Saturday, April 30, 2011


Ever watch a drummer? Rock, Jazz, or Dixie, he's the man with the beat. The energy. The sound that drives the whole musical experience. No beat, no music. No music, no life. Well, at least not life as we know it.

Think about it. The drummer-man has been there from the very beginning. I can't testify he was anywhere in the Garden, but shortly thereafter, he was certainly the big man in the tribe. What tribe was without their drums? And the imposing guy beating them? Sending signals,..announcing celebrations...proclaiming victories.

The beat has gone on down through the centuries. Persian rituals. Greek holidays. Roman marches. Medieval festivals. Beethoven symphonies. Bruce Springsteen concerts. But if the beat of the drum is a metaphor for civilization's march through time, what are some of the specific cadences civilization marches to? Don't they mostly come down to what we call "values?" Those virtues and ideas people and societies embrace with such enormous passion they'll fight for?

Psychologist Abraham Maslow took a celebrated crack at identifying these values in a famous 1943 paper titled
"A Theory of Human Motivation." Those things that energize, direct and sustain our behavior as individuals and as societies. He outlined a hierarchy of needs from the most basic up to the most elusive:

* biological & psychological > the need for sheer survival
* safety > the need for physical security
* love & belonging > the need for family and intimacy
* esteem > the need for achievement, status, self respect
* actualization > the need for personal growth & fulfillment

I'm guessing many grandparents were subconsciously sensing Maslow when they tried to explain to their grand-children why "all this gushy-ness about the royal wedding!" Well kids, it's like this. In your passion to reach tomorrow, you may understandably dismiss yesterday. With its many gushy values by which that world once lived. For instance, the stunning body of values the British Empire represented and brought to the world.

True, the Empire's armies often ignored the very values they were supposed to represent. Something like the old Hollywood Studios of the 30s & 40s who packaged happy-ending movies bubbling with gushy values like family, country, honor, virtue, and good-guys-finish-first. Today's smarter more skeptical generations aren't likely to buy those values, "because they were hypocritically preached but ignored!"

Here's how THIS drummer tried to answer: At least they were preached and at least we believed they were worth the preaching.

Friday, April 29, 2011


Among the West's aging populations, there's a lot of teasing about those "senior moments." When in mid- sentence brain circuitry suddenly goes dead. Now science to the rescue with a neat neuro-biological explanation.

Only it should be remembered (pun intended!) teens and headlines have their "moments" too. As we shall see.

* Professor Adam Gassaley of the University of California compared the brains of seniors in their 60s & 70s with those of volunteers in their 20s. When asked to look at a picture of a forest, keep it mind for 15 seconds, then asked to match it to a second landscape picture, both groups did equally well. However, when the researchers interrupted the two landscapes with a picture of a face, seniors were less capable of doing it.

Gassaley concludes: "Scans showed seniors were slow to stop processing the face image and then re-engage back to a landscape image. Tasks which are handled by different parts of the brain. Call it a glitch..."

Great. This helps me understand why I'm always glitching. Somehow, though, It doesn't do much for me whenever I start up the stairs only to realize halfway up I don't know what the hell I'm doing here!

* However, let us not forget the infamous "teen moments." Well, at least male teens who research reports are having flash-moments of sex 40 and 50 times a day. Oh, so you forgot those moments...? Faithful neuro-biologists assure us they have the data to prove it. Now exactly why this data is so intriguing to these researchers may in itself be a compelling subject for research. Hmmm, researching-the-researchers. If that doesn't sound like a promising new reality show, I don't know what does!

* Finally, the "headline moments." The only reserch required here is to check last week's headlines as you put them out for this week's garbage pickup. Each seemed so vital! so critical! so essential! But that was then and this is now. Get it...? Headline moments come and go. Often in a blink. 'Twas ever thus.

Lesson learned here? Take all three "moments" with a very big smile of salt....

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Have you noticed lately how much time your new technologies are saving you...? How's that...! You say you're actually working harder than ever just to keep up...?

Well, you're not alone. Surveys report most Americans are now working longer not shorter hours. So what's up with all those time-saving promises that came with all these time-conquering widgets? History suggests a recurring irony: Whenever we come upon new tools, we tend to use them to do new things. Instead of savoring our new free-time, we find new things to do with it.

Time -- that majestic mystery defined so differently by scientists, poets, lovers, and bosses. Here's how I try to understand it. The "new things" now available to me need not be too arduous or too adventuress. Rather than exhausting world cruises, grueling mountain climbs, or wearing more glamorous purple in more glamorous places, how about a few of the smaller discoveries I missed along the way. Each about as old as time itself:

* I've made a pledge to take those squadrons of birds in my neighborhood far more seriously. Their songs, their colors, their flight, their freedom intoxicate me. I wonder why I took so long to meet them.

* Coffee is another small but intoxicating pleasure. This habit of pour, gulp, and dash has to stop. One of the "new things" I will do is master the morning art of the perfect-cup-of-coffee. An ancient art silly-me never took the time to learn.

* Garden flowers are, to be sure, one of nature's most fragrant gifts. Occasionally I've noticed these gifts scattered about my neighborhood. Why in the name of all that is holy shouldn't I use the time to own this gift for myself. To plunge untested fingers into black earth and see if together we can't turn it green.

* Lost friends, now they are among life's supreme gifts. Perhaps the best "new thing" these widgets have endowed us with is instant digital-outreach to find and love them all over again. Facebook may be many things to many reporters, but what grander joy than spanning the years and miles that have for so long separated us.

One more thing about time. If only our new time-saving widgets could shorten the time it takes us to eventually change our foolish minds about such foolish issues as gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, the mentally and physically challenged. In time we do change, but oh the lost time it takes.

Tick, tick, tick.....

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Photo-journalism is a unique art form. Instead of the video footage which simply shoots what's happening, the news photographer has to catch and capture that special moment which best tells the story. Knowing precisely what and when is the photographer's talent.

We all know the usual what-and-when they find in a NEWS story: That stunning expression of shock or grief or joy on the faces there. Which makes perfectly good sense. But I'm always struck by what the photographers take away from most SPORTS events. Check it out yourself. Nearly every time, the shot is one of growling victory by the winner.

Think about. The classic shot of Mohamed Ali glaring down at his latest victim crumpled on the canvas....or the runner crashing into the second baseman with all the cleats and facial fury he can muster...or the Bulls player sneering down at the guy he just smashed through to sink the basket...or the toothless Blackhawk player glowering triumphantly after scoring through a mountain of crushed bodies.

I mean, these shots are 100% primitive violence. And we love it. We cheer it. We expect our photos to reflect it.

My own gnawing question is always the same. Why the rage? why the primitive? why always the focus on the violence rather than the skill of the game? My answer is always the sad same. Civilization is just not yet civilized enough.

Everyone remembers Oscar Wilde's take on America: "The only country that went from primitivism to barbarism without ever passing though civilization." And while there is merit to his snarl, the real tragedy is that his assessment fits any nation anywhere in any age. Right down to this morning's latest photos of the gangs in Chicago to the riots in Damascus to the furies in Iran to the rage in Washington DC.

I mean, the meek don't seem to have a chance! Although someone once promised: "The meek shall inherit the earth..."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Turn on any channel, read any editorial, check any website....! People are as angry right now as nature. Everything once again seems out of joint. Well, when in history hasn't it? While the doomsayers go for the easy explanation -- it's the end times -- we're not getting off that easy. These times are not likely to end; only to grow more angry.

