatever the media is trying to sensationalize during this particular news cycle.

The math is really quite simple. One deep-sea oil rig blows; all rigs suddenly become a national threat. Several people die from a patented medicine; an entire category of remedies is now deemed dangerous. 6% of priests are found guilty of child molestation; a worldwide Church is quickly charged with pedophilia. A group of public pensioners are found to be double-dipping; the whole pension system should be brought down. A lot of cops are on the take; the police department is corrupt. The economy is after 18 months finally growing again but jobs have yet to catch up; whoever's in charge of the economy should be shot.

This week the quarterback had more passes than sacks; it's clear what we said about him last week is no longer true until he messes up again next week. Another Hollywood marriage goes bust; film making is an abomination of God. Iran rattles its missiles; it's time to think of making a first-strike assault. A gotcha-video catches several members of Congress and the CIA in compromising situations; there isn't one decent official in the entire capitol.

A question looms here. When and who decided that news is only bad news? That the few constitute the many? That 2 + 2 = 10? That reporting is essentially scooping, and scooping is essentially finding the worstest the fastest?

Oh wait a minute.

Is it possible we're the ones who have so decided? That in our own drab little lives we need something to fear, someone to hate, somehow a story that rages about "the speak of sawdust in our brother's eye, but not the plank in our own." [That's from Matthew 7:3. You know, that ancient book recent reporting has found so full of myths and mistakes!]

Monday, September 20, 2010


It's a given in American pop culture that there are top-10 lists for almost everything. So what about a top-10 list for givens:

* It's a given that sexy girls in ads are used to sell everything from spark plugs to botox. Who, though, drafted the masterplan saying the girls must project not only radiant hair and fulsome bust, but always with half-closed eyes and slyly-opened lips...?

* It's a given that we crave those comfort foods filled with fat, salt and sugar. Who, though, designed each to kill us while satisfying us...?

* It's a given that in democratic elections it's open season on your rivals. Who, though, always finds the funds to mount enormous but irrelevant lies, such as the Swiftboaters turning Kerry from war hero to coward, and now CNN turning Obama from Christian professor to Muslim fanatic...?

* It's a given for TV shows to compete for audiences. Who, though, dictated they should collide at the same viewing times rather than be slotted at different times so they wouldn't have to split their audiences...?

* It's a given that money-can't-buy-happiness. Who, though, put up the money to fund the Princeton economists who recently reported that, in some economic strata, money actually can...?

* It's a given that smoking is bad for us. Who, then, constitutes the one in five who continue to smoke...?

* It's a given that American workers are driven to be increasingly productive. Why, though, are 50% of them so driven they don't even take all their vacation days..?

* It's a given that cars are faster than ever. Who, though, can explain that car collisions have actually dropped by 9.7% in the last two years...?

* It's a given that men think of life like a sports game. Who, though, can clarify this when 90% of men can't play sports...?

* It's a given that when you climb a tall stairway, you reach for a handrail. Who, though, in some distant past somehow came up with this exquisitely simple concept? This is a question largely asked by those of us old and puffy enough to desperately love and need handrails....

Sunday, September 19, 2010


We can all subscribe to the adage: You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. But can we all appreciate just how messy that can get? Right now, every president and prime minister in the world goes to bed at night with the same recurring nightmare. Not being able to keep all their eggs in the air at the same time. Dropping even one can mean a splat big enough to collapse the whole kitchen...!

The biggest egg is always the same -- the economy, stupid. The people can be sated with only so many movies and malls. Eventually without jobs and health insurance and pensions, they can become a giant Jurassic Park led by a chunky Fox News Madame Defarge. Leaders keep hiring financial wizards to work their magic on the economy, but all too often the magic is really no more than dice loaded by their best computer guesswork.

Another egg always spinning in the air is education. Pick any leader, pick any year. They all give the same speech: Our future is our children. Trouble is, this egg is even more insusceptible to magic formulas than the economy. Everyone agrees good schools and good teachers are good for our kids and good for our country. After that, no one can agree on anything. All learning is an individual act of self-discovery, but how do we accomplish this in gangland-schools surrounded by sometime-parents?

Religion has always been one of the glues that holds a society together. Be it a hallelujah or an opiate, this egg has been nourishing for centuries. Now, however, the clashing theological debates of a post-religious age can be instantly accessed on the Internet. The result is a cacophony of charges, challenges and confusion. The numbers attending services continue to dwindle in most places, leaving a vacuum not easily filled by even the most passionate televangelists. If ancient man cowered before his gods, modern man often sticks his tongue out.

To be sure, government is one of the biggest eggs. Presidents and prime ministers were at one time deemed the best among us to lead. In today's kitchens, the patrons are no longer so sure about that. Things in here are such a mess, meals just don't taste as good! Time for a new chef! Which chef? Hell, I don't know; just anybody but the current chef! And while feeling this feels good, what exactly happens when you yank the chef with the eggs still in the air? Is that really the best way to get a better omelet?

Recently I walked out of this kitchen. So loud, so angry, so futile in there. When I was about 8, I used to go to my room and take out my faithful Crayola Crayons. Now about 80, I bought a box at the store and opened it up. By golly, the very same box, the very same colors, the very same satisfaction owning the very same rainbow. Now if only this splendid little magic could work back in the kitchen...

