Monday, April 30, 2012


Time's a funny thing. In many ways the only thing. The only thing each of us -- great or small -- has in absolute common. At least for as long as we have it.

It's said that at times, time stops. I'm not sure about that; but like you, I know there are those intersections in which it pauses. In those treasured pauses, both our heads and hearts are touched and tinged in ways that affect the rest of our lives. Biographers carefully report them in their stories of prophets and kings, saints and sinners.  We are none of those. But they did happen to you. And to me. Remembering them might help us better understand the people in power in our world.

In my case, it was a small lake in Wisconsin. Geologically it was millions of years old. Chronologically I was 18 years old. But my heart...ahh in that summertime pause, my heat was for a time eternal.

She was older, about 24 or 25. I had never seen her before. But I had known her before. Every-time I dreamed of meeting the-girl-of-my-dreams while my buddies bragged about theirs. My heart and my hormones had been promising her to me. Now -- now on this starry night sitting on this grand white wraparound porch -- there she sat. Wearing a frilly gingham dress over a lean tanned body. Long auburn hair lifting slightly under the wings of a lake wind that smelled of peonies and promise.

Perhaps I'd seen too many movie love-stories back home. But wait...! Perhaps this was my love story at come true. Too careful to ruin the pause, I never said a word to her. I would sleep on the dream, and find a way to join her at breakfast. Yes! Cool and cautious was the best way to approach a pedestal.  After all, there was an entire summer ahead.

But there was no summer ahead. The girl-of-my-dreams wasn't at breakfast. Someone reported she had checked out early. Why? Where? How? I'd live long enough never to know. Only to wonder. To pause and wonder about one of those what-if's that lace our lives. Especially when we're 18.....

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Walk in any bar, turn on any talk show. You've got a fistfull of faces telling you how America is ripping apart at the seams. Politically, racially, economically, spiritually. But think about that. It doesn't take genius to recognize there will be monstrous differences in a country this monstrously large.

Which is why Benjamin Disraeli's comment to Parliament 150 years ago still applies: "Desperation is sometimes as powerful an inspirer as genius."

Our challenge is how to aim our desperation. There are plenty of big voices aiming at the big issues. Jobs. Taxes. Entitlements. NASA. Iran. That's thinking globally. Yet it always remains true you then have to act locally. Where the soaring platitudes come down to earth and the rubber hits the road.

What rubber? What roads? How about the Park Bench Rule...! One of the simpler tests for how well a country is holding together not ripping apart. The rule goes something like this: "On the next sweet summer night, how safe would lovers and families feel sleeping under the stars in a city park?"

If you just laughed or sneered,  you're probably too young to remember the Chicago many of us grew up in. The country was also ripping apart at the seams back in the 1930s [Depression]...1940s [WWII] ...1950s & 1960s [Cold War]. And yet, our city parks were still relatively safe to spend the night. Why? Probably because the threads that held the fabric of our culture were still strong enough to bind together the rips.

Threads like the cultural cliches we may not have practiced perfectly, but felt were right to believe: Family is essential...government is good...teachers, preachers and cops are to be admired...God, flag and mom's appie pie are sacred. Remember the film director Frank Capra? He made classics like "It's A Wonderful Life" and "Mr Smith Goes To Washington." We still love those movies. Why? Capra explained it this way: "I love America and I call my movies Capra-corn."

A little more corn, please, and we might just find parks at night safe again......

Saturday, April 28, 2012


Ever since people began believing in God [that's like forever], skeptics have questioned the big guy. Atheists poke holes in the god-thing by Logic. Lately, they have Science to help them [especially the brilliant science of Evolution].

But while evolutionary biology has suggested our species doesn't need a God to function effectively and behave morally, most Americans still tell Gallup they believe in God [even if they don't spend a lot time worshiping Him on weekends].

At first that sounds like a draw -- we kinda admire God as we do any other nice useless icon. Until, that is, we keep reading dramatic reports God is outmoded. Consider the latest,"The Moral Molecule," by Paul J. Zak. In it he says: "After centuries of speculation about human nature and how we decide what is the right thing to do, we at last have some news we can use. Empirical evidence that illuminates the mechanism at the heart of our moral guidance system: Oxytocin."

Zak and others argue levels of this brain chemical can determine how morally good and social we are. If true, presto God and centuries of prophets and messiahs are fairly expendable! Enough biochemical and genetic engineering, and just maybe we can create a brave-new-world. Biology trumps theology...!

Some will say where's the evidence this is happening? After all, most scientists are not exactly preaching this. However, others will say, the more people read proponents like Zak, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, the more no one will have to PREACH it. We'll just begin to BELIEVE it.

If you remember, in the first brave-new-world by Aldous Huxley, drugs like "Soma" didn't work out so well. In Zak's envisioned second brave-new-world, "Oxytocin" is likely to prove no better. But here's the kicker. If we erroneously kill God on the way to that new-world, how would we ever get Him back?


Strolling up Michigan Avenue you can't miss our towering white statue of Marilyn Monroe. Nor can you miss the knot of camera-clicking tourists staring ga-ga up at this massive American metaphor.

Marilyn IS a metaphor, you know. For beauty, sexuality, desirability, resentment, and whatever other repressed feelings she stirs in you. The studio made millions with the metaphor. In a moment of cruel honesty, one of their execs said of her untimely suicide: "The babe's greatest career move!"

