Sunday, October 31, 2010


After all those scary Mayan Calendar predictions about the year 2012, now new research says earth's flaming finale won't actually come for many years later. Therefore, fans, the never-ending, end-of-the-world cottage industry marches on. However, here's one non-Mayan who found a finale of sorts just a few weeks ago.

Despite today's exotica of GPS systems, such paraphernalia can only get you to places. Not to feelings. And so it was I ventured into my old west-side community of Austin without paraphernalia. Only passion. A passion to re- experience the feelings of my young days poring over the great books here in our neighborhood's small library.

The local demographics have changed dramatically. But the cozy, brown-brick building remains proudly intact. [Right alongside Austin's 1900 replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall where I was to meet my wife-to-be exactly 50 years after it was apparently built for us!]. In these same dusty stacks, this pre-teen explored the classics...the biographies...most especially all those self-help books boys crave in order to improve everything from their dating personality to their curve ball.

A quiet Saturday morning and clearly out of place. I crumpled into a back chair, and pretended to be reading a magazine. What I was really doing is trying to re-live the hopes and yearnings of a skinny kid in the early 1940s looking to make sense of his place in his world's large wars and dramas. [Oh, and also trying to re-live what it felt like to be desperately in love with Rosemary, reigning beauty-queen of our 7th grade!].

It was then that my pre-Mayan finale hit home.

It was that photo on the wall. Could it be? Yes, it was. It was an old B&W group shot on the library steps of some Saturday morning kids years ago. And, gee, the skinny kid with the unkempt hair was among them. A tiny moment in distant time frozen forever by a nameless photographer. You examine it and you say to yourself the only words that fit: "That was once me. This is now me. From a finale to a prologue. All in the Biblical four-score-and-ten. Not great...but not bad!"

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Grumble all you want about the US Postal Service, but they do reach us six solid days every week of the year. Not always with the kind of mail we may like opening, but imagine our world without them. Not only without their service, but without their stamps. Those eye-popping little works of art we take far too much for granted...!

They constitute a happy spectacle that features our lands and monuments, our heroes and celebrities, even -- well, by gosh, even our comic strips. Right now they're featuring: Dennis the Menace, Archie, Garfield, Beetle Bailey, and Calvin & Hobbes. You can of course simply stick them on envelopes; but better still, you can take the time to enjoy how these comics catch the comedic cadence of American life:

* The perpetually five-year-old Dennis debuted in 1951. His innocent curiosity about anything and everything can drive his parents and neighbors a little nuts, but doesn't his happy mischief remind you of somebody very dear? That's right: You. In so many brings-a-smile-to-your-face ways, Dennis reminds us of us when we and America were just a little younger, and maybe simpler

* Seventeen-year-old Archie is the idealized American teen. Remember...? Happily torn between the haughty Veronica and sweet Betty, Archie eternally wanders through his high school years a composite of curious and clueless. Surely adolescence never was this simple, but it's still fun to think it was

* Garfield first strutted across the stage of American life in 1978 as the incarnation of everything feline. A self- centered, cynical, crabby tabby who allows his bachelor Jon Arbuckle to live with him. Garfield can say more about the human condition is just one small thought-bubble than most us us can in a spoken paragraph. Each day we're left to wonder why we weren't born a catered-to cat

* Beetle Bailey was drafted into the Army in 1950, and has remained the laziest GI in the service. But what he and his hassling sergeant remind us is that there really is a parallel universe to our own safe civilian one. And whereas with Beetle there are laughs, he continues to remind us that his army is what allows you and me to keep laughing

* Finally Calvin & Hobbes. Six-year-old Calvin and his inseparable tiger pal Hobbes ponder the mysteries of their world. Our world. And within just a few panes of brilliant comedic artwork, they seem to solve so many of them. Philosophy 102 with pictures. But unlike most cartoonists, their creator produced only from 1985 to 1995, leaving us to ponder all that his inventions once pondered

What an amazing world...! What an amazing variety of ways to study it....! What better way than by taking a second look at what you're sticking on that next envelope...!

Friday, October 29, 2010


It is said: Perception is reality. Really...?

Psychologists and sociologists make a good case for it. In the case of both individuals and societies. A handy experiment would be the news we watch tonight (our perceptions) being reported on television (our reality). Night after night, we sit/slump/hide on our couch as we face this unforgiving barrage of sights & sounds. And while we are virtually helpless to do anything about this news, our perceptions continue to define and refine the reality we're watching:

* What we (and the networks) perceive as news is invariably "bad" by definition. And yet, if it takes something bad to warrant all this attention, is it possible such bad exceptions prove the rule most of the everyday world is good?

* What we (and the networks) perceive as "good" is more and more being defined in terms of rankings. If something or someone is ranked higher by some self-appointed ranking service, this/they is deemed to be good. And yet, is it possible our obsession with being ranked first (teams, movies, sales, elections, GNP, missiles, etc) totally ignores all that is creatively happening in second, third, even fiftieth place?

* What we (and the networks) perceive as entertainment has evolved over time. From the early days of puppet shows to westerns to family sitcoms to sci-fi and now a catastrophe of reality programs. Programs in which for some sociopathic reasons we have concluded that bizarre is normal, vulgar is endearing, and over-the-top stupidity is engaging. Why is what once sent people to the principal's office or jail, is now celebrated as show business?

* What we (and the networks) perceive as democracy-in-action has often degenerated into fury-on-the-screen. Seems as if what concerns us most are the bureaucratic mistakes, off-camera gaffes, hotel-room trysts, and the talking-heads who have mastered volume over validity. Whatever happened to political philosophies, facts and policies as the issues that should be examined?

But lets be honest here.

Complaints and questions like these are standard fare these days at dinner tables, golf courses, even houses of worship. Makes us feel good to know what's wrong with our world. And to speak our piece. Trouble is, tonight we'll be back on that couch in front of that set just the same. And because most of us will be doing the same thing -- well, that's not news.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Everyone remembers how the grungy circus handyman answered the question: When are you going to give up this lousy job scooping up after elephants. "What, and give up show business...!!" Actually there are thousands of elephant-scoopers in the world today, but dressing well and making the big bucks. They're called publicists, and they get paid to scoop up the dung left behind by their famous clients.

The clients generally come in three categories: Celebrities...competitors...capitalists.

Celebrities are the performers whose egos make them say or do dumb things. At one time the likes of Fatty Arbuckle, Errol Flynn, and Mickey Rooney. Lately: Mel Gibson, Whitney Houston, Lindsay Lohan, Alec Baldwin, and Charlie Sheen. Ahhh, but the natty elephant scoopers are always there to explain to the media why the tipsters and paparazzi got this story all wrong.

Competitors are the muscled-up athletes who, off the field, are found jumping fans in the stands, bar brawls, domestic violence arrests, and dog-fighting. Their well-heeled publicists display even greater athleticism as they dance around the ugly facts during the next morning's press conference. Just like the high-paid celebrities, these competitors are multi-million-dollar investments their owners want protected from -- God forbid! -- any bad PR.

