Saturday, December 31, 2011


Verizon, the world's largest phone carrier, just backed down in the face of the American version of the Arab Spring -- an instant wave of Twitter protests from unhappy customers about intended price hikes.

You wonder how the history of the world would have been different if Caesar, Charlemagne, Louis XVI. FDR and Margaret Thatcher had tried to rule during Twitter time. Of all our revolutions, today's revolt-of-the-masses may be the biggest. Even generals can't lead when the ranks behind them refuse to follow...!

I was thinking of this yesterday as I watched our intrepid mail carrier trudging through the rain. Decked in somber blue, to match the mood of his fading profession, he slogged down the streets unnoticed and ungreeted. Not like in my youth when the mail -- delivered twice a day -- was an eager event for stay at home moms and their kids. Like the milkman, the iceman, the produce guy carting his fresh vegetables.

This is not a requiem for the dead.

It is simply an older memory sharing with younger memories an ironic epiphany. As I watched him, I knew he was bringing the new ink cartridges for my computer's printer. The irony screamed out at me. Yesterday was delivering today!

As the slow, personal, one-on-one world of communication slips into an irretrievable past, the instant, impersonal, all-at-once world of communication has arrived. Speeding up our thoughts...our messages ...our information...and our next revolution. Like the rodeo riders, our generation has boldly grabbed the reins, and we're on the ride of our life.

Now you have to wonder who's in charge of this ride. The rider or the ridden...?

Friday, December 30, 2011


Have you seen today's movie and concert ads? "Joyous," "Luminous," "Extraordinary," "Exquisite." The adjectives are like the credit cards reaching ever upward from silver to gold to diamond to platinum. We live in an age desperate to be bigger, better, happier. What's going on here...?

OK, so you don't sit on a serpent-encrusted throne in ancient Egypt. And yet, just like the rest of us, you occasionally dream of leaving behind a pyramid of accomplishments. Kings and presidents construct buildings and bridges, CEOs create business empires, religions erect cathedrals, Hollywood and Television pitch superlatives.

What can you and I do?

Eventually we can make a choice. Either we keep biting at every bait, eventually finding the hook inside. Or! We can ignore the trawlers fishing for us, and instead start re-defining what's really worth biting at. Ira Gershwin's 1938 lyrics said it simply and may have said it best:

"It's very clear/ our love is here to stay/ not for a year/ but ever and a day/ the radio and the telephone/ and the movies that we know/ may just be passing fancies/ and in time may go/ but, oh my dear/ our love is here to stay/ together we're/ going a long long way/ in time the Rockies may crumble/ Gibraltar may tumble/ they're only made of clay/ but our love is here to stay."

Composer & brother George had died shortly before the song was released. It turns out Ira was writing the lyric about him. Which reminds us that love -- romantic or otherwise -- is the highest adjective of the human language. To authentically love and live for another. After all, the rest is really "only made of clay."

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Here's your headline: "Men think of sex every seven seconds." Here's your facts. "Ohio State researchers report it is on average only 19 times a day."

What's the difference? The headline [ the conventional wisdom among most women and editors thinking about sex ] is a grabber, because it is deliciously negative. The facts [ less dramatic ] have less grab, because they're a tad less sensational so they make page two.

Does this suggest fiction sells better than facts? You can get an argument. However, check the latest sensational headlines. Obama has love child...! Gingrich admits 5th wife...! Iran prepares for war...! Jennifer plots Angelina murder...! Parents have small to zero effect on their children...!

Hold on.

The first four headlines were lies, but that fifth was fact-spun-by-fiction. In his National Review article, economist Bryan Caplan qualifies it: "While parent-child relationship has a substantial effect on how children feel and remember their parents. it has little or no effect on overall personality and happiness."

Negative or fictionalized reports have been humanity's baseline definition of "News" from the first stone tablet. Why? Plenty of theories. The most popular is bad news appeals to our conscious curiosity about the unusual and to our subconscious need to feel superior.

Here's a test. See how many op-ed pages compliment vs critique their subject. Count how often the sports page reports harmony vs friction on the team. Notice how the weather page loves impending doom reports vs giving short shrift to another nice day.

So here's a thought. Whenever we say "have a nice day," aren't we really thinking "hope mine is nice but it sure would be interesting if yours and the others was a little wild and woolly!"

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


You all remember Nietzsche...! You know, from your philosophy class. He's the guy who told the world: There is no true self... Truth is rarely useful... God is dead. And while his own life ended badly, each pronouncement has outlived its author. Ready to accompany us into our new year:

* Look into the mirror and you see you, right? Nietzsche would argue that's only the bark of you which keeps shedding each new spring. "We're in a constant state of becoming younger, fuller of future, taller, stronger." Who we are is never static, for it's a continuous act of self-creation.

Hmmm, something you may want to explain to those who are trying to love you...

* Look into that same mirror and you see the truth of your dreams, right? Nietzsche would warn that achieving those truths may prove empty victories. "Truth is rarely ever useful. Instead, it is our errors, disasters and profound misunderstandings which are more precious to us."

Aha, something to re-think as you march ambitiously into another new year...

* Nietzsche's most famous comment was that God is dead. What he was trying to bury was not a cosmic higher power as much as the Judaic-Christian version. If he had lived to see Star Trek, he might have smiled a smile of recognition.

Well now. Something which just may make both theist and atheist ruthlessly hopeful about 2012. Either that, or decide to let Nietzsche remain in your mirror while you do better things. It's our January choice. A year from now, let us know how that works out!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Every day we read some new discovery. In the vast physics of space right down to the intimate biology of us. Years ago, the author Marcel Proust put discovery into perspective: "The only true voyage of discovery would not be to visit strange lands, but to behold the universe through the eyes of another."

That, my friends, will be the most compelling yet complex Eureka! in your life. Frankly, though, there's no known way in all this world you and I will ever know it. If Proust's words struck a chord, then the rest of this will make sense. If you heard no chord, best you forget it.

The classic film "Roshomon" dramatizes Proust by letting the audience see the same event through the camera's eye of all the different people present. Something like your last Rorschach Test showed how your reality is always behind-the-eyes. While the optic nerves are processing the scene, the brain is processing the significance.

