Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Pop-quiz for anyone over 30,,,! When's the last time you flew a kite in spring, climbed a tree in summer, picked apples in fall, and threw a snowball in winter?

Chances are, the older [and so much more adult] we become, the less time we have for such childish diversions. We are reminded of St Paul: "Now that I am a man I have put away the things of a child." And while I sure wouldn't want to arm-wrestle Paul in any theological debate, I can't quite swallow his wisdom whole.

In my advanced years, the way I see childhood is not something to put away; but something to build from. When all's said and done, our childhood just may have been the best we ever were. Not in maturity and accomplishments; but in innocence and aspirations. Generally our values were good, our actions proper, and our dreams mostly about being and doing great and wonderful things with our lives.

By now -- older in body, wiser in mind, and guarded in heart -- we're less likely to fly kites and start snowball fights. You know, there's that act-your-age thing from mom and your teachers and your bosses. Don't want to appear foolish. And yet, perhaps the most grievous foolishness of our adulthood is letting loose of that gossamer belief that the world is as beautiful as it is big, that people out there are as good as the family in here.

Seems to me the more we armor ourselves with the suspicions and skills of adulthood, the less we are that wholesome happy kid believing nothing can hurt you, no one is your enemy, and life is forever. Silly...? sentimental...? sappy...? Damn right! But my didn't life feel so much nicer.

Remembering and re-channelling those long lost memories doesn't have to mean dropping all your hard-earned armor. But it does mean getting in touch with the you you once were. And who enjoyed being you every morning you woke up.

Snowball fight, anyone...?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


It's considered cool to live-in-the-moment. But wait a minute! Exactly what is this moment in history? What is this culture we call The West? The books say it's the intellectual and artistic tastes of the moment. OK, but what do you say?

While you're thinking, let me presume my own answer. Right now we're living in a culture which has increasingly decided we're what our neurobiology is. In other words, the new holy book is not the Bible, the Talmud or even Freud. It's Charles Darwin.

No denying Charlie his great due. So much of what we are is the everyday consequences of our evolved brain lobes, cells and genes. And if you still doubt it, the current issue of TIME has now made it official for the mass reading public. In six smartly illustrated pages. it makes the case for how emotional drives like human anxiety can be entirely traced to their neurobiological components.

Look -- nothing's wrong with neurobiology. It's advancing our knowledge and our health every new day. And yet, most great advances bring with them some ironic backlash. Like the nuclear scientists brought us not only great energy but also terrible weapons, neurobiological scientists are bringing us not only great medical advances but also a culture in which we're becoming little more than what our brain circuitry and genetic codes are.

Evolutionists smile: It's been a long time growing up and at last casting off from our ancient moorings to gods and spirits. As they put is: We're really all just part of this one planetary mass of evolving matter, so lets get comfortable with it.


But then there are those scientists who are willing to look deeper. To consider the thought what matters in us is more than just matter! Take a recent Stanford study which looked at the claim Will Power is less in our mind and more in our neurobiological supply of sugar glucose. [Sure enough, many coaches believe: the more sugar, the more fight in the game]. Not so said the gang at Stanford. There is something about us and our will to succeed that can't simply be measured under a scope.

Well now...! Is Stanford one small step for man in rediscovering there really is something more to us than we can see, smell and test...? Sorry to say, that study didn't make it into this week's TIME.

Monday, November 28, 2011


Now for a look into that eternally fascinating subject: Beauty. What is it and who among us has it...?

Lets begin with the obvious. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I mean, good lord, how else to explain the phenomena of a Mick Jagger or a Lady GaGa. What's at work there are the many conscious and subconscious factors each beholder brings to the party.

The precise standards of beauty have changed over the centuries. Size, weight, hair, nose, lips are all part of the formula, but my how humanity has mixed and re-mixed these. OK, so maybe we can agree on this much. In the West, two basic standards from which to work: The Greeks' statues of Aphrodite and Michelangelo's statue of David. If you look like either of these, you're home free.


Upon closer and more amorous inspection, I think we have to admit the rules are always a lot looser when it comes to the guys than to the gals. Aside from the changing standards of poundage, the rules for the female of the species have remained pretty damn hard and fast. Luxuriant hair...creamy complexion...large eyes...ripe lips...shapely bosom...and wherever possible a pair of great legs. Translation circa 2011: Angeline Jolie, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Zeta Jones, Zooey Deshanel.

Now take a look at the male of the species. Here the rules are, well there virtually are no rules! How else explain women oohing and awing over the likes of such incredibly diverse "hunks" as a Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, and Al Pacino side by side with a Nick Nolte, Lyle Lovett and Malcolm McDowell.