But watching the gawkers here, you realize Marilyn is also a metaphor for everyone's secret Look-At-Me syndrome. Billions of us walk all our little lives in frustrated anonymity. And yet there's Marilyn. Goddess of fame with everyone still looking up at her. Why not me? Just for a little while?

The appetite for fame helps explain everything from legions of starving actors, to would-be American Idols. From zany pedestrians waving at every TV camera in sight, to all-too-many serial killers. And you can add years-of-training Olympic athletes, volunteers for the next survival-of or housewives-of network schlock show. Look, sometimes we get tired of living dreary lives of quiet desperation.

And so is born a reverse-desperation to catch one of these mercurial spotlights. No one is totally immune from the siren call of Look-At-Me. It's true from neighborhood punks looking for police-mug glory, to aircraft-carrier-landing presidents. We're all just a little too human to resist.

But then...! [Life is so damn filled with "but's"]. But then once some of us get it, like Marilyn, the time comes when we'd do anything to just be safe and private from the nattering crowds and glaring spotlights. Are we never satisfied...? Are we human...?

Friday, April 27, 2012


Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Adolf Hitler all suffered inordinate levels of testosterone whenever they came face to face with what their male-ego decided was a threat. Oh, don't pretend it's only the "other guy." For instance, that very same testosterone is bubbling every time someone cuts us off in traffic. So we all start this topic with the same fire-in-the-belly.

Anthropologists can explain our ancestors' fight-or-flight instincts; psychiatrists can explain our psychic fire today. As Carl Jung advised: "Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people."

Most times most of us can control the darkness and tame the beast. That's what is meant by "civilization." However, this primeval stuff oozes out time and again. Some handy examples in ascending order of danger:

* Sports fans ~ These bare-beer-belly crazies in the stands need some outlet for their repressed rage with their bosses, their wives, their world. The nearest high-paid athlete is their hysterical target

* Homophobes ~ Gay-bashing has an especially dark breeding ground. University of Rochester psychologist Richard Ryan tells that many homophobic spokesmen are "at war with themselves, and turn their internal conflict [about their repressed homosexuality] outward." Examples include Rev Ted Haggard and far too many members of Congress

* Enforcers ~ From generals to beat cops, the self-righteous anger boiling inside many of these men is what helps them choose such dangerous professions. When in check, they are our defenders; when unchecked, they can become our oppressors

* Neo-cons ~ These are those modern conservatives who sincerely believe that power is the best way to resolve conflicts. Dick Cheney, no matter how many different hearts he gets, will always be one of their most intransigent spokesmen. So far, though, few wars have ever meant real victory

Aah but there's some good news. Since H.W. Bush, every president has been a graduate of either Yale or Harvard. This election it will be Harvard vs Harvard. Eight Harvard graduates have served as president thus far, and we are advised Harvard trains men to be temperate. Here's hoping...!

Thursday, April 26, 2012


A lot of this started with Shakespeare. You know, this Roman thing...! The  many tales about its mighty empire, emperors, courtesans, slaves, and especially gladiators. Their trained warriors have become synonymous with the idea of cunning and power; with today's NFL warriors their modern counterpart

Men -- young and old, strong and weak -- love to identify themselves with our helmeted gods of the turf. Not only for their animal prowess, but surely for their imagined bedroom prowess. Women too harbor their own private images of the burly sex gods. And now -- drumroll! -- the NFL is turning on every klieg light and marquee they can as they glamorize their prized beasts of glory for television.

This year it all starts in New York's fabled showplace, Radio City Music Hall, where the NFL draft picks will be paraded while thousands of viewers breathlessly watch. So showy is this event, it made this morning's front cover of the New York Times where beefy 350-pounders are shown being custom-fit in tailored suits for the runway.

Someone, somewhere, please give me a break!

American males have a passel of people we love and honor. Cowboys ...astronauts...firefighters... Seals ...Cary Grant....Clint Eastwood. But we love them as they are. In their own skin. That's all part of the vicarious thrill. However, now the flamboyant members of the Hollywood myth-makers are getting into the act. Tailors, hair dressers, a dab of makeup for the cameras, and -- to be sure! -- their very own contract lawyers.

Personally I can't picture Jesse James in a three-piece Boston suit. Or John Glenn on Dancing With The Stars. Oh but wait....! This is only April.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Time Magazine this week features an article:"Shhh! Genius At Work." It walks us through some of the amazing mysteries to sleep. Both religion and science have been intrigued with these mysteries ever since the Bible described Adam falling asleep in the Garden, later the Greeks saw in dreams messages from the gods, later still Shakespeare had Hamlet learn secrets from the ghost of his father.

Science considers mysteries such as these as problems to be solved. Religion and playwrights tend to engage the mysteries they meet on their own terms. You and I have a choice each morning waking up to the question: What was that crazy dream all about...?

Psychiatry has helped explain how dreams are REM moments in which faces and plots from our waking world collide into our sleeping world. Putting aside the mounds of jaw-dropping theories, one part of our dreaming seems simple and clear. The cast of characters we encounter in our waking world somehow cross the stage of our sleeping world. Usually in disguise.

They are disguised in different appearances...situations...relationships...purposes...and connections with us as we move, triumphantly or terrifyingly, through our dream's plot line. And while all this has become more understood when it comes to the important people in our lives, what is less understood are the occasional entrances of  various bit or canceled players.