How? A crazy-quilt network of past preferences and prejudices, fantasies and fears, are instantly filtering the physical scene out there into what it means to you inside you. Lady GagGa...? She becomes anything from wonder to wild to whore to whatever deeply private conclusion your brain has stored all these years that defines: music, style, beauty, womanhood. Barack Obama...? He becomes more than what he says and does, more about what your brain has stored about Blackness, thinness, scholarship.

Additional examples...? Far too many to count, for the brains behind the eyes are doing it right now as each different brain is reading these words through the filters of its own treasure trove of experiences starting from the day it was born.

With 7 billion brains at work on this planet -- good lord, does that mean no one really knows exactly what any one else knows at an known time? It should take only your one brain to figure that out. Once you do, you may think of your tomorrow out there as Mission Impossible.

Or, if your brain is inclined toward the positive, you'll simply think of it as a Mission.

Monday, December 26, 2011


Every time another computer-generated letter starts with "Dear Valued Customer," you have my permission to damn well resent that computer. Especially its owners. For once again reducing you to yet another microchip of data in some vast impersonal storehouse of data pretending to know you.

I'm not contesting the computer. 91-year-old Uncle Harry is among the last bitter holdouts left on the planet. No, I'm protesting its masters' ways of manipulating my existence into some sliced-and-diced blips on their marketing screens. Which is why the world no longer bothers to look at me. Instead they ask for my drivers license, social security number, and other faceless blips of data by which they now "value" me.

No sense fighting it. It's the price we pay for the progress we've made. [George Orwell is I-told-you-soing from somewhere in that great computer-in-the-sky]. I call it the Tyranny of Reason. Once the brain -- human and now digital -- is in total charge, there is less and less room for the heart, the emotions, the intuitions, the leaps of faith, and the epiphanies of personal discovery. Lets face it -- none of that stuff computes!

And so this week we're reading the year-end summaries of the computerized research of 2011. I read about why chocolate is good for me...drinking coffee wards of depression...envy can be made useful ...white-fleshed produce defends against strokes...neutrinos can exceed the speed of light...multi-vitamins are living can drive me crazy...and alien life seems increasingly real.

Woody Allen likes to say: "Time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening all at once." Trouble is, with a world full of 24/7 computers, now everything IS happening all at once. But among all the extraordinary computerized results, I see none which have to do with the heart, the emotions, the intuitions, the leaps of faith, and the epiphanies of personal discovery. Why...? Because, thank goodness, none of that stuff computes...!

Saturday, December 24, 2011


I realize making a claim about the most important man in your life is not easily authenticated. And yet the only man who can dare to wear the claim is the Galilean preacher of 2000 years ago. More books and music and lives and deaths have been attributed to him than any other person in Western history.

But that's not the end of our story.

In this same month that his birthday is being celebrated in churches, another preacher of sorts is being celebrated in film. The British Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep. Everyone understands Jesus preached a message of inclusion. Thatcher, as British prime minister, rejected much of the inclusionary spirit of the emerging European Union. She argued that "world orders" are artificial creations that cannot take the place of soil, blood and race. Today's fragmenting EU appears to prove some of her warnings.

Interestingly, her fears are in some ways the same fears of millions of Fundamental Christians who pore over the Bible, Nostradamus, and apocalyptic novels like the "Left Behind" series imagining the arrival of a global-uniting Anti-Christ followed by the Second Coming of Jesus.

It would seem that humanity still has a problem trusting humanity. Especially any parts thereof which are not of the same soil, blood and race. And so we persist in living in ruthless fear of anyone or anything that is not made in our own image and likeness. Be they local, regional or global.

It's a good guess -- more than a guess, a strong likelihood -- that no member of humanity can authentically experience the imperative of consensus except those few who we have honored as Astronauts and Cosmonauts. They -- unlike Thatcher, more like Jesus -- have seen humanity as it really is. A bickering but beseeching troupe of wanderers on a very small blue planet...

...who may someday say with awe what Steve Jobs did as he looked up from his deathbed: "Wow, oh wow, wow!"

Friday, December 23, 2011


Our bodies aren't the only thing we can sell. There's also our minds. Despite our proud insistence about being free, we're selling our minds almost every day. And sometimes for only pennies a thought!

Consider the facts. Every day you and I scan the papers...catch the news on TV or the a book or magazine... maybe get into a discussion at the local barbershop or beauty salon. Each a perfectly free exchange of ideas, right? Maybe. Actually, in most cases we've just sold a prized piece of our mind for the last loudest idea we just read or heard.

The news from China....? What the hell do you and I really know except what some reporter has told us! The latest clash in Washington...? Admit it, we can't be sure about thousands of pages of legislation and lobbying, so we take the best-sounding opinion from the nightly news or our favorite blog! Steven Spielberg's newest film...? Mitt Romney's freshest quote...? the mayor or the school superintendent or the Broadway show playing downtown...? Before we can pronounce "first-amendment," we're paraphrasing what we just heard and claiming the idea as our own.

See how it works? We don't start the day offering up our minds for a price. Our minds simply gravitate toward the best-sounding by-passer. And then -- like the hooker on the street -- we curl up around their ideas and lead them up the stairs of our own thoughts.

Not a crime. Although very likely an unconscious calculation. Selling a little corner of my mind in exchange for an idea that I can now boast during that next golf game, cocktail hour, dinner party or chat with the boss. Getting our best ideas like this used to be called plagiarizing. Now it's simply called being informed...

Thursday, December 22, 2011


The secret-to-life...? People join religions, read tea leaves, travel to Buddhist monasteries to discover it. In the end they usually find it, like Dorothy, right back home. Where it's no secret at all. Beginning with that first Christmas you didn't get what you wanted, you learned life is full of trees and holly and hope; but at the very same, it's awfully hard. It comes with no guarantees!

Albert Einstein and explorer Sir Randulf Fiennes looked at this in two slightly different ways. Einstein: "The world is a dangerous place; not because of evil people, but because of the people who don't do anything about it." Fiennes: "There's no such thing as bad weather; only inappropriate clothing."

Seems to me, each man is pointing a finger at us and at what we can accomplish while we're here. You know, like TIME's person-of-the-year ["the protester"]. Those who follow the direction of these fingers take on both the bad people and the bad weather. With their own quiet gusto. We all recognize them. They might even include us. Driving the kids to school...joining the PTA ... volunteering for community in every election... maybe even marching or occupying or running for office.