Studies have shown the "beautiful people" get an edge in life, starting right from childhood. Intuitively we are drawn to the beautiful in both life and nature. However, by adulthood the guys pick up a break. Is it because women are more generous? more perceptive? less demanding? They will probably tell you they look deeper than the surface. You know -- character, faithfulness, and that old standby sense-of-humor.

To those of us males without abs and biceps, this sounds pretty good to us. So, paraphrasing Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, "Why can't a man be more like a woman...?"

Sunday, November 27, 2011


If you've lived long enough you may agree. Cliches are a lot more than, well, just cliches. Over the many centuries they've lasted, some have earned the right to be taken more seriously. Take for instance that little classic: "The more things change, the more they're the same."

But lets not only apply it to this or that event. How about to the entire trajectory of human events...!

When our ancestors first peered out from trees and caves, they stared at an enormous world of chaos, all apparently designed to destroy them. Untamed nature...untamed beasts...untamed weather. Easy to understand why life expectancies were so awesomely short. Absolutely no certainty out there. And so they turned to religions of many kinds wherein gods and goddesses helped explain the chaos, and afforded them some controls over the uncertainties.

Over the eons, this worked well enough for the race to survive. But then, at long last about 500 years ago, our ancestors discovered a new way to master their uncertainties. Modern science. That particular way of thinking and operating wherein there are no divinities. Only reason, logic and mathematics. Whatever laws were to be found in this existence were to be found by scientists empirically testing observations, not clergy spiritually discovering beliefs.

Modern science has served us well, and yet here in the 2ist C we're experiencing the prickly irony of this same stubborn cliche. As it turns out, so many of the uncertainties we believed we had tamed are somehow still here. Nature, beasts, weather, even time & space appear to be beyond the controls we thought science had finally imposed on them.

And so today our climates, our computers, our communication systems often rebel, run amuck, even reject some of our carefully-designed controls and controllers. The cages we built for our ancient uncertainties are, well, they've somehow pried open just enough to make our lives almost as uncertain as before. Only now, these uncertainties smash into us and our leaders on massive, global scales never before known. Planetary disasters! climate disasters! personal disasters!

Could it be that this cliche is much more than simply a cliche? Has it really been a warning all along that mankind can cage and control only so much? That at some point we may have to accept that some things in this universe will forever remain just beyond our finest controls?

For some, these thoughts might even remind us all the way back into those ancient beliefs which pronounced: Humanity by itself is just not enough.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


There's a small island in every life.

This is a space and place that goes by different names. It tends to appear just over the horizon of our lives at a very young age, although it is frequented most often at older ages. Like most small islands, it is unpopulated and perfectly private. It is where we go when we need unpopulated privacy.

We usually travel there when our hearts are exploding with joy or breaking with pain. It would be unseemly to shout our glee or roar our hurt in public. Our small private island of emotions is where best to do this. But let it be understood the island is indispensable, for in every life there must be just such a pyscho-spiritual outlet.

There are times when we are inclined to share our small island with another. A parent, a spouse, an intimate friend. And yet, even they are only visitors, for this small island is usually just big enough for one.

Priests and poets, psychiatrists and philosophers have tried to map our small island. And their maps are very helpful. Still, there will always be islands in this world for which there can be no professional directions; only personal journeys. What is important is not so much how we get there (it can happen in the explosion of a second); rather, it is how we get back from there. How we navigate its perfect privacy, but then return to the land of our everyday lives. More enlightened. More emboldened. More prepared for the moments and miles ahead.

It is said that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. And hearts will not be perfect until they can be made unbreakable. In keeping with those large wisdoms, these small islands must be protected. Not over-grown with too much pride nor infested with too much fear. That takes our attention, a kind of on-going emotional ecology.

What then might we call our small protected island...? Treasure Island sounds about right, only someone already copyrighted that. But I'm sure you can find an even better one.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


May I tell you a little story...? Stick with me for three minutes, because it'll help you connect all the dots of crisis, crashes and confusion filling your daily headlines.

Bill was riding his usual morning commuter train. But on this particular day he began to sense the train traveling faster than usual. It even started rattling on the tracks. Bill was so concerned he decided to check. Walked through one car, two cars, finally reached the front car and the engineer's cabin. Just in time, for by now the riders were all getting concerned. He knocked on the response ...he knocked again ...finally in a panic he pushed the cabin door open.

What he found was -- no one at the controls!

In many ways that train is our sleek civilization hurtling faster and faster, but with no one at the controls. It has become a force that lives and feeds on itself, while government leaders occasionally prance in front of international cameras pretending -- hoping -- they can somehow manage this force. But once all the riders start suspecting no one is really in control, well then we have what is guardedly called "social unrest."