Saturday, September 18, 2010


As Oprah Winfrey plunges into her final season of early-morning master-strokes here in Chicago, we watch with mixed emotions. However, the emotions of the ghosts in her Harpo Studio on Washington Blvd are more sad than mixed. To think their old hang-out may soon seal its doors forever. Some of these ghosts are still very much alive: Chicagoans like Bob Newhart and Kim Novak. Others are now performing in a far bigger studio: Celebrities like Studs Terkel, Van Johnson, Ethel Merman, and Vince Lombardi.

Back in the Mad Men days of the Sixties here in Chicago, the Michigan Avenue agencies used our studio to shoot many of their TV commercials. It was then called Fred Niles Studios where the Mad Men with the narrow ties and wide-open expense accounts did their drinking while watching their commercials being shot. Now, where once booze, broads and bamboozle reigned supreme in front of the cameras, Oprah has transfigured this into the nation's plushest therapy couch.

In the pre-Oprah, pre-inner-child, pre-lets-get-in-touch-with-our-feelings years, the tears that flowed in here were not from audiences being touched. More likely from sponsors being bilked. Our staff knew how to dazzle both the sponsor and the ad agency who brought them here. The usual menu of downtown dinners, shows, and leggy starlets shortly before submitting our bill for those "unanticipated cost over-runs."

But no one much minded. Just as the TV series portrays, both sponsor and ad men were part of the money-is-no-object trajectory our booming post-WWII America was riding. Frankly, the boom was so big and loud, they didn't much notice a struggling young comedian around here like Bob or a wordless refrigerator model like Kim (Marilyn back then). Not even Studs, conjuring up his off-beat reality show, caught their capitalistic attentions. That this hard-sell studio would some day be preaching to morning America about finding their true center was as crazy a thought as Bob becoming a television legend and Kim a Hollywood star.

But then -- just as in Mad Men -- something happened to this free-spending, high-living America. Starting the day after Dallas in that ugly 1963. There had been no calculation by our booming superpower for a presidential tragedy quite like this. Nor for the tragedies just five restless years later with the assassinations of Martin and then Bobby. This very Washington Blvd, immediately west of downtown Chicago's glitter, roared those nights with anger and bled with rage.

Oprah has over the years mounted some remarkable moments in this studio where I once scribbled last-minute edits to the scripts being shot. None of us then -- including the now-gone ghosts -- could have imagined how our scruffy workplace would emerge as a citadel of truth and enlightenment for millions of raptured viewers. Not even Oprah, who wasn't even a glint in the eye of busy, bawdy Chicago back then. Still, I often think that one of her most remarkable moments in here could and should be how this unpretentious old building once helped house the flamboyant values and fiery fall of an America that has now become a hazy history.

A history, let it be said, which has become the political play-dough of legions of angry Americans who have heard the siren call about "getting back the real America." A shibboleth oozing out of mouths that never actually lived that America. For that hazy America never really existed. Oh, maybe in Norman Rockwell calendars, Andy Griffith Mayberry, and for few blissful years in my own Chicago youth. Surely, though, not on Washington Blvd and other such mean streets in our big cities where there were few real Tom Sawyers and Becky Thatchers; a great many Black Jims and assorted minorities; plus the same great divide between the poor in this neighborhood and the rich in the Michigan Avenue ad agencies.

So if Oprah ever does this show, she might use it to remind America that the only "real America" is what we really make of it along Washington Blvd, not just Michigan Avenue. An America where folks keep trying to close the great divide....where majorities and minorities keep trying to talk with one another...where the ad men's staged promises and the entertainment moguls' spun dreams dare to allow a bit more honesty. For unless some of this happens soon, neither Michigan Avenue nor Washington Blvd will capture any of Oprah's best visions for the America who watches her.

And right now, right in here, there is a clock ticking...

Friday, September 17, 2010


It's said movies are the mirror of a society. OK, but lets add the theatres in which they are shown. Think about it. Post-WWII American movies and movie houses reflected a way of life and a set of values that have -- like the classic film back then -- gone with the wind.

That's not to say it wasn't a good wind. The different generations can debate that. But what it is to say is the remarkably different movie-night experiences are like a one-stop history lesson!

First, there's how we dress for the movies. Then it was an event that usually called for shirt & tie and hat & gloves by the patrons in order to match the smartly uniformed ticket-takers and ushers. Today, anything you woke up with will do!.And talking about tickets, since then inflation has generally risen by about 15%, but somehow movie tickets have zoomed from about 15 cents to about seven dollars.

Then there's sex and violence, Hollywood's stock-in-trade since the early days of D.W. Griffith. However, by post-war America, certain codes were still in play. Limiting how much sex the cameras could show, and how much blood the closeups could allow. However, inevitably requiring the good and the do-gooders in the plot prevail at the end.

Beauty is another variable in the different Americas. Back then, beautiful men were usually defined as tall, dark- eyed, with chiseled features. Today's rules have adjusted to allow for short, rugged, even a little ugly. Women, on the other hand, still seem stuck with the same classic requirements. Radiant hair, high cheekbones, full lips, and of course the usual assets geometrically distributed below.

Priests back in that America were traditionally portrayed as good, compassionate, golf-playing clergy in the Bing Crosby model which any faith in the audience could relate to. Today -- well the sex scandals of the few have besmirched the image of the many. Today's plotlines are more about deviant priests in the local parishes, and international scandals in high places.