Then there are elephant-scoopers for capitalists whose Wall Street or corporate holdings must be salvaged at all costs. Not only for the sake of their yachts and resorts, but the confidence of all the suckers who invest in them. Their publicists are usually sitting behind them in courts and Congress, whispering save-our-ass advice,

Oh yes...there's a fourth category: Our politicians.Those whose careers depend upon what and how they say things. Be they president or simple bureaucrat, these days there is always a hidden camera somewhere. So whatever stupid things they utter have the possibility of becoming viral on the Internet within moments. Their elephant-scoopers begin every next-day explanation with the scripted words: "What he/she meant to say..."

Just another schadenfreude day in the good old USA....! Will our capricious public forgive and forget, or will they bray like one of those circus elephants enjoying their owners catching a face full of their own manure...?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Reading your daily newspaper is not much fun anymore. The news is relentlessly bad, and the stories unbearably familiar. However, reading your daily newspaper in the local barbershop can be very different. Eloquently so...!

Here I refer to the little drama that was playing out during my last visit. Dickie -- I think that was his name -- 3-year-old Dickie was getting his first "grown-up" haircut. Now before we rush past this observation, lets consider for a precious moment just what a celebratory event this is.

There, cloaked and perched atop the barber-chair's kiddie platform, is the little boy about to experience his initiation into little manhood. There will of course be others. The newest teen-look...the swaggering stud-look ....the prom-night-look....eventually, at my age, the save-whatever-hair-you-can-look.

But on this particular Thursday afternoon, proud hovering mama was giving the barber her last teary-eyed instructions. She wanted Dickie to look like a big-boy, and yet not so much that he would lose the little-boy look she has so cherished for so long. Ron -- the patient master with the shears -- listened attentively. Then tried to accomplish the mission even while mama kept circling the chair. And Dickie kept fidgeting with uncertainty.

What makes the scene so indispensable is its existential implications.

Here is a study in parental love...professional patience...youth on the verge....and a shop full of adults whose lives may in some way be shaped by emerging Dickie and all the other Dickies in the land. A kind of torch-passing as one generation offers up its best gift to a waiting world. Some day soon, Dickie might just be the quarterback we cheer, the candidate we elect, the neighbor who moves next door, and yes the future we count on.

Mama surely understands all this, as she carefully scoops up some of Dickie's locks for her very own....

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


You have to wonder what Alice would have thought about today's flashy dress-up parties re-living the 1960s America of "Mad Men." The hit TV show has made it fun and fashionable. Especially around Halloween. But there may be more here than meets the jaded eye.

When Alice fell through her rabbit hole, she was falling through time. In her case, a topsy-turvy time concocted by the imagination of Lewis Carroll. In 21st C America, when we fall through time, there are usually specific conventions. Voice-of-God documentaries...sepia-toned movies...Broadway revivals....and now these costume parties where everyone dresses up to look like what we think we once looked like.

This is not to ruin the parties; but as both Alice and Lewis could tell you, the "Mad Men" years were more than narrow ties, beehive hairdos, chain-smoking offices, and three-martini lunches. In true Carrollian fashion, there are serious lessons to be harvested. Take for instance the ad game itself. In contrast to today's brashy headlines and quick-cut soundbites, back then Madison Avenue actually took time to talk about the product. As a product you could use, not a feeling you could become. Check out the records, because the American attention-span (flighty as it may be) was actually three times what it is today.

Putting aside the wows and widgets being pitched back then, its citizenry therefore was actually a tad less susceptible to what goes on here a tumultuous half-century later.The American genus circa 2010 is essentially a complex composite of genes, brain lobes and DNA which has been so thoroughly tested and timed, it's become an exotic pinball machine. The smart players with the big bucks have mastered this machine. They know our every whim, wish, and worry. So they can put the ball into play -- be it for purchases or votes -- in such a way that they, more than we, are in control of the game!

Not to become too Star Trekking about this, but "we the people" are no longer quite what we think we are. True, we still scream orders from the stadium every mistake on Monday morning...pronounce mighty judgments on our despised political leaders....and grumble voraciously about how we could do it all better. But stirring Fourth-of July rhetoric aside, "we the people" have been so well decoded, even we don't always know what we know and what we intend to do about it.

But "they" do.

Not the Oliver Stone "they" conspiring terrible evils somewhere. Actually most of the "theys" are nice folks in ad offices, boardrooms, government departments, and think-tanks with fine-sounding money missions. But the thing Lewis Carroll noticed so brilliantly, is how often "they" know just how to make "us" their missions' messengers....!

Monday, October 25, 2010


"Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise..." When 18th C English poet Thomas Gray scratched out those lines, he had no way of knowing how this 21st C reader has come to embrace them. Not just poetically, but philosophically. What's more, this reader invites other readers to consider it as their own secret garden from the storms of knowledge pounding outside our gates.

Knowledge -- in and of itself -- is to be desired and admired. Anyone who has invested 40 years in the classrooms of knowledge must attest to that fact. And yet, in gaining knowledge, something must yield to make room for it. Is that not Gray's blissful ignorance...?

A prima facie case comes to mind: That terrible knowledge about Santa which stoutly obliges us to dismiss all those happy little ignorances about a jolly red rider....sleighs in the night...reindeers that can fly....and gifts nested beneath great green trees. Frankly, I still hate the little jerk who smugly shared his 2nd grade knowledge with me!

And what about today's exponentially growing body of scientific knowledge? It is surely good that we now understand how our planet spins in space, how weather can be predicted, and how germs can be defeated. On the other side of the knowledge ledger, some of us feel cursed -- yes, that's my name for it! -- cursed with the knowledge that no one lives in the moon....stars are not telling us something....winds in the night are not the whispers of loved ones, simply the results of something called a trans-Canadian current!

At one time, thick red steaks and fatty donuts were fun. Napping instead of jogging was acceptable. Burning autumn leaves on the fragrant altar of our curb-sides was a dreamy liturgy, not an ordinance violation. Cigars and chocolate and cholesterol were pleasures without penalties. Oh, and our knowledge of priests and ministers and rabbis was happily limited to what they stood for more than what they stumbled over!

Good minds will protest -- ignorance is humanity's chains. Gentle hearts may counter -- when ignorance 'tis bliss, perhaps this bliss trumps brash. Sweet lies taste better than hard truths. It's that ancient head/heart thing. Which to fill more? Head raises us above the animals, but heart warms us against the cold. It's never an either/or; mainly, a which/when.

Which part of our being to rely on when a choice is to be made. As for me (and possibly Thomas Gray) a sharp wind in the night tells my head to put on a coat. But those peculiar shadows racing across the moon tell my heart that my books have not yet slain all of the night's mystery and magic....

Sunday, October 24, 2010


During another age of crisis, Eleanor Roosevelt said it well: "Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." When it comes to ideas, one of the biggest is finding where our crises fit into the storyline of history. Helps sharpen the lens through which you're seeing and understanding them.

But lets get it straight, up front....! This may not be the best of times, but surely not the worst. The brutality and mayhem of ancient and medieval generations was usually as close as your own front door (if you had a door). Plagues, raids, pillaging, raping, torture, and witch burnings were commonplace. With few if any authorities to turn to for redress. And so our species suffered and died by the tens of millions who today could be saved.

Two world wars...several holocausts...weapons of mass destruction...but aren't these even worse? Well, in quantity, yes; but not necessarily in quality. The real difference between the madness of our times and previous times has to do with our MO (modus operandi). Then, history could easily finger the forces at work. The village shaman...the local king...the conquering general...the emperor or pope or mountain god. Whereas today, our fingers can search long and hard, but rarely if ever find any one operational source for our troubles.