Hard to say whether or not the activists make a difference. But they won't leave the scene without a trace! Meantime the pacifists, among or including us, opt to go with the flow. Sure, the world is crowded with bad people and bad weather conditions, but I've got enough to do to just survive it. Don't ask me to leave the sanctity of my home for the struggles of a world I can't change.

Now here's the backside to the Secret. Our world is going to keep changing whether we get involved or not. So the question becomes: Sitting here in the earned sanctity of our home at the end of another tough slog, do we pull up the drawbridge? Or do we let it down and march across?

Each adventurer comes back with a different story. But the only one that counts is our own...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


The only problem with, "The truth shall make you free," is how do you define "truth" and "free?"

With 7 billion of us cramming the planet, "truth" is often 7 billion truths [see the crowds attending any miracle or political rally for disputatious details]. As to "freedom," for many this often means the right to throw a punch at anyone who gets in your way [see the faces in front of your punch for another point of view].

All right, now lets see how all this applies to our current obsession with health and wellness.

When you consider the deluge of medical advice we're drowning in day after day after day, how in the name of the American Medical Association can we decide this gluttony of "truth" is actually "freeing" us? Most people I know feel chained more than free. Chained to all these impertinent truths about our cherished calories, cholesterol, and other assorted comfort foods. Remember who first fed us these gastronomical joys. That's right: Mom! She did it with a busy stove and a loving heart. You want us to really feel free? Get off our back! We accept your relentless good will, but your "truths" have been sucking the fun out of our eating and napping for years. It must stop....!

Before you answer by saying I'm being irrational, kindly explain this. Why are most of the wakes I attend lately for the leanest wellest people I've known? Also, why are the fattest flabbiest people I know in attendance. Just asking...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Ever watch people ordering in a restaurant? A little psychodrama all its own. How they treat the server [courtesy or condescension]....what they order [lean or lavish]....what they drink [sweet or sour]. As kids we loved the sweet stuff, like sugary Cokes and Pepsies. As adults we lose some of those taste buds for the bite of beverages like coffee, beer and wine.

Why is this? Well, look, if you don't care, then watching in restaurants is no psychodrama for you.

I have an un-credentialed theory. When very young, the world sorta seems sweet, and so our appetite for the sweet. When older, well things change. Our eyes, hair, body and the way we see the world. No longer quite so sweet, our experience has toughened our tastes. The coffee and beer that once seemed so bitter, now seem to exactly match the world in which we're drinking it.

OK, I'm not saying we do this consciously. But now that it's on your conscious level, think about it. Kids wake up and tend to see the sun in the sky, the green in the land, the fun in the streets, the snow forts and games in the day. Do you or I? I don't think so! Which may be why gulping down that hot bitter black stuff seems so right.


No one has ordained that our day has bitterness encoded into it. It's still the same panorama of nature and opportunities the kids see. Maybe there's a way to re-see things. Like a-little-sugar-makes-the- about a splash in your coffee? Or a smile at the breakfast table? Or a whistle to your walk?

Not saying any of that changes your world. But it just might change you...

Monday, December 19, 2011


We live in an age of facts and stats, data and detail. Whether we want them or not. Consider the latest breathless batch: 68% dislike Christmas because of lines...28% say the US should deport all illegal immigrants...76% say the economy favors the rich...31% of children have been arrested by age 23.

Wait a minute! Are they telling us almost one third of our kids have been arrested?

Well, yes they are. They being the criminologists in the current Pediatrics Magazine. The number is significantly higher than their last study in the 1960s. At first glance this would reinforce the cranky "kids today aren't what they used to be" critics. However, then the small-print pops out. The study did not take into consideration racial or regional differences, nor did it consider how the criminal system has become more punitive in the last 50 years, nor did it factor in the enormous growth of the drug culture.

Without the small-print, the headline-numbers are supremely unhelpful. The very same way different economists and candidates use numbers for their headlines without ever qualifying the figures with the footnotes. In a rush-to-print culture, everyone with a statistic goes for the splashy headline at the expense of the real truth.

Can anything be done about these distortions? Get real!

First, you must want to do something about them. Second, you must have a citizenry who really cares for the footnotes. But here's where the truth becomes a casualty of the spin. Neither the pitchmen nor the pitched-to have time for anything more than the quick easy-to-read headline. After all, we're living in the fast lane.

And then we wonder how we got into the mess we're in! My footnotes say the odds are 50 to 1 it's just where we all want to be....

Sunday, December 18, 2011


This notion of "miracles" is open to wide-ranging and sometimes disdainful debate. I will submit my definition at the end. Until then, how else would you define these five moments in your life:

1. You are still here...! In face of the remarkable odds against a safe pregnancy, delivery and the first 18 years of life on an infectious and unpredictable planet, there is a smattering of the miraculous to what right now you're taking for granted

2. You happened inside a family...! In face of the terrible numbers of parentless and/or homeless children in the world, this simple fact you simply assume is envied by millions

3. You are thinking about this...! That you can think is in itself a remarkable achievement of a healthy anatomy coupled with a healthy diet of nutritious parents, teachers and community

4. You have feelings about this...! Human emotions are what gives heart to the head, and to posses them with ample good will is what distinguishes you from that jungle, forever nipping at the borders of civilization

5. You have known courage in your life...! The capacity to smile Yes and to roar No in those moments of serious decision up until now, has made now possible

I'm not sure if by now you've considered terms other than "miracle" for these five. I'm quite sure the empirical-minded among you have. Bu quite frankly I can't think of a single one that I would feel content taking with me into my dreams tonight. Or any other night I am still among the lucky living...

Saturday, December 17, 2011


It's hard to believe during the frantic December buildup, but there really is life after Christmas. A little dimmer and darker, but weary adults may welcome it as cozier and calmer. We might also consider it as a blessed release from the pressure of all those chirpy Hallmark cards and TV specials that have been insisting we be as hysterically joyous as they are. I mean, really folks, no one can be that happy.

But now, what to do? How do we manage the post-celebratory winter days that loom ahead?