This unrest is now playing out in the streets of Cairo, Damascus, London, Wall Street, Sacramento and college campuses in between. The unrest gradually becomes a counter-force. Representing an angry but vague sense of growing desperation, for it can feel civilization rattling on the tracks. In contrast, there are those running our great institutions who instinctively resist this threat from the riders.

Nothing new here. Force from the top; counter-force from below. It's the ancient story of rebellions and repressions [see from Spartacus to the French Revolution for details]. Only this time what IS new is the way in which the Traditional Media and the Social Media are helping this dynamic play out. The voices of institutional authority [government, schools, religion, military] appear on the 5:30 news and on the Sunday Morning Talk Shows speaking order; the fearful voices now without faith in these institutions [young, poor, jobless, disenfranchised] are in cyberspace speaking anxiously with one another.

Something old is happening out there...but in a new format which plays out faster, more organized, more global than ever before. The owners of the commuter train know they have a run-away on their hands, but unless someone gets to those controls, the owners, the riders and the train itself may crash all at the very same ugly time....

Monday, November 21, 2011


They even have an academic name for them, for the folks who study our future. They're called Futurists, and they pick up from where Aldous Huxley and Captain Kirk leave off. These are the scholars who analyze and project what our distant tomorrows will be like. Flying belts. time travel. computer chips in our brains. whatever.

I have a thought for them. The future you're studying so intensely is already here.

No real mystery to it. Just look around. Everyday, everywhere: Screens...! Big screens in our family rooms, little screens in our desktop computers, handheld screens in our smartphones, security screens in our streets and in our airports, medical screens in our hospitals, talking screens in our checkouts, surround-screens in our sport-bars, and by golly even tiny screens mom can plant in front of tiny Jimmy and Jessica wherever she wants to keep them mesmerized and mute.

This galaxy of screens in our daily lives may seem one-way. And yet, while we're gazing into them, they can digitally gaze right back. Tracking who, where, when, and why we're gazing. The question quickly becomes: Who's actually retrieving and recording the most from these daily transactions?

Call it whatever you've decided.The age of instant communication, of lifelong learning, or maybe of Big Brother. Frankly, though, whatever your choice, it won't be precisely correct. Because you see we've never been here before, and so we have nothing to compare it with.

It recalls the old Safari guide leading his troupe of jungle tourists. For miles he brought them through twisted roadways and pathways. Then suddenly the roads and paths disappeared in the rugged wilderness. The tourists were frightened. "What do we do now? There's no more trail to follow!" The worldly wise guide paused and explained: "From here on, WE'RE the trail...!"

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I'm taking a wild guess here....

Waking up with a headache or a backache is all too common, right? Two more reasons Americans last year filled 254 million prescriptions for pain killing drugs like OxyContin and Percoset. That's enough to medicate every American adult around the clock for an entire month.

Lot of pain out there. Living itself can be painful. But it wasn't supposed to be this way. As we evolved from out of our harsh pre-historic past and devised all sorts of physical conveniences, wasn't humanity supposed to live better? Trouble is, most of these convenience were for the body, not the mind or the spirit. And so while we can always air condition ourselves in the middle of a blazing desert, we still can't always condition ourselves in the middle of a blazing crisis.

Enter the Internet.

An extraordinary instrument that allows us to reach out almost infinitely into time and space. I use it. You use it. It's connecting our minds and hearts, dreams and fears, joys and pains. There isn't a newspaper, TV commercial, or highway billboard that isn't preaching the latest generations.

So does the Internet perhaps represent humanity's highest rung on the ladder of progress? Well, in
some ways, yeah. Think of it this way. Being on the Net is something like being God: You're present virtually anywhere and everywhere you wish to be!

But just when you think you've got a good thing going, some spoil-sport critics crowd your act. Researchers from Cornell have concluded there may be a negative corollary between the number of "friends" we have on the Net and in real life. They surveyed 2000 adults and found: "On average they had only two friends with whom they could discuss important matters, down from three in 1985. Nearly half listed only one friend;4% said they had none."

Study author Matthew Bearshears: "While we appear to be just as social as ever, our friendships seem to be shallower, leaving us with fewer people we can call on to lend us money, give us a place to stay, or simply keep us company during a tough time."

Adding Internet insult to injury, other researchers now report the great god Google isn't all it's cracked up to be. What...? I use it all the time...! Aha, but they say we use it carelessly. When these sociologists tested college students they found: "Students didn't bother to assess the credibility of the information found online. For example, what if that Google profile on Martin Luther King was actually posted by a white supremacist? Googlers need to take a course in crap detection 101."

Damn, and just when I finally found all the right keys and thought I had a good thing going here...!

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Lets see how good you really are...! Can you tell what the following all have in common...?

