Wednesday, February 29, 2012


We all know about the varying frequencies in the sound spectrum. There are frequencies only animals like dogs can hear...those only a transmitter can hear....most complex of all, the sounds and feelings emanating only from certain segments of the population. To fully hear these, it calls for fully listening, not simply hearing.

I have in mind those one-of-a-kind sounds and feelings of children at play. You and I once made them, but have probably lost the frequency long ago. Generally it's a high-pitched, raucous frequency of happy emotions from games and races, laughter and silliness. Remember...?

But that was then, this is now. We're no longer children. Such sweet silliness across lawns and on schoolyards has no place in our serious adult days. Still, I find myself pausing every time. I can't help resonating with those sounds and feelings emanating from that once-in-a-lifetime time.

Very likely this is because of the splendid simplicity of that time. When reality was what you could see and touch; truth was what your wise elders offered; when doubts were scarce, for there were so few doubting voices. Unlike now's so seriously adult world, bristling with so many different burning bushes commanding your attentions. And your beliefs,

As an adult I have come to know that every ideology, every faith, every medication, every new war and new discovery comes with a dozen contradictory certifications. You shake your head and blink your eyes. Too much. You can't help recalling the comfort of certitude that came with youth. And while more information has made me more informed, I cannot say it has made me more secure.


Listening to those giggling youngsters out there.... I'm trying to remain the adult who I am, while at the same time trying to reclaim some of the joy that I was. How perfectly grand it would be to be both.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Like everyone reading this, I took Social Studies in school. Ever since then, each corrupted election year I hear the same grumbling. In barber shops, beauty salons, and corner taverns. "Democracy is too messy to get anything done!"

When you look at today's blatant manipulation by big money, big media, and now big PACs, it's pretty easy to throw up your hands. Democracy was a great idea, but it simply doesn't work.

In my case, I ended up later teaching Social Studies. As I remember, I tried to explain democracy was actually MEANT to be messy. There's no messiness with kings or dictators. No mobs, no protests, and god-save-us no 24/7 screaming on cable television. It's one-man-rule. Simple! neat! no arguments because there's nothing you're allowed to argue about.

Think juries.

Here's a messy example of democracy at work. Squeeze a dozen very different people inside a room and tell them not to come out until they've got a verdict. You can bloody well be sure of some messy arguments. Arguments that may even spill over into pushing, shoving, downright fury. However, at the end of the day, virtually all juries do come out of that room. And they do reach a decision. More times than not, a far fairer one than the whim of any one ruler.

So maybe we shouldn't bicker this year about whether democracy is working. Oh, it's working all right. Just like the Founding Fathers intended. Everyone messily pushing, shoving, and brawling to be heard. The real question is: who's in control of the brawling?

A good old free-for-all-brawl, with everyone's best interests on the agenda, is very much the mess that was intended. What was not intended is that outsized money and media OWN the brawl. I'm sure I said this in class...but then who remembers what they heard once they pass!


Several years before his death, the celebrated Green Bay Packers coach made a documentary film titled "Second Effort." I worked on the project, carrying away a lesson that once spoke not only to the NFL, but to the entire American culture. Not so much anymore....!

Lombardi preached the unbreakable beliefs that once dominated our society: Commitment, tenacity, a willingness to always follow through on whatever you start. Besides running a football, what else? Pretty much anything you can think of. Unbreakable loyalty to family, community, church, marriage and career. It was still the age of the 50th anniversary parties at the same job, with the same spouse, with the same classmates, in the same place. It was also an age when football and baseball players started and ended their careers with the same team.

Most of that's gone now. Gone with the winds of progress, speed, and mobility. With a flurry of choices comes a feeling of freedom. Freedom to change, leave behind, find alternatives, and at all costs follow your own star. For instance, today's players needn't find their glory by a second-effort with the same team; simply reach for a new-effort with another team.

Men love to talk about "life is like a football game." But today's men would probably find it hard to work for a Lombardi. Or a Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan, Knute Rockne. Their lessons were unbreakable commitment to staying the course. In the light of so many options today, commitment can seem neolithic.

And yet, without some serious second effort, a polio-stricken FDR would never have become president...Helen Keller would never have become a great literary voice...Jackie Robinson would never have stuck it out in baseball....Fred Astaire would never have gotten that MGM contract... Judy Garland would never have had "Over the Rainbow" to sing in that film. The list is long!

I learned Lombardi was the kind of sonofabitch who would snarl at today's generation of Americans as spoiled and impatient. But you know what? I suspect today's generation would find his lessons hard to ignore. America might even get used to them all over again.

Monday, February 27, 2012


Two American classics -- Woody Allen and Katherine Hepburn -- help bracket my life for me. Referring to one's early years, Woody hit the nail on the head: "Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem." Alluding to one's later years, Hepburn pounded the nail in: "If you survive long enough, you are revered; rather like an old building."

Lately there are many more old buildings staying around. Centenarians are our fastest growing age group. Then, in their eighties and nineties, we also have Betty White, Tony Bennett, Kirk Douglas, Andy Griffith, Yogi Berra, Christopher Plummer, Harper Lee, Gore Vidal, Henry Kissinger, Nelson Mandela and the Justin Bieber of old age Hugh Hefner.

Not only are Americans living longer, we are celebrating them more. Unlike the days of the crazy-old-aunt-living-in-the-attic, age has come into fashion. I myself can testify to this fact every time old people open doors and give up their seats to me. Me who is himself no more than...oh wait! At 80 I rather look like 90, so I can see what they were thinking

The pop media love to dig up wrinkled survivors for the obligatory "what's your secret" interviews. Which is perfectly lovely, When and if my opportunity comes, I have a theoretical answer (theoretical as in I-believe-it-but-just-don't-much-practice-it): Patience.