They appear in the action without much reason or rhyme. Your third grade teacher...your mail carrier ...that cashier at the supermarket...a long-dead cousin...a boss you once had and hated...a young girl you once dated and loved...your children, but now all younger...your dead parents...oh and Mickey Mantle and President Obama. What's going on here?

Unqualified to answer that question, may I simply leave this thought. You and I are also "bit and canceled players" in the dreams of friends and strangers alike. So know this. Tonight, you and I are likely to appear for a mysterious moment in someone's dreams. A someone we haven't seen for years or who we can't even remember meeting.

Ready for your entrance...? Cue that dream! And remember in some mysterious way, we and the other 7 billion of us are all part of the same dream.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Put two rabbis in a room and you'll get l0 different opinions about the Talmud. Put two golfers in a bar and you'll get 20 different opinions about putting. Put a husband and wife in a home, and there's no telling how many different opinions you'll get.  Textbooks refer to this as democracy. It's also known as the mild insanity of: On-the-other-handing every subject in sight!

Churchill famously remarked: "It's been said democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others which have been tried." He went on to fight Hitler's maniacal fascism as  democracy's greatest threat in the world. After winning the War, democracy at home turned him out of office. He had years to re-consider if perhaps democracy itself is its greatest threat.

Often it's the "demos" [the citizens themselves] which are the threat. Their reeds-in-the-wind opinions in a constant state of changing from one-hand to the other. True, there are those whose cocksure opinions never change; they're usually known as ideologues with a single worldview until, dammit, the day I die. That leaves most of the rest of us "demos;" like you and me, tend to buy into the last well-argued argument we hear.

To test this proposition consider television's (1) weeknight courtroom dramas (2) Sunday morning's Washington interviews. Check the pulse of your emotions as you listen first to the prosecution's closing argument and then defendant's, shifting with each persuasive on-the-other hand being pitched to the jury. Or check that pulse as you listen to those on-the-other-handing officials being grilled by the network's Sunday reporters.

If you don't feel yourself being swayed by each of the on-the-other-hands...well, you may consider yourself a to-the-death ideologue. If on the other hand you feel yourself being swayed by each successive're probably another confused citizen who's final choice may simply be the final hand.

The same citizens who cheered Churchill in 1945...threw him out of office that same years...brought him back in 1948...then allowed him to spend the rest of his years writing about both "hands" to this phenomenon we call democracy. Here in 2012 we get another chance to choose one of them.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


We have a love affair with military terms, as in the nation's war-on-poverty, the patient's fight-with- cancer, and the world's population-explosion. Why such militancy is a conversation in itself, but lets just consider the last one. In fact, only part of the world's population is exploding [mostly the southern half] whereas it's diminishing in the north [especially in West Europe and the United States].

The causes are many and complex. But the consequences can be seen singular and simple. Instead of a population explosion, what's happening is a health explosion. More of us old people will be around longer to crowd ERs...strain national here as a boon or burden to our children.

In a Europe in need of young labor forces, this means the mixed blessings of more workers from the Islamic world. In the United States, this means the specters of Medicare-sucking seniors draining the young, overwhelming hospitals, and even Sarah Palin's mad dreams about death panels.

Uncle Harry had a saying in Italian. Translated: "There are times when we're completely worry free. Those are called panic!" Right now there's a wave of panic in budget offices here in graft-ridden Illinois all the way up to the nattering nabobs in Washington. What to do with these old folks...?

At the other end of the age-spectrum are this spring's senior proms. Tens of thousands will be priming and primping for the annual passage from adolescence into young adulthood. Unlike the frillier Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland proms in the old MGM movies, the 21st C versions are more fierce than frilly. The music is edgier, the kids are tougher, and the after-prom agendas are wilder. Which helps explain why what cost my generation about a hundred bucks, now costs on average $1,078 [up from $807 just last year]. What recession...??

If you happen by one of these coronations, study the story right there before your eyes. Teens -- body to body and plans to plans -- criss-crossing the floor. Seniors -- parents & faculty chaperons -- sitting on the sidelines. The distance between them only a few yards; but a giant generation. The seniors are nearing the end of a journey that now usually ends up in a senior home. The teens...? Well, they're not thinking about that. Or its future costs, and consequences, or even implications for them.

Tonight is a night with no tomorrows. Their teachers, parents and relatives...? Say, that's not the kids' worry. Only it is...!

Friday, April 20, 2012


Can you think of a sports bar, restaurant, hotel lobby, or Michigan Avenue window where there isn't a display of TV monitors flashing the news from Kabul, the playoffs from Seattle, the news conference from the White House, and the dizzying stats and talking heads from the world's stock markets....?

I can't! These days the action is everywhere, everyday, everyway. Whether I want it or not.

Being-where-the-action-is is very American. An eager and restless people by nature and history, Americans have always felt this feeling whenever they've met a new rushing river or another uncrossable mountain. The challenge is exhilarating; until sometimes the consequences are not.

Most times, where-the-action-is is really not the real story. For instance. Is this the right river or the best mountain to be crossing? What's ahead? Is it worth the trip? In today's parlance that's called: Having a good reason for doing this, then having a good exit strategy after we have.

The Iraq War is a much too easy example. There are others, less obvious but equally instructive. Take the upcoming nominating conventions. The "action" will be the speeches and banners on the floor; the "story" will be off-camera in the backrooms and hotel suites. Take the New York Stock Exchange; the action is the frenzy of noise and numbers on the floor; the story is where all the noise and numbers are pointing investors for the next day. Or take a sudden storm smashing into a city, where the action may be standing in it; but the full story is inside where the weathercasters can read their dials and barometers for what is about to come next.