Barack Obama....George Clooney...Jerry Seinfeld...Stephen Spielberg...Regis Philbin...David Letterman...Jay Leno... Madonna...Paul McCartney...Billy Crystal....Charlie Rose....Tony Bennett .... Diane Keaton...Robin Williams...Betty White.

That last one may have given it away. They're all over 50. OMG, being that creepy creaky old in our young young America? What's going on here?

Here's something else that's going on. Our annual Christmastime TV specials are all over 50 as well. It's A Wonderful Life...A Christmas Story...A Charlie Brown Christmas...Frosty the Snowman... Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer...The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The stuff they've been making in the last few years are cute, clever and computerized; but they lack endearing staying power.

So, my friends, what does this tell us? For one thing, we're living longer to enjoy old classics longer. But not only the oldsters but the youngsters. They're enjoying them too. Oh sure youth gravitates to youth, and you've got the young rappers and zombies to satisfy you. But by gosh, the same audiences that tap to rap and zombies also end up watching the old stuff every Christmastime.


Having been a youngster as well as an oldster, here's what I think. Christmastime -- like Fourth of July, Halloween and Thanksgiving -- smacks of the traditional. the classic. the timeless. And so suddenly being new and cutting-edge isn't so vital. In fact it doesn't seem to have any place here. These holidays are the times when wrinkles, gray hair, and canes simply do not come between us. These are the happy times we're all sorta one at heart. A very nice if rare moment in our national life.

So cue George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life and Charlies Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas so we can all gather round together. To really be together.

Friday, November 18, 2011


We're all familiar with the scene. The serious seeker climbing the Tibetan mountaintop to meet the great guru to learn from his wisdom. Saints, sinners and the Beatles have all done it. Now may I suggest you and I can do it too. But without the tough climb...!

The quiet wisdom you seek resides in several large building complexes only a few miles from home. Any one of our city hospitals. Inside is the entire breadth and depth of life. From birth to disease to rehabilitation to death. The hundreds of white and grey gowned people therein are all part of the great drama. They stand at the ready to assist as we travel our destined human trajectory.

Forget the glistening post-natal cubicles, MRIs, radiology guns, and surgical instruments. They're merely the occasional tools used during the great drama. What counts most here is what cannot most be seen here. The skills...the experience... the compassion behind the busy hands, gloves, and masks. These are what help bring us into life, back into health, or at the end into the Big Sleep. While outside these buildings athletes, celebrities, pundits and politicians prattle on about what is important...these few inside here are the great companions along this sudden back-road to our travels.

What I'm saying -- from a good deal of experience inside these secular monasteries -- is that once you're inside one it clears your head and heart of an awful lot of trivia from the outside. Inside here very little is trivial. Perhaps a birth! a cure! a death! If ever you're going to get in touch with what makes your life make sense, it won't be at Wrigley Field! Soldier Fields! the Chicago Theatre! or even the Field Museum!

They're about our entertainment. Hospitals are about our existence. So, please, a little more respect for the place we most hate to think about.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


We are on the brink.....! Of what...? According to the doomsayers, on the brink of both domestic and diplomatic disaster, as the American Empire sinks slowly in the west. Nial Ferguson's "Civilization" is just the latest history volume to envision this.

But whether you share in his demise-of-the-West scenario or not, right about now you're entering a very different scenario. Call it the Winter Solstice, The Holidays, or if you dare simply call it Christmas. It's our annual scenario of gift-giving. Especially gits for our children.

So, my friends, let us pause here at the precipice for a sweet jealous moment to gaze upon these wondrous little diversions that we kinda wish we were still young enough to own and play with ourselves. Some Christmas toys have passed the test of time. Among these: Crayolas...Raggedy Ann...Candy Land ...Mr Potato Head...Hot Wheels...Rubik Cube...Lincoln Logs...Kewpie Doll...and that centuries old little Red Wagon.

You can still find these tucked into little corners of today's sleek modern toy-barns like Toys-R-Us. You know, the big box emporiums where toys are stacked and packed by the carloads by parents and friends who who often prize the store's efficiency instead of its charm. I mean in a world of brinks and banks, who the hell has time for charm....??

Well, I do. And so do a great many old-time Christmas players from Christmases past.

And so while I perfectly well understand the big ticket items will be electronic games and toys and wands and goggles...well, I still notice how the little ones often prefer their littlest and simplest of toys. In fact, give a kid a great big wrapped toy this year and watch how they spend as much time playing with the wrapping as what was wrapped.

But pay no attention...just another antediluvian voice...recalling the ghosts of Christmas past which seemed so much smaller, quieter, simpler and authentic. Trouble is, after spending 80 of those old-fashioned Christmases, I fear there soon will be too few of us to tell you about them...

Monday, November 14, 2011


In an absolutely unpredictable world, the pendulum is absolutely predictable.