We're told -- by those same cards and specials -- if I dream it I can do it. All right, I invite my fellow Christmas survivors to dream with me an entirely new season for the days after Christmas. No more cards! no more specials! no more lines! no more gifts! and most important no more snow! Really, what possible use can the adult find for even one more inch of cold icy snow after Santa has gone...?

This then shall be our dream. During the days, from December 26 to March 21, Chicagoland will henceforth experience an entirely new fifth season. A season in which adults need not worry about the traditional blizzards, ice-sheeted roadways and frozen water lines. A season -- no longer Winter and not quite Spring -- in which the temperatures do not drop below 40 and the skies change only from sunny blue to sunnier blue. I don't exactly have a name for my new season, but it sure would be a dream.

Oh wait.

That would mean no more snow drifts, no more snow days, no more snowmen. That can't be right! Not even for us winter-weary adults! I think I have a whole new respect for the Creator who thought up these seasons! Back to the drawing-board of my dreams....

Friday, December 16, 2011


Unlike Scrooge, my ghosts of Christmas past are not so much frightening as fulfilling. They visit every December, recalling those harsh but often heroic days of the Great Depression and World War II. For me they mostly happened in a weathertight red-brick bungalow tucked inside the westside of Chicago.

The neighbors -- you knew them by their first name in backyard chats and during when-in-need visits -- were pretty much an ethnic-religious cross section of a nation which had not yet learned we were what the campuses now teach as a "multi-cultural" society, each culture requiring its very own distinct status.

The mail carriers -- rather than being let go, arrived twice a day -- were part of that once-upon-a-time trilogy. The newspapers, the radio and letters. We got our news a little more slowly, but this way a little more digestibly. I jealously remember how Mom would put the morning edition away saying, "The news can wait, at least until after lunch."

The community grandees -- the local pastor, teacher, cop, alderman -- had not yet become the distant animatronic figures we see debating on our aggro cable networks. They were taught they were part of the cultural glue of a neighborhood. Flawed or not, they visited us in our homes as they took their roles more flesh-to-flesh seriously.

The family -- oh my, every Christmas was Mom's chance to gather them together from far, wide and even quarrelsome -- to an Italian-American dinner for 30. There had been loving days devoted to the planning, preparation and presentation of a menu that my aging tummy can now only fantasize about. And yet, it was never so much about the food -- or even the glistening decorations and the gaggle of gifts -- but about the insistent devotion to a dogged belief. Being together -- as a family, as a community, as a nation -- really really mattered.

My ghosts never tell me the past was better. They do telI me what has gone before is not gone. Rather it has made what-is more possible, and what-will-be more promising. I have a good friend, now a good many miles and years away, who once shared this same little neighborhood of long ago togetherness. He recently remembered those days with these words: "My face is fixed in a rictus of benevolence...."

Gene, as one of my living ghosts, I couldn't have said it any better!

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Right now the enormous Hadron Collider in Switzerland is on the brink of discovering the long-sought "Higgs Particle." Physicists can explain the details. It is left to romantics to explain the implications...!

If this deepest layer of cosmic reality can be documented in these tests, physicist Peter Higgs' theory will be proven. Namely, there is no such thing as nothingness, because even in what we call emptiness there exists unseen fields of resistance. Which makes the ideal metaphor for the tortuous history of women throughout time. You see, fellas, as it turns out, the apparent "nothingness" of women during most of recorded history is not true. While the men who wrote history dismissed them as "nothing," actually they were exerting an unseen kind of "resistance" all through the affairs of men.

Despite the reluctant male ego, facts are facts.

Need we point to the obvious and history-altering role of the female, starting right with Eve. The plot thickens throughout the years with the likes of Sarah, Helen of Troy, Bathsheba, Delilah, Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mata Harri, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton. [Okay, try to forget Michelle Bachmann]. Actually, before the male of the species was deemed so dominant, there were more goddesses than gods in our pre-history. Goddesses, for as everyone realized, all life comes not from the male but the female.

Exactly how men stole women's thunder is not clear. Perhaps because few men have been willing to document the real story. But documents and dates aside, my stubborn brothers, their recorded "nothingness" stands out as one enormous lie. For without the silent service and suffering of billions of women, billions of men would not have achieved the successes and the civilizations to which they continue to lay exclusive claim.

You know the old joke -- behind every successful man there is an exhausted woman? Time to fess up, fellas. There's not a doubt in my mind! in my life! in my bank account! in my children! Think about it. It's not giving anything up. It's simply discovering what's been there all along. Discovering this so-called "nothingness" to women's role over the centuries is nothing but a genetic decision that brute strength somehow trumps sheer endurance....

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


A suburban New York school teacher faces disciplinary action for telling her second grade students there is no Santa Claus...! In a recent survey of Santa Claus denying adults, 67% report they hate the holiday because it means lines, putting on weight, and getting into debt...!

A very long time ago in a faraway land called the United States, Christmas was a quiet family affair in virtually every household. As Dickens reports in his own England, families either kept the day with joy or they simply bah-humbugged it away. Not many were waging wars over it.

Behold 2011 -- not choirs of angels in the heavens, but legions of lawyers in the courts.

Their anger is not so much based on religious principles -- they are not speaking for Judaism or Islam -- but rather on constitutional principles. Principles quite separate from the flesh-and-blood realities of December family life. More with the fleshless-and-bloodless theories of Liberty. You know that stirring word everyone uses, but which rarely puts food in the mouths or smiles on the faces of any children.

Why then do these "causes" seek a thin kind of justice which seems to serve no purpose for any families I know? I believe this is where the battle cry comes in: "It's the principle of the thing!" A word I have yet to find thrilling the heart of any second grader I've met. [In exquisite irony, it was my own second grade when that little monster Andy freed me from my unprincipled belief in Santa!]

And yet, there may still be something to be said for my constitutional liberty to dismiss the jolly old fella and all the sacredness that goes with it. I hear the Supreme Court has banned any more Nativity Scenes in the nation's capitol. They can't find Three Wise Men anywhere in town....

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


So we were watching this old B&W film about the Civil War which made me think of historian Hugh Trevor-Roper: "History is not merely what happened; it is what happened in the context of what might have happened." Perhaps just like our own personal histories in which we didn't get the girl or guy we originally hoped for....had a boy instead of a girl...took the job with a company that soon tanked... moved to a city which later went bankrupt.