With age comes patience, because by now you've learned there is actually no other option that works. Take the report about the impatient San Francisco driver last month who decided to swerve around a lane of cars that had come to a standstill. In a fury, he drove his Porsche 911 into the next lane which he discovered was freshly poured cement. His car sank a foot, got stuck, and watched the next 300 cars pass him by!

Now you see, at my age I would have known better. Being too life-tested for such nonsense, I would made sure I was driving a domestic....

Sunday, February 26, 2012


The best selling author of "The DaVinci Code" has a fantastic doomsday scenario right before his eyes. The Arab Spring. It began like a Hallelujah Chorus, went off key In Egypt, and is now becoming a bloody dirge in Syria. You know, the very corner of the world where, the same Bible Dan used, apocalyptically predicted long ago the world would come to a fiery end in the battle of Armageddon.

Unlike Egypt and Libya, Syria lies right smack in the middle of the world's geographic, religious, and big-power confrontations. Dare we say it is reminiscent of Europe in June 1914 when one spark in a Sarajevo assassination lit the flames of World War I. Today -- 100 million deaths later -- everyone from power players like Henry Kissinger to Evangelicals like Billy Graham warn about World War III.

But Dan...? You have not stepped up and written about what YOU think...! Maybe you're holding back to see if competing doomsday scenarios make a better plot. Say like the Mayan prediction for December 21, 2012 or our own home-grown Rapture and Survivalist communities. Your plot pickings are numerous, although this time you have to wonder how many of us will be left to buy your book.

Even if not a certified professional in the prediction game, may I advance one modest prediction? When CNN covers these revolutions and their terrible cost in human life, their cameras are always on the suffering individuals. You know, like our 10 PM newscasts love to focus on the terrified victims, the broken bodies, the wailing mothers holding sons in their arms. To be sure, we are always drawn to the intensely personal sides to these shattering events.

But here's another prediction. Not one in a hundred presidents, prime ministers, or generals will give a tinker's damn about the personal side to what's coming. It's the profits, Dan, it's the profits that are at stake. So when you start writing, baby, follow the money....!

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Twenty-first-century America is the land of the free and home of the limelight. Here everyone dreams of their 15-minutes bathed in its glorious glow. And why not? Here, both heroes and hucksters, talent and trash can make it.

However, anyone who's studied limelights understands they burn brightly, but they also burn out. What makes a paparazzi flash-in-the-pan really emerge as an icon depends on an elusive combination of sizzle and serendipity. Take three familiar groups:

* The first group appear night after night on our television screens. That vast legion of Invisibles that include the stunt people who pull off those 100 mph car chases, leap rooftops, and tumble off buildings so the star can walk away with a jaunty "take that." Also the inevitable gun-toting masked SWAT teams who are ever at the ready in every capture. My personal favorites are the actors required to play the corpses. You never hear them, never see their face. Their talent is not breathing. Then at the end of every season they mostly disappear somewhere in Los Angeles until their agent gets them another cadaver gig

* The second group of Invisibles are today's many behind-the-scene handlers. In show business: directors, cinematographers, sound teams, and publicity hotshots. In politics: by golly, pretty much the same. These professional Invisibles work furiously whenever on assignment; then at the end they too disappear until someone next hires them

* The third groups of Invisibles appear at first to be very visible: Candidates. And yet they're not really. They travel and speak and kiss babies everywhere; but are rarely visible anywhere. All we see is the carefully primed and prepped image they and their handlers want to project. What's worse they soon become whatever the media decide to project [flipflopper, erratic, out the 17th century, Muslim]

Three legions of American invisibility, few of whom are ever seen in public as they actually are. And, even more troubling, as they actually think. As usual, the Bard on Avon knew how best to define them: "The stuff as dreams are made on..."

Friday, February 24, 2012


Right now it's snowing in Chicago, but as it starts to melt there will soon be a green nougat of spring hiding beneath. When old men think spring, we think first loves. Don't deny it, because somewhere in your own cobwebby memory banks there also resides a Bonnie. Okay, so it may be a Mary or an Eileen, but as the snow melts, let your heart do the same. Let it remember her along with me.

As I remember that late spring, the universe was perfectly in pitch for this extraordinary moment. Bonnie was sweet 16, I was a ripening 17, President Truman was 3 years into his term predictably despised by more than 70% of our country's permanently despising voters. Exactly how all these disconnected facts exquisitely explain this event is hard for me to prove; but easy for me to believe.

Old men like us will always find such things easy to believe.

The Chicago Theater downtown was featuring a Bing Crosby movie plus the usual live stage shows that came with movies in those pre-television years. Can't remember the movie, the stage show, or the buzzing crowd in that golden Baroque setting. However, you must understand that all these were simply well coordinated steps leading up my planned denouement at nearby North Avenue Beach.

It's only a short cab ride from the theater to the beach. Besides, I'd seen Cary Grant do this with Katherine Hepburn, and it worked splendidly. [For any financial skeptics, recall cab fares in the Forties started at 25cents for the first quarter mile plus an honest-to-god smile from the driver!]. As we pulled up, a creamy half-moon lingered over Lake Michigan. Its beachline stretched out north and south in luxuriously sweeping curves. And -- exactly as planned -- not a body or a soul in sight.

My 17-year-old mind had fevered with the anticipated scenario and dialog tat would follow. There was Bonnie, five-foot-two portrait of unblemished Celtic beauty. Here was Jack, 6-foot specimen from a recent Charles Alas building-a-better-body-course-by-mail. And there...wait just a damn minute. There was this unexpectedly arrogant sign: "Beach Closed Till April 1." Talk about too much government.

Oh what the hell! Cary never had to negotiate with such absurdities. Nor should I. I was about to leap that insolent fence when...when I remembered my Charles Atlas course had provided no fence-leaping-lessons. Wiser not to risk in front of one's true love. I settled for buying Bonnie a hot dog...