Why should we care? Because right now you and I are riding a very big one. The pendulum known as education, teaching, curriculum. Today tens of millions of young people are in classrooms where the pendulum has swung from such traditional right-brain courses as history and humanities to our heralded left-brain courses like math and science.

Starting in the Cold War with the Soviets in the 1950s-60s, math and science became the focus of most curriculum reforms and federally funded school programs. Seen from the perspective of Silicon Valley and corporate America, the results have been impressive. Geeks and nerds are now the new campus heroes. The swell of scientific progress in space, medicine, energy, weaponry and consumer electronics has been spectacular.

But with this growing swing toward math and science, there has been a corollary swing away from the old curricula including history and humanities. We live in a highly competitive and practical age, so those traditional right-brained fields seemed more expendable. The problem -- and in the history of American education there always seems to be another problem that demands another reform movement-- we may be educating a population of more Steve Jobs and Marc Zuckerbergs at the expense of more Jonathan Franzens and Stephen Spielbergs.

The press is crowded with reports of declining grades, falling graduation rates, and a citizenry that hardly understands its nation's history, culture and place in the world. To master the computer, the Internet, and the smart-phone without also mastering the where-and-why you've come from is an empty victory. If Jay Leno's Tonight Show is the social barometer of America, listen the next time he does a street interview. Young people staring blankly at questions about the Constitution, Lincoln, the Civil Rights movement, the New Deal, and Watergate. Not only a travesty worth the audience's laughter, but a tragedy worth a nation's concern.

We stand proud of our best-and-brightest technological minds today. And we should. But minds honed by scientific brilliance lose luster when we realize how many of them understand only their here-and-now. All too often without any sense of the where-when-and-why their here-and-now has come to pass. Has become part of their life. Has become central to why they do what they do.

The life of a nation is like the necklace of time. Each bead of progress exists and shines in and of itself. However, if understood and admired only by itself, it remains but a bead. Not a necklace! America is more than the sum of its beads. It's the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And that whole asks that our young people occasionally look up from their wondrous beads to realize how they are part of a centuries-old necklace.

The payoff? Well for one thing, Jay Leno won't get as many laughs from stupidly staring interviewees

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Here's what I call an encouraging statistic: Only 12% of surveyed Americans report they missed the canceled start of the pro basketball season. Nothing against basketball, just nice to hear that our heavily hustled population doesn't always go-with-the-promotional-flow. Occasionally we do try to distinguish between what's important in life and what's not.

Which brings me to your local drugstore aisles.

I'm here to suggest that of all the sophisticated surveys about you and me, maybe the easiest and best is the one you can take right in your own drug store. When you write for so many of the Fortune 500 companies that produce so many of these products, you learn how vital their merchandising space is to them. I've seen their sales forces equipped with everything from free display counters to dollars bonuses for the drugstore in this pursuit of prominent "shelf space."

OK, so lets take a stroll and measure -- literally measure! -- the number of inches different products are getting on those shelves. Obviously, the more inches, the more important these products seem to us the buying public. Here's my report in order of inches displayed >>

* Greeting Cards ~ In an age when personally knowing family, friends and neighbors has become less common, there's always Hallmark to find the right words. And often they do. Only you wonder how it is we've lost so much of the ability to find our own words

* Confectioneries ~ We know the brain craves sugar. Candy makers have found a gazillion different ways to spin and weave their sweet diversions. Watching eager shoppers from kids to grandmas, you see our drug-infested culture reaching for one of its last safe drugs of choice

* Pain medications ~ Take another look at just how many pain relievers there are out there. Many now locked away from over-eager buyer hands. The pharmaceutical companies have found even more ways than the candy companies to woo you into their merchandising web. They know how intense Americans don't tolerate very well the discomforts that come from their intense living. Pop a pill and you'll be like those happy smiling folks on the TV commercials

* Beauty aids ~ Drug stores are famous for affording the customers a fist-full of bottles and sprays with which to enhance what they have, and/or camouflage what they don't want to have. After awhile, your merchandising survey here slips gears and turns into amazed curiosity. many little secrets I never realized before

Of course, the ultimate beauty secret most customers over 40 dream of is that promised secret-of-perpetual-youth pursued by everyone from 16th C Ponce deLeon to 21st C Revlon. In pursuit of the Great Dream, the esteemed Mayo Clinic has recently discovered how cells "age and lose their ability to divide, thereby becoming senescent cells whose toxins produce our aging processes." Physiologist James Kirkland tells ScenceNews that using drugs to eleminate the senescent cells in lab mice has "contained the aging process."

Next visit to your drug store, bring a mouse and see which aisle he heads for first.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Because Rabbi Kushner posed that troubling question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" it seems entirely proper to now pose the next big question, "Why do good people do bad things?"