Modern sophisticated society has equipped us like the ancient Olympian gods with the instant means by which to see and go everywhere at once. And yet it's this very at-once which actually muddies not clarifies the action. Communication technologies are now faster than the brain can absorb, and surely faster than the mind can process. How utterly ironic.

Once again, each new generation is born a twin: a new invincibility paired with a new irony. What makes raising these twins so complicated is you can't nourish one without nourishing the other.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


We've all heard of that absurd lawsuit against McDonalds's over spilled hot coffee. Now a California woman is suing them for her "becoming a prostitute." She claims they "did not practice due diligence into the moral character" of the disreputable owner who hired her. Absurdity squared!

But if this is another distasteful example of why follow-the-money helps explain the pursuits of distasteful suits, I propose an even more useful mantra: Follow-the-filters. A lesson most of us learned -- and forgot -- when in school the teacher whispered a secret into a student's ear, then the class observed how that secret somehow changed as it was whispered from one to the next.

Everyone heard the secret differently. Because everyone grows up with a slightly different puzzle of predispositions. Including our own experiences with genders, races, nationalities, religions, politics, and anything else through which, like lenses, we understand the people around us. We call these lenses by different appellations. Cynical ones like "biases" and "prejudices." Or approving ones like "information" and "experience." Whatever the label, these ingrown lenses are the way we see our world. And god help the person who doesn't or won't see the world the same way!

Not unlike the blind men asked to identify the elephant in front of them, 7 billion of us wander the world seeing only through lenses that we have ourselves ground and shaped. Want to test that? Post something on your website [like I do on this one] then chart the first 20 responses. So far I've yet to hear any one of the 20 who saw my words in the exact same way I thought I had written them.

Their fault...? My fault....? It's not so simple as faulting someone. How can you fault a reader who is wearing an entirely different sets of lenses, and who assumes you and everyone else does too? This, I suspect, helps explain why "the best man" doesn't always win elections. And why "prophets" are often crucified.

Of course Absurdest painters and playwrights would have us believe there is actually nothing out there to see or fault, because there is no objective reality in the first place. Thankfully, these folks won't read this, because after all it doesn't exist!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


You have a choice...! Well, maybe it's not quite that cut & dried, but two callings beckon: Carpe Diem or Que Sera Sera. You either seize-the-day (especially when you're young and invincible) or you shrug what-will-be-will-be (especially once you've stopped being young and invincible).

The choice here is something like that between the sunrise and the sunset. Each has its own appeal. The choice is rooted in the counter-point between what's inevitable and what's possible in your life.

From the moment you're born, certain inevitability's roll and clamp into sturdy place around the rest of your life on this planet. Time...dangers...disease...rivals. But also goals...ambition...friends....luck. The daily headlines -- be they from ancient Rome to modern Washington DC -- remind us of inevitability's like the recent prostitution scandal in our Secret Service, the resilience of local insurgencies like the Taliban, the relentless pursuit of drugs by growers and users alike. Que sera sera....

And yet there are also the parallel possibilities. From the moment you're born certain prospects wheel into place in the form of your genetics, your parents, your caste, your community, your schooling, your mentors, and don't forget your luck. This is why we strive, both as individuals and as a society, to stretch, to reach, to try just a little harder. Carpe diem....

Elders, philosophers, and clergy often remind us of the sunset of inevitability's out there. You will find them at the heads of family dinner tables, in college campuses and in pulpits. Their wisdom is their understanding of history's inevitable track records. Then there are the young, the balladeers, political activists, and salespeople all inclined to remind us of the sunrise of possibilities each new day. Their wisdom is their unwillingness to bow before the inevitable.

Neither is right, neither is wrong, they are who they are. Molded by a unique mix of innocence & experience, success & failure, dreams & nightmares, restlessness & resignation. If both history's greatest achievers and failures were to report back to us on their fighting efforts, what they could each say with conviction: "First, know how to pick your fights...."

Monday, April 16, 2012


Everyone talks about the "norm" as the standard by which a society best lives. Which makes perfectly good sense. Except when you try to define it. Actually, the "norm" is a moving target. Always has been. Just about the time you've learned all the answers, they change all the questions.

At one time, the "norm" was a girl living in her father's house until the time when she moved into her husband's house. At one time, the "norm" was a boy going to a trade school in his father's field, then carrying on the family business. At one time movies were a dime, gas was 20cents a gallon, the stock market was 800 points, brides wore white because....well, no need to press the point!

In generations past there was a rhythm of predictability insofar as our views and values. A kind of industrial-age lockstep by which one generation kept in cadence with the last. That, fellow 21st centurions, is no longer true. No longer admired. Perhaps no longer possible even if it were.

Taking the long view, today's "new normal" is in some ways simply the fulfillment of our society's initial cadence. Our founders left the Old World into order to achieve a New World of freedom. In many ways we have now achieved the ultimate freedom: Being able to think and do whatever we want whenever we want because of the liberating power of today's new handheld technologies.

While we pause to reflect on this giddy prospect, we might want to remember how liberation doesn't always work out as planned. Consider the instructive tale of Raymond Jefferson who was charged with stealing $17,000 worth of such technologies from a Chicago Radio Shack. Including the GPS device the police used to find and arrest him...