Oh sure, go to any barbershop or beauty salon, and you'll hear the names of the latest villains of choice. Brutish neighbors...corrupt cops...scandalous mayors and governors....and of course whoever happens to be president this year. But these are just this year's conveniently chosen needles in the haystack. The stack itself is right before your eyes, and yet its role and reign in all this remains virtually invisible.

You see, the madness of our times has become different than in any other times. Humanity -- in all its triumphs of science, medicine and arts -- has perfected its own complexity. Has created a haystack with a million million inter-woven strands impossible to single out. Global banking stock data banks credit satellites. Very little left that is local. That we can put a name or a face or an address on. In fact, these global entities have become tentacles without a head. They exist simply because now they exist!

Behold, then, the mighty works of man. The Bible used the metaphor of the Tower of Babel, and the warning that pride goeth before the fall. Today's pride seems to have crafted a tower of mechanisms not even its creators can climb. Let alone control.

Returning to our haystack. Remember the good old days when needles had a name. And could still be found? However, getting mad and burning down the whole stack -- maybe that's a fire no one should start. Here's a crazy idea instead: How about working together to re-pitch the hay? "Together" being the operational word.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


In music, counter-point means blending contrasting melodies. The results can be elevating. But in society, it's often the contrast without the blending. These results can be exhausting.

Here's an example to worry over. The study in the un-blended contrasts between America then and now.

June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley in real life) was America's perfect 1950's mom on the hit show "Leave it to Beaver." You needn't remind me how absurd it was to be the perfect mother with the perfect answers, always in perfect pearls and heels. Those of you who know only 21st C America have no idea just how gently reassuring that was to millions of kids and parents alike.

Barbara died a few weeks ago. Mrs Cleaver actually died many years before. She died in the jungles of Vietnam ...the bloody street in Dallas....the protests and riots and Watergate and drug gangs and Middle Eastern wars. By our times, her times have the look of an Egyptian excavation site. An era and an aura you can uncover, but you can't re-live.

"Hypocritical," today's cynics charge. And they're right. Because life and families were never quite how they were portrayed in the Cleaver household. However, being right is little cause for satisfaction. Or celebration. Most of us back then saw no reason to laugh at the gentle Cleaver fiction. After all. reaching for the stars means you'll never come up with a handful of mud. As today's muddier times bear witness.

Television today has turned its back on "hypocritical" by kidnapping this thing it calls "reality." Then gluing it onto its programming. But if June Cleaver was absurd, today's reality queens and studs are abysmal. Watching nightly television is like being water-boarded. Its families have substituted gentle with psychotic. Its young have replaced home with hangouts. Its stand-ups use crouches in place of comedy. Ripped-from-the-headline dramas mean featuring what's worst not best in what's left of our tattered species.

No June Cleavers and Beavers anywhere in sight. But at least we can tell ourselves we're not being "hypocritical." It would seem that reaching for the stars -- regardless of how far and far-fetched -- is deemed dispensable. In the place of naivete we have negativism. Substituting for pride there is protest. After awhile, there is this inexplicable sense that faces and forces far beyond our understanding are somehow somewhere running the world. An we're just walking through our designated parts.

If "Leave it to Beaver" is in re-runs, check it out. You'll miss what you missed...!

Friday, October 22, 2010


Maybe you've done it too. Imagine yourself at the Pearly Gates. Assuming -- for the sake of discussion and deliverance -- those Gates exist, what might we be asked...?

I've been advised that -- whatever our religious or irreligious predisposition -- only one question will greet us: "How did you use My gift?"

Posed that way, life surely does appear to be a gift. So. Was it cherished? Enjoyed? Spent? Wasted? Mis-understood? As you can see, the question quickly becomes complicated. What's more, we don't get a second chance to live it; at least not the same one. However, of all the possible answers, the most tragic may be: "I mis-understood it." That's something like coming back from the Grand Canyon and reporting the litter!

In contrast to ours, have you ever noticed the eyes of a child? They're wide and open and bursting with wonder. Our's have gradually narrowed and squeezed and become impatient. We grow more weary and wary. We tend to see and accept only what we want to see and accept.

Enter the great curse of adulthood: Skipping...!

Not playfully as the child, but impatiently as one who won't take the time. The time to get past the fast headlines... the quickie captions...the nifty soundbites...the handy labels...the smarmy rumors. Imagine if the tabloids and celebrity magazines were the only ones reporting the news:

* Bible > "Dead Guy Catches On With The Fans!"

* High Schools >"Metal Detectors For The Stupid!"

* Police > "Donuts Run Amuck!"

* PBS > "Television To Go To Sleep By!"

* Government > "Fire Them All!"

Kinda cute? Sorta correct? Well, that's precisely why some reporters and broadcasters go this route. Busy audiences like their news fast. Simple. Easy to remember. You know, it's why some prefer Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondheim. You can hum the melody as you leave the theatre. Trouble is, today's melodies are almost always in the key of H. H for half-truths!

If life is a gift, and time is the package it comes in, then it's probably a good idea to unwrap it more slowly. More carefully. And a lot more lovingly.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Alchemists tried to turn base metals into gold. Television tries to turn bad scripts into hits. Scientists try for the really big prize: Turning here & now into there & then. In other words, space/time travel...

This has been the dream of humanity for centuries. Especially lately when our physicists have mastered so much of the right stuff. Thrust, speed, and propulsion. But while staggering amounts of money and mastery assemble in places like Switzerland's Hadron Collider, this wonder can be found no further than your very own CD player.

Here's how you do it.

Select a favorite old song (it has to be at least 10 years old)...turn down the lights (dim is OK, dark is even better) ....then close your eyes and permit the music to seep into your very being. If you do this in just the right way -- Shazam, you're back there! You're back then! For the next 3 minutes, you really really are!

Maybe it's that Christmas morning you scrambled under the tree to rip open what Santa brought you. Or that June night when you held in your Senior Prom arms that special someone you were sure would be in your life forever. Or possibly that band march you and your kids tapped to as together you watched the local Fourth of July parade through town. Or it could be that haunting love theme the two of you held hands to in the movie theatre that long ago night-of-nights.

Music has this way of directly connecting with where your heart and soul live. Oh, it passes through the aural nerves and brain circuits; but it virtually by-passes the intellect. Who needs intellect and cognition when magic is at work...? The magic of being transported into places and moments no longer visible on any maps. Except the secret, treasured map of your life.

An extraordinary power, this. However, it's not one which can be designed into a formula. Or completely shared with others. This is a very personal alchemy of acclamation. A burst of exaltation. A skill to be mastered, then to be cherished. And if you can, it will permit you to travel anywhere and anytime in your life. All at the speed of a heartbeat or a tear drop.

One warning! Once you've mastered these spellbinding journeys, be sure you remember how to find your way back....

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Why, we wonder, has Halloween become second only to Christmas in modern America's decorations and fascinations.....

Is it possible -- like Christmas -- Halloween whooshes us into the enigmatic realm of the unlikely? Of the deliciously impossible? Is it that it pulls and tugs us out of our everyday comfort zone, compelling a confrontation with things that don't quite compute? In other words, is it possible that this neatly rational century of ours occasionally enjoys giving way to witches, spirits, skeletons, vampires, and all things not of this world?