This is when scared people look for bold, unflinching leaders. Voices in the darkness that can lead us into the light. And sure enough there are always would-be prophets willing to take the job. Overseas there are Islamic fundamentalists waging wars against the Great Satan. Here at home, fundamentalism is likewise in full play, raising crusades against anything with the name "big" to it. Big government, big taxes, big hierarchies.

True to its name, fundamentalism is a belief in the basics. It's a mind-set that intuitively rejects complicated, high-sounding agendas. Fundamentalists -- be they in religion, politics, diplomacy -- like the way Clint Eastwood rides tall in the saddle and shoots straight from the hip. Life is a frontier town where parsons and sheriffs and school marms just get in the way of fast justice and quick results.

Humanity has had a heap of such no-questions-asked gunslingers. At different times they have been called chieftains, kings, pharaohs, emperors, fuhrers. Their image is in their armies, but their real power is in their promises. "The world is not complicated; to master it, you need only to close ranks and follow me!"

In a democracy like ours, such leaders have to work a little harder to get through the thicket of cumbersome matters like filing your credentials (and now lets not forget your birth certificate)...organizing your campaign ...finding rich backers...manipulating mass media...and at all times calling your rivals too weak to lead, lacking your kind of fire-in-the-belly.

We've had a long litany of these guys. As soon as Washington took office there were wheelers-and-dealers like Aron Burr (an actual gunslinger who killed Alexander Hamilton with the last recorded duel in the D. C. area). A century later, FDR had to compete with a chorus of brash, follow-me voices during the crush of the Great Depression. And now -- right on time! -- the Great Recession has found its very own fundamentalists.

Emotional and economic fundamentalists who seem to crop up overnight, full-grown and fully-ready to preach their high-charged simplicities to a people hungry for someone to say-it-loud-and-say-it-clear. So while serious minds hover over complicated agendas, the latest trinity offers us fundamentally simple solutions.

Their names...? Well, the names change with each shift in the angry winds. As of this writing they include: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and Donald Trump. But don't get too accustomed to the names. While the fundamentalist message remains the same, the names of the messengers will probably keep changing. Just park your brains at the door, and listen in. They really can't save your dreams, but for a very little while they can drug your fears.

Monday, April 25, 2011


When you've been born and raised in an age of presumed certainties (ie, America in the first half of the 20th C), today's many uncertainties can be vexing. Consider the relentless uncertainties about everything from the Bible to birth certificates, from coffee to wine to red meat, from vitamin E to prostate exams to pension plans. Among even the children, there is no longer any certainty left about Santa Claus, Easter Bunnies, and Tooth Fairies.

Kafka said it well: "It is hard to tell the truth, for although there is one, it is alive and constantly changing its face!"

What then are visitors from my generation to believe when we are currently witness to starling new revisions of old certainties like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Ayn Rand.

The folks today parading in Franklin costumes have appropriated the old gent to their cause of opposing "big government." Now you see, my generation always studied Franklin as one of the first creative minds to use government to provide services for the people. Post offices, fire departments, and public libraries. Why he was one of the gifted voices after the Revolutionary War proposing a stronger central government with which to bond together the disparate 13 colonies.

As for Washington, my generation always remembers him as the first president of the "united" states, whose administration established the tradition of strong central government. Sending federal troops to quell a New England whiskey rebellion in the 1790s set the first precedent for the role of central executive power.

Then there's that old reprobate, Ayn Rand. Ever since the feisty lady wrote ATLAS SHRUGGED, she's been the pinup girl for every unfettered-capitalist, states-rights advocate, and mountaintop-survivalist around. And yet, when my generation read her, we also knew her as an atheist, a feminist, an outspoken supporter of abortion rights, and an opponent of the Vietnam War. So while the Right's newest darling, Rep Paul Ryan, demands his staff read her book, they weren't around when she was snorting fire at most every Conservative agenda in sight.

So perhaps a truce among the generations over whose "truth" is most true. For a handy one-step lesson in the futility of claiming the truth like a trophy, consider the American sports pages. The truth-tellers we call sports reporters will never ever quite see or report the same game the same way. Especially when reporting the same game, but from the two different home-town papers.

I guess it's still true. Whatever the generation: "Perception is reality." Really...!

Sunday, April 24, 2011


"Surf's up!"

This speaks to the thrill of being one of the bronzed bodies on one of the world's golden beaches. But the thrill lasts only so long as the surf is rolling your way.

Most of us in the Western world find we have ridden the surf of history rather successfully. What's more, we often attribute this success to our democracy. For us, democracy has worked out pretty well. At least it seems that way, for Western democracies today are the most industrialized, most educated, and most wealthy in the world.

However, we often forget it wasn't always this way. At one time, Europe and North America were well behind both the dynamics of human evolution and the trajectory of human history. But then we caught up. And then over the last 500 years, things went so well, it tempts many of us into presuming this was meant to be. And that this lovely concept of democracy was the force-of-energy behind it all.

My goodness, isn't that why the rest of the world is trying its darnedest to become democracies just like us!

Leaving behind the arrogance of that question, what the Western democracies should really be asking is: Are we up to the sudden challenge of today's powerful shift in the surf and surge of history...?

It makes no real difference who sits in the White House or in the chambers of the EU. Lately, the tides of history seem to be running against us. Western leaders of every party and in every nation now behold such extraordinary challenges as: Climate change...civilizational collapses...mass unemployment ...rising new superpowers ...angry populations of poor raging at home against any target they can find from governments to pensions to plutocrats

Precisely when Western democracies need to be most creative and decisive, creativity has surrendered to sound-bite solutions. And decision-making mechanisms have been clogged by the buying power of the plutocrats and the obsessions of never-give-an-inch politicians.

OK, lets switch the imagery from surf-swept beaches to the frontier town's biggest gunslinger. After 500 year's of buying up the town and running the frontier, life for you out here has quickly turned bad. The banks, the weather, and the natives are all out of control. Just then in ride some brash, gun-itchy newcomers. If at any time you needed a fast draw, this is it! Only your gun is stuck inside a very clogged holster....

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Here's a personal question. When you lie on your back and study the afternoon clouds or the evening moon, do you sense more than your senses are reporting? Maybe little hints of angels, shapes of divinity, maybe even a Marian apparition or two? Well if so, your biology textbooks take serious exception...!

For most of human history, Faith and its corresponding suspicions about divinity has held sway over us. It's this elemental need to believe I come from somewhere or someone intentional...I am here for a reason not by an accident....and I will be more than decomposing rot at the end of it all. But then starting about the 17th C, Science in the West snatched that sway away. Started to direct our attentions from things above which can't be "proved," to things here below which CAN be.

For some this was it. Finally a dependable methodology by which our intellects could be freed from the bizarre mysteries of primitive gods, idols, and worship. From now on, what we once talked about as mysteries could now be defined for what they really are: Problems for Science to solve. At first this sounded good, And yet, for some peculiar reason, Science wasn't quite able to drive the silver stake into the heart of Faith. And so it is that today, Science and Faith are still battling contenders more than bonding companions.

And this battle, it seems to sneak in everywhere. On campuses, in literature and within movies where ET's, vampires, exorcists, Vatican conspiracies, and evangelical hucksters in the plots help keep the battle brewing.

Passover and Easter are recurring seasons of Faith in which the faithful confront a kind of perennial choice: Either turn their prayerful backs on the encroaching blasphemies of Science, or face and embrace the discoveries of Science as just one more human experience in which God reveals Himself to humanity.

