Tuesday, May 31, 2011


"Memes" are the latest way our big-thinkers try to explain how important stuff gets passed down from generation to generation. Richard Dawkins -- the same scholar who dismissed belief in God "as something that gets passed on in some people's genes" -- offers that our social behaviors are like cultural genes that pass from one generation to the next. Memes therefore are cultural analogues to our physical genes in the way they self-replicate.

Sounds pretty scientific. It's our determined need-to-know HOW we become what we are, disinterestedly leaving it for others to work out WHAT we might best want to become. Which is fair enough, otherwise there would be no need for non-science folks like parents, teachers, clergy and poets. Who, in the final measure, will probably prove vastly more transformative for our lives than most big-thinkers.

But then come the mass media who kinda work their way into these physical & cultural passages...!

You know, Hollywood directors, network executives, and managing editors who step into the flow, re-shaping these passages into their own artistic and financial image. In effect, these are the guys -- not the scientists or those others -- who burn into the circuit-boards of our thoughts most of what we think.

Think about the impact of movies like "Pulp Fiction," "The Godfather" and "The Matrix." Or network series like "Law & Order," "The Sopranos," "Mad Men," and "Glee." And what about newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Along with talkers like Oprah and Limbaugh. Behold our national messengers and we their willing recipients. By and large, you and I are the last powerful message we just felt!

Genes, memes, or whatever, stuff does get passed on from one generation to the next. But upon closer examination, so much of it is actually so very familiar. Just think about it:

* We have reality shows to make us feel better about ourselves, just like our ancestors did when disdaining the unmarried aunts in the neighbor's attics, the geeks in the traveling carnivals, and who in their proud ignorance they called the town idiot!

* We have cop & doc shows to make us believe what we have always needed to believe -- that both the jungle and the grim reaper can be held at bay!

* We also have incessant commercials to make us believe that despite their silly babble, there is always an answer to every problem; even the problems we never realized we had!

* Finally, we have the various new "Housewives of --." A vulgar flurry of hit shows to help every husband in the land feel just a little happier he married the women he did!

This is the real story. Now pass it on...

Monday, May 30, 2011


Another season for college graduations. For the diplomas which proudly attest to all the years and lessons required to reach this good day. One wonders, though, how many of the parents and grandparents in these summery audiences suspect they lost almost as much as they gained from their own years and lessons.

With each new book read and course passed, you gather unto yourself what our professors and our culture defined as knowledge and truth. Surely now "the truth shall make us free."

But here's the funny thing. There was a trade-off taking place. Think about it. The more knowledge and truth that fills your life, the less room there may be for what filled it before. In the case of our youthful ignorance, the trade-off is an immensely good one, because ignorance among the citizenry of a democracy is fertile grounds for lies, deceits, false gods and cunning tyrants.

However, there was another trade-off taking place. The more knowledge and truth that take root, the less room there may still be left for those young virtues of awe and wonder, mystery and belief, leprechauns and angels.

Let's be clear here. This is not a plea for eternal childhood. St Paul said it well: "Now that I am a man I have put away the things of a child..." Victor Herbert sang it well: "Childhood -- once you cross its borders, you can n'ere go back again..."

And yet, isn't there some genetic law that has us yearn more for what we have lost, the longer we are from the loss? The flippant accusations of "second childhood" and " silly sentimentality" come easily from teens and caregivers. The first don't understand; the second understand all too well. But there may be something deeper going on. That daunting dawning at the sunset of life that what was yours at the sunrise may have been your richest treasure.

Thus spoke Citizen Kane of his "Rosebud." Also Jesus: "Let the little children come to me and do not stop them; for it is to such as them that the kingdom of God belongs."

This bridge we call life extends over the pit of time from those first-walked-bricks all the way to these last-walked-stones. Yet it is all one bridge. The elders in these audiences have learned how life only makes sense looking backwards, but it has to be lived going forwards.

Which is perhaps why they embrace the eager young graduate so tightly. In that embrace, they may be trying to pass the experience of age on to the eagerness of youth. Just possibly the very best moment of the day...

Sunday, May 29, 2011


It has been written -- perhaps by our genes or simply by our historical habit -- the young will protest and the old will protect. Makes sense, because the old have survived long enough to have a heritage to protect, while the young are eager to start their own heritage.

Which may be why there has been a spate of new books by young historians like Norman Davies questioning just how good the Good War really was. And why young authors like Jonathan Franzen question just how good our wave of new electronic widgets really are.

They each register compelling arguments. Although reading them as someone much older than them, there may be a tug of war between what you need to know and what you need to feel. In the name of all we deem factual and scholarly, these current broadsides can't be dismissed. Davies is right to argue the Western Allies' own lack of courage allowed Hitler to happen, and then they fought him in the name of power not morality. Similarly, Franzen is right to argue that our love affair with our new hand-held screens is a study in the narcissism of virtual power at the expense of actual relations.

And yet, what are we to make of today's indefatigable anti-authors...?

Clearly, the tornado of their criticisms has left behind a wasteland of protest. We look around and perhaps realize how right they are to have swept away our self-serving propaganda along with our self-promoting consumerism. But now what? Just as the victims of tornadoes from the sky must decide, so must the readers of these tornadoes of criticism,

In the decimated cities of Indonesia, Japan, New Orleans and Missouri, many intuitively begin re-building. Others -- usually the more elderly -- see so little of what they once knew, they sadly drift away. Perhaps as many of these readers will do once they are convinced they've been living a lie. The lie that hailed their generation as the "greatest," and the lie that these new instruments of communication endowed them with late-in-life new power.

There's something to be said for clearing away the rubble of yesterday in order to begin re-building a more honest tomorrow. So Miyako and Joplin may rise new and fresher than before. And yet, clean coats of paint and bright new streets can only take place atop what was there before. The tears and sweat, the vision and vigor, of those who first believed these places were worth believing in.

Is it too repetitious to counsel the slayers of myths to wield the sword of their words with much greater respect than their first instinct for facts may dictate....?

Saturday, May 28, 2011


History -- as it is so often prone to do -- repeated itself in France this week. The New York Times headlines the pledge of "billions for the Arab Spring by wealthiest nations." Not unlike the US did with its Marshall Plan after WWII. The motive in 1947 was to thwart the rise of Communism in Europe; the motive in 2011 is to thwart the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East.

But heck I learned this lesson growing up where our local candy store was owned by the father of one of the kids we played with. To help keep Jimmy popular with his bullying friends, pops occasionally passed out some of his extra penny-candy free. Jimmy came home with a lot fewer punched-out eyes.

You see how it works...? From candy store owners to rich nations, sometimes it's smart to give something away to the people who might threaten you. Not idealistic philanthropy. Just good, bare-knuckles politics.

For those who carry an ideological grudge against government handing out free-lunches (AKA, welfare programs), this is a lesson not to be ignored. Government welfare is not a giveaway as much as a takeaway. With it, society takes away some peace of mind that the hungry faces pressed against the world's candy store windows won't be driven someday to break through the glass!

Oh, and in case you're interested, it also has the moral advantage of being the right-thing-to-do. The Social Darwinian code I've-got-mine-because-I-earned-it works best in jungles, not in complex societies of teeming millions whose dads don't have free candy to pass out.

Something else for the comfortable Social Darwinians to think about. "Welfare" is serving them too. Consider the number of government programs which funnel money into corporate tax breaks...oil, gas, and corn subsidies...nationwide infrastructure, highways and flood controls....college grants and student loans ...not to mention the 24/7 regulations that protect our water, food, and air.

So no, the wealthy should not resent the wealthy nations sharing the wealth these days. After all, it's their -- and your -- investment in sleeping better in the nights to come. Besides, many of those recipients will probably become some of the artists, athletes, scholars and generals who you'll be applauding some day.