Presidents too are getting a bad rap. There really was a time when kids talked to mom about "someday growing up to be president." Today...? Gotta be kidding...! Today, presidents are just the tip of the evil iceberg of international cabals and murderous intrigues spun by covert Oval Office operations. What mother wants her child to become Richard Nixon? Or, come to think of it, any other occupant ever since? No, today's Hollywood has pretty much plunged the silver stake into the heart of the West Wing!

Small sidebar here...

Hollywood's biggest presidential conspiracy-teller, director Oliver Stone, did shoot a scene that haunts. He has Nixon secretly meeting with the young anti-Vietnam war protesters one night at the Lincoln Memorial. When the shouting dissenters demand, "Why don't you stop the war...??" the camera pulls into a closeup of Nixon's face freezing into a fearful silence. As the young protester watched him, it suddenly dawns: "Oh my can't!!"

That scene in that movie may have both truth and purpose in the America of ANY generation...

Thursday, September 16, 2010


There's something about the dark. When the lights go out and darkness seeps in, we have to confront our own feelings and fears. Oh, and there are so many lights in our life, often noticed only after they've gone out....

Like the lights to our children's bedrooms after they've gone to college...or the lights to our parents' old home once they've gone to their grave...or the lights of nations when, as British Prime Minister Gray said when WWI was beginning in 1914, "The lamps all cross Europe are going out."

There are even those lights whose story are totally unknown to you, such as the kitchen lights across my street which go on and off with a regularity I would miss were it ever broken.

So what then are we to do in the dark? And with the dark? Depends probably on how well we can see our way in the dark. Which is to say, how prepared are we for these endings? Life is a continuous sequence of endings and new beginnings. But while the endings usually happen by themselves, the beginnings usually depend on us. How well we are equipped to confront, to adjust to, and to manage the attending losses.

Right now -- as in 1914 -- lamps all across America are going out. Their precious light of national hope and harmony is being extinguished almost with each 24-hour news cycle. Unemployment lines...foreclosed homes ....pickets and demonstrations... throw-the-bums-out elections....hysterical conspiracies concocted by the punditry. This is a democracy and so it is that social order easily breaks down when things go wrong. Indeed, order itself is condemned as something darkly dangerous being imposed by the greatest danger of all: Government.

Anger like this is, of course, always a secondary emotion. Anger inevitably comes from some primary emotion. Pride.....envy....unrequited love...usually though just sheer fear. When the times are out of joint -- as they are with historical regularity in every society in every age -- fear ignites. Which in turn torches the passions of anger. At something, someone, anything! In Marlon Brando's cult movie "The Wild One," he plays a black-jacketed biker taking over a town. When the frightened people ask, "What are you angry at..?" Brando smirks "Whattaya got...?"

I'm pretty sure the bedroom lights here and the kitchen lights across the street will come back on again. I'm not so sure how long it will take for the nation's lights to come back on again. Once a torch-lit crowd gets angry enough, often it will not be sated until it burns everything in its path...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


In the old tale, the world can see, but is afraid to tell, the vain emperor he is parading without any clothing. Fair enough. Only this vanity is true of countless folks today. Even in an age where there are no emperors. Aha, some examples come to mind...? Yes, me too...!

One quickly thinks of the tall, emaciated models on Paris and New York runways. They strut -- empty eyes staring indifferently straight ahead -- in front of gaggles of pompously attired designers who watch breathlessly. Not to deny the models or designers their hard earned careers, but really now. Do they not total 0.005 of the world population? Is it not likely the other 99.005 see them as all rather naked?

Talking about strutting, there are also our celebrities. In denied but worldwide alliance with the camera-clicking paparazzi, these film and television stars understand their bodies are their business. And thus it is they indulge them in hours of bathing, boosting, and botoxing. Yet, in the cameras of our eyes, are not most of these celebrities far more rich of fame than of talent?

If this sounds petty and peevish, probably. And yet when you see middle-aged men with necklines plunging down flabby chests adorned with golden chains, it's hard not to roll your stunned eyes. Especially when these thickish Adonises are wearing a giggly twentysomething on their arms.

Help me here. Is it so wrong to also add to this list all those middle-aged women whose mirrors lie to them as they struggle into the tight fashion-jeans they are now parading through stores and restaurants? Someone should -- not me -- advise them the stares they are getting are more stifled amazement than silent admiration.

Could this little rant simply be supressed envy? Well, not when one studies the subject matters at hand. No, not envy. Perhaps a mix of shock, shame, and just a little sadness. For who among us can say this is not exactly the way we look to others...?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I can still see her youthful face as if it were yesterday. Only it was many yesterdays ago. Right here at the corner of State & Randolph streets in downtown Chicago where VJ Day was wildly celebrated the night of August 15, 1945.

Her's was a radiant face, full of youth and gratitude and hope. I never met her, for she was out there on the other side of the surging throngs that were roaring and rippling down State Street's broad bricked way. But I have never forgotten her. About 20 years old with bobbed auburn hair and a kissable pug nose, my mystery lady seemed to personify everything that was good and promising to that end-of-war ovation.

I often wonder. Whatever happened to her. And if she ever noticed and wondered about me. For all I really know, she may be dead or she may be Hillary Clinton! You just can't be sure about things that many yards and years away. Oh, but I can be sure of this. She represented the exhaled rapture following four years of fear. Of dying. Of almost global annihilation.

And yet ....

Those were also years of national pride. Of collective action. Of home front side by side with war front, dedicated to a cause and a mission. America -- and Americans -- really believed back then. With a kind of belief we have not known since. My lovely mystery mistress was cheering as were we all, for she knew what I knew. Everyone had been shoulder to shoulder those four years, rarely toe to toe as we are today some 65 years later.