When kids get this way, it's written off as, well, as kiddish. However, adults in increasing numbers are getting into the act. Masks, costumes, frights, and parties are no longer just for the kids. I mean, why should they have all the fun pretending to be something they're not. A privilege lost with maturity, now fondly re-wished for. Especially when this maturity of ours has ball-and-chained us to such excruciating adult confusions and consternations.

What can be so wrong with a little October escape from them..?

It's not likely the escape will be all that successful. But even prisoners welcome their daily walk under the sun. In the case of Halloween, it's not the sun so much as the moon. Halloween traditionally is played out in the night; and among all things nightly. Time enough to wake up again to the confusions and consternations awaiting us.

In the meantime, take a closer look at those moms and dads escorting their costumed kids to your front door. Is that a wisp of envy you see in their eyes? I know you'll find it in mine....

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Midnight is not a something. More to the point, It is a something experienced. In different manners and moods by different people; but as an experience, it is surely one of our universals.

When a child, midnight is often a mission. A goal to see if you can stay up for it. It being whatever magic and mystery your curious heart has attributed to it. With young curious hearts there is always the edge of awe. The witching hour when adults somehow become and do what we're not allowed to witness during the rest of the day. Why even Santa arrives about this time, bearing witness to its significance.

Later, with adolescent hormones flowing, midnight assumes other shapes and specifics. That erotic time when the night air becomes more fragranced, and the one in your arms more lovable. It's as if the earlier hours were mostly impatient prologue. 'round midnight is when things start to happen. Important things, intoxicating things. Now, when all the world is asleep, it is the best time to be awake.

Still later -- working, married or mated, tired at the end of the day -- midnight is when you turn off the set. You need your sleep. The fragrance you detect in the midnight air is just as likely Vicks as it is Violets. But that's OK, for there are snugly memories to warm your dreams, and promising weekends to whet your appetite. If midnight is not always intoxicating, it has other charms.

For parents, midnights can take on restless meanings. As in: "Where is he with the car he promised to get back by 11?" "Who is she with right now, it's been an hour since she called in?" What once cued off-stage violins while the two of you looked up into the midnight stars, has now become the hinge of fate. My God, could our children be doing what we were doing as children!

Time happens. Life happens. Another thousand midnights happen. Suddenly -- well, really not so suddenly -- we are old. The tick of the night-time clock speaks a different language. It now speaks of time spent...time lost...time treasured. Midnight becomes less special, simply the hour after eleven. You still find the night has a thousand eyes, but yours are resting. Resting in the knowledge that time is a seamless cloth. It has swaddled you from birth, borne you through life, now gifts you with the wonder of your own soft breathing.

Before going off to sleep, it simply must be asked....! All these midnights in all these lives that have populated all these centuries -- have they and we really been nothing more than some capricious cosmic accident...?

Monday, October 18, 2010


Most of the nation's beaches have now been closed. Always a feeling you've lost something you wanted for some reason you can't remember. e.e.cummings put it this way: "For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) its always ourselves we find in the sea."

My last beach was Chicago's lakefront. An August visitor. The others, summer residents. A proprietary flush said to visitors: You can look, but you can't stay. So I sat down and looked.

A windy-haired young woman was working with her drawing pad. You could tell she was trying to catch the cadence of the blue-black tides. With each stroke, you're reminded of what Ms. Lambert used to say in class: "Art imitates nature." What she could have added is artists seem bent on translating nature into exactly the colors, notes and words they've decided upon. A compulsion to find a message....?

The skinny kid with the thatch of red kept methodically filling his sand castle with lake water. You just can't ignore that kind of commitment. "What are you doing?" "Putting the lake into my moat." "Isn't that impossible?" "Not if you understand the laws of the tides." Hmmm? Maybe his Ms. Lambert was big on the science of gravity. Another Stephen Hawking who fathoms the laws but not the law-giver...?

If you know your beaches, you also know they're studded with studs. The bronzed Adonis was working out to the stolen glances of bikined girls. Nice looking fella. Reminded me of all the other nice looking fellas who used to blight my beach as a kid. Nothing wrong with powerful abs. But did my sagging body have the last laugh knowing how power is never permanent...?

Oh, all sorts and sizes of beachers that day. The eater...the reader...the meditator...the lovers. And yet, those who most drew my heart was that pair of other saggy bodies. Quiet eyes out to the lake, veined hands each in the others, and a certain something which spoke of age well earned. Was it wrong of me to envy them the most...?

Sunday, October 17, 2010


If life is a stage and we're all players, what's happened to the players and props back in the first act....?

For the elderly, the first act was the post-WWII boom years. America was thriving in a "Leave it to Beaver" age of innocence and bravado. For the young among us, the first act took place during the post-Nixon years when the music was still playing, but we danced with much less innocence and confidence.

Now here in act two -- with military wars and economic rivals abroad, and economic dislocations and disappointments at home -- it looks as if the orchestra has left the pit. The music has stopped playing. The script is now being re-written by historical forces beyond the playwright's pen, What's more, there are no leading men who by themselves can carry this play to any standing ovations. The lines, the pacing, the mood are all wrong.

The audience is already booing. 85% say they are angry about the economy. 91% about the wars. Could it be they're not only in a fury about the play, but somehow in mourning for their life..? Subconsciously afraid what they're watching on stage reflects what's unfolding in their lives..? The shining city on the hill is losing its luster..?

Does the audience mourn, as do I, the gentle teachers and devoted clergy who once helped nourish us in act one? Does the audience miss, as do I, the play-hood friends and pranks that helped shape our development in those early scenes? Does the audience sense that so much of what was, may never be again? That no matter who is starring in this drama, the final curtain is going to get poor reviews? That the play will go on again tomorrow night, but the boos and poor reviews will do little to improve the ultimate denouement?

Theatre audience come to the theatre to be entertained. To be enlightened. But not to climb on stage and ad lib some of the roles. That pervasive pessimistic passivity may be the very reason this show may have a shortened run...!

Saturday, October 16, 2010


There's a funny thing about going to sleep at night near one of the world's busiest airports [O'Hare Field, Chicago]. Slipping under your very personal blankets, you're surrounded by the steady hum of its very public jetliners. A metaphor for the gaping contrast between your inner psyche and your outer world....!

Maybe bridging this gap is what the 1000 travelers are looking for, as they book passage on the Atlantic cruise ship scheduled to depart April 8, 2012 [the 100-year anniversary of the "Titanic's" ill-fated journey]. How does anyone get inside someone else's life? Mind? Soul?

Making love is said to be the yearning of one to be one with the other. Making great music and art and theatre is too. However, we live in the tormented irony of an age with more means -- yet less success -- in accomplishing this. Flooded with autobiographies, bi-ops, intimate blogospheric details, and now these absurd televised insults to the word "reality," we know incredibly less about each other than we should. Especially as our family's and societies are becoming more unstoppably mixed, crowded and blended every year.

Perhaps the problem is our tsunami of hand-held wonders that are supposed to network us, but sometimes isolate us. Do you ever study a commuter train where no one is talking or touching, while they focus with dazzling attention on their private screens? And then do you ever wonder how many loved ones -- parents, spouses, children, siblings, friends -- you know who you don't really know?

When they are gone -- as will they all the longer you live! -- did we travel together without ever truly being together? I find myself struggling post-mortem to piece together the shards of my memories into the full mosaic the departed loved ones actually were. It has become a passion... if only I had taken more time to be this passionate when they were still here.