See why it's a takeaway more than a giveaway....?

Friday, May 27, 2011


Critics decry today's lack of leaders and leadership. Especially from Washington. And while this is an easy and historically common complaint, it almost always comes from those who have never held a position of leadership. Like the beer-aroused fans in the bleachers snorting their advice on how to play the game.

Leadership -- either innate or rehearsed -- pretty much comes down to this: The ability to communicate some great ideas to a great many people to achieve some great goals. The operative word is "communicate." And it all starts with getting the people's attention.

In the 18th and 19th C, our political voices had a fairly clear shot at the public.There were just a few newspapers in the larger cities, only one in the smaller towns, and of course no radio-TV-Internet. So when Washington gave his Farewell Address and Lincoln his Gettysburg Address, their words didn't have instant-pundit analysis...a response-by-the-opposition...and a hundred gazillion blogs slicing and dicing each paragraph. Even in the 20th C, when FDR broadcast one of his Fireside Chats, virtually the entire adult population gathered around their radios. Not only to listen, but to believe.

Here in the 21st C, virtually no one believes! Anything, anytime, anywhere!

There's an exquisitely ironic pearl sealed inside this enormous national oyster. It's this. The very instruments of today's enhanced communication and leadership have somehow begun to confuse not clarify the messages. Pick a word -- over-load, glut, static -- any word will do. Or as the gang-chain boss in COOL HAND LUKE classically put it: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate..."

Democracy means many good things. Among them is its diversity. The ability of its diverse publics to be heard in the marketplace of ideas. But picture today's marketplace less like Plato's ancient Lyceum, and more like a Middle Eastern Bazaar. Less a thoughtful clash among enlightened thinkers, more a brawling competition of hawking pitchmen.

When "American Idol," "Oprah," and "The Housewives of New Jersey" can arouse bigger audiences than presidents, democracy has itself a challenge the Constitution never quite anticipated. When any small angry mind can shout "you lie" from a Congressional audience or get a million instant "hits" to their undocumented conspiracy rant or fill the Washington Mall with their pitch to our darker side, democracy's greatest promise has just bumped into a whole new breed of abductors.

Democracy -- compared to thousands of years of pharaohs, emperors, and kings -- is the new kid on the block. To prevail, it'll have to work harder to make sure its diversity doesn't spell its demise...

Thursday, May 26, 2011


When Johnny Cash sings Curly's Putman's classic 1965 country-western THE GREEN GREEN GRASS OF HOME, he is telling a universal story. In just a few bars, a story about the life, longing, and demise of one of the world's lost souls. And because all stories are true -- especially those that happened -- this narrative lives on in the pantheon of American music.

Music, even more than literature and theatre, has this gifted way of reaching and strumming the deepest chords of our being. It's instant...it's gut-deep...it barely takes any detour through the brain for analysis. So when Johnny Cash ends, our own feelings are just beginning to swell. Like what happens in ball parks when we sing the national anthem or every time we watch the classic moment in CASABLANCA when the Frenchmen in Bogart's Nazi-controlled cafe stand and sing The Marseilles.

Good music is indigenous to the culture in which it has been birthed; great music is indigenous to humanity itself; wherever there are ears to hear and hearts to swell. Now wouldn't it be a splendid idea if some someone were to write an anthem for the world itself!

The Medieval Church tried with its Gregorian Chants...Beethoven with his 9th Symphony Ode to Joy... the Communists with their Internationale... 20th Century Fox still tries with that explosive film fanfare before each movie....even Coca Cola took a shot with their 1971 mountain-top commercial I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke.

Here's the point.

Music possesses a potential in the life of humanity entirely unique. It's a power lent to us by the gods, to be used with great respect. Tribes have followed it into deserts...armies into battles...martyrs into death ...hippies into Woodstock...angry audiences into rappers. The leap from Beethoven to Rap is a pretty imposing one, and yet that's usually for each private soul to decide.

That decision, of course, can get complicated. Because our feet start tapping and our passions start crackling long before our brain can catch up. So before following that latest music down that new highway, it's usually a good idea to first listen to the lyrics. Especially with any flashy "music man" that suddenly appears on the stage of our lives....

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


You can travel to a mountaintop guru or spend time in a hillside monastery, but one of life's greatest wisdoms can more easily be found by simply playing a CD of one of Broadway's classic musicals. Here the concentration required of you is not on things above, just on those spectacular tenors and sopranos hitting the big notes in those smashing musical numbers.

They are uncredited on the album and certainly weren't featured in the theater's lobby photos. But listen again and it's clear how their soaring voices make those numbers work. Sustain the flow of the show.

Now here's the lesson.

The show is closed...the run is over...the cast has dispersed... these few nameless faceless voices from heaven are back on the streets auditioning for their next job. Not only the way of show business, it's the way of the world. From headliners to chorus liners, the marquee lights may blaze only once in a lifetime.

However, this doesn't have to be grieved over. It's just the way life is. Learning this is smart. Adjusting to this is wisdom. Remembering that you once made a difference, that's serenity.



Carl Sandburg famously called Chicago the city of big shoulders. But starting every summer, Chicagoans start revealing a lot more than just their shoulders....!

With the warmer weather, people begin shedding some of the 9-to-5 persona, showing instead more of the after-hours person. Notice the lunchtime crowds around the river banks and lake shores. Fewer ties, more open collars, rolled up sleeves. Notice the weekend crowds jogging the parks and biking the trails. Fewer shirts, more open jackets, rolled up pants

Then with each new week, we'll be shedding still more. Shorter shorts, bikinier bikinis, shoeless feet. And while none of this is illegal or immoral, sometimes its downright illogical. I mean, rolls of tummy flab and clusters of body hair at which we would have blushed a month ago, now somehow we're willing to share with all the world. Even when the world isn't all that willing.

So here's the deal, summer-lovers. It's OK to travel lighter. Only give your fellow-travelers a break along the way.


You can travel to a mountaintop guru or spend time in a hillside monastery, but one of life's greatest wisdoms can more easily be found by simply playing a CD of one of Broadway's classic musicals. Here the concentration required of you is not on things above, just on those spectacular tenors and sopranos hitting the big notes in those smashing musical numbers.

They are uncredited on the album and certainly weren't featured in the theater's lobby photos. But listen again and it's clear how their soaring voices make those numbers work. Sustain the flow of the show.

Now here's the lesson.

The show is closed...the run is over...the cast has dispersed... these few nameless faceless voices from heaven are back on the streets auditioning for their next job. Not only the way of show business, it's the way of the world. From headliners to chorus liners, the marquee lights may blaze only once in a lifetime.

However, this doesn't have to be grieved over. It's just the way life is. Learning this is smart. Adjusting to this is wisdom. Remembering that you once made a difference, that's serenity.



Carl Sandburg famously called Chicago the city of big shoulders. But starting every summer, Chicagoans start revealing a lot more than just their shoulders....!

With the warmer weather, people begin shedding some of the 9-to-5 persona, showing instead more of the after-hours person. Notice the lunchtime crowds around the river banks and lake shores. Fewer ties, more open collars, rolled up sleeves. Notice the weekend crowds jogging the parks and biking the trails. Fewer shirts, more open jackets, rolled up pants

Then with each new week, we'll be shedding still more. Shorter shorts, bikinier bikinis, shoeless feet. And while none of this is illegal or immoral, sometimes its downright illogical. I mean, rolls of tummy flab and clusters of body hair at which we would have blushed a month ago, now somehow we're willing to share with all the world. Even when the world isn't all that willing.

So here's the deal, summer-lovers. It's OK to travel lighter. Only give your fellow-travelers a break along the way.