...out there with a damn-sight-more strolling Chicagoans than my exquisite plot had planned for.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Atheists, existentialists and assorted other disbelievers want to take God out of society. Okay, we understand that. But now we have sundry sociologists and psychologists who propose we take God out of religion as well.

Seems as if they like what organized religion can do for us, if only that primitive god thing could be left out of the recipe. Say like the pits to a cherry pie. As I understand it, these critics approve of the communitarianism of organized religions in which there are services, like the Mass, where everyone enters as equals, sharing in the same uplifting experience, walking out a better member of society.

Get it? Religions are good when they enhance our social consciousness. Help us better relate to our fellow citizens. Perhaps even benefit from that "opiate" with which Marx indicted religion. That's their premise. And as they used to say about Vaudeville audiences: "If they buy the premise, they'll buy the bit!" Without a doubt, the critics' premise here does have some logic to it.

But now here's the thing. Logic by itself is, well, it's simply insisting 2+2 = 4. It neither asks nor answers the Why question. Similarly, religion without God is like that pie without the cherries because it had no pits. Without a God, there's no really good reason why we're doing what we're doing here.

Religion has once more loomed its tenacious head in our current election. Every candidate wants to claim religion's benefits; but, please, without its complications. Unlike most Western democracies, ours still takes its religions seriously. But then comes that Why question. Why is my faith more than Sunday photo-ops? Why is there something to this more than good citizenship? Frankly, why is any religion of any consequence if there is no God to it?

The questions beg the question.

Cherry pies and religions are nothing if they are somehow without their very origins. Logical, right? Notice, though, how logic again stumbles. Because whenever a candidate suggests there is a God to his religion, watch how many religious citizens suddenly take exception.

Pity the poor candidates. When they say "God bless America," don't we understand by now they don't really mean for us to take them literally...? Or seriously...?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Resurrection reports from the grave are far and few between. The most celebrated occurred in ancient Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago. Not to be undone, modern biologists insist they have accomplished the same, this time going back more than 32,000 years.

There just has to be a back story here.....

The New York Times reports it this way: "Living plants have been generated from the fruit of a little arctic flower, the narrow-leafed Campion, which died some 32,000 years ago... then was buried by an arctic ground squirrel." Now even though these biologists were from the old Evil Empire, Western scientists have hailed this as a breakthrough. Which even non-biologists like me agree.

Let your imagination roam with mine, and pretty soon you're envisioning some Transylvania laboratory in which Bunsen burners sizzle and electric arcs crackle. If you were in charge, who might YOU decide to raise...? Aside from family and friends, which five figures from history would you ordain resurrections...?

My five have already been written and placed in a sealed envelop to be read at the upcoming Oscars. Anyway, that's how I explained it to Billy Crystal. If you send me YOUR five, they will automatically re-post on Facebook for Billy and all the world to see. Too private or guarded for such bravado? I understand...

...but wouldn't it be interesting if enough great names came up and over-lapped so that we could find five to submit as write-in candidates for this year's presidential election? Since Jeb Bush and even Ralph Nader have shown no interest, there's still eight months left for modern biology to pull off the second greatest caper in history.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


The experts -- they go by many names with or without credentials -- are lately sounding counter-intuitive. Not that these empiricists believe very much in intuition, but they are making my barber mad. Very mad, because Ron is a 68-year-old traditionalist and proud of it.

The experts are telling us the anti-big government sentiment runs against other institutions as well. Marriage-and-children is no longer a given by the young generation. Neither is religion, as more people prefer to call themselves "unaffiliated." Nor political parties, as more people prefer to consider themselves "independents." Even the ancient adolescent tribal custom of dating has now given way to the much looser "hooking up."

Attend any church or visit any senior home and you will hear echoes of my barber: "We're tearing up all our roots!" And they would have a good argument. Ever since the first wandering hunters grouped themselves into families and clans and tribes, humanity has been a groupy thing. Attached to its institutional roots with a passion that amounts to a faith.

Grouping, however, is changing into soloing, as Eric Klinenberg details in his "Going Solo." For verification, travel the popular enclaves of any big city [Wrigleyville in Chicago, Bourbon Street in New Orleans, East Village in New York] and behold entire populations of young, unattached vagabonds doing their thing, then going home to their trendy one-person households.

Hard to say if the experts or Ron are more correct. After all, snapshots of the current culture are just that -- snapshots. And yet isn't there another counter-intuitive phenomenon at work lately? The recent regard -- dare I say respect -- for the elderly. You know, that graying generation in our families who we hug at holidays then put aside the rest of the year.

It's never been that way in older societies say like China, India, Africa and the Mediterranean. Where the elders command respect just by being, well, elders! But lately the kids -- even the experts -- give standing ovations to elders like Tony Bennett and Betty White. Could this be the start of something? All I know is the older I get, the better it sounds. I'm pleased to report that Ron and his razor agree.

Monday, February 20, 2012


British wit and raconteur Quentin Crisp wrote something which has increasingly made sense to me: "The consuming desire of most human beings is deliberately to plant their whole life in the hands of some other person."

When that person is a lover, a spouse, a teacher, a philosopher, it makes enormous good sense in our lonely lives. However, in recent times most of us have found [or made] this other person the Mass Media. If some preeminent voice pens a New York Times editorial or best selling novel, directs a powerhouse film or grants a network interview, sits in front of a cable news camera declaiming what is true or evil in our midst, millions of minds click into slightly different gear. We've been changed, whether intellectual pride admits it or not.

What, then, is reality for us? What we were born to believe, what we learned in school, or now what we are being preached from "the experts." I would especially like to pose these questions to Italian artist Anna Utopia Giordano who is currently photo-shopping famous Renaissance paintings such as "The Birth of Venus" that give those classic models thinner thighs, tighter tummies and perkier breasts.

Now you see it, now you don't! Now it's a masterpiece for the ages, now its just for today's eyes! I mean how many times have we witnessed people, places and events on our screens which were computerized, air-brushed, reconstituted, or totally altered? Like our candidates, our news is mostly what our Mass Media have decided to make it for us this day.