How to make sense out of a world gone mad....?

Would it be mad to suggest someone who is already a bit mad! Woody Allen -- benedicted film maker & comedian -- has made a career out of being slightly mad. Neurotic would be the precise term. But either way, he's invited millions of us into his skewed view of our mad mad world. Much to our great great benefit.

"I'm astounded by people who want to know the universe when it's hard enough just to find my way around Chinatown." "Life doesn't imitate art; it imitates bad television." "Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering; and it's all over much too soon." Anyone who can say such things has his heart on the pulse of his times. Better than most politicians, generals, and especially televangelists.

There may be some more traditional sources. Say, the Dali Lama, the Pope, Stephen Spielberg, or how about Donald Trump? But not as succinct. Not as funny. And none of them can play clarinet.

So here's one neurotic's take on a master neurotic....

* Allen's obsession with death has given us laughter, and not a little insight. In contrast, our culture often translate a fear of death into a dedication to power; something to kill the fear of death

* Allen's recurring themes of frustrated love capture the irony of the one thing we can't live with or without. In contrast, our culture often substitutes this frustration with celebrity; something to drown out the lack of love

* Allen's patented use of music tracks underscores his movies with hits from the great American Songbook. It offers us a sense of generational continuity, because audiences of all ages find themselves enjoying it

This is not to say Woody Allen understands our times better than others. But it is to say he has a way of smiling us into a fuller awareness of just how small and scared and similar we all are. That's a lesson his audiences may not be paying to hear, but they're hearing it all the same.

Well worth the price of admission. Next, I'd like to book him into Congress for a one-week gig!

Friday, October 15, 2010


"The times are desperate...!"

The first person who said that was probably Adam to Eve as they were losing their lease on the Garden. So today's Americans have no monopoly on desperation. Something I'm reminded of every time I visit my cousin in her senior home. Folks here don't go back as far as the Garden, but they've been around long enough to have some epiphanies of advice for today's scared, angry citizens.

Over lunch I watched the residents. What life had snatched from their bodies, it had enriched their minds. "Uncharted waters...." was their recurring refrain.

America today is in a perfect storm -- brought on by a simultaneous collision of national mistakes and international calamities -- unlike anything we've ever quite seen before. FDR was at the helm in an even worse storm, "But at least his Fireside Chats could explain to us who the enemies were...." Today, not even the enemies know who they are. Banking, financial and mortgage systems have been so manically scrambled, it's virtually impossible to unscramble the omelet to get the shells and the shills out of there.

"Then the big boys did the same thing with globalization..." Cynthia's friend shook his head at the way that let owners cut labor, outsource jobs, then blame the pension & benefit plans of whoever were still left. "Roosevelt indicted them as 'economic royalists,' but today the royalists have convinced us they're too big to fail...."

Cynthia's roommate was dyspeptic."Next the rich pump money into our so-called spontaneous populists...." If they get their way this election, they shoot themselves in the purse, because now there won't be anyone left in Washington to say no to another 30 years of cowboy capitalism. "You know, the old trickle-down that never trickles..."

Cynthia's whole table pretty much agreed. The patients are blaming the doctor for the diseases. "So what do they do -- fire the doctor and get rid of the hospital..." A mistake these seniors learned long ago can be tragic. Sure, when they were younger, they could afford a few dumb mistakes. But neither they nor their country are that young anymore.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Memories are the specialty of the elderly. After all, we have more to work with. But to be sure your memories are authentic, not simply imagined, occasionally they should be time-tested. Say like trying them out on your grandchildren. At one time or another, I've shared some of these to get a reaction. For instance...

I remember the news when it was reported in the press with far fewer hysterical photos, and on television without screaming graphics; more straight-on reportage that made it easier to think about rather than panic about it.

I remember when advertising had fewer tools in its kit-box, so the message had to be simpler and -- of all things! -- factual. Like when they pitched a car, they talked about what it could do, more than how it made you feel.

I remember movies with real dialog. Not only well crafted words, but words you could hear without straining. There was a pervasive sense that these were real people struggling with real situations; not real computers exploding un-real escapes.

I remember home teams in which most of the players were actually from the home town. Actually stayed with their team throughout most of their career. What's more -- what's hard to still remember! -- the players' passion for the game usually exceeded their lawyer's passion for breaking their contracts.

I remember the armed forces as being for us, not for hire. With universal drafts, the military was the kid next door; and what they did right was promoted more than what they did wrong. Wars were no better then than today; only then there were still vast reservoirs of innocence and pride to make the word patriotism seem like the right, not the wrong, thing to feel.

I even remember when kids dated, not hooked up. When dancing not motels was the most exciting way to hold one another. When blushing girls were really virgins, and bragging guys were really too. Too Puritan? Too repressed? Too hypocritical? Probably so, but still too endearing to completely discount.

Oh, and I remember when members of the clergy were people just a little apart from the rest of us. They were seen -- and usually proved! -- their calling was something higher than the rest of us walked. Whether or not the images were totally true didn't matter, because what mattered was there were those among us who stood for something better in us.

Well...I occasionally try one or two of these memories out on my wonderful grand-kids. So far, they haven't laughed in my face. Maybe behind my back. But, then again, maybe not. Because I get the impression they suspect they've missed something. Something good.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


It won't be long now before we lose Daylight Savings Time. With it we lose minutes of sunlight each day until spring. Darkness will now slather more of our hours and more of our feelings. For some, a depressing time of year with actual medical implications. To others, a safety net that cocoons us from the din and dangers of the day.

I suppose the behavioral sciences can explain how darkness affects our optical nerve, our genetic makeup, even our brain circuitry. And that's useful. But hardly definitive. For a more valuable understanding of the approaching darkness we need our poets:

Out of darkness the hand that reaches through nature molded man....Light thinks it travels faster than anything, but it is wrong; no matter how fast light travels, it finds darkness got there first....I say there is no darkness but ignorance....When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

See what I mean?

Watch for it now, for it's a subtle thing. Our sun flees sooner during the afternoons in which summer children still want to play. Purple shadows conquer burnished sunsets more quickly during our drive home. However, the glow of window lights are now clicking on all through the neighborhood, whispering to by-passers that warm and toasty things are taking place inside.

You see, not everyone is pushing and shoving in the metropolitan workplaces. Mothers can still be found in kitchens readying family dinners. Work-at-home husbands are in there tapping on their keypads. Grandparents nod off in their favorite chairs. Dogs rest. Kittens purr. The rhythms of the world can be felt easing ever so subtly.

As the darker afternoons seep into the earlier nights, a hundred million minds start to travel. Held safe by the night, they travel to kinder yesterdays and to tantalizing tomorrows. There is more time in the darkness to travel these frontiers too often shut closed in the daylight. And so it that the longer fall and winter nights breed possibilities for which summertime games and beaches had too little interest.

Here's a thought. Between now and March there just may be more fermentation of creative -- at least constructive -- ideas than at any other time in the year! Now if these ideas are allowed to take root -- free of the absurdity of too much reality television and dis-informed political complaining -- who knows what good things might be birthed during the coming days? Here in our city. In our nation. Oh, and even in our Capitol!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Something peculiar, even frightening, is happening to the Bristlecone Pines out West. These majestic trees tower hundreds of feet, and live more than 4000 years. They stood watch over the California forests before Jesus, or Aristotle, or even the pharaohs walked this same planet. A testament to tenacity in a world of the temporary.