How interesting that two of the greats from Science and Faith say much the same thing about this choice. Einstein: "Science without Religion is lame; Religion without Science is blind." John Paul II: "Faith and reason are the two wings of the dove both needed to support its flight to the peaks of truth."

Why, they almost sound like Captain Kirk's heart saying right along with Mr Spock's brain: "Warp speed.....!"

Friday, April 22, 2011


Remember your old history class tests...? Sorry for bringing that up...! But if you do, you now realize how many of "the answers" have changed. Why? Because history, my fellow student, is no more than a moving target.

And yet, there isn't a politician, general or televangelist who doesn't claim history proves their point. So while Santayana advises, "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it," Huxley trumps him: "That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.

It all comes down to what Uncle Harry once exasperated to me: "Just about the time I've learned all the answers, they change all the damn questions."

Good thing to remember when someone starts quoting history to you. Including your history teacher [a little embarrassment I carry with me after 40 dogmatic years in the classroom]. You see, new versions and visions of history keep slapping you in the face every new year, and you can laugh them off only so long. Eventually -- like the horsemen eventually had to stop laughing off the automobile -- you have to come to terms. [Often reluctantly, though, as we still can't help speaking of our automobiles in terms of horsepower.]

Three current examples make the point. Seal the deal. Should make any modern-day dogmatist blush:

* All that White-European bravado about discovering "a New World" now has to accommodate with the fact there was little "new" about it. By the time Columbus landed, there were already millions of people and hundreds of cities thriving on both continents. Without any outside help, thank you very much

* All those Biblical Minimalists who cropped up in the 20th C to dismiss the Bible as pure allegory with no historical evidence have been stuck lately with archaeological discoveries of stone records in Egypt describing the Hebrews, and in Israel marking the names of King David, the home of Peter, and the sayings of Jesus

* Then this very Easter Week, TIME MAGAZINE opts to feature a popular new Evangelical ministry which preaches a Christianity without its traditional heaven and hell

So some advice to today's legions of cable pundits and network Sunday interviewers. You have to promise on your honor to stop saying "history teaches us..." At least until you've gone back to check with your blushing old history teachers!

Thursday, April 21, 2011


"You can never be too rich or too thin...!"

Lets consider this pithy remark for a reflective moment. It can be heard (or certainly thought) in such venues as sports bars, fine eateries and board rooms. Without putting too fine a point on it, it seems to capture some of the bravado of the good life in today's America. There are alternative mantras as well: "You only live once," "Get it while you can," and "The one with the most toys at the end of the game is the winner."

America is hardly the first culture in which the better endowed classes strut their stuff with a certain joie de vivre. Sift the ruins of any great society -- the Egyptians, Persians, Romans, 17th C France -- and you will find evidence of these classes in abundance. But let it be said the operative word here is "ruins," for these cultures and classes did not last forever. Any more than will ours.

While we're reflecting, it's good to sift these ruins for something else that was there. However, unlike the upper class bravado, this something-else is still with us. The under classes.

These are those who go by many names. The poor...the leper...the handicapped...the challenged...the least fit ....and, lately, the drains-on-society. These millions of lives rarely leave anything behind to be featured in museums or posted on the Internet. But still they were there side by side with the upper classes. They too were born, lived, and struggled. However, they are rarely recorded or featured or honored. They just were...

Many debates as to why they were so much less than those with so much more. A twist of nature, an irony of birth, some missing genes, perhaps a tragic event in their formative years. Whatever the reasons, their society (like ours) always dismissed them. At one ignorant time, dismissed them into upper-attics, chained to asylum walls. placed in nameless orphanages, and largely banished from the rest of us. Most certainly from the upper classes for whom "God's failures" presented a distressing image which they sometimes tempered with noblesse oblige while they preached The Gospel of Wealth.

In today's culture we have learned more patience, tolerance, even respect for the least-among-us. There are homes and job centers and even entire communities where "God's failures" can live up to their capacities with honor. Still, ours is a culture of winners! A culture which shines its brightest lights on the rich and the thin and strong and the brave and most especially the beautiful.

There once was a man who we are told strode the hills of Galilee preaching wise things. One of them was: "The meek shall inherit the earth..."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


There are those members of our species for whom more-is-better. Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen and Barry Bonds rush to mind. Recently, however, the less-is-better crowd has found some strong support from an unlikely corner: Biologists. Picture Indiana Jones searching for DNA instead of the lost Ark.

Now here's the plot.

Most of us have conveniently presumed what puts us higher on the evolution tree is that we have more to our DNA than other any other species. Which is why Stanford University scientists were surprised when they compared us to our closest relative the chimpanzee with whom we share 96% of our DNA. But instead of finding extra genes that make us superior, they discovered about 500 DNA sequences which are missing in us.

Is it possible that less not more has made us more....?

Research director David Kingsley seems to think so. He reports on "One of these missing DNA sequences has likely allowed our brains to grow bigger by turning off a gene that keeps this organ's growth in check.The lack of another DNA sequence appears to prevent men from growing penile spines which in chimps are designed to speed delivery of sperm." Kingsley goes on to explain the obvious -- bigger brains, superior species. But then the less obvious -- losing the penile spine prolongs the sex act for humans, helping make intercourse more intimate and monogamy more likely.

And you always thought biology classes were boring...!

Sticking with this same less-is-more theme, Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham has raised serious questions about the conventional theory that European humanity was using fire as far back as 1 million years ago. Recent data has discovered that our European ancestors didn't know how to start and stoke a fire until 400,000 years ago. Which then poses the question: Can this missing fire help in some way explain our species advancement despite the brutal winters of northern Europe?

Bigger-is-always-better advocates aren't likely to be impressed. I mean, it's a forgone conclusion that bigger portfolios and penises represent bigger people and purposes. Just ask them! And yet, perhaps science is just now catching up with theology in reporting that sometimes being less can outclass always being more.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Behold spring. And behold the spring robin. Of the 10,000+ species of birds in the world and the 925 found in the US, the robin has found a special place in our hearts. As a sign of spring, and as a source of little wisdoms.

For instance, Mom always preached learning from the early-bird-that-catches-the-worm. However, Dad usually added but-think-of-being-the-early-worm. So you can understand why I grew up conflicted about being too aggressive. This in turn helps explain why I was the last kid on my block to learn how to climb trees and skitch winter rides on the back of passing cars. [If "skitch" has no meaning, you may disregard the rest of this].

I was reflecting on all this as I went out to pick up the three newspapers on our morning driveway. There I stood -- swathed in my periwinkle blue bathrobe -- eying the robin on our lawn who was eying me. This is not an infrequent early-hour encounter. Each morning I try to convey to my friend the red-breasted robin that I mean it no harm. Why I even circle wide around the newspapers to make this clear [a periwinkle circling which may confound my neighbors, but then I confound them anyway].

However, here's the point. And a tragic one at that.

The robin only has its instincts to tell it of my intentions. Anything I might say will not be able to overcome its natural instinct to preserve its own interests and space. Alas, no matter how wide and quiet my circling, most of my morning robins reject my overtures to be their friend.

So what...? So all too often people and nations react the very same way to any overtures of peace from anyone deemed an enemy. Consider Lincoln's overture to the Confederacy in his First Inaugural Address ...Chamberlain's peace-in-our-time salute to Hitler in the Munich Agreement of 1938...Martin Luther King's I-Have-A-Dream speech to the nation in 1963...Obama's Cairo declaration to Islam in 2009.