For 40 years I taught history as it happened. Watching this old MGM film, I wondered if instead I should have taught it a little differently. Not just as it happened! not just as it might have happened! but as it SHOULD have happened!

It was a fictionalized scene soon after the assassination of Lincoln. The Confederacy-hating Senator Thaddeus Stevens (played by a snarly Lionel Barrymore) comes to the White House one stormy night just in time to see President Andrew Johnson (played by a noble Van Heflin) sign a presidential proclamation pardoning every member of the defeated Confederacy. From Jefferson Davis to General Robert E Lee to anyone who carried a gun against the Union. A president who sought to carry out Lincoln's dream of reconciliation versus a bloc of senators bent on political revenge.

In the classroom you TEACH the students the Proclamation. In the movie the students FEEL the enormous national passions at work. The raging feuds between North & South, between whites & blacks, between compassion & punishment. All captured in one brief scene, based on the facts but concocted by a studio scriptwriter. And yet, the lessons revealed inside those foolish feuds were never more real. Never more applicable to our own times. Never more dramatically instructive for a 2011 audience about to commit some of the very same political madness as in 1865.

Nothing wrong with the textbooks. Or the facts. But had I the chance again to teach the Civil War to students today -- and to their parents -- I'd damn likely suggest they watch a few of these overly-sentimentalized films from the Thirties and the Forties. When the Hollywood studio system was not only out to make a buck. It was also ought to make a point.

They were "teaching" our history not exactly as it happened. Not exactly as it might have happened. But in some ways, as it should have happened. As we should understand it, if we are to draw from our national past what we need to best insure our national future.

I now stand ready to debate the point with my fact-and-quote-loaded fellow educators. Reminding them perhaps of just how many times they themselves were in scenes like this one during their own lives...

Monday, December 12, 2011


There is the news and then there is the newsworthy. The difference usually jumps out at you:

* Newsweek Magazine just featured Angeline Jolie "The World's Most Beautiful Woman"
* Men's Health Magazine trumped that by featuring arch-rival-in-love Jennifer Aniston as "The Sexiest Woman of All Time"

* Gallup reported the average American male weighs 190 pounds, up from 180 in 1990; the average female weighs 160, up from 142
* University of Virginia trumped that by reporting lean physiques may be harmful right after surgery, showing a higher incidence of death among those patients whose BMI's were less than 23

* In the Big 12 College Football Conference, the top academic achiever (Texas Tech) graduates only 66% of its players
* Among the remaining 65 colleges with major football programs, only three (Northwestern, Boston College and Duke) graduate 90% or more

* H. L. Mencken famously wrote: "If given a choice between security and freedom, the average citizen will always choose security."
* When Charlie Brown asked Lucy to explain security, she famously yelled back: "Security, you dummy, is falling asleep in the back seat of your father's car, and waking up all tucked inside your own bed." She then added her clincher: "Something you will never ever have again!"

Tucked inside each of these thoughts is that old Nature vs Nurture debate. Harvard professor of Sociology and Medicine Nicholas Christakis recently tried to put the silver stake into the heart of this arguable dichotomy: "Things we once thought were entirely determined by culture -- like our choice of friends or our voting patterns -- turn out to have deep evolutionary roots." He cites studies showing we seek out friends who have the same genetic variants that we have. But he adds: "Conversely we also know that early social experiences -- like education, poverty, malnutrition and child abuse -- can modify the expression of our evolved genes."

He concludes, as do many today, it's time to accept the reality that "humans are not separate from the natural world...and we do have an intrinsic biology that could play a role in human affairs." A conclusion which surely reinforces today's existentialism that we function much like the rest of planetary matter. As to the ancient-medieval notion that we are different than, greater than, more destined than the rest...?

It seems to have faded under the current insistence that really we are: No more than the rest. Which makes you and I what?? Apparently something less than I believed at the start of this.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


In a world cluttered with prized possessions like our homes, cars, TVs, computers, and 101 increasingly exotic digital baubles, have you ever calculated your most important possession....? Think about it. More than likely it's your image. That public perception of you which tends to click into place the minute you walk into a room. An elusive thing -- not so much learned as earned -- it has something to do with the rhythm of your body, the physiology of your face, the sound and substance of your voice. You may have planned one kind of entrance, but projected another far closer to the truth of you.

What's true of us is also true of a nation.

If you had to find the image that best projects who and what we are, what comes to mind? In the 19th C it might have been the trail-breaking hunter, cowboy, or farmer taking on the endless treks of continental frontier. In the 20th C the shirt-sleeved factory worker, white-coated innovator, or helmeted GI. Here in our own century, we have the obligatory end-of-year summations like TIME MAGAZINE's person-of-the- year. [I'm guessing it will be Steve Jobs].

Meanwhile, back in our First City, NEW YORK MAGAZINE just published its annual the-year-in-culture edition. Scanning the faces they've selected, there's almost no one with whom I'd liked spending a weekend or who strikes me as representing we 330 million Americans circa 2011. But then that's someone from the Second City talking.

To see who they are, you first have to page your way through the pre-requisite ads from Bergdorf- Goodman, Gucci and Rolex featuring some of the gauntest, most androgynous, dead-staring beings I've never had the pleasure of encountering on any of the real-world streets of my country. But then, starting on page 60, we meet those Americans of whom -- at least New York -- is most proud.

I have no right to judge, but I'd love you to do so. To pluck out those fellow Americans who you consider the most representative image of the "exceptionalism" so many of us see in us. God knows there are scores of exceptional Americans who have changed their world. But where are they here among the likes here of: Amy Poehler, Rob Lowe, Charlie Sheen, Simon Cowell. Claire Dane, Damon Wayne Jr, Snooki, Kenrick Lamar, Katie Stelmanis, Laura Marling, Adele, Claire Mussid, Mario Battali, Christian Marclay, Kristen Wiig and Ashton Kutcher?

I bear these cultural icons no grudge. I just don't know one who I could feel represents what is American about America. Oh wait! There in the upper left background of the front cover is an image that for me leaps off the page. A smallish, stuttering, self-proclaimed neurotic: Woody Allen. I'm not especially small or stuttering, but neurotic I can understand...!