Sure, the memories of old age can play tricks on you. We tend to remember what we wish to remember. But she and I -- and all those thousands of Chicagoans that special night -- were part of a whole that was astoundingly greater than the sum of our parts.

Does it have to take a war to do that? Does it have to take a war to quilt a population behind a leader? Does it have to take a war to find what's good and best within yourself? I'll be damned if I know, but history seems to tell us: Yes. It would seem only the brutality and bloodshed of war can do all this.

If true, humanity should be ashamed. And soon....!

Monday, September 13, 2010


There's this guy in Colorado who's been banned from the local Safeway stores for a whole year. They say he offended a buxom female employee while ordering chicken breasts thusly: "I like the large ones." The issue here is to which breasts was he pointing!

But maybe there's an even larger issue at stake. The fella was in his 60s, and I'm thinking he's thinking like I've been thinking ever since I stumbled into my 70s: Now's the time! The time to stop repressing everything inside your Puritanical code of social ethics. Have a little innocent fun bantering with people you meet. OK, perhaps the Colorado dude was out of line. However, I ask myself: Am I out of line when I banter around my community...? Or am I simply feeling free at last to kibitz with strangers...? Or are my caring daughters correct when they advise old Dad to think twice before speaking...? Or is my psychiatrist son right in just shrugging with clinical indulgence...?

For instance.

Whenever I see off-duty cops having meal together, I can't help going up to them and telling them how glad folks are for their protection. Of course there are times when they start reaching for their weapon as I approach, but I take that to simply be their surprise at a cop compliment.

Whenever I see a beautiful, well-dressed woman shopping in the supermarket, I can't help but tell them what a pleasure it is to share the aisles with them. So far, not one has snarled or tried to slap me. I take that to mean either they like what they heard or they can see how totally harmless I am.

Whenever I notice a baby in some mother's arms, I can't help but smile and wave at them. The baby, not the mother. And while the infants are sometimes startled, I take the parent's nod as a pleased thank you.

Whenever I see a gaggle of teens texting somewhere in town, I can't help but make some remark about their generation's dazzling but distracting technology. Guy teens often stare back quizzically, but gal teens tend to giggle. I take that to mean they've just found a senior who's willing to communicate rather than grouse.

Well, as you can see, my sympathies lie with the old fella in Colorado who I take to have been just another friendly banterer like me. But then, I'm not entirely sure about this. Especially when my daughters start whispering to my son about the symptoms of rapid-onset silliness!

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I started thinking about this the other day as I watched this neatly dressed woman dutifully following her Golden Retriever with a pooper-scooper. With each neat scoop, dog looked at owner quizzically. As if to say: "Fine with me, altho I just can't believe you're still doing this!"

It reflects the thousands of years over which anthropologists tell us wild dogs gradually chose to be domesticated. Yes, chose is the correct word even though humans assume we did the choosing. Dogs -- like cats, horses, and birds -- evolved to a point when it just seemed a helleva lot easier to cater to humans who would then cater to you for the rest of your wonderfully domesticated life.

This was a tectonic shift in human culture. There are all kinds of such shifts going on all the time. Only, living through them, we may hardly notice them. Take for instance our own 21st C. Too early to tell, but this one may be one of the big ones written about a couple centuries from now. We may be too busy living these shifts to notice them, but lets consider some possibilities [possibilities more empirical minds often miss, for they are so gosh-darned busy look for hard evidence they miss the everyday subtle hints].

While the empirical mind may fixate on the hard GNP statistics contrasting China and the US, more subtle economic shifts are afoot. You can hear them everyday in barbershops and beauty salons where discouraged Americans are lately beginning to shrug, "Well, I suppose now it's their turn...!"

While the empirical mind may study the theological twists and turns in the Vatican. you can hear disgruntled Catholics leaving Sunday Masses reflecting on the chant from the disenchanted Bostonian faithful: "Keep the faith, change the church...!"

While the empirical mind may draft endless new Pentagon papers, the terrorists are re-reading Mao's strategies for asymmetrical warfare in which small mobile forces can beat large lumbering forces once you get them on your own turf.

While empirical minds re-churn the same playbooks about re-structuring our big-city schools, the good teachers still hanging in these neighborhoods remember what both the cities and the unions have forgotten. Without recruiting and rewarding gifted teachers, the glitziest restructured campuses will keep yielding only marginal human results.

Sometimes the experienced residents can sense the tectonic plates shifting far beneath them. Animals too, often even before the empirical vulcanologists. So while some are always looking for the Big One, little ones are probably with us everyday. You just gotta know where and how to look. Then, when and how to respond...

Saturday, September 11, 2010


We live in a somewhat cold, barren world these days. Not that we lack material splendor. Here in the West we are gifted with astonishing splendors. Homes, cars, gadgets and entertainments of all kinds. But we are often deprived of what our ancient ancestors held so dear. Great myths...!

A quick edit here. Great myths need not be simply great lies. Myths, in their fullest sense, are legendary narratives explaining particular beliefs and events. They can thereby take on the reality of truths, visions, and missions that motivate an entire society. Great myths like the Easter Resurrection...America as a land of the free & home of the brave...the Wild West as an endless frontier of new opportunity. Or terrible myths like Medieval witchcraft...Nazi racial supremacy.... today's viler conspiracy theories.