It's fruitless to explain any of this to my friends the robins, as they usually interpret my peculiar circling and awkward smiling as far too aggressive. So much like so many other overtures in our world. Those between political parties... religions ...families...husband and wife...peer and peer. Whereas my robins can be excused by reason of their lack of reason, what in God's name is our excuse?

Yes, I think I can hear the social Darwinians answering my plea. We are each meant to survive in this world, and thus our first and primary instinct is fear. This is where I like FDR's celebrated answer: "All we have to fear is fear itself...!" I shall quote him tomorrow morning. Who, I wonder, will our leaders find to quote?

Monday, April 18, 2011


Hitler and Churchill were both wrong...!

You won't hear their names during today's clash in Washington over limited-government vs big government. And yet if today's Congress knew their history as well as their party talking-points, they'd see the connection. Churchill most eloquently defended the first when he said democracy was better than the alternatives, while Hitler most dramatically preached the second when he said democracies were too divisive to survive.

It could be said no one in Washington, on either side, stands as tall in history as these two warriors. Instead, today's combatants are busy with budgets, balances and deficits, Matters more of bookkeeping than of destiny. And yet they might do well to reassess their passions for or against strong central government.

Hitler mesmerized and galvanized 60 million Germans into saluting the power of the "one" over the "many." He scoffed at the "weakness of debate versus the power of leadership." He saw the "little become strong when they gave their souls to the state."

Churchill, later joined by FDR, spoke of Hitlerism as "the darkness over the land which crushes the liberty of the individual under the boot of government." And when -- six bloody years and 60 million lives later -- the Allies claimed victory, they claimed two of them. One of arms. The other of ideas.

History is always written by the winners. And so many can say WWII proved tyrannical central governments are doomed to eventually fall of their own weight (for current details see the USSR, Iraq,Tunisia and Egypt). However, the losers can say it was not democracy that defeated the authoritarian states of Germany and Japan; it was simply a matter of numbers, the extraordinary size and relentless quantity of Allied arms.

Historians can debate the matter. But there is one matter beyond debate. This country has become what it is by choosing NEITHER side in this anti-pro government debate. Instead, we've taken something from BOTH. A stubborn defense of limited government (eg. the free-wheeling capitalists who built the world's greatest industrial Goliath) at the very same time a shrewd use of big government (eg. the subsidies & tariffs from the federal bureaucrats who helped feed the Goliath).

Somewhere in the heat of 2011 Washington there are those with the light of this fact. You can usually spot them, because they're the ones trying to be heard when they say: "The choice here is not one or the other, but both..."

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Lets put it this way. The human race has been asleep at the controls of more than airports. We've been asleep and unprepared at times that should have jolted us into action. Fire...writing...agriculture ...the Ice Age. Later on that crazy Italian Marco Polo and all his talk about silk. Then that other Italian Columbus trying to sell Europe on his crazy trip. Instead of acting, at first we just laughed. Why I even laughed when my kids told me this hip-swiveling guitar-player was going to change my Bing Crosby music forever.

In each case, people finally did respond; but so often so late and so reluctantly. And do you know what...? It's happening again. Right now. Right in our own homes every single night while you and I sleep!

Let me explain. Most of us have been hearing about ETs landing ready to conquer Earth, or AI computers ready to conquer minds. Now you see, this keeps us fixated on the big stuff, lulling us to sleep about the small stuff. Like what all our small smug computer chips are whispering among themselves in our kitchens and living rooms.

Now wait...! Before you start laughing like my wife and kids, I've heard these conspiring conversations for myself. No, I can't produce any recordings, because, well, because these damn little chips speak to one another at audio levels that don't record. All part of their planning to keep us un-prepared until they're ready. But if you stay up late enough at night, I ask you to listen very very carefully to your cellphones! your computer keypads! even your automatic garage door opener!

Like all conspiracies they plan to take control in small undetectable steps. Take your cellphone. That damn thing has so many apps with so many complicated directions that before you know it, you find yourself doing what the apps tell you to do. Suddenly you're listening and watching things you never even heard of, nor wanted to. But there they are, because those little chips decided for you. In the meantime, you've completely lost your way trying to make that phone call you began with.

Look, I haven't much time here, because I think my fax machine has been eying me. But let me give you just one more example of how these repulsive little chips are inexorably taking control. Ever notice when you're in the middle of writing an e-mail, suddenly the computer stops. Shuts down. Commands you to wait because "the system is re-configuring." What do you do? Well of course, you sit there and obey!

Think about it, my fool-hearty fellow-human. It's your chips seizing control of this moment in your life. A trial run for when they complete their plans to seize control not just of your moments, but of your day! And eventually your life!
But I can't say anymore, because my keypad is, O my God, my keypad is................

Saturday, April 16, 2011


If it happens today we call it "news." If it happened yesterday we call it "history." But both still answer to the same classic questions -- Who, What, When, Where, Why. Perhaps the most intriguing is the Who and the What.

At first glance it would seem the Who to any story is obvious. Ahhh, but not to the conspiracy-theorist. These are the folks who dwell and thrive in such venues as their daily blogsites or corner sports bar from where they spin dark and compelling tales of Who really was Mary Magdalene... Who really shot Lincoln...who really caused Wilson his mysterious stroke...who really planned the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor ...who really plotted JFK's assassination...who really pulled the trigger that killed Martin Luther King...who really invoked the Cubs curse ...and of course who really is this Kenyan terrorist living in the White House?

Then if your question has a really outlandish answer, maybe Oliver Stone will make the movie.

Still more intriguing is the What question. Or, to refine it a bit, the What-If question that lurks somewhere inside every major turning point in history. Think about it. History is traditionally a chronicle of What happened; but to the curious historian, there is always that flip-side. That sequence of events that MIGHT have happened and WOULD have changed the world.

Like any good jewelery or art dealer, it hardly make sense to simply examine the front-side of what you're buying.

And so may I bequeath you some of the very same What-If's with which I frequently teased my history students. Each an historical tease well worth the tickle. What if there was a Lilith not just an Eve...? What if the Hebrews were never in Egypt?...What if Hannibal not Rome won?....What if Emperor Constantine's Council at Ephesus had not declared Jesus to be God?....What if the Vatican had stopped selling indulgences once Martin Luther protested? ...What if the Brits had defeated the Colonists?....What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? ....What if Nevile Chamberlain had struck a deal with Hitler to stay out of the Continent thereby keeping its Empire?...What if the Supreme Court had not selected George W Bush in 2000 after the popular vote had elected Al Gore?

Pleasant dreams....

Friday, April 15, 2011


I don't know of any research on the matter of Starbucks conversations, but here's one coffee-drinker's observations. In addition to the busy, in-and-out patrons, there are usually little clusters of locals lingering here. They're not between business appointments and they're not clutching a handful of kids between gulps. Simply engaged in the lost are of conversation.

Three categories, usually: Teens, widows, widowers.

Teens are ectoplasm in the flesh. Happy, carefree, giggling flesh. They arrive in little bursts of laughing conversation, cheerily ride the wave between tweets, then drift out to whatever unknown places from which they appeared. They are today's principle of Connectivity at its chirpiest.

Widows tend to greet, meet and tweet, but by touch and smile. Old friends or neighbors who can share a few memories, exchange a few sighs, swap a few pictures of the grandkids. They gave birth to children, nourished their lives, supported their husbands, held down jobs, and helped make their corner of America a flourishing one. Now, tempered by age, they're usually a soft-spoken cluster whose busy earlier lives had allowed little time like this to tarry around coffee cups. Now they have more of that time, but perhaps less to do with it.