But now, in fierce irony, the tiny bark beetle may slowly but irrevocably bring them down. Science is mounting a counter-attack, but their fate may defy technology's best efforts. And so it is with so many of the enduring parts of the hard-won civilization humanity has scratched from out of raw nature.

Consider the astonishing Persian capitols now only dust blowing in the Iranian sands. The admired Egyptian Sphinx being patched and propped every few decades. The architectural treasures of ancient Greece being desperately salvaged from the tentacles of time. Even the holy places in the Holy Land, continuing to withstand the assaults of archaeological skeptics, must now watch over the steady stream of Christians leaving that troubled place for safer homes in the West (a kind of Christian Diaspora).

With history's natural and man-made monuments trembling before the march of time, with the planet's rhythms and climates threatened in the hands of rapacious diggers and drillers, what do earth's populations do? Well, there is Friday-Saturday-Sunday football...there are new spectacles from reality shows from television... a psychotic diet of celebrity and political gossip...and of course the holiday malls.

The ancient Pompeians pretty much went about doing what they always did too. Despite the rumblings and warnings from a Vesuvius they could see every morning.Thinking big is hard. Thinking small is safe. The funny thing is that history has had its history of prophets and Cassandras warning us. But neither are very welcome.

Circa 2010, the world has no shortage of new prophets and Cassandras. Some wear religious symbols; others bear standards of scholarship; still others preach from the pulpits of newspapers, campuses, and the Internet. The result is a first in history -- the voices of fire are no longer that of the few, but now of the many. In fact, so many so often so everywhere that this cacophony becomes too loud to bear. Too confusing to decipher.

What else can a mere mortal do...? Mercifully tone it down. Maybe even turn it off. Perhaps another get-away-from-it-all weekend. Yes. Like they did in old Pompeii.

Monday, October 11, 2010


It's called the Battle of the Sexes. This presumes a state of war. In truth, the genders are simply in a state of competition. Each excelling at different things. And yet, in every gymnasium locker room, I am advised that we males of the species prevail. I often ask, at my own peril, how can we be so sure....?

The evidence for the claims and counter-claims is hard to come by. This is such a subjective issue. But subjectively speaking, it would appear that whereas the male excels in such as brute strength, competitiveness, and conquest, the female does so in endurance, compassion, and caring.

While we argue over that, we can look at the October report from Canadian researchers in where social psychologist Karina Schumann argues: "Women needn't apologize more than men, and yet they do. They are far more willing to say they're sorry." Which she (and I) take to be an attractive quality.

But back to the gym locker....

Her report goes on to speculate the reason for this is, "Men think they have done fewer things wrong, therefore have less to apologize for." Schumann's advice: "Rather than assuming your female partner can read your mind or read your emotions accurately, males need to communicate what they're feeling."

Seems like a reasonable conclusion, but then...

Well look, perhaps men are too Clint Eastwood-ish about these affairs. But there is one man -- Glenn Beck of rant-and-rage fame -- who has no trouble communicating what he's feeling. The Washington Post recently tracked Beck's commentaries on Fox News over the last 18 months: "He and his guests invoked Nazis 202 times, fascism or fascists 193 times, Hitler 147 times, the Holocaust 76 times, and Joseph Goebbels 24 times."

Wow, here's one male of the species who has no trouble communicating what he's feeling. As for any apologies. the Post notes that Beck and his followers are only sorry that more people don't see the world they do. Come to my locker room, and you'll pick up a few more ranters-and-ragers.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Remember Hester Prynne forced to wear that "scarlet letter?" Nathaniel Hawthorne's romantic novel in Puritan New England made it clear how society made it clear when someone was clearly a sinner. Not anymore...!

First of all, sin is out of fashion. It's been replaced . Personally, by individual psychoses; societally, by community conditions. Today teaches wrong-doing is mostly a situational matter (depends on where you were and what you were feeling at the time); not an absolute matter (when some fixed moral law like adultery has been violated).

Here in 2010, Hester would have written a book about her tortured marriage, appeared on Oprah, and signed a fat film deal starring Demi Moore (only this time out, Demi would play Hester very differently).

This is not a literary critique of a masterpiece. Rather, a consideration of modernity. Unchained from ancient ignorances and medieval hells, today's modern culture is not only more forgiving, it is more forever. As in the case of the sinners-who-won't-go-away. Ever!

The litany is a long one. Debatable, true, but still very long. We have disgraced governor Eliot Spitzer doing book tours and now a gig on CNN. There is disgraced football QB Michael Vick back throwing passes to the cheers of the crowd. Newt Gingrich was exposed as a serial adulterer, and yet he is everywhere teaching and preaching presidential politics.

This is not to judge. No one has the right to pick up any stones. But it is to take note of how morality is a moving target in any society. Usually if you can wait long enough -- and have your consulting firms properly time your encores -- you can get the capricious spotlight of public approval to spin back your way. Clinton did; Nixon couldn't. David Letterman did; Mel Gibson couldn't. Paris Hilton, well she owns the spotlight!

Morality was once said to have been emblazoned on a pair of tablets. Many years late Ernest Hemingway summed them up differently: "About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after." Mom and Sister Agnes never read Hemingway. Which means my generation got stuck with a lot of scarlet letters that appear nowhere in today's lexicon.

If I ever get invited, I will be sure to ask Oprah or Doctor Phil or Judge Judy just how I am to feel about this...

Saturday, October 9, 2010


What happens when you let yourself ride on the winds of a whim...?

In my case this meant ignoring my three daily newspapers, and instead turning on some favorite recordings. The news of America is generally sad these days, whereas the music of America is more often glad. And when you listen to it in chronological sequence, there's a story. [ I once taught an entire course in US History using only music to explore our social history; everyone liked the idea except the textbook publishers ].

Burl Ives balladeering with "Barbara Allen" and "Black is the Color of Her Hair" sings a hint of colonial damsels and three-cornered hats. "Yankee Doodle" and "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier" conjure up images of farm boys with long rifles standing up to the the red formations of the original British Empire.

Unhappy is the fact that our history is rich with such martial music. Just a few generations after our freedom, we were sending our youth back into an even bloodier conflict. This one among ourselves. You can almost see the Blues and the Grays when you play "Dixie," "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," and "John Brown's Body." Passionate believers from both sides of the deep gash known as the Mason-Dixon Line.

But later there is the music of our expanding West, that garden myth that speaks of endless new opportunities beyond the Mississippi. "High Barbaree," "Early in the Morning" and most especially "Shenandoah." Each still speaks to the heart of any American. As does the later frontier lyrics of "Buffalo Gals," "A Roving Gambler," and the heart-pumping "John Henry."

Twentieth century America was an explosion of musical forms, but most especially musical messages. Our composers and songsters possess the magic of expressing who we are. At least who we believe we are. If you would know us in the two wars and the depression between, you must listen to -- no, feel! -- what is being sung: "Over There," "Brother Can You Spare a Dime," "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anybody Else but Me," "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer," and "When the Lights Come on Again."

It's all there -- Dixie, Blues, Jazz, Pop, Rock -- all in the national key of C! Oh, what about the great music of America since WWII? Well, I guess I stopped listening as much. But in no way did the music of America stop.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Everyone talks about the future. Well, why not? We're going to spend the rest of our life there....!