A few days ago, Notre Dame QB great Joe Montana splashed cold water on a warm myth. The 2005 movie story "Ruddy." Ruddy -- like the celebrated Gipper -- was an uplifting plot line about a kid coming out of nowhere and becoming a great moment in Note Dame's honored football mythology. Now to assert -- in keeping with today's scientific fixation on cold hard facts -- that pint-sized Ruddy didn't really make the team, and that the fabled Gipper wasn't actually all that Ronald Reagan's 1941 film portrayal imagined, seems like needlessly slaying giant teddy bears. Teddies, like Santa, who can not only be hugged, but used in the pursuit of great missions!

Oh, this myth-slaying has become quite rampant in these empirical days

Legends of great prophets, great kings, great sea partings, great soldiers of fortune, great pioneers of progress -- suddenly they have all been scooped into the same kind of vacuum cleaner celebrity magazines love to shred their subjects. Now if these tawdry little publications wish to devour the concocted myths about Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Britney Spears, John Edwards, and Mel Gibson -- nothing much lost.

On the other hand, if historians and anthropologists wish to antiseptically pick up apart the towering legends and myths that have helped civilization reach where it has -- much is lost. Perhaps more than a beleaguered society can bear. Or should be asked to bear, when it seriously needs heroes and heroics to cheer it on across the next finish line.

Friday, September 10, 2010


I hated to hear it...! The publisher of the New York Times said they will eventually stop printing...!

Yes, yes, I know all about on-line progress. And about the temporary dislocation and price society must pay for technological advancement. Fine. But at this age I must be allowed my memories. Memories, as we eventually learn, have a life of their own, for they are are totally independent of our will. Even of our better judgment.

And so, reading my hard copy of today's Times, a froth of satisfying breakfast-table memories bubble up. I hesitate at the prospects of someday being left only with those hard copy publications which have already surrendered responsible reporting to hustled headlining. When and if my Times stops delivering to my front door the aromatic fragrance of ink-on-paper, I fear I will have to work harder to ferret out what really counts in my society, no matter how spectacular my iPads will soon look!


Glitzy celebrity photo-journalism will persist more than ever in sophomorically spotlighting abs, bosoms and bar fights. Which will mean even less space for what once actually earned celebrity. Talent! Already talent and training have become the fascination of only the few, while the many flock more to the tough and tacky.

Sports too tends to be covered more and more for its fights on the playing fields and feuds in the locker rooms. What the ancient Greeks once elevated to statuarys of athleticism, is now the journalistic play dough of reporters concocting the next scandal. Scores, sure they'll still be listed day to day; ahh but scandals,they live forever.

Music and movies? Well, yes, other publications will continue to deal with them. But mostly measuring them in box office receipts rather than aesthetic rewards. True, the public is hooked by flashy marquee grabbers, but once inside the concert halls and the theatres, even the public need something more than PR to fill the next 120 minutes. Who will be left to so advise them?

Education too is a perennial news item, but there is so much more to this indispensable institution than the usual gaggle of re-churned stories about metal detectors, aging campuses, teacher pensions, and the latest shoot-from-the-hip reform sensation. If publishers have the temerity to talk about better teaching, they better get past the standard copy that gets used every September. But they won't.

Finally, gangs and mayhem are always the stuff that sells. If-it-bleeds-it-leads is still the newsroom mantra. Here, though, is the whole problem of skin-deep journalism in one hard-to-crack nutshell. Send in the cameras and reporters to catch the cadence of crime. Then quick put it out there. Now on to the next headline. No time for the back stories about where, why and how gangs will continue to fester if the public remains simply angry.

Picturing this brand of jungle journalism rushing to fill the print vacuum left by the Times is a picture worth more than a thousand words. But one will suffice: "Retreat!"

Mr Publisher -- tell me it ain't so....

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Ever get lost...? No, not looking for a street address in the city. Out in the countryside where there are no addresses. Out where, as they say, "God lost His shoes."

About 30 miles north of Chicago -- on my way to Wisconsin -- I took a wrong turn and ended up on a gravel side road which in turn ended up at the wet sandy edges of a small weedy lake. Well, why not? I parked and started to stroll the shoreline, for it was a perfect September morning in the American Midwest. It had all the triumphant footprints of a God who so loved the world, He gave us spectacular Autumn.

The thick oaks and elms were just starting their ceremonial transfiguration from rich greens to startling ambers and reds. The air cracked with the snap of a bracing chill, while the white waves lapped gently at the shoreline as if inviting you in. As for the sky and the sun overhead, well it's never like this back in the city where towering glass and steel foolishly try to compete.

This small secret cocoon was well worth getting lost in. One of those unscripted moments when nature takes its proper place in the hierarchy of your busy little life. When whoever (or whatever, if you prefer) gave it life whispers to you: "You are so very small, and you have so very little time."

It was just then that I saw it...!

About 100 yards down the beach a rickety dock nervously poking its head out a few feet into the lake. Suddenly, amazingly, I recognized that old pile of weathered wood. Hurry now to be sure. Ah yes, I'm right. Oh my God -- some 70 years later I re-discover where our family's Depression era cottage once stood. Not an especially impressive cottage, and yet the extended family's modest adventure during the summers of those terrible 30s.

Here's where nature and memories and God and I fall into one another's arms. The dock, though no longer used, is the same....the site, though no longer occupied by any building, is the same....the adjoining landscapes, though overgrown, are the same. The only thing changed is me.