You can travel to a mountaintop guru or spend time in a hillside monastery, but one of life's greatest wisdoms can more easily be found by simply playing a CD of one of Broadway's classic musicals. Here the concentration required of you is not on things above, just on those spectacular tenors and sopranos hitting the big notes in those smashing musical numbers.

They are uncredited on the album and certainly weren't featured in the theater's lobby photos. But listen again and it's clear how their soaring voices make those numbers work. Sustain the flow of the show.

Now here's the lesson.

The show is closed...the run is over...the cast has dispersed... these few nameless faceless voices from heaven are back on the streets auditioning for their next job. Not only the way of show business, it's the way of the world. From headliners to chorus liners, the marquee lights may blaze only once in a lifetime.

However, this doesn't have to be grieved over. It's just the way life is. Learning this is smart. Adjusting to this is wisdom. Remembering that you once made a difference, that's serenity.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Whistle-blowing today has evolved into a fine and often lucrative art. It usually comes in the form of a ghost-written memoir, tell-all-autobiography, leak to the "National Enquirer," or appearance on a TV talk show. It has all the pop elements that sell -- secrets! dirt! big names! occasionally even big causes like the big-name-dirty-secrets of the tobacco industry.

Then there are whistles blown in ways that reap as much damage as good. Hence the debate.

Perhaps the first whistle-blower in our lives was that little scum-bag in second grade who called Santa a fraud. Lot of debate to the value of that one. And what about the day someone squealed that your favorite teacher was seen boozing in the local tavern? Still later, whistlers may begin accusing the neighborhood philanderer, the local bookie, or the house where they're sure they've seen witchcraft.

How are we to use our own views and values in order to weigh such charges? Especially today when charging someone of something has become a 24/7 way of life called: Gotcha Journalism.

Here's where the Gotcha gang speak solemnly about our right-to-know. And yes -- if the pilot of the plane we're on is drunk or the coach of the school team is molesting the players -- we do have that right. And the guys with the whistle do have that obligation. However, it gets dicier when the Gotchas are more self-serving than serving society.

Every society needs its fair share of honors, heroes and heroics. In its core institutions like government, education, religion, sports. We really do live by more than bread alone. Just like doctors and lawyers take oaths to the standards of their profession, there must be a time when the mass media confront an oath of their own. The New York Times has for years used: "All The News That's Fit To Print."

The yin to this yang may be the way today's media have changed that to: "Any Gotcha News That Fits."

Monday, May 23, 2011


Wise old Uncle Harry liked to repeat: "You can't cut anything so thin there's only one side to it!" A wisdom the world's zealots need to learn. To punch home the point, consider this week's counter-point between the Cannes Film Festival's top prize and American sports' top cheaters.

American director Terrence Malick's film TREE OF LIFE stretches minds and souls with its dazzling and elliptical tale of religious themes. Meanwhile American sports heroes like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and now Lance Armstrong are accused of stretching the rules with years of doping. What's going on here!

Nothing really new. Our best and worst angels have been simultaneously whispering to us from the first day our ancestors stared into the stars and grunted their curiosity. On one hand, we sense gods and goddesses up there who call us to the good and virtuous life. On the other and darker hand, we yearn to become the gods and goddesses ourselves. Genesis is but one of the creation narratives that speaks to this struggle between honoring our creators and stealing their thunder for ourselves.

Malik's film will not bring large popcorn crowds into the multiplexes, for it take up the mystical themes about human existence which we last heard in our college philosophy classes. But come on, that stuff is over with; now it's time to live not examine life. Time for the summer blockbuster menu of fireballs and computers, violence and sex. I mean, this is what Claude van Damme and Cameron Diaz are for...!

While Malik's controversial reach for matters that matter will end up in tiny art-theatres, humanity's passion to become like the gods will continue to play out in big-time sports. Just check the drum-roll of revelations about famous athletes infamously cheating in the name of winning? A study in pride hardly limited to the locker rooms, it includes the board rooms, stock markets and government chambers as well. In the convoluted name of excellence, man's new mantra has become: Whatever it takes!

But wait -- this sounds like moralizing. And surely in a secular age of amoral technology, morality is not only an incredibly subjective thing, it is also a rather simplistic thing. Progressing as far as we have in modern living, what compelling need is there left for examining life? You live only once...you go for the gold...any way you can buy it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


This is college-graduation time. Hundreds of campuses handing out diplomas and hopes to thousands of students. Columnist Erma Bombeck once quipped: "Graduation day is tough for adults. They go to the ceremony as parents...they come back home as contemporaries."

Over and above the classic debates over (1) whether every kid should attend college (2) whether every kid really needs college, we now have (3) whether every kid/parent can afford college. Lately some critics are comparing college loans to sub-prime mortgages -- shaky credits that finance wildly overinflated assets.

Please...this current reign of statisticians must stop. Or at least be challenged. Really now, not everything in life can or should be valued in terms of numbers and dollars. And yet every social fiber of our national being craves to put a price tag on each product, person and principle. [Perhaps by default, for a nation without a history of tribes, clans, or classes usually concludes money is the measure of all things].

Sticking with this American measure-of-all-things, the highly regarded Pew Research Center's legions of statisticians have recently slapped price tags on -- of all things not-supposed-to-be-priced -- our religious beliefs. Pause here with me and let us ask ourselves: Why in all the world would we want to do this...? Speaking for myself, I can find no really enduring purpose except to keep Pew researchers getting weekly pay checks. You of course are free to find your own purposes. In any case, here are the results:

* Reform Jews are the most affluent group, with 67% making more than $75,000/year

* Hindus are second, with 65%

* Conservative Jews are third, with 57%

* Pentecostals, Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses were the least affluent with less than 20%

Again speaking for myself, my beliefs didn't even make the cut! Still, America is now left with yet another gobbledygook of numbers which for some shine like a thousand-points-of-light. Our college graduates are taking their diplomas into a land which continues to know more and more about less and less. Our visions and missions are weighted down with such a beautiful burden of statisticalized dots, we are too often too burdened to rapturously dream why-and-how to connect them.

History suggests that those graduates who will someday lead us to higher and nobler causes aren't the ones who got A's in math, statistics, physics or in MBA courses. Most often they are the ones who skipped those classes to lay out on the campus green and stare wondrously at the cloud formations...

Saturday, May 21, 2011


In the award-winning movie TWELVE ANGRY MEN we're squeezed into a rancorous jury room which -- according to our western judicial system -- is an example of how free societies reach responsible decisions. Head-butting, idea-blazing confrontations are a messy but productive process.

Which makes you ask: What exactly are these ideas with which we are always butting heads?

Our Founding Fathers didn't try to define them, simply say they were our "unalienable right." Buddha probed deeper: "All we are is the result of what we have thought." Centuries later Descartes wrote: "Cogito Ergo Sum, I think therefore I am." Pascal nuanced: "The heart has its own reason that reason knows nothing of." In our age Einstein added: "The process of scientific discovery is in effect a continuing flight from wonder."

Scramble these comments and it would seem that as citizens of a free society, it is our unalienable right to think what we will, but our thinking will probably always be a tug between our rational need to find exact answers side by side with our emotional need to remain in a state of awe and wonder.

To put all this another way -- for exactitude we have our computers! for everything else we have us!

Right now the "us" spend the majority of our time at work, play and sleep. Whatever's left over is spent in arguing (AKA, public discourse). In Washington, in bars, in restaurants, in classrooms, at family dinners, and most of all in radio & cablecast shout sessions. It's not twelve angry men; it's 300 million angry men, women and that third gender known as pundits.

Were our Founding Fathers to return, one wonders what would be their reaction to their creation? Chances are the same as would be other great minds returning to behold the consequences of their creations. Buddha, Moses, Aristotle, Jesus, Mohamed, Luther, Locke, and how about Bill Gates. It might go something like this: "How did you all get everything I said so wrong...?"