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Quick, who comes to mind with this description: "An unforgiving control freak and malevolent bully!" If you're thinking your boss or your old college chemistry professor, think a little harder. That's right! This is how the world's most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, describes God.

In keeping with that mantra, David Silverman [president of American Atheists] recently held his Reason Rally on the National Mall in Washington DC. He told the press it was intended to give support to "closet atheists afraid of being outed."

There's good reason for atheists to keep their worldview private, for they continue to be "among the most disliked groups in the country" according to a 2006 study by University of British Columbia sociologist, Will Gervais. Only one of the 535 legislators in Congress calls himself an atheist, and few if any sports or entertainment celebrities do.

And yet something is happening in America that has already happened in West Europe. The number of atheists and/or non-affiliates has been spiking since the 1990s. In their best selling "American Grace," political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell explain the more political conservative Christians have become, the more liberal Christians have walked away from those Old Testament condemnations of pre-marital sex, homosexuality, contraception, and abortion. "As the Republican party embraces these views, the rest of the country has been moving in the opposite direction."

One more gap widening between us as if our society were straddling a pair of ice floes drifting apart. It may still be true there are "no atheists in foxholes," but if the demography holds true, in another 20 years one out of every four Americans will profess no religious faith at all.

It's clear this is yet another step toward an America unlike any we've known. Here's the question: Are these steps leading us to a new sunrise or sunset...?


Need a political chart for these next six months? To help find your way through the thicket of speeches, phot-ops, ad campaigns, endorsements, and dirty tricks? Here's a thought....

The number of opiod painkillers like OxyContin has surged 400% in just the last 10 years. More than 110,000 active-duty Army troops are currently on antidepressants. Stats like these shouldn't surprise you, for they reflect a nation deep in worry. And yet, national worry shouldn't surprise you either. It's been a state of mind ever since the settlers' first communities experienced their first attack by Native Americans who had the audacity to consider us invaders.

But now 400 years later, national worry has changed. It's done a 180. Now patients and communities don't always look to the government for help. For many, the government itself has become the enemy. For many others, though, the government has remained an indispensable player in the progress of their lives. The bottom line then is this: What should we do with the government -- feed it so it can do what it sees as its job, or starve it so eventually it shrinks back to size?

This then is the real bottom to the bottom line.

Between now and November, half of Americans will see President Obama as a visionary trying to organize government as a service-source for everyone according to their needs; the other half will fear him as a revolutionary trying to use government to punish the winners. Try to cut through the rhetoric, the cliches, the gaffes, the gotchas, and for heaven's sake the babbling pundits. The real bottom line issue is: do we continue to feed the government so it can do its growing 21st C job, or do we starve it by slashing taxes & expenses so it doesn't have the diet with which to keep growing?

To be sure, it's more complicated than that. There are a host of people and principles at stake about which we'll be hearing startling revelations and exposes. And yet, perhaps we can think of it this way. The nation is standing over the patient in Intensive Care, deciding if feeding it more will result in a revived savior for our endangered way of life....or a resurrected scavenger ready to swallow us up.

Can you remember that...?

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Oscar-nominated director Woody Allen, rock-king Bruce Springsteen, and Forties Big Band singer Helen O'Connell all have something important in common. They each remind us there are no "better times" in which we may believe we should have been born. Nostalgia is a lovely addiction -- from which I happily suffer -- but it often clouds the facts.

Allen shows us this in "Midnight in Paris." Springsteen belts it out in his moving-on lyrics. O'Connell sardonically told a Big Band admiring reporter: "Gee, if I had known I was living in an era I might have taken it more seriously."

Chances are we are nostalgic for other times and places mostly because they seem -- now from a comfortable distance -- to be more rock-sure-certain about things. Their actual incertitude has been distilled out and reprocessed by our eager memories. Homer did it in his tales of the Trojan wars. Twain did it in his stories of life on the old Mississippi. Uncle Harry does it every Thanksgiving dinner. And damn if I haven't started doing it as well!

Nostalgia is a feel-good exercise in which we get the chance to play god for a little while. To re-create a drama and a cast that, yes, did once perform, but whose plot line we've enjoyed re-working. No harm in this so long as we live here and only visit there. Rather than the other way around.

If certitude is one of nostalgia's lures, it's easy to understand why in this our current age of uncertainty. Ironically it's not ignorance but knowledge that's done this. What with our relentless waves of research, we live in an on-the-other-hand time. It seems as if we simply can't find a single researched conclusion that won't be revised on us in the next few years by the next research.

Hanging on to this whirling waffling planet, sometimes by only an emotional thread, our instinct is to reach out to whatever looks safe, sure, familiar. I ask you -- what's any more familiar than the yesterdays we love to remember? And while fact-checking and fact-checkers have become a new cottage industry, the only fact they can't seem to admit is this: Once you have all the facts about something, chances are you only have part of the truth to the story.

In this case -- the truth that fiction is often far more fun than fact.

Friday, April 13, 2012


There are always new buzz words in any culture. All part of the zeitgeist with which we live, learn and love. Until, that is, the next buzz words. In the last many years one of the buzziest is: "Connectivity."

With the arrival of the Internet about 25 years ago, virtually everyone on the globe has discovered a variety of digital ways to connect with virtually everyone else on the globe. Any time, any where. Just check your body parts for proof. The hand holding the smartphone...the ear plugged into the receiver ...the eyes which they say will soon be wearing lens by which to connect with any source you need.