However, for one shimmering moment, I am seven years old again. Blond, thin, scruffy, uncoordinated, one of a large loud family of aunts and uncles and cousins. Yet right here right now, I once more stand in the light of my young parents' love for their firstborn son. (Unknown to me, Richard was already stirring in our Mother's summertime dresses).

So I am standing and staring and weeping all at the very same impossible moment. I had to get lost on this September morning to find a precious piece of myself that once lived and breathed right here. Richard is still a member of this moment. But not Mom. Not Dad. Long gone back to the very same God who gifted me with this moment. One I shall treasure all the remaining moments of my life.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


M.I.A. is always a terrifying report. To be missing-in-action conjures up the worst of combat possibilities. And yet, MIA is not isolated to wars. There are countless cases in peacetime as well. Consider America here in 2010 where we find "missing" such desirables as: balanced budgets, full employment, fair taxes, and world peace.

When John Lennon wrote "Imagine" he had such felicities in mind, especially world peace. But now reverse the order, and imagine what our lives would be like if there were even more MIAs today.....

Imagine an America without on-line dating services. Surprising as it may seem to the elder generations, nearly 30% of all new couples in the US find one another via the Internet's growing social media.

Imagine an America without casinos. More and more cash-strapped states are granting casino permits to tap into needed tax receipts. In the northwest alone, there are 41 casinos with 20 more planned. Oh, and Illinois's 10th gambling palace is being erected as this is being written -- just 1.7 miles from my soon-to-be-boarded-up front door.

Imagine an America without strong and attractive women. Take Hale Berry and Sandra Bullock. Each betrayed by a skank of a husband which Cornell University studies show are disgustingly symptomatic of most 18-28 year old men who feel threatened by marrying successful beauties who overshadow their fragile male egos

Imagine an America in which the hot new TV series "Mad Men" were not available. In one of those peculiarly unpredictable flashes, its 1960s plot about hard-drinking ad men and busty broads has inflamed the imaginations of a whole new generation. Having myself been there in the late 1950s, I have documentable doubts about this portrayal; but who cares about doubts when you're busy dreaming.

Now imagine an America without children. Unthinkable? And yet with the start of another school year, our streets are empty each day from morning to afternoon. Walk them sometime and drink in the silence. Not only instructive, but impoverishing.

Finally, imagine an America without the Internet. For all it questionable effects on everything from brain circuits to moral values, it has achieved something of Lennon's dream. Most of the world's 6 billion inhabitants are now in instant 24/7 touch with one another's facts, feelings, and fortunes. No party, no government, no army can completely stifle this planet-wide exchange. And that -- fellow imagineers -- could be the beginning of something bigger than even John Lennon imagined...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Seventy-one years ago this month, WWII began when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. A friend of mine was a child in Germany at that time. His father was a member of the elite SS, and Hitler's mistress Eva Braun was living next door to them. To him as a child, they were simply Auntie Eva and Uncle Adolf.

Another friend of mine was in the US 8th Air Force which dropped 640,000 tons of bombs on Auntie and Uncle by war's end in May 1945. The issue then was whether the world could stop the Teutonic Nazi God. The issue today seems to be whether the world should stop believing in any God. Uber-physicist Stephen Hawking now says in his new book that it shouldn't...!

Hawking is not using bombs, simply laws. He argues in part: "Because there is a law such as gravity, then the universe can and will create itself from nothing." A bold assertion (different than his earlier views) which slams in the face of the Medieval premise: "Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit (from nothing comes nothing)."

I haven't yet asked my German friend, but I did my Air Force friend how he reacts to the idea of a post-war world without a God. Trained in physics himself, he said: "What's funny is that people say that asserting a God takes a leap-of-faith; yet asserting the universe just popped into being is considered to be rationally compelling. I don't get it!"

Apparently neither did a cross-section of seniors in a recent AARP poll. The question was: If a genetic test showed that you could live to be 100, what would you do?

* 8% said start another romance
* 15% said live a wilder life
* 38% said they wouldn't change a thing
* 45% said take better care of myself

No one mentioned God. Either way. Was this because they agree with what Hawking says? Was it because they don't care what Hawking says? Assuming most of us AARP-ers won't make it to 100, it's too bad Hawking's assertion wasn't on the survey. After all, God's season is coming up soon for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike....

Monday, September 6, 2010


I fell asleep reading the latest Harris International poll of the world's most popular leaders. The top three were Barack Obama, Dalai Lama, and Hillary Clinton; the bottom three were Ahmadinejad, Gadhafi, and Hu Jintao. When I awoke, I realized I had slipped down through a rabbit hole and into the Wonderland of Woe.

Wandering through the dark, misty streets of its capitol city I first came upon a loud angry group of drinkers in a loud angry pub. As I listened, it seemed they were angry because they -- mostly a portly middle-aged lot -- were yelling at a football game on the TV set, insisting "they don't make 'em like they used to!" It was puzzling, for if "they" referred to them, it was probably a good thing!

Later I found myself in a hospital waiting room where angry family members were in bitter discussion about the test results the doctors had presented them concerning their mother. The report was not good, but amid the tears of concern was the rage of condemnation. "What the hell good is it to go to doctors who can't cure!"

Nearby stood a house of worship. Stunning building but totally empty. Outside its doors were a group of protesters with signs shouting: "God is dead!" I asked one of them how did he know this. He was a tall, reedy fellow whose eyes burned into mine: "Hell, if you don't know, I'm not the one to tell you!"