Our tale ends with this. Recently jury decisions that get it wrong can be over-turned by an impeccable new test. DNA. If only there were such a test for what we get wrong in our daily head-butting, idea-blazing confrontations. Oh but wait, there is...!

That last whispered report, gossip, gaffe or soundbite we heard. Yes, our unalienable right to be wrong. It usually goes something like this: "I just heard from someone who knows these things...."

Friday, May 20, 2011


To exploit someone is to "use or take advantage of them unfairly." The sine qua non to a million daily actions, lately in particular of powerful men and the women in their lives. But while our media frenzy over such headlines, there is a back-page story. The daily story of daily consumer exploitation, all the more reproachable, because in this case the consumers really are being consensual.

If you've missed this story, well you're not alone. Like the fish doesn't notice he's in an ocean because the ocean is all he knows, the same is true of us. The American consumer swims in a sight-and-sound-around ocean of corporate hustle which has been craftily constructed to exploit every possible thought, feeling, appetite and desire we possess.

Too exaggerated...? I think not.

Think television, radio, newspapers, billboards, social media. Is there anywhere -- anywhere at all -- where we are not head-to-head and feeling-to-feeling with another high-priced corporate hustle? The biggest blockbuster coming to a theatre near you...the hottest album from this singer in years....the newest baddest concert in town...the next game pitting the rivals-of-the-century...the latest singing or dancing or survivor sensation ...the just released tell-all memoir...the next you-gotta-have sports car...that new fast-food menu with all the taste and none of the fat...and lets not forget this remarkable over-the-counter cure for diseases you don't even have yet.

But wait, there's more.

Is there ever a day in which you haven't heard Oprah pitching the novel-of-the age...Dave and Jay cooing and laughing with the big-name guest here to pitch their big-profit enterprise....the Sunday morning programs featuring prominent pols pushing personal agendas...cable news channels highlighting their batting order of pundits talking their boss's talking points....and lets not forget those would-be presidents who have instead found a pricey platform on cable from which to preach.

Granted, the examples here are stacked to make a point. And yet, is there really any consumers left out here who really believes their last purchase, ticket or vote was not the result of corporate hustle? Yes, this is free enterprise at work. But upon some reflection, don't you feel someone just worked you over...?

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Throughout most of human history, rulers always had at least two non-political adjuncts to their reign: The court jester and the court wise man. A lost practice which may yearn for revival before it's too late.

No absence of court jesters today, saying dumb things and sleeping in wrong bedrooms. But there are no longer wise men whose words carry mighty meanings in the land. And even if these seers were often executed by their rule, at least they were taken seriously

In their absence, rulers now have experts. People who know more and more about less and less. Which may be why rulers and nations today see the "big picture" only in "fragmented footnotes." No lack of details about WHAT has gone wrong this month (eg. policy mistakes, mis-spoken remarks, illegal lobbying, mis-spent funds, battlefield errors). But who is left to ponder WHY....??

The experts do seek to explain HOW (eg. it's the person's party affiliation, cultural background, economic interests, race, religion or nation). However, such expert explanations beg the question of WHY; for no one party, culture, interests, race, religion or nation has any monopoly on wrong-doing. Re-reading the wise words of the wise men in earlier ages, they almost always roar in the king's court warnings reminiscent of Shakespeare's Cassius: "The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."

In place of the ancient wise men, today we have wise professors in philosophy classrooms and wise authors in piercing literary narratives. Thoughtful students and reflective readers resonate with the wise WHY's that seem to lurk behind our human actions and failings. Somehow, though, these wise realizations have little or no voice in great decision-making.

Well, we are told, it's so obvious. Too academic, too impractical, too heady for a hard-elbowed world....!

Maybe so, maybe no. And yet, a world of clashing elbows will forever remain competing for victories over rivals who -- upon closer and wiser consideration -- are exactly like us. The Human Condition which has forever bound the peoples of the world like conjoined (Siamese) twins. Only we refuse the wisdom of the wise who forever remind us: No one is an island on which they can presume it's "the other" who is wrong.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Ever see a small child at Christmastime stare quizzically at the fancy new automated thingamajig, only to start playing with its wrappings...?

Seems humanity is destined -- even if it has its doubts -- to move from the simple to the more complex. Usually that's called progress. Using this definition, we have progressed enormously, and are now bristling with ever more sophisticated tools for learning, creating, oh and killing.

We wonder. Phones so sophisticated we're not always able to make a call...apps so numerous we're not really sure why we have them all...websites like this one so numerous and relentless, we can't keep up even if we cared to. Maybe more is not better after all! While kids thrill to this stuff, many adults shake their heads. But then, this counter-point is hardly new. It's precisely how progress proceeds, right...?

Right...! All throughout history there has been stunning progress side-by-side with voices concerned with complexity. In ancient Israel, dissenters like the Essenes. In ancient Greece, dissenters like the Stoics. In 18th C Europe the Luddites damning technological progress, and Rousseau calling for a re-discovery of the Noble Savage. Thoreau here in the 19th C looking at the complexities of his Boston and retreating to Walden Pond.

Our 21st C is no different, only more so. There are the "survivalist," "sovereign citizens" and "terrorists" out there brandishing guns and damning the world to hell for its sins and conspiracies. However, more of us are dissenters than we may admit. Dissent today can be subtler and closer to home. The desire to shop farmers markets...to buy organic foods...to get-back-to-the-basics...to embrace fundamentalism ....and most of all, our passion for soundbites, because, well, they just make all these complex ideas so much easier to digest.

Voila! the rise of political stand ups...cable news pundits...radio & blogger shouters. Please, for God's sake, anyone anywhere who can simplify all these complicated things and people in my life. After all, I'm out of school, and don't have to do any more homework assignments!

Here's the problem. In a democracy, school is always supposed to be in session. It's called citizenship. So while this recurring yearning to keep-it-simple is a lesson-of-life forgotten by every generation's wunderkinds, better the gorgeous simplicity of a Thoreau than a gun-toting Redneck or bomb-throwing patriot.

Simplicity is a very good thing. But good things are good only so long as you know something good to do with them...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Renowned futurist Arthur Clarke wrote: "People can live longer without food than without information." Fast-living Coco Chanel had a different take: "There is a time for work and a time for love. That leaves no other time." Two different ways of looking at the facts life presents us.

If all 7 billion of us examined facts with our reason, it might be the better world Clarke envisioned. But Coco was probably closer to the fact that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts. Political journalist Chris Mooney calls this the theory of Motivated Reasoning: "Neuroscience shows how our reasoning is actually suffused with our emotions. What researches call 'affect.' Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive and negative emotions about people, things and ideas trigger much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts about them."

When you think about this, we shouldn't be surprised. Evolution demanded we react quickly. Michigan University political scientist Arthur Lupia: "We push threatening information away as we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators but to data as well."

In his recent THE SOCIAL ANIMAL, columnist David Brooks addresses some of the same themes. Or if you haven't time to read, just watch the cable news channels. Put a half-dozen political pundits in the same studio with the same facts, and you won't get a single consensus on anything. Including the resume of the pundit chattering next to them!

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt nails it: "We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers. Our reasoning is simply a means to a pre-determined end. Which is winning our case." Hence the theory of Motivated Reasoning. When it comes to issues like global warming, capital punishment, abortion, healthcare, or someone saying my child is a bully, Mooney asserts: "We can and do go to great lengths to rationally explain away facts that may seem obvious to everybody else." Ah yes, I think I remember doing that. And you?

A pause here.