We are headline-deep in troubling examples. Coach Paterno and Penn State are simply the latest boils on the body politic. This disease-of-misdeeds is virulent. Coaches...politicians...bankers... priests...athletes....celebrities. What is the strain that runs through the disease? Power! Everyone whose misdeeds have lately arrived in the national ER gush from their enormous hold on power.

Over a century ago the British Lord Acton said it painfully well: "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." In each of the current cases, the deed done was done from a position of absolute power being imposed on the almost absolutely powerless.

You don't have to look far to find ways in which this disease has now triggered social anti-bodies. Consider the rise of the powerless in today's mass protests. The Tea Party opposes the power of government...the OWS opposes the power of the 1%....the municipal workers unions in states like Wisconsin and Ohio oppose the power of the governor...damn near everyone in their local barbershop and beauty salon opposes damn near everything they read in their newspapers!

Nothing new here. Like cancer, this disease of power-over-the powerless has corrupted the body politic of tribes and nations from the get-go. This lack of mutual respect is in our very DNA. The only way to cure it -- well, if not cured at least contained -- is if the powerless compel the powerful to sit down in the patient's room as equal partners in finding a workable protocol for recovery.

Simply put.....the powerless need to get some systemic relief for their condition; while the powerful need to accommodate this need before it is seized from out of their hands. Sometimes even elections can help find such accommodation.

Friday, November 11, 2011


There's something sacred about Veteran's Day, for it's been honoring the battle deaths of our young warriors ever since WWI. And we will do it again today. Only isn't there something missing ...? I mean, the honorable deaths aren't the whole story. There's also the even larger number of honorable lives. The tens of millions of lives those tens of thousands of deaths made possible.

A national genealogical chart would make the point. For every veteran-death in every war, there have been countless births that would simply not have been possible. For every twentysomething veteran-death in a family line, there's likely to have been one or more adolescent-lives who thereby survived the war. Who in time gave birth to other lives which may not have otherwise happened.

No one dies in a war to "save their country." They die because they weren't able to save themselves. And yet...! What their deaths helped save is the survival of the younger lives in the family line who went on to become the farmers, truck drivers, steel mill workers, teachers, firefighters, doctors and chemists in our nation's ranks. The makers and molders of America who might never have been born to make a difference!

We don't even need John Donne, God bless him, to remind us "no man is an island." We are all -- each of us in a family, in a land, in a world -- all inextricably connected with everyone else. If someone sneezes in a bank in Europe, America gets a cold. If someone crashes into a tower in America, the rest of the world catches fire.

So even as we mourn the battle-deaths of our veterans this week, look around at all the lives those deaths gave the rest of us. We might even want to change Veteran's Day to Resurrection Day.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


The once-upon-a-time America known for its long lazy Tom Sawyer adventures through long lazy countrysides has changed. And you and I with it. Today nothing's lazy, everything's fast. News... scores...stock markets ... the Hollywood & Washington players. We want our information immediately, whenever and wherever we are. And now we've got the magic screens with us to get it!

As your therapist might say: How's that make you feel? We've been so busy becoming digitally timely about everything, have we stopped much to wonder how much of this we really need? There's the Timely (headlines, breaking news, back-stories) and then there's the Timeless (holy books, great literature, poetry). If you care to look at it this way, well there's really no contest.

Here, let me give you an example. A few headlines from this morning's tabloid: Paterno fired! GOP Debate Focuses on Economy Not Cain! Voter's Nose Nearly Bitten Off! Woman Gets 34 Years For Killing Teen! Dow Collapses On Italy's Troubles! Cheap Trick Moving to Record Row! Murphy Furious with Oscars! Cutler Learns to Smile!

With all due respect to the reporters, how important are any these reports to you? How likely are you to use or remember them a week from today? In other words, is "being timely" just another way of saying "here today gone tomorrow?" You know that old if-you-were-stranded-on-an-island-what- reading-material-would-you-want-with-you?

Chances are, not even these reporters would vote for their Tabloid. And so enter the timeless...

Kahlil Gibran: "If you love somebody let them go, for if they return they were always yours; if they don't, they never were." Emily Dickinson: "Behavior is what a man does, not what he thinks, feels or believes." Buddha: "Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship." Mark Twain: "A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval."

Then there's the Bible's timeless take on being timely: "And this too shall pass..."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Genetics has by now passed into parlor room conversation. Everyone can talk a few pseu-intellectual minutes about their "family genes" and how they affect us. But now comes a new twist: Epigenetics. It's telling some researchers at Stanford University that "environmental factors can actually switch our gene on and off." In other words, maybe the genes we're born with may not be the genes we have to live with....!