But now here's a question: Who do you see yourself as in that future? Researchers at Stanford University wanted to find out. So they turned to -- what else! -- their MRIs. And when they did they report the rostral anterior cingulate cortex is most active when people think about themselves instead of others. Something I've been wanting to know for years, because I spend a lot of time with that particular brain lobe.

The research suggests our future behaviors can actually be affected by the way we perceive ourselves in the present. Do we see ourselves as "me" or as "someone else?" [Scientific American Magazine has the full report a few issues back]. But after scanning it, I couldn't help but turn away from my future to look instead to my past. [I tend to live in the past, because most of my life is there]. So here's what I did.

I took my annual sentimental journey through the streets of my childhood neighborhood on the old westside of Chicago. Thomas Wolfe compellingly argued "you can never go home again," but I found that only partially true. Whereas every door here seemed to be locked and shut tight, I vividly remember a time on these very same streets when they were not only unlocked, but often wide open.

Time happens.

Now 70 years later, these cozy red brick bungalows and leafy side streets have grown old. And angry. And fearful, because of the gangs that populate them, and the crimes that infest them. And yet my journey was worthwhile if for no other reason than Raphael. He was the little kid managing the lemonade stand on the corner of my old Mayfield Avenue. I had to stop and buy a glass, because this was so very yesterday! So very once-upon-a-time!

And do you know what...? When Raphael had to run into the house for more sugar, the back door was wide open...! Gee, maybe the best of yesterday is still here today.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


TV satirist Stephen Colbert proposed to counter the Glenn Beck rally with one of his own: "Keep Fear Alive!"

University of Iowa researchers are among many who have mounted neuro-biological studies to identify the most powerful human emotions. In the running -- love, lust, anger, and fear. It's entirely possible we could have reached the same conclusion without the cost and effort. At one time it was called common-sense.

This sense provides a compelling argument that fear is not only the most immediately powerful emotion, but that it usually has the most enduring consequences. People react to love, lust and anger; but fear is the primitive experience which not only commands reaction, it demands action. Action easily used and channeled by others.

History is pockmarked with examples. The ancient Greek city-states found fear of Persia the one thing that could unite them....Spartacus and his slave revolt generated enough fear that Rome sent out its best legions...the medieval church found fear the fuel for inquisitions and witch burnings...Hitler and the Nazis mastered the force of fear to mesmerize 60 million civilized Germans into a primal pack of race warriors.

The irony of history is how great empires inevitably grow to fear the loss of their greatness. Like celebrities who struggle to get to the top, then teeter up their clutched by the fear of someone taking it all away from them. It is what happens to great empires whose populations are led to believe this will go on forever. Then awake one terrible morning to realize others hunger for what they have. And now they are coming for it...!

If the American Empire find itself in the gun-sights of others, it is the natural sequence of power. Power not only corrupts, it seduces. Others want it too. And at our expense. Now is the time when this empire is tested to see if it is more enduring than past ones. Does fear -- of any one or thing that seems different than what we are accustomed to -- does fear consume us into paroxysms of retaliations? Or does fear re-kindle that initial passion to overcome our worst fears with our best achievements?

The world waits. We wait. Is there a leader with the answer? Are we part of the answer? There's not a lot of time.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Intuition...! It's heralded by saints and poets, ridiculed by empiricists and scientists. So what's the deal here?

Intuition is a kind of quick and ready insight. Everyone experiences it at times; some seem to experience it almost all the time. These few folks are called everything from prophets to fools, from extra-sensory to extra-phony. We do know this much -- the US intelligence & military communities continue to probe the promised possibilities of these extraordinary sentient capacities.

However, until that time ESP claims fully materialize, people's intuition will continue to be a catch-as-catch-can phenomenon. And we will continue to find some things "counter-intuitive." At least five come to mind:

* It is counter-intuitive that football & soccer fans in a stadium watch the game rationally; but a few do, as they computer-chart the plays for later gaming

* It is counter-intuitive that adolescents make religion their first priority; but some of our greatest holy ones were youngsters

* It is counter-intuitive that poor people donate more to charity than rich; but they do, donating on average 5.6% of their income vs 2.1% among the wealthy

* It is counter-intuitive that narcissists will give more of themselves; but they do whenever measured in the percolation of creative ideas in group settings

* It is counter-intuitive for an adult to jump into and roll around in a lawn-full of autumn leaves; but if they are among those who grew up before the 1980s, they have this annual urge to do just that every Midwest October

The rest of you must understand something very important here. In those distant days, leaves were for crunching with your silly feet! leaves were for burning so that their pungent smoke could envelop you, body and soul! leaves were part of the mystical landscape to the Chicago Tribune's annual front-page cartoon affectionately titled "Injun' Summer!"

As everyone knows, these behaviors have been properly condemned by our empirical environmentalists. They have done this with all good intentions. Except perhaps their counter-intuitive decision that adults can never again be children.....

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the late US Congressman Henry Hyde both grew up here in Park Ridge, IL. Both had their share of bare-knuckled political battles. But one of Henry's nastiest was the revelation of his sexual improprieties. He admitted to these with the celebrated phrase: "A youthful indiscretion."

Had he lived longer he might have found this month's report from social psychologist Anne Wilson discomforting. She comments from Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada: "There are reasons why all indiscretions appear youthful ...the brain is particularly prone to backdating when it comes to shameful acts....with the result that we can subconsciously create a personal history that, if not perfect, makes us feel we're getting better and better."

Seen in context, this study is one of hundreds in which neuro-biolgists have begun identifying various individual genes and lobes and circuits in us, in order to better understand us. What we do, and why we do it.

So far so good.

However, what happens when the astronomer can identify every star, but has lost sight of the cosmos...? When the forester can identify every tree, but has forgotten what the forest looks like....? When the sex expert can identify 143 ways of making love, but doesn't know any women...?

The 21st C has seen an explosion of dramatic breakthroughs by our evolutionary biologists. And yet how often is the result to know the parts, but miss the whole...? To fathom the encryptions, but never break the code...? To find ourselves sitting wisely before the arrayed pieces to the human puzzle, but forgetting there is a picture in those pieces...?

I can see Henry's old house a few doors down from ours. Whenever I pass it I wonder. He was a publicly religious man. Was he morally comfortable with his explanation about his behavior? Would he have disputed Dr Wilson's
theory? Or would he have said he had come to terms with his God, and would find scant comfort in coming to terms with his physiological genes and lobes and circuits?

I voted for Henry, but never got the chance to ask him about such matters. I'm guessing he would have felt as do I: In the matters of human behavior, mere matter is not all that matters.

Monday, October 4, 2010


"It's the economy, stupid!"

So sayeth the great prophet James Carville. And most Americans would agree. But Carville forgot to explain how the economy is actually played in that great casino known as history. Where everyone has a different formula for winning at the tables. There's the House, the Players, the High Rollers, and then the Kibitzers. To untangle this taffy of conflicting interests, here's some news from the front...