If there really is something to this theory of Motivated Reasoning, really now how crazy is it...? How crazy is it to abruptly discard an emotionally charged belief-system that's taken me a lifetime to build...? I mean, just because you suddenly stick all these facts in my face...?

And so the world goes.

Monday, May 16, 2011


A famous jurist quipped, "I can't define pornography, but I know it when I see it." The same may be said for obscenity. Defined as "repugnantly indecent," it usually has something to do with sex. Here I'd like to make a case for how it also has to do with spending.

Money and how we spend it is culturally significant. It helps define our status, our role, our very value. And so we celebrate wealth. The tycoons who have it, the celebrities who flaunt it, and the ambitious who earn it. Like 23-year-old Maurice Harary of New York who made $120,000 in just 48 hours by selling a line of T-shirts featuring the death of Bin Laden.

Americans' facility for making money helped give birth to what many call our Exceptionalism. With the first 17th C colonists there began the national myth that we were blessed by God to give humanity a new beginning in a new world. Today that same case is emphatically made by politicians and pundits "tired of the negativism from social secularists."

What nourishes that negativism...? Often it circles back to how we spend what we make. Americans continue to spend more on cosmetics than new hospitals, more on vacations than new schools, and staggeringly more on entertainment than any other field of discretionary spending. Movies, sports, cable channels and websites consume billions each year. The very same years we bicker over the millions being proposed for wiser energy policies, wiser infrastructure, wiser market regulations, wiser teachers.

News flash.

As we speak, TV sponsors in New York are lining up to eagerly pay a 10% hike in fees for the fall's new network season. A season promising more night-time sedation via time-tested cop & doc shows, vampire & violence episodes, along with a whole new brew of raunch & reality programs. OK, lets be fair, you can see the appeal here to both the sponsors and the sedated alike. But then -- in a land seething with so many needs -- you can also see the obscenity to it.

What would be truly exceptional about us is if we could still remember how needs always trump wants.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Every Memorial Day is supposed to help the living remember the dead.

But after all, we're only human, and so we usually see things darkly as through a glass. I got that from St Paul 2000 years ago, but the "darkly" still fits every new headline we tend to see as an historical epoch. Say like we did with vaudeville, Saturday movie matinees, the Big Band era, the McCarthy Hearings, film noir, and now the Great Recession. All important moments in time, but in the long term really only moments.

To earn the name epoch, it has to be something so big and so enduring that people are still reading and living it centuries later.The rise of Rome, the entrance of Christianity, the invention of the printing press, the Age of Discovery. Each of these remarkable periods took and impacted entire generations.

Then there's WWII. You know, the one kids in school still get mixed up with the Civil War, or think it had something to do with the Panama Canal, or wasn't-that-when-Teddy Roosevelt-charged-up-a-hill?

WWII took only six years (1939-45), but it also took 60 million lives...displaced another 100 million ...crashed several colonial empires...birthed a Cold War that shoved the world to the brink of atomic annihilation. But because all this played out in an age of instant global communication, what once took generations to soak into the fibers of everyday life, this soaked into billions of lives almost as it unfolded.

Which is why kids today may not know the facts and stats to WWII on this Memorial Day, but whether they know them or not, they're living them. Virtually every idea in their head and passion in their gut comes from that epochal worldwide trauma that ripped whole civilizations off their tracks.

Ironically, the technology by which today's generation live -- from penicillin to radar, from computers to cellphones, from jets to robotics -- first came into our world to wage war not peace. The moral values today's generation espouse -- their rights, their freedoms, their individuality -- aren't from the lyrics of Rock or Rap, but echo from the lives of kids who died at Normandy and Iwo Jima. The heroes today's generation see on the big screens -- Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Eminem -- are celluloid copies of forgotten figures who played on the much bigger screen called life -- Chuck O'Hare, Audie Murphy, Ernie Pyle, Bill Mauldin, Glenn Miller.

This is not to condemn the students who sleep through their history classes, the winners who scoop up the riches of Wall Street, or even the well-heeled aficionados who strut their stuff in sports bars. One generation has no right to keep reminding another generation. But on each Memorial Day, it may have an obligation.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


We're coming up on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic (April, 1912). An ocean catastrophe which has been the mother of hundred lessons. Perhaps the most recurring: (1) Humanity, even in all its technical glory, is still no match for the forces of nature (2) Human error, even when managed and contained, is still irrepressibly unavoidable (3) Icebergs, as enormous as they are, hide most of themselves out of sight.

Grandpa traveled that same sea route seven years later, taking his family to visit family in Italy. Their voyage encountered many of the same perils, but as my Mother always remembered, he had a Smith & Wesson with him, vowing, "I'll use this rather than let us die that way!"

They survived, and Grandpa never tired of repeating those lessons for the little kid at his knees:

* Ironically, that first one seems more rather than less relevant today. Today when you'd think our technology has grown so supreme. But while we can reach the moon and shoot for the stars, we simply have no answers for the tsunamis of the Pacific, the tornadoes of the Midwest, and the hurricanes of the Atlantic. This is when even the disbeliever has to give a nod to the Biblical tale about that infamous Tower of Babel. For it still seems we can grow only so tall before the crushing lessons of our limits. Limits our great minds still yearn to prodigiously defy, while quieter minds still accept as perfectly acceptable.

* Human error...? Well, our species has been passionately inclined to make errors ever since we met that smarmy serpent and his shiny apple. The way Grandpa always explained it: "Folks usually do dumb things, because they're always so much more fun. Until you get the bill for the fun!"

* Probably Grandpa's favorite lesson was that's-just-the-tip-of-the-iceberg lesson. He had seen his share of icebergs. "Life ain't never what you see!" was his spin. Which at age 10 didn't make much sense, because all I could understand about life was what I could see about life. Which is why I believed everything I heard in school, read in papers, and most of all saw at the Saturday movie matinees. Grandpa is long dead, but my how I could now swap him story for story on that subject.

Now I'm Grandpa, and now I can better understand what he was telling me so long ago. However, here's my problem. Just like my Grandpa, I may not live long enough to see my grand-kids see what I've been telling them was really worth telling...

Friday, May 13, 2011


Looking at the stark, empty space that was once New York's gleaming Twin Towers reminds us what once was is often no more. Margaret Mitchell gave it a wistful title: "Gone With The Wind." Frank Sinatra made it a plaintiff song: "There Once Was a Ball Park." As usual, the Bible says it best: "And this too shall pass."

How then are we -- who by nature so yearn for the familiar -- to manage our lives in a world that has reached a state of perpetual and inexorable change?

For many of us, the answer burrows deep into our religions. For others, into our extended families. Still others find the spectacle of nature their one true constant. And yet each of these moorings have so often proved so insecure against the press of the tides just outside the harbors.

Perhaps the best way to respect the vacant spaces in our lives is not simply to remember them, but to actively engage them. Right there on the spot. After all, that space was once a place, and that place was once a part of you. Where you once lived or laughed or maybe loved. Which means you and it are forever inextricably linked.

There are those special places where people gather to honor a lost life. Cemeteries. Memorials. Vigils. But other places are for the living. Spaces whose places have changed with time, but whose ghosts will not. Think Pearl Harbor...Gettysburg...Jamestown....Plymouth Rock.Think back further. The Tower of London ...the Bastille...the Coliseum....the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Think the Holy Land where every space of every place has changed and yet remained changeless.

Precisely why we visit them.

Having said that, this is exactly why some of us re-visit the spaces and places that were once the pieces of our own lives. We are drawn to reunions. Anniversaries. Celebrations of all kinds, especially when they can be held "where it began."

Every city is really a bundle of spaces that became places that were pieces in their citizens' lives. That's certainly true here in Chicago where each summer there are guided neighborhood tours sponsored by the Mayors Office. Busloads of seniors traveling through city blocks to once more see and smell and feel the-way-we-were. What's particularly interesting is the visitors are not so much washed in sentimental tears as they are refreshed in the realization they've come so far.