I wonder what Quentin would have thought about this report just out of Charlotte N.C. While the Media's image of true love comes with standard equipment -- youth, beauty, energy, flowers -- it's not always the reality. Larry Bushnell (85) and Columba Rosaly (97) from the same senior home are getting married this month. They've found their "other person" without the Media's standard equipment. And even without speaking the same language.

The next time the New York Times, MGM, Fox News, Oprah's book-of-the-month, or even Mr Crisp tells us something, we have a right to raise our hand. In fact, we have an obligation.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Never met my fellow Italian-American, Al Pacino. And yet, we have much in common. So much, I feel obliged to share some of it with you. Whether you feel obliged to read it is only a delete button away.

We're both of Sicilian extraction. Both his father and mine were born in Sicily in the 19th C. Both fathers migrated to America in the 20th C. Both their sons grew and prospered here. [Well, Al prospered a little more than Jack]. Oh, and his grandfather, born in Corleone, married one of my cousins, also from Corleone.

For many years, Pacino was self-conscious about his Sicilian roots. I have some family members who still are. You see, while Sicily is arguably one of the most beautiful islands in the world, its colorful 3000 year history has produced as many sinners as saints. But then most Sicilians don't keep score.

Like you, I've watched the GODFATHER trilogy more than once. One episode in particular. When the young Michael Corleone goes into hiding in our family's little hillside town, Corleone, which indeed does exist just above the city of Palermo. Lovingly shot on-location by another Sicilian, Francis Coppola, we can see its sun-baked cluster of stone houses, twisting cobble stone streets, craggy-faced old men fanning under the afternoon sun, wizened old women still gathering to gossip in the ancient piazzas. And, most particularly, the centuries-old town cathedral where Michael is married in the film; and where my Father was baptized in real life.

When you visit here, when you walk here, when you breathe here, you understand how not even the brightest twenty-something from Silicon Valley can actually escape his own family history. Genetically, culturally, religiously. And the older you get, the less you want to....

Saturday, February 18, 2012


From Frank Sinatra to Queen Latifah they sing the great American theme song: "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die." Only today's Americans [circa 25 to 65] have changed it to: "I'm Gonna Live So I Never Die."

An exaggeration...? I don't think so with 42.7 million fitness clubs, 2.3 billion annual drug orders, and a half a gazillion health gurus in books and on TV pitching their regimens for perfect abs and serenity in 15 easy-lessons-mailed-direct-to-your-house. Wellness is one thing; denial is something else!

OK, so maybe it's flabby me envying fitness you. Still, no machine runs forever, and the body is no more than a remarkable machine. A machine which admittedly is living better and longer than ever before. [States like Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Pennsylvania and West Virginia boast more than 15% of their populations are living well past 65]. But this side of Star Trek, you and I are going to die like everyone else.

Which is why older less splendiferous societies often go at this living thing from a different angle. Instead of placing so many of their bets on the body, they concentrate their chips more on the spirit. That intangible part of us which they believe eventually leaves our bodies -- fit or flabby -- far behind.

The usual suspects: Himalayan monasteries...Tibetan seminaries...Hindu temples... Jewish Kabbalah centers....Christian retreat houses....Islamic mosques.

Here's the thing. Ever since that serpent tempted that fig-less couple in the Garden, we've each learned in our own way there is some something about us that's part and yet apart from the machinery. You can study it. sense it. pray it. even sing it.

But you're not likely to discover it sweating on some clunky treadmill. I know, because the only thing I ever discover there is another pulled muscle. Which is precisely why Mark Twain said: "I've never taken any exercise except sleeping and resting." Damn, what a great American....!

Friday, February 17, 2012


I am a certifiable member of the 99%. And yet for years I prostituted my talents to the 1% of Fortune 500 management, corporate jet-setters, Hollywood celebrities, foreign ambassadors, and elite members of presidential Cabinets.

My talents, such as they were, were not in hotel rooms, but hunched over typewriters. For 20 some years I was a member of that spectral legion known as ghostwriters. Including a few speeches for sitting presidents, an honor even without the recognition.

However, it is about the Fortune 500 I am confessing here. Like lawyers and reporters, you don't break the code of silence as to the names. But the personalities, ahh they are worth trying to profile. Like so many of us 99 %ers, I had been raised to look upon the Donald Trumps of the land as our highest evolutionary achievement. They had money, power, status, image and untold influence. What more could a boy from the 30s & 40s aspire to, other than perhaps being a singing cowboy?


Yes, friends, there is always that thump as you trip over your childhood dreams and run smack dab into the middle of your heroes only to find they are mostly smoke and mirrors. Oh the poignancy of crumbling pedestals.

Most of these guys -- and in my time they were mostly guys -- had enormous executive offices, with enormous mahogany desks, with enormously vast networks of go-phers who did most of the real work. They hobnobbed with other 1%ers at country clubs, executive banquets, and in Congress.

The men-behind-the-curtains to some of our nation's most prestigious food, energy, entertainment and franchise operations usually know their business. But not nearly as well their workers. That's where the ghost writer comes in the side door, interviews the great man, meets some of the little men under him, then goes off to craft the words the big man needs to woo and wow his minions of little men. In other words, the big men often become so big they forget how to speak to the little men.

It's a fair trade. He knows WHAT he wants to say, I know HOW best he might say it. I submit a draft for his teleprompter; he gets the applause; I get the check. As for the presentation, I am never invited. After all, I am only a ghost...

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Clint Eastwood's Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler started something whose ending is just now being written. In the various public responses to his flinty exhortation to Americans about "getting back in the fight."

Political paranoids aside, most viewers reacted something like we once did to those old B&W war movies in the Forties. You know, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Brian Donlevy blasting their way through Nazi and Japanese front lines. The difference in today's war epics -- like "Saving Private Ryan" -- is now they portray the bloody facts as well as the patriotic fictions.