But now here's the thing. The inevitable thing that always seems to prove that too much of a good thing is...well you know, a bad thing. Neuroscientists have shown how today's staggering amount of activity can quickly overload our prefrontal cortex and its100 billion neurons. Put in layman's terms: It's one of the reasons we often feel drenched in a sense of clutter, confusion, self doubt, and not knowing how to clear our head of all those thoughts which keep tumbling around in there.

Sometimes it's simply time to dis-connect. Another way of saying what people have been saying for pre-Internet centuries. I gotta get away for awhile!

There is always the standard vacation to seashore and mountain country. Lately there is also the net-cation by which people turn everything off for a few weeks. But now comes the phenomenon of gated communities. Like the one in Sanford Florida which has roared into the national news.

Currently 100 million US housing units, or 10% of all homes, are in gated communities. You have to wonder. As our modern world hurtles proudly forward with bold new innovations...why are we retreating back into what we once were, huddled in medieval castles and frontier forts?

As if we needed to be reminded -- progress is never a straight line.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


There are so many different ways of seeing our world. Most of them fall into two broad groups of see-ers. First, those empirical minded folks who thrill to the hunt for the next great truth or innovation. We've always had a lot of them in this go-for-the-gold country. Second, the more philosophical minded folks who aren't so sure every new hunt is worth the effort.

Neither is so right that the other is wrong. Still, I can't help hearing the second saying to the first: "Life is a mystery to be lived, not just a problem to be solved." And I want to believe them. Not because I don't value restless ambition,but because I admire restful assurance even more. In effect, the capacity to live out Buddha's maxim: "Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have."

The Buddha's Way has never been comfortable to most restless Americans. Maybe that's because there is so little consensus among us about what it is we should really want. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt's new book "The Righteous Mind" elegantly examines this. For example, he finds that liberals and conservatives these days not only want different things, they perceive their world in entirely different ways. Reinforcing the observation: Our perception is our reality.

The current case before the Supreme Court as to the constitutionality of Obamacare makes the point. Despite what is being argued about the Commerce Clause, what's really in play here are intensely personal perceptions about our very way of life. The final decision will be written in legal language, but some of the true origins for that language will often defy mere language.

Our feelings and values run deep. Including the Justices. Often deeper than we realize or articulate. After all, many of these have taken us a lifetime to develop. Once we have, they sneak out of our thoughts and into our language in ways that may surprise even us. Take the controversy about modern science. recently reported a University of of North Carolina study found 48% of both conservatives and liberals expressed "a great deal of trust in the scientific community" in 1974. Today the number remains the same with liberals, but has dropped to only 35% with conservatives.

Same science, but perceived so very differently. Which is why the Court's decision will be a split one. Reflecting how deeply split we are as a nation over so many issues. Will this ever change? Has it ever? Divisiveness is one of the attributes and burdens of a democracy that includes so large a multi-cultural people. I was thinking about that the other day when looking through a toy store. Especially at the miniature old-time cars and trucks.

Good lord...this tiny but authentically crafted 1938 Dodge car in my hand. In 2012 it's a toy. In 1938, it's the proud automobile my Father's Dodge & Plymouth agency sold to excited customers [and at which my boyhood eyes beamed]. Once a life-size part of the great American scene, today a plaything I can hold like some god. Makes you realize that despite all the sound and fury of THIS world, it's really well on its way to becoming another shelf of toy memorabilia.

Perspective like that might help perceptions like ours better understand what we think we're seeing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Here's a common part of today's psychiatry-tinged lexicon: "Right now I'm in a good place." But so is: "Right now I'm in a bad place. " Where are these places...? And how did we get there...?

Usually the places are not places at all. Not so much physical venues as states of mind. Ranging in mood from happy even joyous, all the way to frightened even terrified. Still, your precise physical settings can play a part.

Have you ever taken the time -- and the feelings -- to inventory your options? Among those reported most commonly: churches, seashores, hilltops, pop concerts, gardens, holiday family dinners, listening to music in your own room, falling asleep in your own bed.

Impressive list. But to be sure not complete.

Each of us completes the list each in our own way. There is almost always that special private place to which we flee. It's our bridge over troubled waters. Our very own little blue blanket.

I was thinking about my own options the other day while rummaging through a little card & gift shop in town. I noticed the moment I stepped out of the cacophony of cars and pedestrians outside, I was in a cocoon of perfumed silence inside. Folks here were quietly strolling aisles of greeting cards, frilly baby toys, lacy huggables, and sundries of inconsequential baubles that would probably become of considerable consequence to their recipients.

There was some gossamery music in the background. the mix of ladies' perfumes. the rustle of infants in arms. and this lilting language of endearment between the customers and the local owners. You know in your head that this tiny retail cocoon is just a business, and that the business of the real world outside is much more serious.

But for just a little while, you can't help feeling you're in a "good place." And you intentionally linger. The real world outside will just have to wait.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


As the Wicked Witch uttered those frightful words, she and all her power and purpose simply disappeared into a smoky ash. Dorothy was left there to wonder. Very much like we wonder as Americans what is happening to the power and purpose of our great nation.

Some despairing critics and politicians warn of our impending demise, comparing us to past empires like Rome and Britain. At the same time, geopolitical authors like Zbigniew Brezinski and Robert Kagan explain our future durability in "Strategic Vision" and "The World America Made." Along with iconic voices like Clint Eastwood's Chrysler commercial and Bruce Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball."