Oh, by the way, you don't actually need a guided tour to re-discover the old neighborhoods. On the next inviting summer afternoon, you can solo all by yourself. You're going to be amazed...

Thursday, May 12, 2011


Looking at the restless young generations in the Middle East with a self satisfied "it-was-inevitable" eye, brings to mind Matthew 7:15 . "Take the plank out of your own eye, and then shalt thou see more clearly to cast out the mite in thy brother's eye."

We have our own angry young generation here at home...! What's more they're in everyday communication. One of their gurus, George Carlin. always got strong applause with: "The trouble with the profit system is that it's unprofitable to most people."

Then they read statistics from the Commerce Department: "Consumers now spend $1.2 trillion on non- essential goods & services like jewelry, yachts, sports cars, alcoholic beverages and candy. Spending on discretionary luxury items has risen to 11.2% of total consumer spending, up from only 4% in 1960."

You wonder what they're wondering...

The unemployment rate among 18-24 year olds is 24%, about the same as in Egypt. College graduates by the millions are forced to move back with their parents, already sensing they'll be responsible for the nation's staggering deficits run up by their parents. One Ivy League graduate was quoted recently in the New York Times with what could be his generation's emerging credo: "Maybe it sounds silly to you that an Egyptian-style revolution could happen in a rich democracy, but watch out. The American Dream is unavailable to my generation, and the frustration out here is growing...!"

Brewing dissent in societies has traditionally been stanched by traditional policies by traditional officials. In ancient Rome the emperors offered bread-and-circuses. Today's presidents have unemployment benefits, job programs, and rhetoric. This time, however, old solutions may not work, because this time there is the new specter of automation.

In the name of progress, we automate everything. The results are usually good until they're bad. Today's automated culture no longer impacts only the blue-collar workers. Powerful software programs are replacing entire armies of financial officers, accountants, computer-chip designers, even lawyers and health technicians. Newsweek magazine said it well: "If not quite the Great Depression, it is certainly the Great Humbling."

Now to really get the facts, I plan to take my bright college-graduating grandson for a long lunch. And since my generation's the culprit, I will pay the bill...!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


May is traditionally considered the month-of-flowers following the month-of-showers. But really now, it's so much more. Isn't May more the month-of-memories? Mothers' Day...proms...graduations...all coming to an emotional crescendo with Memorial Day.

Each of these days is weighted with memories. Cherishable remembrances of the Mom that was somehow always there. The date that will always occupy a special place. The classmates who will always remain the emotional scenery to that once-in-a-lifetime day. And surely all the faceless ghosts you never knew whose deaths in strange lands helped make your Mays possible.

Which brings us to the question: So what should a person do with all these memories...?

Some can be quickly deleted. Re-living faults and failures is like re-arranging the skeletons in a tomb. There are better things to do. But wait...! this doesn't mean tombs don't have their place. From the very beginning, we have intuitively thought to keep holy that which has been lost or died. Even in America, the-land-of-the-free-and-home-of-the-perpetually-young, we aren't obliged to dismiss whatever is past.

However -- being a hard-nosed, pragmatic people -- perhaps yesterday's memories need to be defined and defended as having some no-nonsense, practical uses for today. Fair enough.

Imagine all the accumulated memories tucked (or lost) somewhere in your home (or heart). Old photos... saved petals...trinkets from that day...letters from that person... diplomas and certificates from that institution...now even videotapes and cellphone pictures. Why have you kept them so long? Maybe because you needed some pragmatic assurance that these sweet moments really did happen.

Sweet...? Yes, possibly their very sweetness is their value. Everyday life can be a bitter-tasting menu of little battles and large struggles. How sweet it is to occasionally add some sugar to the cup. To re-visit the good people and good times which can brighten even your darkest hours. To feel the energy of forgotten victories surge through your sagging soul.

This is why games have timeouts...days have evenings...winters have spring. Sugar is not something to over-dose on; and yet, there is something indispensable to what it brings to the meals. We don't remember days, we remember moments. And these moments are the diary and the literature of our life. He who fails to keep the pages fresh -- both as an individual and as part of the collective culture -- is risking the loss of one of the spices that help make life worth eating...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


There's something to be learned from the human armpit. Yes, there is. Take the time to examine any photo or film, and the point becomes folliclely clear. Men are allowed to keep their pit-hair, but women are not....

Rather than submit silently to current custom, some of us feel compelled to raise this matter. Does it not instruct us in the forever-changing ways of our species? At one time both genders were acceptable with hairy armpits. Just like they were with earrings, whigs, tattoes and perfumes. However, over time and space, the rules changed. Suggesting perhaps there really are no rules. Only passing customs.

The list is long. There have been times and places where goddesses not gods prevailed...where homosexuality was not a sin, but an addition...where the elderly were not confined, but revered...where the mentally challenged were not dismissed, but invited...where hallucinatory herbs were common, not convicted....where human sacrifice was deemed the highest form of religion.

As we come upon so many customs so different from our own -- one of the benefits and curses of today's worldwide web -- we are left to wonder. Better yet, to re-think who, what and where we are on this crowded road where 7 billion of us continue to journey and judge one another. As seen from down here on the dusty, angry trails, we're in competition. As seen from an astronaut crew, we are really all the very same mass of moving matter trying to survive on this spinning shrinking sphere.

Long before astronauts there have been prophets. Wise men and women who have taken the time to take the measure of our time on this brief planet. Very often these wise people say wise things which other wise people write down for the rest of us to consider. Some of us attribute all the world's good to these words; lately others attribute most of the world's evil to these words.

Lets us think of it all this way. We may each behold the armpit in different ways, yet we all have the same arm pits. Suggesting that our sameness -- that universal suite of virtues and vices in our nature -- was what those prophets and their words were trying to remind us. That this sameness should be a fine place from which our species might try once more to get this right....

Monday, May 9, 2011


If you attend any college-prep school for boys, you understand that along with a classic education, there are the manly arts of football, basketball, and rifle clubs. That said, there is also the less manly arts of music, poetry and debating. Most everyone wants to be on the football team; those who can't often end up on the debating team. However, lately there's the popularly-reported twist to the tale. Long after the flashy runners have turned fleshy, the debaters (aka, nerds) often have the last laugh in adult life.

But wait, there's more to this story....!

Often the revenge-of-the-nerds turns out to be the glorification-of-the-glib. Just look around and notice how yesterday's articulate nerds often become today's power players. Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh are only two examples. Admit it -- glib is in style. In business, politics, academia, journalism, athletics, and in the mass media. If you've got the proverbial gift-of-gab, chances are you're a top salesperson ...a winning campaigner...a popular journalist...a highly interviewed player...and you usually show up on top rated programs from Saturday Night Live to the network news to hosting the latest game show to being featured on the newest reality show to being the MC at the next reunion.

Damn, but we just love the people who can charm and weave words together. Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Reagan; Orson Welles, Walter Cronkite, Maya Angelou; Oprah, Jay, David. Call it talent, call it personality, call it charisma, call it hustle. Whatever it is, it sells! Then, after it's all over, you sometimes wonder: What just happened??

Words can be tools or weapons, magic or delusion, beauty or monstrosity. They can be used like bricks on the Yellow Brick Road to emeralds, or steps down to the gates of hell. The funny thing about us is that as kids we were often convinced that beauty and brawn was what counted. Later in life, we still enjoy beauty and brawn...but now tend to follow wishes and words.

A closing plea. If the Trojans learned to beware-of-Greeks-bearing-gifts, when will we learn to beware of any gifts that sound too good to be true?