* The House is whoever is in presidential office at the time. He's the face of the casino, the one with the cash in the vault, the one with the most at stake. Because if he can't show a profit at the end of his term, he's out of job. Oh, not because the players will vote him out; mainly because the casino investors will damn well see to it

* The Players come into this casino in all different shapes, sizes and bankrolls.The little ones -- that's you and me -- place their bets on selected insurance plans, 401Ks, and stocks. The casino promises them a fair shake of the dice and cut of the cards. But nothing more. Especially when the House is owned by investors who define a good year in terms of a good year for them. Where are their names on the marquee? No, you don't understand. They don't look for visibility; they just look for and expect the House to keep providing them a smashing big return on their investments

* The High Rollers have been trying to beat or buy the House right from the beginning. Colonial farmers used to get together donations to their favorite royal governors. Today the art of donations has been perfected, so that now there are roughly 300 really big High Rollers. Just one tiny example is the cool $1 million thrown against Washington DC Mayor Adrian Fenty by the teachers union opposed to his school superintendent's reforms. This $1 million constitutes a drop in a nationwide bucket of other vested interests that tops $1 billion every election

* Finally, the Kibitzers. Otherwise known as economists. As things stand now, it's easy to think economists were invented to make weather forecasters look good. That's because their predictions and plans have had a pretty spotty record. From Alexander Hamilton in the 1780s to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to the current boss. But when these well-groomed Kibitzers talk about their "science," this hubris has shown to be about as reliable as the players who've been bringing "formulas" to the tables ever since someone invented the words break-the-bank

What's really fun about this casino is that it keeps hooking players who really believe. Believe what...? Well, when you ask them, they're not exactly sure. But get out of their way, they've got hunch...!

Sunday, October 3, 2010


The new movie in town, "The Social Network," probes this thing called Facebook. This half-billion-user Internet phenomenon that strikes people in sharply different ways. Time wasted on the trivial! Time invested in relationships past, present and future! Time that can be saddled like a stallion leading a herd to where you'd like to take it!

All three takes are true. What's not true yet is any of the prognoses. The doctor known as History has not yet tested this virus. We know its power and capacity to spread is enormous, and we know it's now in 24/7 motion. What we don't know is where it's taking us. Like the Native Americans couldn't possibly have known what was ahead as they watched those strange new Spanish Conquistadors and English Puritans dock their ships, and start spreading farther every day.

Emerson liked to say: "You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late." Right now, there is a wave of kindness spreading throughout us half-billion users. Re-uniting with dear friends and relatives and co-workers and students that you thought were never again to be a part of your life. Also, trawling the globe where you are netting some remarkable new faces and voices and thoughts.

On the other hand....

Looking into this exponentially expanding digital world must be a little like when God looked down on Eden. Such a grand idea. Such astonishing possibilities. Such an ideal Garden. I mean, just think of what could and should have been!

Who might be the snake in this latest Genesis? Plenty of oily candidates. Like the venomous haters who can now infect tens of millions with the click of their Send button. Like the inarticulate who can find some zany story or video to do their silly talking with the click of their Share button. And especially all those pent-up neuroses and psychoses that could never before seep out of their psyches to inundate the innocent.

So then is Facebook pretty much just like previous good/bad communication revolutions? The alphabet? The printing press? Radio and television? It's comforting to convince yourself that it is. To relax into the presumption that it's simply more-of-the-same. But here, my virtual-friends, here's the undeniable difference: Each of those previous revolutions were owned and operated by someone. Somewhere.

This revolution is owned by us. Everywhere. A good prognosticator (Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset) wrote an extraordinary little book in 1931: "The Revolt of the Masses." The year I was born. Now 2010 may be the year he was right!

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Lately, Americans have this cable-news fixation about connecting-the-dots. Sounds so smart and pundit-like. Sometimes, though, disparate dots simply don't connect. Unless maybe you force the fit...!

Dot #1:
American cities have been rated by Men's Health Magazine according to the amount of sexual activity (eg. condom sales, sex-toy sales, birth rates, STD rates). Seven of the top 15 cities were in Texas

Dot #2:
According to an ABC News poll, only 50% of Americans still believe in the American Dream that anyone can succeed with enough work and effort. 43% added that the Dream was once true, but no more

Dot #3:
Hollywood legend Tony Curtis dies at age 86.

With a little fudging and forcing, here's how these three fit. One of film-land's sexiest stars. who lived out the American Dream, has left the rest of us -- well, at least me -- to wonder. How different was Tony's America to our own? Having lived in both, my best dot-connecting sense is that we are extraordinarily different.

No surprise there. It's a given that nations and cultures keep changing. However, the question is: Why so extraordinarily? Celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead answered it this way: "The world has changed more in the 50 years since WWII than it has in the preceding 50 centuries!"

Currently, it's fashionable to express Mead's idea by the way the media continually compare our times with the Depression of the 1930s. Back where Tony grew up dreaming the Dream. If you put 20 scholars in a conference room, they'll come up with 21 versions of why his America and ours are so spellbindingly different. But not to get lost in a thicket of stats, one simple one between his world and ours stands out. He said it himself in an interview when he was asked about how many Americans are today walking away from their mortgages:

"My Old Man could have been on his knees, but still wouldn't pull that crap!" Neither would mine, Tony, neither would mine.

Friday, October 1, 2010


There are facts. And then there are fables. Every year about this time, America toys with the fable of a reformed public school system in which kids are wonderfully trained by wonderful teachers in wonderful settings.

The fable is worth chasing, but the facts are worth admitting. Once large city systems grew and bureaucratized, too many variables crowded into the storyline. Clashing, often competing variables that were supposed to fit together, but didn't. Aging buildings...bloated administrations....inadequate budgets ...out-dated curricula...over-tenured teachers...under-concerned parents...over-aggressive ethnicities... ever-present gangs.

Into this academic chaos ride the occasional reformers with dreams. Some dreams come in the form of system-wide restructuring programs. Others arrive in the form of visionary gunslingers who personally embody the dream. The first tend to replace one orthodoxy with another; the second usually work only with and where the gunslinger is able to draw. However, it's not long before both the reforms and reformers fail to fulfill the fable.

Mark Twain used to say, "Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it." In a cruel sort of way, education in our large city systems is like the weather. A force unto itself. Something you can see, but always just beyond your reach. And surely beyond your control.

So here's the deal.

With a little reflection, each of us can confirm this fact -- the best education is a gifted teacher passionately engaged with kids whose curiosity he or she has just ignited. Buildings, budgets, books -- not really that important in the final measure. This engagement can take place in a multi-million-dollar campus or in a warehouse. It can happen in a small class or a large one. It all comes down to that head-to-heart dynamic in which the teacher begins stirring something dormant inside. Something the kid never even knew lived there.

Not enough such mentors? Not enough such moments? You're right. Which in the long run all comes down to this un-deniable, un-fabled fact. Systems change, but only slowly. Students, on the other hand, can start to change on a dime. When even they least expect it. Just when society desperately needs such adults-in-the-making.

How...? Lets face it, how did it happen to us...? Very often only if and when the capricious lottery of life hit our way. That certain teacher was teaching that certain class when you just happened to be in that certain room. You know, something like how you met that certain someone in your life!

Not very scientific. Not very replicable. And certainly not anything you can put a proper reform's name to. Frankly, it's life's que-sera-sera by which one generation sorta passes the torch to the next. It doesn't mean we throw up our arms in total surrender to the gods of chance; reformers and reforms will always be indispensable. But until indispensable becomes inevitable, it's good to know this lottery of life is still in play.