Whoa, you mean I'm not genetically destined to be bald like Grandpa or fat like Uncle Benny or racist like half my cousins...? Epigenetics is raising the prospect our environment not only interacts with our genes, but it may actually alter those genes via our exposure to diet, pollution and medications.

Well now. If this is true, might Epigenetics help explain our national passion for controversy? We Americans thrive on controversy. We love it, we create, we seem to need it. I mean, do the media ever report how politicians are "getting along" the players on the team "are a happy locker-room family" the stars in Hollywood are "ideal fathers and mothers" our candidates "have an unsullied personal history?"

Hell no. Not as long as we have Herman Cain, Jay Cutler, and Lindsay Lohan to kick around!

So here's the thing. We're a democracy. In contrast to a dictatorship where everything is passed down as good, here nothing is so good that we citizens can't -- shouldn't -- dig around and smell out the lies, deceits and controversies.

Look at it this way. If your morning newspaper or blog site didn't have anything bad to report...well, what would it do? Civics classes in a democracy prefer to call this the "marketplace of ideas" where everything and everyone is fair game as good citizens wrestle with the facts, smarmy or not.

Maybe so. But how did this come to pass? No one's quite sure. It's just the way it is. Is it good? Is it wrong? Is it necessary? Well now look, we've just started another controversy....

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Have you ever counted how many times Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas, Russell Crowe, and Andy Whitfield have been in togas? Hollywood, even historians, loves to draw parallels between ancient Rome and modern America. It indulges in protean examples comparing Roman blood sports, gluttonous banquets, sexual deviations, and imperial wars to our own modern counterparts.

I used to ask my history students: With so many pagans to choose from, who's your favorite? If you were to pick a starring part for yourself, who would you select? Almost every time, the winners were gladiators and empresses. Now if you think about it, their choices were pretty typically all-American:

* Today America has its very own gladiatorial class. Great brutes of toned muscle who enter our arenas in splendorous battle-gear to the cheers or jeers of the masses in the coliseums of our great cities. Just like the Roman athletes, ours have been scouted, trained, motivated, and sent charging into the field of play with a pre-progammed passion for victory. One difference. Then victory meant life. Today it means a ring, a trophy, or at least a phonecall from the emperor in Washington

* Today's empress classes are not found in Roman palaces or Tuscany villas. And yet they are often very much cut from the same imperial cloth with which to preen before enviously adoring masses at these same events. Indeed, our empresses like Rome's will often be gifted with one of the surviving brutes of toned muscle, later in their very own bed chambers

You really don't have to push these comparisons too far to discover why most of my students chose gladiator or empress. What's interesting, though, is how a few of them actually picked a non-pagan from that pagan era. They mentioned the Christian martyrs!

When I pressed them on it, their explanations were revelatory. "Those were among the few authentic Romans back then!" "At least you can admire their kind of belief!" "Besides, if they were right, automatic free card into heaven!"

I'm not sure the martyr-choices were entirely serious. Nor am I sure there are any real counterparts among us today. But lets say there are. Who might they be? And why? Obviously they would come from society's counter-culture. Those few who break ranks from the-way-we-are majorities in order to stand apart from the safe. To stand above the consensus. To stand at the edge of some new and brighter shoreline.

Like who......?

I have some examples in mind. But let me bow out and ask you. Oh...? You're not sure...? Please, I'm hoping you can find at least two or three still left.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Think about it. Aren't school reunions one of life's two-edged swords? One blade slicing through the years with a sudden sure swiftness, the other with a ragged reluctance to return to the scene of the crime?

Eight times out of 10 you go anyway You're not sure whether or how they'll remember you, but now 10 or 25 years out, you feel this compulsive need to find out for yourself.

Admit it. The real need churning inside you is to see if anyone will still recall any of those disasters you've lived with all these years. You know, the stupid answers you gave in chemistry...the election you lost...the teams you never made...the dances you missed because you didn't have a date. Or -- please God! -- maybe a few of them still remember your better angels. Like the time you were cast in the spring play...won the dance contest at the prom... did pretty good in PE.

You finger though the yearbook for some help. Faces. names. events. gotta look sharp tonight. Also, you finger through the closet for the right look. Confident. successful. yet not over-dressed.

Driving to the hotel, it's the entrance that bothers you most. I mean, when you walk in, will anyone recognize you? If they do, what will they say? Gotta be prepared for no one knowing who you are. Twenty pounds is a lot more of you than any of them ever saw before. Oh hell, they've probably changed even more than you. You don't have to be so defensive. As a matter of fact, if I don't feel comfortable the first ten minutes, well I'm outta there. And good riddance. Who needs them anyway.