Sunday, May 8, 2011


As every gun-loving red-neck knows, National Public Radio (NPR) is currently in the gun-sights of those pols who find it "un-American." A classic example of fears in the face of facts. Fears bred and spread by chatterers like Limbaugh and Trump, and even as thinkers like Gingrich and Boehner.

However, as a dedicated NPR fan who disagrees with these kill-the-messenger hawkers, I feel obliged to report a rare disappointment with NPR. In its recent program on centenarians, its stats were indisputable; but not all its conclusions.

Today there are 36 million seniors (12% of the population) projected to reach 86 millions by 2050 (21%). Today there are 483 million seniors worldwide, expected to be 974 million by 2030. As for centenarians, there are 68,000 today which will reach 580,000 by 2040.

So what did NPR do in talking with centenarians...? They could have plumbed the depths of their waning memories in order to assemble the benefit of their first-hand experiences. Instead, NPR seems to have caught America's chirpy seize-the-day-and-keep-yourself-busy mantra. NPR said, "We didn't want to dwell on the centenarians' old yesterdays, but rather their on opinions about their new tomorrows."

Isn't that like asking today's few remaining WWII veterans what they think about the new space age, instead of what they can report about an age which only a few of them are left to tell us about first-hand. Maybe it's just me, but I really don't care to hear how centenarians like basket-weaving, water-polo, three-card-poker, or wood-shop. Nor do I find their opinions about staying fit and eating healthy an imperative.

What I DO crave to hear and learn from them, is why and how they prevailed along the twisting trails of the times they lived. Times we might otherwise not fully understand. And that includes those crises and cures they lived through we might otherwise simply take for granted. Also both the prevailing principles and prejudices that walked with them over their trek through time. Centenarians are living time-capsules who have much to report about how we all got to where we are, and those capsules should be broken open.

Where we're going from here is for US to consider. But while the old are still with us, lets us gather around the campfires and ask THEM to tell us stories...

Saturday, May 7, 2011


In keeping with an age when we seem obsessed with ourselves and especially with what we think about ourselves, the latest surveys ( Washington Post & Pew Center) breathlessly report what we think about the killing of Osama bin Laden. As if to say what we think-after-the-fact actually has a real bearing on the fact itself. Still, this self-indulgence is what most Americans like to call democracy. So for what it's worth, 72% of us "feel relieved," 60% "feel proud," 58% "feel happy," and 16% "feel afraid."

Not to mention the 100% of the chattering commentariat in the media who feel it their obligation to now psychoanalyze both the nation and its president as these pundits doggedly search for the "real story behind the story." Or to put it all another way, lately our society will dedicate about a thousand hours of talking to itself in the media for every one hour of actual national action.

The University of Kentucky tends to call this "America's narcissism." Research director Nathan DeWall analyzed the lyrics of Billboard's Hot 100 songs over the last three decades, finding "a steady increase in self-centeredness along with a growing hostility toward others." Whereas earlier songs were often about love, "recent hits are about what the individual wants, and how they have been disappointed or wronged."

The frequency of "I" and "me" versus "we" and "us" is clear. Words like "love" or "sweet" are far less common versus "hating" and "killing. Not surprisingly, self-centered plutocrats like Donald Trump take it upon themselves to speak for the nation, sharing with the little people the wisdom from such great people as themselves. A politician/celebrity habit whose narcissism can quickly snap back in their faces with the next headline.

Somewhat like the American economy now focuses more and more on virtual concepts while less and less on actual products, the American culture often seems more interested in thinking and talking about what it is thinking and talking about, rather than attaching itself to some collective national cause or consensus. The last time we saw such attachment may have been JFK's call to a"New Frontier." And before that, FDR's call to action against "the evils of dictators."

American leaders tried to portray bin Laden as the "new Hitler" in hopes of reviving some of that national passion. However -- in a time when black & white has given way to grays, and in which government is often considered a liar more than a leader -- there is little of that post-WWII jubilation over collective achievement. Instead, a very particularized America is now polled about what each particular segment of the population thinks about what it thinks about.

Is everyone in America now a Monday-morning-quarterback...? Is there anyone left to actually play quarterback...? And then when we elect someone to that role, is there ever a time when we stop talking and talking and talking, instead start listening and joining and doing...?

Friday, May 6, 2011


Everyone remembers Shakespeare's "all the world's a stage." And everyone has learned each in their own way that "we are all players." However, the Bard never told you about that other stage. Backstage.

For every glistening stage -- be it a theatre, a community, a city, or a country -- there's something important going on behind the curtains. The world of backstage is a remarkably different venue than the world on stage. Somewhere back of all the colorful lights and sets and costumes and performers, moves a phantom army of silent people in black. The invisible people who cunningly make possible that splash of illusions out front for the audience.

I was again reminded of this as I stood backstage of the fabled Chicago Theatre, waiting for my cue. On stage was a "cast" that included the Cardinal of Chicago, local columnists, comics, retauranteurs, and the comedy troupe from Second City. It was being taped in front of a live audience of urbanites who love this city and what's happening in it.

My role was a small one, but waiting there in the wings you quickly understand the remarkable contrast between what the audience is experiencing and what the stage crew is making possible. Very much the same contrast that exists in every facet of life. What humanity presents "on stage" are the illusions we wish to share. But no more. After all, to look behind the curtain is to spoil the show.

And that's OK, because life looks a lot nicer this way. The question, though, is how to define the show? Is it all a sham, a fraud, a lie? Some will say so, doubting whatever their eyes report. These are the cynics among us. Others will doubt on an even larger scale. These are the conspiracy-theorists among us.
Still others will doubt nothing they see or hear. These are the fools among us.

It takes all three types to make an audience. But then there is a fourth category. The people who actually choose to go on stage, and do their best to make the show a long-playing hit.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Copulation and Maxwell House Coffee, what could they possibly have in common? I may be stretching the point to make a connection, but let me try...

By the early 20th C in America, copulation was hardly new, but still not public. As for Maxwell House, it had only been around for a generation, but very much wanted to remain public. Each faced a different future. Whereas coffee was already a national habit, watching copulating humans was not. As a result, Maxwell House came up with a million-dollar marketing campaign: "Good to the last drop." Porn, on the other hand, could depend only on, shall we say, word-of-mouth marketing.

But by the late Twenties, America's dedicated porn makers could now add music tracks to their grunting bodies. And so, my friends, behold a peculiar new art form that was soon selling better than coffee.

By the Eighties porn was big business and growing, while coffee was still big business but not growing. The boys at Maxwell were getting a little desperate. About then they hired me. No -- I wasn't the act of desperation; their new marketing strategy was. I just happened to be the writer they found to help them reach their national sales force with their very first satellite-feed sales meeting.

They gathered their good-to-the-last-drop sales gang in various cities, sat them in front of large hotel screens, and tried to generate a new passion for selling and drinking coffee. From what I could tell, their sales did tick up, but they had completely missed the historic coffee moment.

What American drinkers were looking for -- even without themselves knowing it -- was a whole new coffee. experience. Enter Starbucks...! As we say, when we don't have time for statistics, the rest is history.

Extrapolating from our cozy coffee story, we may find an instructive back-story here. Whenever the market has too much of a good thing, give them the illusion of an exciting new thing. Something different. Something special. Something eventually known as a "trend." American enterprise has generated hundreds of these throughout the years. From Barnum traveling circuses to vaudeville shows to hoola hoops to pet rocks to cabbage-patch dolls to hookah and tequila bars to today's must-have hand-widgets.

Get it? Keep it new. Keep it fun. Even if you have to keep it stupid.

Looking back on our last century, we can now study the history of trends. [Well, copulating doesn't quite fit under the rubric of trend as much as perhaps relentless]. But while we may be able to study past trends, few of us are gifted with the foresight to recognize the next new one. Although several among our ranks are right now trying hard to become just that.