To weigh this wispish American's body of work -- from stand-up comedy to stand-out cinema -- is for me to discover an image which may come closest to our pre-dispossed sense of exceptionalism in these times. But then I'm not exceptional enough to be taken that exceptionally serious.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Lets face it, kissing is taken for granted. You know, a kiss is a kiss. Only that's not true. The act and the art of kissing has evolved over the centuries with splendidly accidental imagination. Ranging from primal to poetic to pornographic.

On the poetic side, there've been kisses on the ears, the eyes, the nose, the tummy and the toes. Getting to the lips was a relatively late arrival. But then, even that was destined to evolve. From the proper Victorian touch-on-the-mouth, to today's ravenous swallow-of-the-mouth. However, truth be told, what you may consider your own patented moves are mostly learned habits from George Clooney and Cameron Diaz. Be honest. We're programmed by whatever is the current culture. [A quick caveat: explaining this fact will serve no good purpose at the time].

Putting these basic physical factors aside, there are also the complex social factors involved. The act may be the same, but who you're acting upon makes all the difference. You don't kiss Mom, sister Betty, your prom date, your bride, your boss's wife and your kids the same way. [If you do, well, this is not for you; and, quite honestly, you're not for me].

I don't mean to over-study the kiss here, as researchers seem to do lately with everything from who we kiss to when we kiss to which evolved gene pool is motivating the kiss in the first place. Research like that has its place in the eternal passion to know. And yet, when it comes to dissecting every mystery of life into a controlled-study-group on some nationally regarded campus -- I'm stubbornly inclined not to want to know "the explanations" to everything I do.

Centuries ago Lao Tzu may have felt the same way. I wish we could have had a cup of tea together while we mused over his words: "Stop thinking, and so end your problems...."

Friday, December 9, 2011


That annoyingly androgynous reassurance "your call is very important to us" must stop! So must that digital shaman lurking inside my computer who insolently freezes me in place with an abrupt "logging off!" After childhood years of taking orders from parents, teachers, crossing-guards and little neighborhood thugs, I had foolishly assumed I was free at last.

Such was not to be. Or have you noticed too?

Instead of actual barbarians, I now live in the control of virtual barbarians. Desktops, smart-phones, banking accounts, billing accounts, airline ticketing. Each, by the way, we were told by Silcon Valley would be working for US.

Just when I'd given up any pretense of being master of my own electronic fate, the blue-jeaned wizards out there have begun plotting to replace smart-phones with smart-lens. Oh, you're no longer surprised at anything either? Researchers at the University of Washington have been experimenting with tiny antennas, miniature circuits, and LEDs inside lens for rabbits. What has apparently worked for Thumper is now planned for us. Moving us one giant step closer to the time "we'll have full-fledged streaming in our contact lens."

Wait a minute....!

If someone in the backseat of your car offers you a glitzy new widget that can triple your highway speed, don't you scan the unpredictable climbs and curves ahead before saying Yes? OK, let me correct that. Some of us would. Probably not the young, the adventurous, the seekers, the boundary-breakers. They're likely to remind the rest of us how all through history the cautious hedged their bets. With fire... the wheel... Galileo's telescope...Gutenberg's printing press...Marconi's radio...Salk's vaccine...and Steve Jobs' Mac.

Count me cautious.

Among the many important civilizational shifts that have occurred in our Western World over the last 500 years, few are any more profound than the ascent of science & technology. Their works have changed our world for the better, faster in these five centuries than happened in the previous fifty! But thereby inviting this question from the front seat: Why? Faster civilizations like faster cars are obliged to understand why dazzling innovation actually fits into and serves our best purposes?

Lets put it this way. The wizards should be challenged to share their laboratories with the watchdogs. Those watchdogs otherwise known as philosophers, theologians, poets and worriers who can't help asking at each new dazzle: Why are we doing this...?

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Connecting-the-dots has become a reliable part of the English lexicon. But as it leaches into everyday conversation, we may miss its most important implication. Namely, if our cities, nations and planet DON'T connect their dots, the consequences will be anywhere from dicey to disastrous:

* Cities from Chicago to Cairo to Kabul teem with millions of disparate populations. These dots of humanity tend to cluster tribally within their sprawling metropolises. Blacks & Whites...Muslims & Coptics...Shiite & Sunni. You rarely dare cross into the wrong neighborhoods. Somehow, though, the more enlightened mayors use those cultural connections which help hold these populations together. From welcoming parks and food festivals to sports stadiums and pop concerts.

* Nations too are increasingly more diverse, as a global economy shifts and shoves millions from poor countries to richer ones. Even the United States, which has always prided itself with its egalitarian E Pluribus Unum, has been rendered into Red and Blue states whose value systems fiercely clash. Try moving from Birmingham to New York City; DesMoines to Miami; Boston to Austin. You feel like you need a passport. Somehow, though, we occasionally stumble across a surprising leader whose Americanism connects the regions together. If only for a time. FDR's new deal, Kennedy's new frontier, and Reagan's shining-city-on-a-hill.

* This hunk of twirling rock has only recently been seen for what it is. Our cameras and space shuttles have at long last revealed the indisputable reality: We are a planet, among billions, whose make-up consists of 7 billion squirming dots. The only way this thing is going to keep spinning on course is if we learn what connects us is the only thing that can save us: cooperation. Which is precisely why we are called the UNITED States of America, Europe has formed a UNION of countries, even the feuding Arabs have formed a LEAGUE.

But here's the problem, my fellow dots. Race! Blood! Soil! have forever been the markers of exclusivity among us. The battlecry bellowed by the sick of mind who preach "Us Not Them!" They wear arm bands of intolerance whether they be the Flag, the Cross, or the Swastika. And in their foolish fears they can't see what they are preaching will scatter the dots thereby destroying what's left of the planet.

I suspect most leaders dare to harbor the dream that they're the one....! Not only to connect but to hold our dots together. But I'll be damned if most of us squirming dots just won't believe them. And even if we did, wouldn't follow them. We've just always had this psychotic thing about Me. Never Them.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


My fellow Sicilian sentimentalist, Frank Capra, made a sentimental classic when he made "It's A Wonderful Life" back in 1946. Remember that opening scene? The starry heavens looking down upon a world full of anxious voices, pleading and praying for something they desperately needed.

Were the cheery-cheeked Clarence to come down now, he'd find a very different America.