Then there are the widowers. The old guys, the retired guys, guys who probably go back a good many years. Maybe they went to school together, worked at the same job, served in the same military, or knew the same circle of friends of which they are the few survivors. When you look at them across the room, you think of the accumulated years, experiences, talents, and energies that were once theirs. Some of it recalled here in grousing and regretting. Yet much of it remembered even more sweetly than it was originally lived.

But wait a minute...! Suddenly you notice something. You too are a part of this, a part of them, a part of the America which now lives longer than any previous generation. You too are among those who have outlived so many of their friends and most of their expectations. A fact to be celebrated? Maybe. To be shared? Absolutely. To be noted by those teens? Lets hope so... we have another round of coffee.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


We've always had our share of fanatics. Of course we have to distinguish them, for they go by different names. We call the fanatically faithful Christians facing the lions: martyrs. The fanatically sweating vocalists: rockers. The fanatically Islamic guerrillas: terrorists. Closer to home, the fanatically angry neighbors at public hearings: concerned citizens.

Whatever the label, there is always the wisdom of philosopher George Santayana: "Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim."

The concern of our concerned citizens is almost always about one of three issue, sure to trigger fanaticism: Their taxes, their schools, or their officials. A perfectly fine manifestation of democracy-in-action. Except when, as Santayana warns, their anger loses sight of their aim.

If you've ever attended one of these hearings, you know the feeling. Because it IS a feeling! An emotional rage that takes over whenever you start to feel THEY aren't listening. THEY usually being tax collectors or school superintendents; especially politicians who've just voted Yes to what you damn well knew should have been No.

Now add to the crowd-rage the people the electronic-rage of the TV cameras present. Television crews are here to capture democracy-in-action for the 10 o'clock news, right? Not necessarily. Watch the crews watch the hearing. Their lights don't go when the local college professor presents his sterile stats on the matter -- no pizazz there! They do go on when one of the concerned citizens shouts or acts out their concern -- that's the shot you're looking for!

True, democracy is not something you rehearse. It's something that wells up from the authentic principles and passions of serious citizens free to speak their piece. On the other hand, today it's become show-business-democracy. Heat will always be more photogenic than light. For the 10 o'clock news to sell, it's gotta sizzle...!

This doesn't mean sizzle is wrong. It does mean, lets be sure there's real steak to go with the sizzle.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Long before curious Europeans began settling what they called the New World, their old world had traditionally been marked by uncrossable class lines. From royalty to aristocracy to the recent middle class to the peasants. You know, humanity's usual arrangement between the winners and losers (think "Upstairs, Downstairs")

However, here in America these distinctions began to blur right from the start. Oh sure, we still had winners (rich merchants, bankers, plantation owners, the usual suspects). But in order to keep the losers from rising up and killing them in their bed at night, the winners fashioned this glittering promise known as the American Dream (think, by-gosh-anyone-can-make it). Because the dream did come true in some spectacular cases (think Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison), the bloody European habit of class revolution was fairly well tamed.

But ever since WWII, the number of dream-catchers has grown so quickly, America has become increasingly more classless-looking. More and more of us could start buying Cadillacs, swimming pools, designer-knock-offs, and world cruises (think credit cards)). Soon-- except for one's mastery of the King's English -- it was harder to tell one class from another. Lately the pace has reached warp (and warped) speed with our glut of reality shows in which anyone -- the more primitive and less classy the better -- can become some kind of folk hero (think all those Jerry Springer Cretans, break-the-bank screamers, strutting bachelor studs, and naked island-survivors).

America's nouveau rich, when traveling in older class-conscious societies, stick out as The Ugly American. Back home, however, ugly sometimes looks beautiful (think the mystic of a Jesse James to an Al Capone, a Mr Smith Goes to Washington to a Joe the Plumber, a Will Rogers to a Chris Rock). There isn't a politician in sight who won't eagerly pose with the ugliest citizen they can find in the shabbiest coffee shop in the land. Listen, brother, this is Big-A-America, and if you don't like it you can leave it...!

But here's Big-A-America's dirty little secret. Regardless of how giddily class-less we become, the classes with the really big bucks and big clout still take for granted that they stand on the very top of Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest mountain climb. Meanwhile, the credit-card classes still strut the smugness that comes out in their put-down jokes at the local barber shops and beauty salons.

So long as each class continues to believe THEY are the real winner...well, everything's OK. But if this delicate balance of belief ever shifts...well, then who's to say?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


On this 150th anniversary of our Civil War, one of the words that may come to mind is "exceptionalism." We hear it a lot these days. Especially about America. Some like the sound of it; others question it; and anyone who's not American will likely take exception to it.

There have always been exceptional children, exceptional adults, even exceptional nations like China, Persia, Greece and Rome. However, it seems in most cases these people and these nations simply and smugly took the idea for granted. America may be the first to strut the idea like a badge of honor.

There was an inkling of our exceptionalism from the very start, as immigrants from around the world came here to start something new and exceptional. The Founding Fathers certainly thought we were exceptional, and Lincoln eloquently spelled that out during the Civil War with his Gettysburg Address. Later, Woodrow Wilson did the same when he took us into WWI "to make the world safe for democracy" (especially our brand) .

But truth be known, most Americans simply and smugly took our exceptionalism for granted until WWII. We knew damn well it was true, but enjoyed keeping it to ourselves here safely behind our two ocean walls. Then came the glory and the burden of a stunning world victory.

By 1945 Americans found themselves the greatest super-power in history. King of the road, perched in the catbird seat. The ravaged planet lay before us for the taking. And take it we did. Not like other empires before us, we took it with the role of benefactors. We would be history's first benevolent empire whose role was to keep the peace, save the people, and incidentally do it all for the benefit of our very exceptional economy.

What American could argue? Living through the next 50 years was to enjoy the American Century. Oh, there was a Cold War, but our armies and cars and GNP were the biggest and best the world had ever seen. Why...? Well, because our American exceptionalism had ordained this day would come. After all, it was our national destiny ever since we sent the Red Coats packing back to London in 1783.

Now here's where historians get the last laugh with their favorite golden rule: "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it." Every exception in history has been met by honors to its face, but rivals at its back. To use one of our own exceptional illustrations: In every frontier town there is the "fastest gun;" feared and deferred to by everyone he meets, yet doomed to forever walk the dusty streets knowing some day there will be an even faster gun looking to take his place.

Some of our post-WWII presidents have loved the role of gunslinger. One or two have instead hoped for the day America could at last put away its gun belt. Spend more quality time with the gang at the corner saloon. But that hope calls for a courage few gunslingers have ever known....

Monday, April 11, 2011


Today's researchers are intent upon figuring us out. You know, that ancient quest that has challenged such pairings as teacher & student...employer & employee...Democrat & Republican...and most especially men & women. What makes us tick? And why are their ticks so hard to coordinate with my ticks?

At one time the quest was the subject of great thinkers like Aristotle, Aurelius, Augustine, and Descartes. Lately it is the subject of behavioral psychologists like Canadian Karina Schumann and University of Michigan's Jennifer Crocker. Schumann reports: "If we can distinguish how the sexes apologize to one another, men generally find less to apologize for, because they think they've done fewer things wrong." In Crocker's research on the need for praise: "I was shocked to learn that today's desire to feel worthy and valuable -- among both men and women -- trumps almost any other pleasure activity you can imagine."