The United States -- fading empire or roaring revivalist -- can't be judged simply from the outside in. It's what's inside that's gradually coming out that will count. If the inside is solid and holds, the rest will likely take care of itself. But right now there are symptoms of melting at our national core. Not irreversible, but not encouraging. Stripped of all the current campaign rhetoric and trappings, it is this core about which each candidate is promising us a 21st C reprieve.

Their task is historic, for we are living in an historic age of enormous transitions. As they play out, there are four traditional cores to our nation in danger of melting right now:

There has been a traditional religious core based loosely upon a Judaic-Christian ethos ingeniously maintained by our constitutional separation of church & state. Right now every statistic tells us this core is melting quickly as the number of "unaffiliated" grows rapidly

There has been a traditional economic core based loosely on the promise of the American Dream. The belief that the 99% could somehow, someday become the 1%. Right now the distance in income has become so much greater, this dream has melted so much smaller

There has been a traditional fluidity between the upper and lower classes/castes, especially since WWII when knock-offs have become available to virtually anyone with a credit card. Right now, though, each class/caste so often inbreeds, they have little to say to anyone outside "their kind." And so the usual social bridges are melting away

When you add up these first three melting operations, it's easier to understand why government has become a super-structure of ideological bickering resting on a sub-structure of melting ideological commonalities

The Wicked Witch never got a reprieve. In the 2012 presidential campaign, that's all we'll really be hearing about. How each candidate is better equipped at his core to get our cores a reprieve. It's the right message. Now who's the right messenger...?

Monday, April 9, 2012


Mark Twain, a celebrated non-believer, believed: "The two most important days of our life are the day we are born, and the day we find out why." For the last 2000 years, Judaic-Christian believers have agreed both dates have something to do with a first-cause-higher-power. For the last 200 years, non- believers have found a new reason for not believing. Evolution.

Is this why Kansas hates Charles Darwin....? Well, maybe not hate; but fundamentalist school boards there and elsewhere have some evolutionary bones to pick with his revolutionary biology.
Darwin never meant his great work to become a new faith, but today's brilliant evolutionary biologists [there are 400,000 in the US] have learned so much about how our species has evolved, they've pretty much elevated his science into their faith.

Why else would fundamentalist school boards be so aggressive in rejecting Evolution for their classrooms? It's not so much the science itself, but the fear this new science is replacing their old faith. Whereas traditional religions say everything starts with a first-cause-higher-power, modern evolutionary biology says it starts with a big bang that had no start. It just happened. Then so did matter. Then so so did we. Thus the way to understand our social behavior, culture and mores is by understanding the evolutionary dynamics of our DNA, genes, chemicals, synapses and brain lobes.

It's all pretty exciting! Not a month goes by that some research team doesn't report how and why we behave according to the measurable dictates of our evolution. For instance, why we form into families ...mate with X instead of Democrat. Why females wearing red stimulate our male primate origins...why the sounds of Bach soothe and Mahler annoy...why I'm writing about this and not the Cubs.... oh, and why some of us still worship that old Judaic-Christian deity.

Evolutionary biologists may not say so in so many polysyllabic words. But it seems many of us are starting to assume so. To assume our behaviors emerge out of the dynamics of our evolution. Take that last one on the list. Scientists like William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, Richard Dawkins and Edward O. Wilson, coupled with pop authors like Sam Harris and Bill Maher, often explain our remaining attachment to deity this way: Some of us have a "god gene." Even courts may now see defenses not only built around the facts of the case, but around the genetic pre-dispositions of the defendant.

One of the latest genetic studies features researchers at the University of Nebraska who measured the arousal rates of different voters to provocative images. Researcher John Hibbing reports: "It's amazing the extent to which they perceive the same world differently." Conservatives seem more receptive to the fearful; liberals are more drawn to the hopeful. Does that mean today's campaign teams should be profiling genetics as well as gaffes out there?

In his latest, "The Social Conquest of Earth," Professor Wilson says: We came out of biology, we are the greatest of all animals, and because of our highly evolved social skills ["our special human eusociality"] we're being driven to greater cooperation so together we'll conquer the ills of the world.

Could this revolutionary biology eventually mean theology, religion, even God are expendable? Frederich Nietzsche famously had one of his characters say: "Where has god gone? I shall tell you. We have killed him..." When you ponder that -- be it in a Kansas school board or in Oz -- it may suggest that today's diminishing status of theology could be giving way to the emerging status of biology. If so, what does that make these scientists? Wizards or Witches?

Saturday, April 7, 2012


Most people on both sides of its black Atlantic grave know about the TITANIC. And about its horrific sinking 100 years ago this month. What most of them don't know are the unfitted ripples of unintended consequences that have washed over my family ever since.

The TITANIC, as its name intended, was to be the world's greatest and most unsinkable ocean vessel. Yet when it struck an iceberg that dark April night, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Within 24 frantic hours, this majesty of man's manufacturing pride plunged forever into the ocean. With it, 1500 lives and humanity's persistent delusion it can somehow rule over all it surveys.

We've been writing about this epic event ever since. But not about my young Mother's frontier family who set sail across that same North Atlantic route precisely seven years later. At 13, she was too young to realize the full consequences of the family's adventure. But my Grandfather surely did.