You will find them scattered around the nation in comedy clubs...concert halls...campus groups...Silicon Valley...oh, and in every coffee and porn stop in Washington...!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


America cheerfully lives with a great many classics. There's our love of freedom towering in the Statue of Liberty, our passion for individualism riding the range in the Old West, our zeal for success reflected in our great glass cities. But no American classic is more iconic than the "girl next door." The fresh-scrubbed, all-American girl who perfectly blends perky tom-boyishness with irresistible sensuality.

Over the last 100 years we've had them by the cinematic dozens. Mary Pickford...Judy Garland....Doris Day ...Debbie Reynolds...Julia Roberts...Cameron Diaz.

Putting chauvinism and feminism aside, both genders really like our girls-next-door. What's not to like? But in grading this particular classic, my vote and heart go to Doris. Anyone under 40 won't remember her; anyone over, will never forget her. Her songs and her movies were marquee events throughout much of the American Century. And yet Doris has never garnered any of the lifetime achievement awards or White House tributes. So how can this blond icon from not-so-long-ago remain so ignored?

Couple theories. One, she's chosen to remain fiercely private since retiring in the 70s. But there may be a second and less spoken reason. Pretty, perky Doris has become a cultural dinosaur. Today's guys like their sugar laced with a lot more spice! Today's gals like their image to be a lot more assertive! When TMC plays all those 50's and 60's Doris Day-Rock Hudson flicks...well, the under-40 crowd see right through the gauze on the cameras perky but aging Doris insisted upon. Which, in this age of proclaimed realism, makes her roles' idealism seem pretty suspect and silly. Which in turn makes realism for me seem pretty shallow and sanctimonious.

I do remember thinking the same shallow and sanctimonious way during the 50's looking back at Mary Pickford from the 20s. That's when the classic SUNSET BOULEVARD came out portraying aging film icons as pathetic has-beens. However, I couldn't imagine that happening to my Doris. But then, well....

Everyone's heart has its very own once-upon-a-time. That memorable moment when love comes missiling through your life changing it forever. Although once-upon-a-time usually comes only once, it usually comes with a song somewhere in the air on that starry night. Doris's classic "It's Magic" was in the air the night I fell in love with my very own icon. Lets see, how long ago was that...? Oh, yes, a remarkable eternity ago. But that night, that Joan, that eternity WAS magic. After all, didn't Doris say it so in the eternal key of C!

I assume you surely remember the key your once-upon-a-time came in....

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Henry Fonda. Peter Sellers. Michael Douglas. Morgan Freeman. They've all played presidents in front of Hollywood cameras. Heading up dazzling story-lines of international intrigue and danger. Overseas villains...CIA operatives...special ops...night-time raids...White House command centers giving the orders and watching the results.

Lately, though, it's getting harder and harder to distinguish Hollywood from Washington...movie stars from presidents ....screen plays from actual events. Now, as of this week, it's official...! All the confirmation we need for this new national wedding of fact & fiction can be studied in that official White House photo of President Obama with his national security team. A real cast watching a real military op in real time taking out a real enemy.

And they pulled the whole thing off even without Bruce Willis! What will they think of next?

This blurring of the lines between duty and dazzle, blood and ketchup, is not exactly new. Americans have been eating their popcorn and venting their primal screams in front of movie screens for generations. But without a national draft, 90% of us have no longer any real-time, real-blood experience with the military. Something like other specialties -- from oil rigging to brain surgery -- warfare has become something far-off that you mostly read about while going about making money.

If you look closely, the only woman in that photo is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And if you look even closer, she is the only one holding her hand to her mouth. I read that as an intuitive gesture of awe. Concern. Angst in the midst of bloodshed. Some might say it's a typically feminine gesture. Maybe so. Whatever it is, isn't it perhaps the most authentic response to a world over-flowing with violence and vendettas, causes and counter-causes? And isn't the message to this movie-of-the-month really the human tragedy that our species has not -- in all these hundreds of millions of years -- really learned how to walk out of the jungle...?

Monday, May 2, 2011


Take the human brain. Go ahead, take it. It's only a few pounds, and you can hold it right in your hand. But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming homo sapient. Our brains expanded a few centimeters, but our worlds expanded a few universes. Now, a hundred million years later, we're expecting much the same brain to process a hundred billion additional sight-and-sound bites.

Another way of saying if going to bed right after the 10 o'clock news leaves you a rattling wreck, you're not alone!

In smaller simpler times, the brain was expected to report the physical dangers to you within that 50-miles-radius in which you lived most of your life. Tough enough. But now -- now with daily newspapers, 24/7 network & cable news, and worldwide social-media -- you will know, whether you want to or not, virtually everything that's happening to everyone everywhere.

In just the last 24-hour news cycle: The beatification of a Pope, the assassination of a terrorist, the nearing capitulation of a half-dozen tyrants, not to mention gang-bangers in the local schoolyard, corruption in the city government, drug wars at the Mexican border, disasters in Tornado Alley, nuclear threats from Japan, and the Hadron Collider in Geneva on the brink of discovering the secrets to to cosmos. Not to mention a slew of new warnings about new symptoms about new diseases you never knew existed.

The cosmos...? Hell, I can't figure out how to make my coffee-maker work or to understand my grandchildren. Why do I have to fathom the cosmos and all the life-forms in it? At least not until after breakfast.

Information is power...but distinguishing what you need to know is wisdom...and accepting that limit is serenity. Go ahead, check it out for yourself. It's in every religion's holy books. And they're in every library. Where at least they don't scream it at you...

Sunday, May 1, 2011


My Chicago was just voted "Best Sports City in America" by Sporting News. Given all the titles by all the teams throughout all the years, you can see why. We won't even pause to lament the most lamentable of all sports stories: The Chicago Cubs 102-year record without winning a World Series. Instead, let us savor what we have, and restrain the sports-fan's gift for greed.

However, fan-or-not, there IS one thing we can all be greedy for again. The Summer of '41!

The national clock was ticking down to the last precious days before Pearl Harbor. Before our entry into WWII. Before everything about America and about us changed forever. It was still July. It was still baseball. It was still a time when Americans could still believe in magic, in peace, in happy-endings, in Washington, and especially in Joe DiMaggio. The Yankee's Jolting Joe was on an historic tear, and most of the nation held their breath. Even if they didn't know a tinker's damn about baseball.

DiMaggio -- executing what is considered the toughest skill in all sports -- was hitting those 95 mph fastballs with stunning success. He was doing the mathematically impossible all summer long by hitting in every park in every game for 56 straight games. While the Nazi Panzers had conquered half of Europe and had just now invaded Russia to seize the rest of it, America under FDR still hoped this was not our business. Instead, that mythical summer 70 summers ago was very much about one man smashing one record that would say to all men: Everything is still possible!

Sure we had an ugly inkling war over-there was getting close to over-here. And sure we knew the longest depression in our history was still not yet over. But summer-times are when grownups can still be kids again. Especially when the Yankee Clipper was belting the ball out of parks to the cheers of kids and fans and presidents alike. When you're the most afraid, that's often when you're the most likely to look for heroes.

Joe was our hero, but even heroes are mortal. And so it was that on a sweltering July 18, 1941, our hero's 56-game streak finally ended in Cleveland. The home crowds didn't know whether to cheer or to cry. But DiMaggio -- a study in grace rarely seen on today's playing fields -- knew it was over when he hit into a double play in the 8th.

Some fans and writers cried a little. Not Joe. For the rest of his life -- and ours -- he would know that in that special summer of '41 he had burst the bounds of the game. He had helped us remember that boundaries are made to be broken...