Why is this...?

One explanation is today's generation knows too much to be fooled by flag waving. Another is today's kids are interested in making money not war. And yet...! Eastwood's steel-jawed call to arms was embraced by tens of millions of young people today who cheered and blogged their gut-deep response. Apparently there was something in his pitch about getting off the canvas and getting back in the fight that felt like a Rocky flick.

Most Americans haven't really felt unabashed passion for battle since World War II when there was no 99 vs 1%. Virtually everyone -- father and mother, parent and kid, rich and poor `-- were convinced this was THEIR fight.

We don't need to over-analyze this. If you lived through that War, you understand. If you didn't, stay up for some of those old B&W flicks on cable television. They look like they were made for Clint. Listening to him, he makes us feel like we were made for them. What does all this have to do with selling Chryslers? Not much. But selling America? Aha, now that's a question to which everyone this year claims they have the answer.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Almost every morning I do the same thing. I peel a banana with which to top my breakfast cereal. Each time I undress it, I know exactly what I will find. And if there does happen to be a bruise or two, well I already knew this by looking at it from the outside.

This doesn't work with people. You know it and I know it. What you see is not always what you get. Bananas don't have much to hide. But people...? We have all sorts of things to hide...!

Mostly little things. Holes in our socks, blemishes on our body, long ago fibs and outright lies from our past. Sometimes big things. A criminal record, a broken marriage, abandoned children, perhaps a whole other life.

Street cameras, airport scanners and computer searches today make it harder to hide anything. And maybe that's necessary. But is it also good? We're not yet sure. However -- just like sci-fi authors HG Wells and George Orwell predicted -- we move in a world where secrets find few hiding places.

Some debate the issue of privacy. I debate the issue of lunacy. I mean do I really want to know everything about you...? About my neighbors...? My boss...? My senator...? Today's information culture generates billions -- count them! -- of digital messages, reports, discoveries, revelations every hour of every day. We've proved it too much for the human brain to accept let alone process. Now let me assert -- even without proof -- it's also too much for the human soul.

Isn't there still room for some silence and distance and doubt and mystery and magic between us? I think so. You see, most times I don't wish to KNOW everything about you and my peers. Rather I want to DISCOVER it. And if you're hung up on the issue of national safety...well, you just don't know what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I taught in the classroom for 40 years. No argument with the classic adages "when the student is ready the teacher will appear" and "there are teachable moments." I would simply add a third: "teachers learn in much the same ways."

It was the was still Norman Rockwell in much of America....I had to work summers selling assignment at Marshall Fields was their sheets & pillows department on the third floor. Don't look for it now, because the New York retail octopus known as Macy's has since devoured it. But what they couldn't swallow up are the sweet memories from those summers elbow-deep in bedding options. Often being offered by this off-duty teacher to some of the very kids he had recently taught, who were now going off to college.

MY teachable moments had nothing to do with the Civil War or the Homestead Act. Rather, with the way my customers -- kids, parent, dowagers, whatever -- were able to relate to something so mundane. Just as in the classroom, history could become far more than simply names and dates, so here could sheets and pillows become far more than, well, sheets and pillows.

As those July and August days ticked off, I found myself selling not products. Possibilities! The possibility of falling asleep faster, better, more ready to sink your troubles into the yielding comfort of clean white percale. Why I even envisioned for them payoffs like gentler nights. As both Shakespeare and Spatafora said: "To sleep, to sleep, perchance to dream..."

I have to half-smile when I remember the manager suggesting I "hang up the teaching gig and stay here where you can make some real money." Of course that wasn't going to happen. But I did learn a lot about how to lift the mundane -- be it history timelines or summer bedsheets -- to new and higher heights of interest.

Good selling and good teaching have a lot to do with intuitively understanding the brain of your student or customer. It's this "gift" which can help make the difference. Only now I understand some researchers at the University of California are developing a "mind-reading machine." I kid you not. The idea is to track the different patterns of neurons in the person's superior temporal gyrus, thereby deciphering what words they are hearing and decoding.

One of the researchers told the London Guardian, "This might sound spooky, but it could really help speechless patients." God bless him, he's probably right. About the "helping." And also about the "spooky."

Monday, February 13, 2012


In what we still like to call "the free world," majority rules. No argument. But at the same time, the minorities that are left must be given their fair share of that rule. It's always this indispensable balancing act that tests a nation's democracy. Look at four examples:

* Today's 1% of multi-millionaires and billionaires in Wall Street have upped their ante in the game of democracy by 700% over the last 20 years. That means from $15 million to $178 million in political donations per year. Over and above any of their PAC money That my fellow citizens is a "minority" which probably has more clout than the majority...!

* Today wherever the women in a community are in the minority, studies assert: "Men spend more money to attract them." Vladas Griskevicus of the University of Minnesota reports, "What we see in other animals is what we see here -- when females are scarce, males become more competitive." That my fellow males means in some places we're probably investing in bigger meals and nicer gifts than we can really afford...!

* While today's pregnant teens are still in the minority, the US has the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the developed world. Researchers from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed nearly 5000 teen mothers with the conclusion: "Most still really don't understand the correct usage of birth control." That my fellow concerned citizens means both our society and our religion are coming up short...!

* Today's Kansas has the arguable distinction of being a minority among the states whose science curricula teach evolution not creationism. And yet, minority or not, Kansas is now on the fast track to own America's favorite puppy: Toto, from the Wizard of Oz. The legislature is currently debating whether to make Toto the official state dog. And that my fellow Oz aficionados is just the way it is in Kansas..!

So yes, majority rules. But in some situations, it's hard to tell.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


OK, the correct saying is: "In the spring when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love." But, come on, that's so ante-diluvian! Look, today's age of science has cracked those old codes. Like the Bubonic Plague, polio, measles and hopefully soon cancer. God bless science.