What's so interesting is that we find ourselves so interesting. Today, we spend enormous blocks of money and time to study ourselves by the numbers. Then go off writing how-to handbooks or scheduling speaking tours to share these numbers with audiences anxious to learn why we are the way we are.

Worthy pursuits, all. And yet, the numbers always seem to be changing. Suggesting that human nature may be more than statistics-deep. Those thinkers who think most deeply about the human condition -- theologians, novelists, philosophers, playwrights -- are repeatedly sharing with us core truths that have persisted in our species long before anyone thought about taking the time and money to form a research study.

Usually these truths have come from no farther away than the mouths of a family elder or a community wise one in inconspicuous settings like the family dinner, the local coffee shop, the corner pub, and the Sunday pulpit. What they had to offer from their years of living were generally referred to simply as "tales" and "sayings." Giggled at by the listening children, indulged in by the young, but quietly recognized by the elderly.

You know how reporters interview the neighbors when someone in the community has just been arrested for some horrific mass-killing or terrorist-act? What do the interviewees usually say? "He was always such a quiet person, nice to my kids, never any trouble..."

Ever since Adam and Eve got into that mess in the Garden, people just haven't quite got the hang of understanding one another. Our feelings and fears; our dreams and ambitions. Often because we mask them. Even more often because we don't completely understand them. I'm not sure how Aristotle or Crocker would advise us on this matter, but a good friend once offered this simple saying: "Just remember, you're always looking from your inside to the other person's outside...."

Don't know about you, but I suspect this disconnect has been the source of most problems between people and nations ever since we messed things up way back in that Garden...

Sunday, April 10, 2011


There's this parlor game in which people are asked to select the animal they'd choose to be. Amateur psychiatry which supposedly reveals personal characteristics. Want to be a tiger...? Means you like power. An eagle...? You value freedom. A cobra...? I've heard that one, but usually prefer not to analyze it too closely.

Most people select dogs, cats, race horses. The obvious thought here is that most of us value the protected and pampered life. Well, why not. Currently, Americans pamper 90 million cats, 75 million dogs, 16 million birds, 10 million fish; and, oh yes, 14 million reptiles. A $42 billion investment of our love, our attention, and very frankly our need. Our need to be appreciated, to be indispensable, and to feel indisputably wanted (at least at feeding time).

In these same parlors, parents also talk about their children. Pets are nice, but children are what it's all about!

Well, no, not really. According to real psychiatrists, raising kids consistently causes stress and other varieties of unhappiness. Demographers from Germany's Max Planck Institute surveyed 200,000 men and women in 86 countries. Their results showed that young parents with young children were generally unhappier than their child-less peers, while older parents with older children were happier.

Research director, Mikko Myrskyla, put it this way: "Children may be be a long-term investment in happiness.
Couples contentment drops with the birth of their first child, still more with subsequent births. Expense, anxiety and lost sleep may overshadow the positive aspects of parenthood. Until those kids grow up to become a source of emotional and financial support."

Now here's the thing. Couples can acquire pets of whatever age. Is there some way they could acquire children the same way? You know, sometime after they've been house-broken? Which gives a whole new twist to the current culture war over planned parenthood. But wait, there is sure to be strong opposition. From the Vatican, yes; from the Republicans, surely; from the Tea Party, probably.

Their reasons will differ. No one in the Vatican knows anything about 2AM feedings. No one in the Republican Party can afford to agree with anything President Obama supports. And no one in the Tea Party can support any child policy until they figure out why they support children like Beck, Bachman and Palin.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


So many ways to splice & dice our world. Male & female; Christian & Muslim; rich & poor; hands & head.

All over-simplifications to be sure, but they have their place in how we sort ourselves out. Like that last one. Humanity tends either to work mostly with its hands (AKA, blue-collar, hard-hat) or its head (AKA, white-collar, briefcase). There's overlap, of course, but you get the idea.

For most of history our species has worked by the ache of its hands and the sweat of its back. Then, especially with the industrial & scientific revolutions, a growing number of us began working with our heads. As we became more educated, mechanized, and in control of the world around us, more of us left the land. Left the tools. Left the sweating behind, and came to the great cities and entered their dirt-free professions.

Today, Americans have become steadily more engaged in abstractions. Like books, laws, portfolios, computer programs, R&D. The sweating is done by fewer and fewer. So that fewer and fewer of us actually MAKE things; more and more of us THINK things. Inevitably each population tends to consider the other the lesser of the two.

Some of us prefer bowling alleys to country clubs, domestic beer to rare wines, movies to operas, hot dogs to pheasant. Others drive luxury cars, own big homes, buy hedge funds, and get their kids into the Ivy League.

This division-of-labor and its consequent division-of-values was apparent from America's earliest literature where dapper easterners and dirty frontiersmen always stand out in sharp contrast. And while a taste for the good life is bone-deep in our people, pride in the hard life may be deeper. There's something enduring in our national mythos that sees the rugged, plain-spoken, hands-on doer as what made and still makes us great.

Picture Jack Nicholson vs Tom Cruise in the 1992 film A FEW GOOD MEN. Nicholson is the tough Marine officer charged with allowing a brutal code-of-honor to lead to a recruit's murder. Cruise is the idealistic, clean-deal lawyer indicting the old, pragmatic, get-it-done-anyway-you-can veteran. You feel intellectual pride in the principles espoused by Cruise; you feel moved by the guts-and-glory of the warrior who reminds us that while we sleep in our white sheets, his kind stand watch on the walls that protect us.

We respect Cruise; we need Nicholson. When a choice must be made, the film has Nicholson sent to prison. When we leave the courtroom with Cruise, we all have to struggle with a question. "In a brutish world, should we punish the brutes or ask them to protect us from what is still more brutish out here...?"

Friday, April 8, 2011


Time is a peculiar thing. To Einstein it's relative. To Christians it's followed with eternity. To lovers they can't get enough of it. To elders they'd like to get more of it. To children, well to children, time is rather meaningless, because for them it just is.

Museums, on the other hand, all take the same point of view. They exist to capture it, display it, extol it. Right now the Metropolitan Museum of New York is giving time a special look they call: "Rooms With a View - the Open Windows in the 19th Century." Thirty one paintings each depicting a view from inside a different room.

Hard for anyone from one point in time to fully understand anyone or anything from a different point in time. We can only look through a glass darkly and speculate. Inevitably our speculation will be refracted by our own personal perceptions. Much like the light from the sun is refracted by the different angles from which we're looking at it. So it is that the ways of the past -- heroes and heroines, medicines and plumbing -- are usually perceived as frozen in a long ago time-frame useful only for a passing smile of interest,

That seems so useless. Like attending an old school reunion and bringing back only your name tag. There has to be something more valuable on this continuum we call the trajectory of our lives. Of our generations, Of our nation. For some, what-has-been is fossilized; simply sentimental memories. For others, what-has-been are the great shoulders upon which we have stood in order to see still greater tomorrows.

But here's the problem. In youth's pride and vigor, there doesn't always seem much to learn from a graying cranky generation. Instead, today's young may see the same failures and hypocrisies they did in the 60s with their shibboleth: "Don't trust anyone over 30!"

What then can the young 50 years later pick out from the shambles of history? Carefully excavated, the ruins can still yield up treasures. The primitives, their sense of tribe...the ancients, their sense of awe...the prophets, their sense of God ...the Renaissance, their sense of man...the Enlightenment, their sense of reason....the Victorians, their sense of propriety...the Greatest Generation, their sense of endurance....our families, their sense that blood truly is thicker than water.