A little way further stood a high school building. The students -- smoking and laughing in their grungy tattooed worst -- were leaving at the end of their day. I took it upon myself to ask the one who seemed in charge: "What did you learn today?" He took a deep angry drag on his cigarette and hissed back: "Hey, man, going in there is just what we do between deals out here. Teachers -- they got nothing!"

As I turned the street corner I saw a large court house. Busy place with people and police and lawyers moving in and out through metal detectors. I simply had to ask one of the better dressed lawyers: "What's it like in your country today?" The answer was chilling: "It's not my country anymore. It's pretty much owned by the bankers, the generals, and that mealy-mouthed, pretend-leader in the White House. Me, I'm just going through the motions!"

It was only a brief misty visit, but it was perfectly clear. In this Wonderland of Woe, everyone agreed on one thing. Things were bad and the only proper cause for their woes was whoever was in charge. Meaning the fingers of guilt and responsibility never pointed to them; only to the imperfect persons in charge, who were probably still the only people still trying.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


The day I met Dustin Hoffman was in early 1968, just after the release of his breakout film "The Graduate." It was over lunch in New York City. At the time neither of us could realize his film was to become symbolic of the enormous seismic shift taking place in America.

Before -- it was the so-called golden ages of radio, movies and television (recently marred by the horrific but unlikely assassination of a president). After -- came the explosive ages of civil rights, war protests, presidential cover ups, and culture wars between still-feuding Right and Left. Consider some of the contrasting facts (or, more correctly, impressions):


* Throughout the 30s, 40s, 50s Americans were listening to post-Victorian soap operas on radio where even the comedians were tightly censored. Network radio was the first and one of the last times in which entire families nationwide gathered at one time for one collective experience. Programs like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, the Lux Radio Theatre, and FDR's fireside chats

* Movies too were still in their Hays Office era in which love, marriage, sex and violence were tightly restricted. Heroes like Clark Gable, Van Johnson and even Marlon Brando were held to careful script standards. Along with sparkly clean heroines like Ginger Rogers, Maureen O'Hara and Doris Day who were clearly women in the classic tradition of Victorian right-and-wrong. It was said, and arguably true, that Hollywood was produced by Jews, censored by Catholics, and watched by Protestants

* Television tended to feature what was considered to be the best-of-America. And so these were the years of holiday specials by Bing Crosby and Perry Como; variety shows with guiltless humor by Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, and Ed Sullivan (who showed the new rebel Elvis only from the waistline up); and morality-purified series like "Father Knows Best," "Leave it to Beaver," and "Bonanza" where good and good guys always prevailed


It is cool today to look back and find the flaws in this tapestry of American entertainment. We are reminded of the hypocrisy of those years in which African Americans, women, and gays were denied their rights. In which American capitalism after WWII was riding high at the expense of the rest of the world's depressed economies. In which purity was really no more than a hustle to get audiences, while producers and casts rang up record-sized rates of adultery, divorce and mayhem.

To the credit of the AFTER generations, America today is a far less restricted and far more candid culture. One in which everyone is perfectly and proudly willing to say "Your Golden Age was really a fraud, and now we can each go our own individual way!" While that's remarkably true, it may harbor a remarkable truth. Namely this. The gravitational forces of the 30s, 40s,and 50s tended to draw our diverse society together onto common grounds... while today's centrifugal forces tend to pull our society further and further apart.

Yes, apart into self-respecting distinctions (by gender, nationality, race and culture). But alas, apart into assertively different Americas in which these different Americas stand proud and tall, yet totally out of touch with the other Americas. Some see this as the historic demise of our national greatness; others see it as the historic challenge to our national greatness.

The score here is not yet in. A lot is riding on it...

Saturday, September 4, 2010


There are scholars who argue we are living in the best of times. Say what...? It's true, they reply. Despite wars, terrors, environmental disasters and financial collapses, they have the facts and statistics to argue that this decade has been humanity's finest.

Why then doesn't it seem that way...? It's the media, they reply. Global media brings us every trauma every hour of every day, giving a truly golden era a gloomy look

Taken raw, the facts and statistics are on their side. As Charles Kenney of Foreign Policy writes: "The planet's 6 billion residents lived better, longer, more peaceful and prosperous lives than ever before in recorded history." He points to birth/longevity/literacy/poverty rates to lock in his case.

His stubbornly cheery report makes a good read. And offers some reason to pause in our daily despair. Charles Dickens may have said it best: "It was he best of time, it was the worst of times." To personalize all this >>

* The free enterprise system is the best of systems in the hands of proud individual enterprisers; it's the worst system when enterprisers like Blackwater have been found guilty of malfeasance in the Middle East, and still get 30 new billion-dollar contracts from the government!

* The college football season was always the best of times for those of us who grew up with the get-one-for-the-Gipper mythology wrapped around Notre Dame; now begins another worst-of-times season whose grim history seems peculiarly to have begun that September my youth ended!

* The black beverage coffee is the world's most exotic drink and its second most traded commodity; yet it is still the worst of times every morning as I once more take bean and pot in hand seeking the perfect brew!

* Joan has been the joy of my life for 60 years; but every birthday is the worst of times, for it is a reminder that there is a clock somewhere ticking!

As in Dickens' classic story, it is time to remember the world must be embraced just as it is, not as we wish it to be. By doing that, we can then honestly say: "It is a far far better thing I do than I have ever done before..."