On the other hand....

I'm not sure I want neurobiologists to crack this code we herald as: Love. I mean, think of all the poets, painters, composers and Hallmark Card employees who would get cast aside in a whirl of Dopamine. Oh yes, yes, the studies have confirmed this little sexy neurotransmitter is what makes you attracted to me, me to you, and hence the great Darwinian explanation of human existence.

Some of you will snarl that I sound like an Evangelical letter from deep in the heart of anti-Darwin Kansas. No -- you're thinking of Dorothy. This is me, and hundreds of millions of other me's traveling the earth in search of meaning, purpose and what once upon a time we sentimentally called Love.

However, the real struggle here is not between Sentimentality and Science. The struggle is to still find room in our amazing scientific age for enough sentimentality to keep us human. I prefer not to be an "informed man" if it means all I find is Dopamine, Norepinephrine and Serotonin in my feelings and passions for the woman I have loved for over 60 post-Darwinian years.

Hey, even Charles' devoted wife had her doubts about his insistence all species are a product of such evolutionary determinants as survival, satisfaction and procreation. And as far as the record shows, Charles never rebuffed that kind of love from her in their own marriage.

Richard Doty, director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania, concludes kissing has a lot to do with getting close enough to expecience the bodily smells of a potential partner. You know, like a Warthog. Also, that when I first looked at Joan I was probably studying her pelvic possibilities for bearing my children. And that evolution had built into us the urge-to-merge.

This has to stop! I'm not against learning about my physical self, but not at the expense of my metaphysical self. I choose -- with all the Dopamine at my command -- to believe that Joan and I have not mated like some horse farm system trying to breed another Seabiscuit. If I sound angry, yes I suppose I am. I also suppose some of these researchers may be like the fella who knew 213 ways of making love, but never knew a woman.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


True. We're all animals. But of all the species in the animal kingdom, we're the only one who kills its own so wantonly, and who despoils its own habitat so recklessly. We're also the only one who blushes (and as Mark Twain added "who should.")

But right now I'm thinking less about the animals in the jungle, and more about the ones right here in my own backyard. Most of them are regulars, and so I've given them names. What they call me is another matter:

* Take Squeaky the Squirrel. He's one of the few all-black ones. In OUR world he might feel different and out of place. But not here. He proudly joins -- usually beats -- the others in getting to all the feed first. When I watch Squeaky, he makes "different" look "distinguished." Go, Squeaky, go...

* Then there's Buttercup the Rabbit. Fat little gal who never bothers anyone, but who others bother on a regular basis. Buttercup makes me reflect a little on how people -- including me -- tend to be so damn aggressive. They call it ambition, but Buttercup and I still call it aggression. Stick to your guns, Buttercup...

* One of my favorites is Enrico the spectacular red Cardinal. He's here only part of the year, but when he struts his feathery stuff, I can't help smiling. And is singing -- quiet but quality. Really love Enrico, because he brings beauty to my world without asking anything in return...

* Can't ignore Freddy the Raccoon. Naturally he's only out at night, but watching his furry waddle through my grass, he makes me realize that slow and steady is often better than speedy and spectacular. I mean, no matter how I lock the garbage cans at night, by morning Freddy has figured it out. I hate the mess, pal, but do admire the persistence...

And now, my fellow animals, what do you have to say for yourselves..??

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Terrence Malick's award-winning film "The Tree of Life" divides American audiences like it did Cannes Festival audiences. Maybe it's the vastness of its Biblical spirituality, the enormity of its cinematography, or the innocence of its look at growing up in middle America.

Innocence has also been used by authors from Milton ("Paradise Lost"), to Voltaire ("Candide"), to Twain ("Tom Sawyer"), to Wolfe ("Look Homeward Angel"), to our annual splurge of Valentine Cards.

Lately, though, it's easier to dismiss innocence. Especially in a world fraught with sophisticated desires and dangers on every side. Kids growing up today -- watching these desires and dangers in violent action -- will find times-of-innocence in their country hard to imagine. Harder to believe.

It just could be that grandparents will be our kids' last repository of such beliefs. Sure, their memories may play willful tricks with their long ago youth, but things actually lived cannot actually be denied. So this may be a good time to have them tell their stories.

Stories of open windows and unlocked doors....of mothers wearing aprons in bustling kitchens and spic-and-span rooms...of fathers going to work in starched white shirts with the American Dream tucked in their pockets...of neighbors who called you by name when they hailed you to try their morning coffee cake...of mom & pop stores down the street who nobody owned except the folks behind the counter...hours of unsupervised kites and chases and pickup ball games on side streets uncluttered by parked cars or in empty lots just a walk-away.

In their stories you will meet horse-drawn milkmen and fruit peddlers instead of sleek retail chains; open fire hydrants instead of community pools; wide green lawns for dreaming on instead of digital board games for killing on; oh and grams and gramps may even indulge themselves in little whispered tales about puppy love on the village green which actually remained virgin-white until the wedding day.

I know, I know, Valentine Cards sell this kind of sentimentality for a profit! But grandma and grandpa aren't selling you anything. Just remembering. And letting you hop on for the ride...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


For those who believe if-you-dream-it-you-can-do it, this is not for you.

We're told we come in two parts: Intellect and will. Intellect is what distinguishes us from the rest of the animals. Will is what we choose to do with that intellect. You know, change our that light...marry this person...join Scientology.

But I'm here to say our much celebrated "free will" is hardly free. Frankly, it's at he whiplash end of every new whim around us. Our political opinions...? According to Pew research, they are the last political talking head on cable, where we now get most of our campaign news. Our cultural opinions ...? Probably a tie among the last best-seller we read, music concert we cheered, and movie we wept through. Our philosophy of life...? A tie between the last sermon we heard and wake we attended.