Did any of those past generations really follow their dreams, live their ideals? Hardly! And yet here's something for any heart under 30 to ponder. How many of those uncompleted dreams and ideals still shine in the darkness of our own times? If they do -- and so many do -- then what may be most needed today is not so much new dreams and ideals; wiser still, mounting new and better missions to fulfill the same old dreams and ideals...

Thursday, April 7, 2011


How special and unique are we, really...?

Poets have said we're all like snowflakes, not one on the planet quite like any other. Popes have added that each life is an unrepeatable act of God. But meanwhile, mothers have been known for generations to stare at their children and sigh: "You're just like your father!"

So which is it? How are we humans to be understood by a parent? a teacher? a cop? a general or mayor or president? True, our eyes tell us we all act differently. Yet our psychologists tell us we are in our essence all the same. Can such a contradiction be reconciled? Lets try. Lets say: We are all the same differently.

Like a baseball is the same object, different pitchers can make it do different things. Like a pair of lungs are the same organ, different breathers can put it to different purposes. Like a history textbook is the same, different teachers can study it with their students in different ways.

As usual, Shakespeare says it best. In THE MERCHANT OF VENICE he assembles two historic opposites -- European Christians and European Jews. But when Shylock confronts his Christian tormentors, he is speaking to us all: "He hath disgraced me and what's his reason? I am a Jew. But hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons. If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"

So just about the time you and I begin to believe we're the only one who has thought this thought...felt this feeling...sung this victory. Or experienced this doubt....feared this fear...lost this battle...known this betrayal. That's the time to draw upon the comfort -- yes, comfort seems the correct word -- that you're hardly the first. Hardly the only. Hardly the last.

See...? We are all the same differently....! There is pride in our differentness, but comfort in our sameness. A reality that not only fits us like a glove, it should also fit our families, our communities, our churches, and our nations. Trouble is, this glove seems to be ignored by 21st C Americans as much as it was 14th C Venetians.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


On this April 6 in the year of our Lord two thousand and eleven, approximately half of us on this planet are uniquely breeders, nesters, caregivers, comforters, teachers, supporters and everyday wisdom on the trail. I speak of and for women...!

The long twisting history of the female of the species begins metaphorically with Eve. And while the men who wrote the holy books may have wronged her, it seems thereafter that goddesses not gods were most honored. This because primitive man understood that all life comes forth from the woman.

In time, though, gods-from-the-air replaced the goddesses-from-the-earth in the pantheon. Women became subordinate to men. And the stories have ever since reflected this hierarchy. Woman has been seen and codified not only as secondary, but very often seditious. Consider history's hall-of-shame featuring the wiles of Eve, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Mata Hari, all the way to the seductive sirens-of-the-screen to an innocuous Monica Lewinksy.

The French police have for generations summed it up neatly and naughtily: "Cherchez la femme!" Whatever the crime, first look for the woman.

And yet, reports from the front suggest a different tale. For all the male's brute strength, there has been the female's quiet endurance. While their men conquer nature and enemies, the women give these conquests their value. In the form of homes, schools, churches, and all those civilizing characteristics that sublimate mere conquests into victories worth living with.

They had no word like Feminism in the past, for there seemed to be no other way. Men wove the narratives in which men were portrayed and accepted as naturally and divinely endowed. Women...? well everyone, including them, were understood to have-their-place.

Regardless of how one wants to debate this historical plotline, one would have to grant that something's not quite right when half the world's population has been allowed -- ordained, really! -- to stifle their talents and gifts in the name of the-way-things-are.

And speaking of "stifling," that was ol' Archie Bunker's favorite reaction to Edith. As a result, Archie -- and all the world's other Archies -- have been running the world for a long long time. Results to date can easily justify the women of the world asking: "How could we have done any worse...?"

So long as you don't watch offerings like "The Housewives of New Jersey," chances are you'll agree. The world's women could hardly have done any worse

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


One of life's inexorables -- genetics!

You and I are genetically aging every minute of every day. Lately, however, neurobiologists are promising the promises of genetic engineering. Which sound pretty terrific. Because along with refinements and corrections, there's also the promise of altering the aging process itself.

But here's where the waters muddy. While genetics can envision a super-race of enhanced humans, some geneticists worry about the results. Like the fictional Dr. Frankenstein and the all-too-factual Adolf Hitler. Other geneticists dream of perfecting our species by focusing on what's best in us. However, while the first group agree on what's "worse" about us, the second are not always sure about what's "best."

Some speak of enhanced sensory capacities so we will see and hear more than now. Other speak of enhanced cognitive powers so we will think and achieve more than now. I notice, though, few appear to be looking in my direction. I'm looking not at what we might become, but what we once were.

Before you and I inexorably happened into the coarser adults we are today, we once were the unblemished children prophets and poets sing about. Jesus: "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs." Heraclitus: "Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play." Shakespeare: "A man loves the meat in his youth he cannot endure in his age."

If I were ever to meet with the brilliant genetic teams probing our better selves, I would lack their bona fides. I might, however, possess something which the profundity of their work has lost track of -- the purity of their own lost childhood. That kinder childhood which finally emerged in the early 19th C as generations of Oliver Twists were gradually released from centuries of child-labor. The lost childhood Citizen Kane's "Rosebud" became to him in his final hours. The magical childhood we see and celebrate every Christmas season.

OK, my vision of genetic engineering is counter-culture. "Grow up!" is the mantra of the majority. Especially as our children must face a brutal world. And yet, one can still wonder if it would have grown quite so brutal had its young not been encouraged to grow-up by leaving behind so much of what was best to their childhood.

IN A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN Tom Hanks shakes his head, "There's no crying in baseball." We laugh at the absurdity of it. And yet, and yet, maybe that's part of our problem! Maybe as adults we've lost the capacity to cry when we hurt, to embrace when we love, and to splash barefoot through puddles of April showers....

Monday, April 4, 2011


Frontiers have been beckoning all throughout the history of humanity. That deep river or high mountain or vast ocean just up ahead. Seems as if we're genetically encoded to be afraid yet curious. So desperately curious we simply have to conquer it. Especially Americans whose history began as a series of new frontiers from our Eastern settlements along the Atlantic, eventually across the wide Missouri, and finally the towering Rockies to the Pacific.

Frontiers, however, exist and beckon not only in a geographic sense. There are also the frontiers of the mind. Modern man has used physics to probe what's on the earth, in the skies, and now in outer space. But there is still so much of inner space yet to be conquered. So if physics was our field of choice in the last century, biology will be in this century. Which is why our best neuro-biologists are in a state of perpetual frontier-crossing when it comes to our brain circuitry, our genes, and all the endless codes locked inside us.

But a funny thing happened on the way to progress...!

Usually it's been a straight-line advancing from simpler to more extraordinary. Yet one of these lines may have begun wobbling lately. One of these neuro-biological advances may have run into trouble. Our progress in the field of human communication.

What started as grunts advanced into language, language into writing, writing into printing, then printing into the mass media of newspapers, radio, television and now the Internet. Amazing stuff, all this. And at a quick glance, pretty impressive.

But now here's where the straight-on, frontier-crossing line may wobble. The medieval church was wrong to resist the acquisition of reading on the part of the masses. However, what about the acquisition of publishing on the part of the masses? It sounds so democratic. It seems to fulfill the ideal of every-citizen-a-vote-and-a-voice.

And yet, as I publish these words -- and am called by some a citizen-journalist -- I hesitate. Journalism has long been deemed a sacred profession in which facts and truth are supposed to be the North Star. Researchers and editors are always on hand to check and balance what gets published. But no one censors me. Nor the other hundred million personal & corporate websites.