What's that....? Someone calling my name....? Gee, it's Jake! [or is that Willy?] Anyway, smile. You may not remember him, but wow he remembers you. That's a good start! Now don't mess it up. Keep smiling. But wait -- lets start by not getting his name wrong. Names are important. You know that. So how do I play this?

"Hey tiger," you hear yourself smiling, "how long has it been!" Jake [or Willy or was that Ray?] gives you a big bear hug. You know, the kind of hug that says help. Hmmm? now that I think about it, we're probably all here for some of the same searching reasons.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


As the holiday season arrives, I want to do you a favor.

The favor of taking you by your most sentimental hand and walking you down Chicago's great street State Street when it was still an amazing, awesome, astonishing midway of childhood desires. When exactly was that...? Exactly the last time you and I took the time to stroll it like a child.

My very first time was in the dark days of the Great Depression. Looking back now from the Great Recession, I remember it more vividly than I do this very morning. It began as a long, noisy ride with Mom on Chicago's Lake Street L train....inhabited with all sorts of tall, heavily-dressed people sternly reading their newspapers...feeling the tug of her hand when someone called out "State & Wabash" ....then being led down the bustling station stairs to a large gray building marked Marshal Fields. [I understand something from New York City called a Macy's has since usurped that grand old store].

The air was crisp, the crowds thick, and the place rang with bells, chimes and carols. I could only see it from down about Mom's waistline, but it felt like some magical crash of sights, sounds and smells unlike anything I had known before. It quickly grew louder as we turned a corner and -- then! -- State Street itself. A long wondrous blaze of ornamented street lamps, store fronts, clanging streetcars, shoving adults, fat red Santas tinkling their bells, angelic choirs from loudspeakers somewhere. If this was heaven, Father Cunningham hadn't been misleading us.

Mom efficiently took me by my little gloved hand to gawk at each of those celebrated Marshall Field window displays. They looked out on State Street, which in turned looked in at them. At age eight I had witnessed the excitement of giant coal trucks, horse-drawn milk wagons, screaming ambulances, and Dad's splendid new 1937 Dodge sedan. But nothing quite like this. Nor, did it seem to me, did any of the other oohing and awing kids at the end of their mother's hands.

Animated Victorian living room scenes with slippered children gathering around ornamented trees...Jolly Old St Nick squeezing down wreathed chimneys...puppy dogs and kitty cats and winking elves by what seemed like hundreds...oh and all those incredible dinner feasts around which the families would of course the Nativity Scene reminding adults and kids alike what this whole day was supposed to be all about.

I remember instantly deciding I never wanted to leave. Very much like my own children the first time they walked Disney's dazzling Main Street. But leave we eventually did. Not only State Street but also that delicious fourth-floor toy department inside. It seemed to me it held all the toys in all the towns in all the world!

I've since learned all those toys are actually in big-box warehouse stores like ToysRus where they have now turned in their credentials as Christmas magic for their new status as boxed-and-ready stuff. Sometime I miss being eight. I think maybe sometime you do too.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011




That menacing scale in your house -- you step on it in desperate hopes your recent gorge of fast foods hasn't worked it's evil ways. Hopefully there was a little gustatory miracle. Whatever your scale reads, you've just encountered two of life's least understood phenomena: evil and miracles.

The problem of evil has haunted us from the very beginning. It's preoccupied every major religion along with history's most prolific writers from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky to Stephen King. The ancient Greek tragedies literally gave evil a face. Whether we see it in theological, philosophical or psychological terms, evil remains an issue that runs a lot deeper than just booing the other team.

Right now we see it manifested in organized terrorism to genocidal wars to the won't-go-away threat of atomic annihilation. While some of us say evil is something found in the deeds of evil-doers, others insist evil is a spiritual force that in some way walks the earth.

As for miracles, well we're calling events miracles every day. The miracle, against all odds, of a cure, a victory, an intervention. Probably the biggest all-time miracle worker has been the Virgin Mary who has been active in apparitions from Joan of Arc to Lourdes to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The stand-off between science and faith in these affairs is well known, and chances of converting either side would take, well, a miracle.

The next time you ease onto your scale, you don't have to believe in either evil or in miracles. However, you do have to ask yourself: Are some things in life measured in ways that have nothing to do with the science of weights, sights, sounds and test tubes? These measurements all have to do with the sensory, but what about what's not sensory? Recently there have risen serious studies of what has been called the extra-sensory (ESP). Now here's what's funny. These studies consider themselves scientific. Which makes them like the science of the unscientific.

I don't know if you react like I do to the science of your morning scale as something either terribly evil or this time something surprisingly miraculous. But I do know this. I'd love to see the reactions over dinner between a successful neurobiologist and a successful shaman. And then watch who afterwards would vindicated enough to pick up the check.