Bottom line -- the most crowded place in the world is a bandwagon!

Look, we're human, so we go where the action is. Where the herd is going. Where we get reinforced. If that abuses your sense of worth, notice the next time you're in an audience and start to applaud the music only when the others you laugh when those around you do...oh and how you too now rise for that pre-requisite standing ovation at the end.

Freud and especially Jung were good at explaining this. Dostoevsky and Hemingway did a good job too. Or simply attend a championship game, get into a political rally, or find yourself in a holiday shopping spree. That proud perky "free will" you like to strut, it suddenly starts marching to the loudest beat it hears around it.

Despite our best protestations, our vaunted "free will" is as susceptible as the next marcher. Check the records: Caesar's legionaries, Napoleon's Grand Army, Hitler's Third Reich, O. J.'s jury, the next time your attend an angry PTA meeting with the superintendent.

We tend to sell our free will much too cheaply. At that rate, we're going to keep buying the loudest cheapest band we meet....

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


"Death is a distant rumor to the young!"

That's according to Andy Rooney. Living into his nineties, Andy knew what he was talking about. He could have added this may be why the young are so intensely attracted to our digital information culture. They feel they're going to be around long enough for all this stuff to be important to them.

That, in turn, may be why the senior population use blogs, tweets and Facebook so much less. They seem to say: "Be there, done that, why bother!"

And yet counter-intuitive as it seems, seniors often participate more in the political process than do the young. Consider how many elders have mounted the Tea Party movement, calls to change the FDR monument in Washington (they don't like him in wheelchair), and now a demand about the new Eisenhower monument (they don't want him portrayed simply in his barefoot youth). Their loudest calls, predictably, are about protecting Entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Pensions).

As it turns out, both the young and the seniors have only limited staying power when it comes to their political agendas. Kids have their life to live; seniors have the doctors to see. That's why no matter how large their majorities, some minority usually carries the day. Minorities defined as those lobbies and interest groups who quietly but relentlessly stay in the fight to the end.

Enter our newest minorities: Political Action Committees (PACs).These along with big-buck-billionaires have lately come to own our democracy. Lock, stock and barrel. After all, the Supreme Court said so!

Looking for a way to buy it back...? Every political activist out there has an idea and a 800 number. That's when I noticed a very different number. This image of a phone at our local train station which read: "You can call anywhere toll free. Press 12 for God and he will accept the charges."

Monday, February 6, 2012


"Loser" has become this generation's new anathema. What could be worse? But wait, what does the record show? If you had paid more attention in your history classes, you might have noticed just how many losers end up winners. Well, they usually have to be dead first. But I'm just saying...!

The hottest example lately is Spartacus. You probably never heard of him in class, but ever since Kirk Douglas made the ancient Roman slave-warrior famous [ 1960 ] he's been a screen hit. Similarly, there are other famous losers [ read killed or died-out-of-power ] like Caesar...Cleopatra...Joan of Arc... Napoleon... Lincoln...Robert E Lee...George Custer...Jesse James...Truman...Kennedy. I had several uncles who were big-time losers too, but I won't force them into this august list.

To be sure, not every loser turns into a national hero after their death. But those who do may have something to say from the grave. For one thing, history is not written; it's re-written by each generation deciding for itself how to judge a loser. For another thing, it's always easier for a guilty nation [ like a guilty mourner ] to think good things about someone who is no longer with us. It sorta expunges our guilt plus gives us a safe new hero to worship.

This same chink in the armor of our tainted human nature needs to be re-examined every time loud verdicts are being rendered by the self-righteous. Say today! Talk-radio callers! cable-news pontificators! columnists, bloggers, and barbers across the land! Like the brawling fans in the stands, we can always play the game better; but only when we actually don't have to play the game!

So a long reflective time out here, fellow citizens.

The next time we judge another -- player, president, pope or even pop star -- a Mirror Moment, please. Looking at our self, don't we feel our losses in life should be judged in a boarder context than just the immediate moment? Just my latest action? Just my latest error? There's more to me than just now!

But think how long it took some of history's "losers" to be recognized as winners after all. If you don't want to wait that long or see these people that dead, then please. A long reflective time out.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


The world looks warily at the hundreds of millions in China and India. Such size spells power. But have we noticed the 800 million people who "inhabit" Facebook's growing digital kingdom? It's become the world's third largest nation; and even without flag or army, it's a sovereign force unlike any in history. I know, because I live there; and an unelected leader named Zuckerberg governs there.

Usually bold innovations like Facebook are the irresistible force meeting the Immovable object like humanity. You know who you are...! To date, Facebook may be winning, given the way it's helped change elections, topple governments, and lately made the Komen Foundation backtrack. Privately owned and regulated, how does the world deal with this growing nation?

For one thing, we need to adjust, adapt and adopt, because you can't hide in the stubborn closets of your mind any longer. For a second thing, we need to understand from now on there will always be new virtual realities side by side with actual realities. So here's the plan. When you take your iPhones and laptops with you, why not introduce the little giants to worlds they've never experienced before.

That favorite Willow under which you have often dreamed...that special shoreline you know so well... that trail through the city's forest preserve where you talk to the birds...that stop on the highway where you've often pulled over to smell the land...and if you're really lucky, that cruise ship taking you to your own far-off Xanadu.

It's really all so simple. As our species has developed the new -- wheel, fire, printing, radio, television -- it's been given another staggering opportunity. To use or misuse? You see, it's not the tool but the toolmaker that decides. For instance, whenever I notice another FEAR FACTOR or JERSEY SHORE on television, I know right down to the pit of my wrenching stomach that humanity has botched television. Lets see what we can do with Facebook....

Saturday, February 4, 2012


When I fall asleep I often wish I too could wake with such a mystic dream. But I'm not Coleridge. And I don't use his magic dust. However, if you're like me, you too would love to discover your very own Xanadu. Where...? Perhaps in those shrouded Tibetan highlands...or some Mediterranean island ...or why not tucked inside the impenetrable forests that give Maine some of its magic.