And so we have either reached the apotheosis of democracy, with every one of us having instant access to the screens and minds of a million fellow citizens....or we have forged an enormous electronic hammer which allows any one of us to pound every nail we happen to see. Or imagine. Or concoct.

Sure I like to "publish" like this. As does anyone who wants to inform or dis-inform, praise or discredit, rally and lead. But here's haunting question: How many of us are crying 'fire' in this enormously crowded new theatre...?

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Talking about thinking, here's something to think about. The human brain weighs about 3 pounds or only 2% of the body's total. So small and odd-looking, Egyptian burial priests removed and discarded it. To them, the heart was the essence of the pharaohs they were preserving.

Today we know differently. At our birth, the brain's complex circuitry is already largely complete. Waiting to be engaged as we grow up in a whirlwind of physical and metaphysical encounters over the next 80-90 years. At our death, this same brain ceases its physical activities while, according to some, its metaphysical activities endure.

Between those two points in time, these remarkable 3 pounds of neurons might be considered the biggest-bang- for-the-buck in the entire cosmos. The human brain crackles with an force-field proportionately vaster than even the power of the sun and the stars. And, unlike them, it can create ideas and beauties whose splendor will match almost anything Nature has to offer.

Why then we ask has the human brain created so much that is so vicious and vile throughout our specie's time on this planet? If you say Evolution has formed the brain, then why has Evolution gone so wrong so often? If you say God has formed the brain, then why has a good God allowed so much evil in His world? Darwin is not here to answer the charge; God is not available to sit in any witness chair.

Judged or not, the human brain continues to be the most extraordinary instrument ever known. Multiplied each day by a factor of 7 billion. How tempting such an instrument. How alluring such a force. And, predictably, how many human beings throughout history have sought to mesmerize and master these brains to their own ends. Think those Pharaohs...Alexander...Xerxes...Caesar...Attila...Napoleon...Hitler.

But even in conquered slavery or in forced concentration camps, our brains almost always remain our very own. To use or waste as we see fit. A fact that is in play whether we are at the controls of a space shuttle, bent over a maze of research tubes, or simply fingering a keypad like this one. Or, if you think about it, at night as all 7 billion of us slip off to sleep.

Somewhere between the consciousness of the day and the mystery of the dream, our brains can race and travel throughout an entire lifetime of parents, family, communities, friends, successes, failures, hopes and fears. Hollywood with all its cameras and computers can't come anywhere close to such drifting-off-to-sleep panoramas

Despite all the astonishing efficacies of the human brain, you still wonder why two of its choices. One, its ancient refusal to conclude all those other brains out there are far more like you than against you...! Two, its current search to discover everything about itself that is no more than the random work of Evolution rather than the intentional gift of some cosmic intelligence...!

I'll be thinking about both as I drift off tonight. Maybe you too.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


It's always hard to make predictions. Especially about the future. Still, there will always be informed Futurists like Michio Kaku who boldly go where no man has gone before in his new book PHYSICS OF THE THE FUTURE. It will either astound you or, if you are of a certain age, amuse you...

Kaku is theoretical physics professor at the City College of New York, and that silver-haired presenter you see on so many science documentaries. His bona fides are far more science than fiction when he advances three big predictions by the year 2100. And while that date immediately leaves out 90% of us here, what the heck:

* The Internet will be in your contact lens

He pictures you blinking your eyes wherever you are in order to go on-line. Accessing your home base of operations, any data banks you need, along with any entertainment you wish. Then being able to download onto your lens the data, music, or movies you find. Even more, Kaku sees you identifying the faces of the people you meet, seeing their resumes and even translating their comments into any language you require.

He also envisions tourists being able to conjure up ancient images of the historical sites they are visiting. And patients being able to monitor their health with instant readouts of heart rates, insulin levels and PSA scores.

Think living inside "The Matrix"....!

* Computers, cellphones & MP3 players will disappear

Kaku predicts such instruments will become unnecessary, for now millions of chips can be placed throughout your worlds of home and work to respond to your needs. Specifically your brain's telepathic commands. For instance, entering a room and commanding the coffee maker to start brewing or the furniture to be rearranged.

These environmental chips will cost only pennies so that they will be easy to implant in selected venues where they can be programmed to respond to such commands.

Think all those "Star Trek" replicators that served Captain Kirk...!

* Cars will become driver-less

Kaku writes that the cars of the future will "fly" by floating on a cushion of magnetism. Room-temperature superconducting magnets on highways will eliminate rough rides and traffic jams, because central computers will now be able to track the motions of all the cars out there. Best of all, he states, without the friction of wheels-on-roads, you will need far less of whatever fuel is being used.

Think "Buck Rogers" and all those flying-belts his future society used...!


Of course, those who are of that certain age, can recall the New York futurist in 1900 who predicted by 2000 there would be so many horse-drawn carriages in the metro area, pedestrians would be ankle deep in manure. Manure....? I guess our species never stops rummaging through the manure of life hoping to find that pony.

Friday, April 1, 2011


"If it feels good, it has to be right...!" A mantra fairly common in recent America. Then there's this motto from an earlier America: "If it feels tough, it has to be right....!" Neither morality has a monopoly on the truth of life, but each certainly reflect its own particular America.

There was a time when play-through-the-pain was what authority figures advised you. From coaches to bosses to top sergeants to marriage counselors. Sweat, even some tough-it-out suffering, was esteemed. In today's focus on self-esteem, the advice is frequently just the opposite. Under-performing players, workers and GIs are more likely to be given counseling than the old kick-in-the-butt.

Who is to say which advice is better?

So much is so relative. At one time society tended to admire the stick-it-out-for-40-years-and-get your-gold-watch employee. Today, that sort of endurance gets more jeers than cheers. At one time stock brokers told you to hang-on-till-it-comes-back. Today, hanging on to anything too long is not perseverance, it's passe'. At one time if a TV show got off to a slow start, the networks stuck with it. Today, you either make it in the first four episodes or you're on the late-night-reruns.

It can said that today's national impatience is a good thing. It demands from us the best. And so today's Americans are programmed for quick-results-or-you're-gone expectations. Of their presidents, members of congress, teachers, celebrities, pastors, and rabbis; along with government policies, new reforms, and old wars. In a faster, gratification-conscious culture, results are what count. Don't tell me how hard it is, just do it...!

You have to wonder is there any way to measure the relative merits of playing-through-the-pain or playing-it-cool? One recent week with the cool-playing Wall Street players, and the choice stands out for you with startling clarity. The cabbie who brings the players to their steel&glass towers probably sees his world like the long-distance-runner. Endurance not speed is what wins in the end. "I'm the tortoise to your hare, hotshot; I help people get to where they're going while you help people lose their money."

The Wall Street player...? Well, when you spend some time with them, you sorta know what they think about the cabbie. "You're driving a hack day after day thinking you're a hard worker; but what you don't know is that America wasn't built by hard workers, but by smart workers."

Fact check: America is no longer the post-WWII superpower holding all the aces. It's now operating in a global economy with far more power-players at the table than 60 years ago. Given the new rules of the game, who will survive better: The broker or the cabbie? Depends on how you define "survive." Sixty years ago, you'd probably find more Americans answering: "The hard-working little guys may never get rich, but they'll usually sleep better at night than the profit-hustling big guys."

These days, that answer may sound naive. So maybe the real question all comes down to this: How valuable is a good night's sleep compared to a good day's winning?