Oh, we're still pleading and praying. But not so much from a society of war-weary want, as one of shelf-filled plenty. Have you ever checked your bountiful supermarkets. Dozens of cuts of meat ....scores of fresh vegetables....dozens [count them!] of different toothpastes, deodorants, shampoos and nail polish. It's a crazy consumer paradise down here.

Here's the point.

Back then, Clarence was on a mission to save a life. Today, his mission might be to save a society. A society which, despite its currant anguish and angst, is filled to over-flowing with consumer gratifications of every little and large kind. When you're neck-deep in gratifications, it's often hard to still see that beach from where you began. That national shoreline which initially defined who and what and where you were in this ocean of plenty.

Currently there are waves of discontent and outright anger. About what...? Strangely about some of the best, most humane things we've ever done as a country. You know, those government lifeguards assigned to our protection. Agencies for creating intestate highways... regulating milk and meat deliveries...screening drugs....guarding our borders....monitoring our banks...not to mention two of the most compassionate national efforts in our history: Social Security and Medicare.

I have access to both. If you don't, you too have been assured some kind of access. But here's what might drive Clarence wacky. Sinking deeper in an ocean of plenty, we're actually arguing among ourselves about the "dangers and evils" to these time-tested lifeguards. Some of us point to their flaws...their incompetence... mostly their "unsustainable costs."

Lets grant those grievances. After all, no federal lifeguard could ever be as wondrously economic and efficient as rugged-individualist me!. Still, come the next wave or tsunami in our lives and those lifeguards -- deficient, defective and un-American as they may seem -- will be the first ones we call for

Whatever they cost...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


A recent study in Britain reached an audacious counter-intuitive conclusion. Men now spend more time in personal grooming and clothing each day than women [81 minutes to 75]. I, no metro-male, seriously doubt this. However, if the world's newest elite [AKA, statisticians] have so spoken, I suppose we're obliged to take them almost as seriously as they take themselves.

So, how best can we -- male and female alike -- greet our new day each morning? Drawing upon my own 80-year longitudinal study, I've reduced our options to my 4-Gs:

* GREGARIOUS: We can tear back the covers, bubble out of bed, and breathe deeply before our open bedroom window to greet our world and our fellow humanity with all the good cheer of a Mother Terese grafted on to a Justin Bieber. An unlikely grafting to be sure, but it does capture the annoying giddy goodyness of our world's if-I-can-dream-it-I-can-do-it legions

* GUARDED: We can peer cautiously out of the covers, squinting at the challenges of a new day, while methodically cleansing and arming ourselves for what we know are it's gladiatorial skirmishes. Fortunately we can energize ourselves with the memory of past victories, in the hope we will once more survive the arena

* GRIM: We can pull up the covers for another few minutes of cocooned safety. Deep inside those soft dark folds, we can pretend for a moment the arena will not be there this day. That our fellow combatants will uncharacteristically come out brandishing smiles not swords. You doubt it. And so it is, as in the days of ancient Rome, you will stand there and utter the same words: "We who are about to die, salute you..."

* GRATEFUL: Then there are those of us who will actually be checking the covers. To see if they're still a blanket and not a shroud. For you see, children, at a certain point in your own longitudinal study, your first emotion will be: "OMG, I'm still here. I'm still on this side of the grass!" As this reality seeps in, you gradually come to the conclusion: "I've got one more chance not to screw this up...!"

Ready...! Set...! Go....!

Monday, December 5, 2011


It was a great performance in NY's Central Park this month where Andrea Bocelli, Tony Bennett, and Celine Dion belted out their music for the adoring crowd. But there was a beast in that crowd ironically constructed from out of the same international humanity that made this performance so spectacular. On stage was a unique concentration of talent from Italy, Canada, Japan, and half the states in the US. A brilliant amalgamation of MUSICAL talent.

The metaphorical beast to which I refer is the equally brilliant amalgamations of FINANCIAL talent that have been formed in our time. Formed in the complex constructs of international banks, financial houses, hedge funds, monetary systems, and secretly assorted concentrations of power unlike anything in humanity's history. These financial artists come from every corner of the world, carrying portfolios so vast they rival the GNPs of half the nations of he world.

The appellation "beast" calls for some clarification.

Free enterprise economies cherish and celebrate a free marketplace in which the fittest can survive and the weakest can hopefully go away. But in time, the fittest become the fewest, and the fewest concentrate their power in ways whereby freedom is pretty much limited to those high rollers who know the game. Better yet who can game the game. It's been this way from the days of tribes to kingdoms to empires. In this respect, Darwin was dead right!

The bestiality enters our plot when these complex concentrations of financial power grow beyond the regulation -- even the understanding -- of the citizens and the governments they are supposedly servicing. To put it another way, check virtually every modern bubble and bust, war and victory, recession and depression over the last 500 years.

Some beasts should be killed. Others we try to tame and saddle. Saddle as in "regulate." However, when the beast is great enough, it can defy saddles in the name of freedom. And so it is today. For as thousands thrilled that night to Bocelli, Bennett and Dion, few among them were thinking of the beast in their lives.

The ones who were, huddled a few miles away occupying Wall Street in another of history's protests. A protest destined to become one of two tings: A footnote or a revolution. In the meantime, God bless our music more than our money....

Sunday, December 4, 2011


From the distant days of sundials to our days of atomic clocks, we have always been a species insistent on knowing the time. Animals and farmers can sense it; the rest of us demand to control it. If there's any doubt, check the number of clocks and watches and smart-phones in your life.

The scenario you and I live in right now is totally dependent on being timely. Getting the news... tracking the markets...having the latest poll results...being first to own this or sell that or have early access to the medical research. Like the frenetic rabbit in "Alice in Wonderland," we are frenetically driven by the watches we wear.

And yet.

There have been -- or surely will be -- those days when your clocks all stop. Not because they're not ticking, but because their ticking doesn't make much difference anymore. We didn't need Einstein to prove time is relative, for it's often relative not to the spin of the planet but rather to the spin of events

How many many times, time for us freezes in its tracks. When you're a child waiting for Christmas morning...a lover waiting for them to applicant waiting for a reply...a patient waiting for the test results....a general waiting to hear from the front...a president pacing the Oval Office for word...a widow or widower waiting for this nightmare to be over.