Those are the charts you like to travel when young and immortal. Later you discover smaller maps which, like an uncovered Mozart manuscript, lie hidden in some attic of your mind. Xanadu is usually closer than you thought.

Why not at your next school reunion? Where years of dis-information on your part suddenly glow in the realization that -- like Sally Fields receiving her surprise Oscar -- "you really really like me!" Or maybe that soup kitchen where you volunteered? You find, much to your own surprise, the embers of your young passion for others still flares. Or what about how your fingers find on Facebook lives you thought were no longer on your itinerary? Such an unlikely venue for sleeping memories to come digitally alive with distant family, friends, students and colleagues whose voices now become a soaring chorus in your new Xanadu.

There's that saying about old dogs and new tricks. You can't stop becoming old. On the other hand, you can stop forgetting how to be young. Not "American Idol" young! Eager old-age young! Whose youth the young cannot possibly yet understand....

Friday, February 3, 2012


Frankly, I don't believe you when you tell me you love getting up with the birds, trudging to the gym, and going from torture-machine to torture machine.

I grant our national fixation with wellness. There's even a popular rumor among the young that Science is on the brink of finding a cure for death. OK, reality-check. Not true. But it IS working on a pill to replace exercise.

That's when this overweight pasta-lover starts paying attention. Some healthy members of Harvard Medical School report a drug is possible soon. Be still my fluttering heart...! They explain when we exercise, our muscles produce a hormone that communicates with our body fat. This Irisin hormone transforms stagnant white cells into fat brown cells which burn calories.

So, I'm thinking a couple shots of Irisin with my evening snack drowsing through Letterman means I wake up each morning a few ounces less. By the end of a year, pasta-boy is svelt-boy and I can forget about that gym application I never intended to sign anyway.

Well, wouldn't you know it. Here's one of those small-print science footnotes. While the gang at Harvard are dreaming my dream, their counterparts in the US Army have found several popular workout supplements like Jack3d and OxyElite Pro may cause death. Never fails. Science giveth and science taketh away...!

Here's my theory. At one time being fat was a sign of prosperity. Being skinny usually meant poverty. Fat men were viewed as successful; fat women were the object of sculptor attentions. But today, Hollywood icons like Sydney Greenstreet and Marilyn Monroe would have to lose weight. What...??

I won't contest the wisdom of lean. But I will share a fragrant fable from mealtimes in an earlier America. Yes, my children, there really was an age when food was among humanity's highest pleasures. Boundless feasts of red meat... whole milk...eggs and cheese...sugary desserts and creamy thick fountain delights. And you know what? Not an ingredient label in sight...!

I kid you not. Back in that fabled time, Americans chose their foods based on pleasure not proteins, taste not thought. Did we die younger? There are many studies confirming that fact. Did we die happier? Aha, not a single study from either Harvard or the Army on that question.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Had your fill of award shows yet...? Wait, there's more...!

When members of the animal kingdom succeed at something, they award themselves by cackling, strutting, beating their chests, spreading their wings. Homo sapiens like to give one another trophies. Behold the awesome arrogance of the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Golden Globes, Obies, Country Westerns, the list runs on into televised perpetuity.

Nothing's wrong with celebrating achievement, for achieving is what living is supposed to include. But really, I ask you, when do we stop....! Along with 23 ego-extravaganzas a year where entertainers entertain themselves with entertainment baubles for their entertainment resumes, come countless retirement dinners, school reunions, and doctor/lawyer/teacher/cafeteria-of-the-year celebrations. Where sometimes there are awards just for showing up.

A new zeitgeist is afoot in our fair land, starting in our school PE classes: "Everyone's A Winner!" Good for our self-image, self-confidence, self, self and self. In fact, so much self, the concept selfless has been excised from most dictionaries. Teddy Roosevelt, Any Rand, George Patton, and Steve Jobs would not understand.

I don't understand. Not because honoring our betters is wrong. Rather, because lately we have decided no one is really "better." Not in a democracy. Not where the most uneducated, incoherent, dis-informed, bought-by-TV-ads voter can cast their ballot with as much authority as the Harvard professor, Silcon Valley entrepreneur, Wall Street Journal editor, and my highly educated and passionately informed children. Sorry.

Democracy was born in ancient Greece where the greatest Greek of them all, Aristotle, wrote: "Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Everything in our life takes place in, well, in a place. It's the inevitable Where which comes with the When. You have them too, but let me mention one of mine. A Where that is no longer there.

A small white summer cottage at the end of a dusty gravel road off Route 120. Hugging a tiny lake called Lily just south of McHenry Illinois. I know, it's an unimportant place to bring to your busy attention. And yet you'll instantly recognize its symbology for your own life, where so many places are likewise no longer there. Somehow, though, their very absence gives them significance.

In the late 1930s, while the Great Depression raged on in cities like our Chicago, this modest corner of the green Midwest countryside became our family's 4 weeks of escape. Dad was struggling to sell new cars for which no one had the money to buy, but he and my uncles wanted their children to experience something more than the stark urban despair of an unemployed city.

Your own childhood Where's may have been a trip to the mountains, the seashore, or all right a cottage. Mine let me discover the un-citified splendors of fields of thick green, rows of yellow corn, blue tongues of water lapping white beaches, and what seemed like a thousand birds never before seen or heard in my mornings.

I drove by that fragrant Where last summer to breathe in the memories. The cottage was gone. Of course. Those summers were almost 80 years ago, Jack! But as I drove closer, I saw a crew of workmen. Something new was going up in my lovely empty Where.

"Good," I thought. If the beat is to go on, every sainted memory deserves a fresh one to take its place. Watching that crew, I thought I could hear my young cousins and I giggling a greeting to them. "We loved it here...maybe you will too!"