Friday, September 3, 2010


Three classic statements that put an exclamation mark to an argument: (1) "Check the record!" (2) "Look at the facts!" (3) "Read the statistics!"

In an age when records, facts and statistics wash across our sensorium from a thousand thousand digital/print sources every day, it should be easy to locate what these argument-breakers are referring to. Aha, but modern humanity is learning that having access to such vast warehouses of data hardly ends any argument. Simply shifts it into higher and hotter gear.

If truth is the purpose of an argument [it rarely is], why won't the records/facts/statistics confidently take us there? The answer is wretchedly obvious:

* RECORDS ~ Compare any story on any day as covered by the New York Times vs Wall Street Journal; Fox News vs MSNBC; the Congressional Record vs White House news conference. Each source a legitimate public record, but a record gathered and packaged by sharply different perspectives on the same reality!

* FACTS ~ Compare the way an approaching hurricane is covered by the print media (where it can only be documented) and by network television (where it can be purposely dramatized ). Or compare how a recent sit-down between Chicago's Top Cop and local gang leaders is understood by some as a "smart move" while others call it "a city sellout." Each fact the very same fact, but perceived and acted upon in totally different ways!

* STATISTICS ~ Compare the ratio of 50:1 describing the relationship between American executive vs assembly line salaries. We are told that statistics don't lie. So what is this statistic telling us, us the seekers after the truth to settle the argument? For the executive class, it is an honest reflection of how the free enterprise system rewards the best with more; to the assembly line class, it is out & out rape. Same stat, passionately different conclusions!

The fact of the matter is that modern society needs record/facts/stats to work with. Like the bricks to a building, they are indispensable. And yet, in the hands and visions of different architects, those assembled bricks can result in either a Gothic cathedral, a condo tower, or a whore house.

When those who take righteous pride in the authenticity of their bricks, first ask them what kind of structure are they trying to build. Their answer may not give you the truth you're looking for, but it may give you the pause you need when looking at that raw pile of bricks...

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Meet Dick Confidence...!

He believes in God (especially a blue-eyed one)...Country (especially his understanding of it)....Mom (especially when she was a stay-at-home guardian of hearth & home)....neat neighborhoods (especially without too many noisy kids)....cops (especially when they arrest other people not him)....Flag, Church and the local Rotary....most particularly he believes in the destiny of a better tomorrow.

Dick sounds like a nice guy. Maybe a little like you and me at one time. Back in the roaring 1920s and again in the robust 1990s, the mantra of all the Dick Confidences was: "Becoming better every day in every way."

But now that Dick has seen the future -- same boom-and-bust cycles, brutal job-sucking competition of global economics, re-surging enemies and receding resources -- Dick often hears another mantra: "I guess I'm adult now, but the question is how did this happen and how do we make it stop?"

As adults we start learning some of the answers, but the future keeps changing all the questions. Maybe Currie & Ives and Norman Rockwell had the right idea about America -- keep it safely as it was! Freeze those sweet, imagined moments inside eternal artwork! That once-upon-a-time was touchable, manageable. On the other hand, this ready-or-not future sneaked up on us without warning. Worst of all, without a user manual.

Dick is caught as if on an ice floe which has split in half. One leg stands on what was...the other on what is becoming... in between and below is the black ocean. Dick has to make his choice. Quickly. As the old school readers would say: "See Dick, See Dick Run." But there was always a Jane in those stories. What one wonders will be the choice of today's Janes and yesterday's Dicks.

Come to think of it -- do they even have a choice?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Do you eat to live or live to eat...? I'm Italian, so my answer is a given. But what about famous people, not only famous but not Italian?

Matthew and Mark Jacob have published a new and detailed answer in their book "What The Great Ate." Some surprising morsels in here.

For instance, did you know the fleshy-looking Buddha was actually very thin because of his many fasts. Clearly, he ate to live. Although according to legend, he "ate his way to enlightenment by consuming rice balls." Confucius was writing about his favorite fruit, peaches, 500 years before it appeares in western history. Then there is Jesus who used 5 fishes for one of his greatest miracles. Missing the point of the miracle, some anthropologists have decided they were talapia (eaten in the Middle East for millennia, but only on chi chi American menus recently).

Thomas Jefferson was a masterful horticulturist who introduced the colonies to eggplant and tomatoes. George Washington was said to be a rather dour dinner host who blamed his dental problems on years of cracking walnut shells with his teeth.

Lincoln is reported to have been as down-home in his eating habits as was his general persona. A hearty eater, he once claimed, "I can eat corn cakes as fast as any two women could make them."

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was troubled with recurring indigestion. He experimented with diets like vegetarianism, then later, milk and eggs only. Nothing much worked, perhaps explaining some of his darker conclusions about life. As for Thomas Edison, he was a simple but ravenous steak eater.

What is one to make of the Jacobs new book? Hard to find a message in there. Kafka was a vegetarian...Raymond Chandler a would-be master chef...Ernest Hemingway big on chocolate cake...Jean-Paul Sartre insistent on "unraveling the existential significance" of the foods he ate. Which may make him the least interesting eater in the entire book!

President Eisenhower found batches of vegetable soup a cathartic ritual when the pressures built up...President Reagan loved jelly beans, hated tomatoes....and today's Tea Partiers, well judging from their piously contradictory oratory, they have a hankering for fruitcake!