I've watched and worked for those masters-of-the-universe whose decisions and victories are shaped by the way they've appropriated time to their exact purposes. Acquiring the stock, closing the deal, settling the case, getting the votes. Dazzling! I've not watched them when they are away from the levers of power, caught instead by the limits of the stopped clocks in their lives. However, they are as human as I, and so I know these things to be true.

I hear the honey-voiced songstress of my youth, Doris Day, has come out with her first album in 18 years. Among her countless song hits was the award-winning Que Sera Sera (what will be will be). My Italian Grandmother hummed that message to me years before Doris did. I didn't really get it when Grandma hummed it. Nor when Doris sang it.

That was then! This is now! By now, I hope you too have learned its timeless wisdom. After all, the time may be shorter than you're figuring.

Saturday, December 3, 2011


You've heard about the first mate on the Titanic who was last seen re-arranging the deck chairs...! Pretty good image of large swatches of our population right now. The ship may be going down, but by god they're going to go down paying attention to what counts. How they look, dress, meet for lunch, invest in the markets and get the best seats on the aisle.

I don't know how you see things from here, but when the ship's caught in a perfect storm and the crew can only argue among themselves about what to do, it's not really the best time for self indulgence. Squeezing some pleasure out of life is fine; but saving that life is even finer. And yet right now you'd think millions of us on the ship had no higher priority than ourselves (see BMWs, upscale restaurants, Facebook & Twitter chatter, home shopping channels and reality shows for self indulgent details).

Maybe it's the flight-not-fight in us like that first mate. The storm is too big and the ship too small, so maybe all we can do is what the ship orchestra did that night of terrors: Play the music until there was no more ship.

Both as individuals and as a nation we still thrill to the echoes of our frontier mythology; and surely to the roar of today's corporate and military heroes. We even say we'd follow those same paths of glory too if only some someone would lead us. But it's not clear that we -- so caught up in our own personal problems and pursuits -- would really know a hero if we saw one. Nor would really know how to make the commitment needed to follow an authentic hero.

Fast-food America to the rescue!

OK, so the waves are growing higher, but what about this for an idea. Why not bigger burgers? That's not a joke. At least so reports my Alma Mater Northwestern University. "Studies show the reason fast-food chains are lately selling so many gargantuan burgers, fries, and sodas is that supersizing is an easy way for some people to feel powerful and important." Professor Derek Rucker puts it this way: "Jumbo portions may be a relatively cheap way for people who feel helpless to get a momentary catharsis."

Catharses in times of crisis? Well, it's happened before. In fact all through history on other troubled ships of state. The passengers suddenly living faster, laughing louder and eating more even in the eye of the storm. Only....? Only could it be that in our case fast-food America is serving us bigger portions of comfort food just when we may need to stay lean and strong for the swim ahead...?

Friday, December 2, 2011


It's the best time of year to figure out exactly how young or old you really are. When you're young, the holidays are a wonder...when you're old, they're a job...when you're really old, they're a dread.

The dread comes in various dark flavors. Too much pressure, too few days, too many memories, too little time left in your life. My, how you'd like to feel the giggly Christmas Tree feelings you once did, for you remember Decembers as a tasty menu of emotional treats all month long. And just to prove that's not a silly memory, you can still see it and hear it in the little ones around you.

And why not!

They needn't bother reading the latest Medicare legislation, wondering how it will affect them. Nor do they have to study the latest reports on why "keeping everyone alive is an unsustainable national expense." Unlike health plans in other countries, Medicare is not permitted to factor in the price of the medical services. Only the benefits of the health services. [Talk about "evil big government" daring to interfere with our lives by being so damn humane!]

Humane or absurd, this fact has now become the eye of the budget storm over Medicare. Approximately 45 million Americans are covered at a cost to taxpayers of almost $500 billion every year. The math is simple, folks. If you're over 65, you're anxious to protect it. If you're under, well you pretty much see Medicare as your-burden-at-their-benefit!

So you can tally and tidy up all the statistics you want, but what determine your vote will not be the pure numbers. It will be your current age. Young...? Disease and death have no meaning. Old...? Those are someone else's problems you're paying for. Really old...? Now it's no longer a political debate, it's a life-and-death debate.

Health centers are jammed with young bodies sweating hard to stay young. Hospitals are jammed with older bodies striving to stay alive. In the meantime, "evil big government" has provided the best bridge between these two goals. Now then....who among us wants to throw the first stone?

Thursday, December 1, 2011


First of all, not everyone believes in magic. Magic is seeing something that's not there; mystery is not seeing something that is there. Perhaps, then, I should call my subject: Mystery. The mystery of our nighttime pillow.

OK, I realize of all the great and grand objects in your world, your pillow seems fairly insignificant. But I protest. Firm or plump, feather or down, that small, taken-for-granted pillow waiting on your bed right now represents a cunning invitation into an entire web of felicitous possibilities.

If you're like me -- that's not necessarily a recommendation, you understand! -- when I got up this morning I reminded my pillows I'd be seeing them again in about 16 hours. Why such affection? such anticipation? I gratefully grant each dawning day is an invitation all its own. But think about it. It can only invite us to a confined world of routine. Washing...breakfasting... commuting ... working ... returning...a few hours of after-dinner diversions...then start the whole thing all over again.

This is absolutely not to demean our daily lives, family and friends. I mean this is it, folks, this is what life is...! However, doesn't everyone dream a little about what life COULD BE...? Daydreams or night dreams, the mind races with extraordinary possibilities. Breakthrough innovations, dramatic cures, soaring artistic creations, crowd cheering athletic feats, plus all the accompanying celebrity.

To the cynic -- Walter Mitty rubbish. To the romantic -- Awards Ceremony visions. Either way, our pillow is our path. That modest magic carpet upon which our minds can travel and soar to the highest of heights and the dearest of dreams. Not only forward into the future but backward among the accumulated delights of our child-hoods and green-years. The mind, you see, is a spectacular computer storing and projecting a thousand thousand scenarios. Each an energy source that can fuel our lives as they hurtle us onward.


From one pillow aficionado to another, my recommendation is you show yours a little more respect this night. Magic, mystery, or simply mental magnitude, it's one of your freest and finest gifts.