They were a family of five living in the tiny copper-mining town of Morenci, Arizona where he operated a "company store." A bakery for the immigrant who crowded this dusty niche in the red mountainside where all-night saloons, six-guns, and the the Apache-warriors of Geronimo still existed.

But now it was 1919, and Grandma yearned to visit her dying mother back in Italy. They had not seen one another since Grandma had left her mother behind in 1900 to marry the great love of her life on his way to his fortune in Arizona. And so this cramped 2500 mile railroad trip to the port of New York; then aboard the "Marseilles" in route to Genoa, Italy.

The second night out it happened. Again. The heavy gales and high winds of the eternally hungry North Atlantic looking for more victims. As Mom remembers, it was a traumatic few hours during which Grandpa finally pulled out his Colt Revolver swearing he would, "kill us all here instead of being sucked into the sea like rats!"

The end of the story is not the end of the story.

They survived the storm. The "Marseilles" landed at Genoa. Life went on. And yet never the same. My Mother inherited a fearful dread of the water for the rest of her life. It burrowed into her DNA so deeply and contagiously she unconsciously passed it on to her children, and even to other mentored members of her extended family.

Evidence...? I don't know if any of this qualifies, but there were two deaths by drowning, four boating accidents, and the fact I get sea sick just writing about the sea. Perhaps that's why I joined the Air Force instead the Navy. Not that either branch of service would be at all interested in the reasons for my uneventful decision. If they did, though, I assume the Navy would have thanked me.

Sorry, Mom....

Friday, April 6, 2012


They say walking is good for you. I say it depends a lot on where and when you're walking.

Suburbanites like me don't get into their cities very often. Whenever I do in my Chicago, I'm pleasantly staggered by all that's new since my last venture. Towering glass buildings and spacious boulevards seem to sprout up in asymmetrical splendor. Who are all these people inside all these places?

I parked near North Michigan Avenue, and walked the six blocks to my destination. The wheels of the passing cars thump aggressively across the pavement...the pedestrians passing you up are speechlessly hurrying to some deadline as they try to sip their last gulp of Starbucks...the racket of jackhammers breaking up sidewalks is all around you as you dodge your way through sturdy hardhats....the smell of quick breakfasts is detected wafting out of little street-side cafes...the whiff of the passing women's perfumes, the whirr of the occasional motorcycle, the weariness of the squatting beggars. This entire maze of sights and sounds and smells is like some sprawling urban mural you could paint if only you knew how.

And yet, this mural is not for studying; it's for surviving. There's little patience out here at nine o'clock on a Monday morning for anyone to step out of the mural and simply behold it. Well, with the exception of the camera-toting tourists who gaze and gawk every few blocks. You wonder -- you envy -- what they see that a local doesn't?

It was in that last block that I spotted it. A magnificently out of place little Lilac bush, struggling to live inside its cramped quarters. A curbside flower box. Cities like Chicago traditionally line their springtime main streets with something like tulips. And there were happy hosts of same. But for some cosmic reason which surely didn't come out of the city's Public Works Handbook, here was this one small Lilac plant.

Usually blooming for Mothers Day, it now stood at proud attention for Easter. An extraordinary little discovery which mesmerized this pedestrian. I stopped...I caressed...I smelled those four blooming Lilacs. In an instant, their deep exotic fragrance shot up my nose, activated my senses, and exploded this thought in my brain:

Spring has once again come to our great American Midwest. And this tender Lilac bush was there to make the announcement formal. An announcement so very welcome within a frenetic world with so few real Lilacs left in it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Whenever you read or hear the word "hook," what do you think of?

To a fisherman it's what you lure your prey onto. Fancy up the hook with something bright and tasty -- snap! you've got yourself dinner. Upon further reflection, this applies to all sorts of other folks too. studios...televangelists...highway billboards. Notice every hook is simple, short, and uncomplicated by any distracting details like facts or exceptions.

Especially our nightly television commercials for drugs. Sixty-second masterpieces of illusion where the eyes feast on gauzy scenes of happy prescription users rising in the morning to greet another lyrical day in another perfect life. Damn, but I've tried many of the same drugs, and never once woke up feeling either lyrical or prefect.

In my imperfect life, the explanation is usually one or more of the 15 side-effects the announcer was mumbling on the speeded up soundtrack. Much of the same happens when any of us wake up the next day of our lives to learn we're not in Kansas anymore. The promises have faded in the light of another say's trip that sure ain't a Yellow Brick Road.

Don't know about you, but whenever I wake up it's to more deflating headlines. Take today: The US now has more than 6 million people in jail, more than the USSR had in Stalin's Gulag days. In New York City 96% of all shooting victims and 90% of all murder victims were racial minorities. And by the way, we lost about $30 billion worth of cellphones last year.

So here's the thing, fellow fishes. Whenever you see or hear another hook luring you with grand visions of a more perfect life...look around at what you're swimming in. If the water seems dirty and your prospects look iffy, remember how you got here.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Broadway has a new hit: "End of the Rainbow."The title speaks for itself. It's London near the end of Judy's entangled 57-year life. The same Judy whose role of Dorothy captivated this same London in 1939. The year the movie came out in Hollywood, and the lights were going out in Hitler's Europe.

But now it was the 1960s, and I was driving to the Civic Theatre in downtown Chicago to meet her after her concert. Like most of us from her generation, that movie classic represented a lot of our own lives. Grainy sepia-toned Kansas in its Depression days...suddenly the sizzling colors of a magical world of wizards and witches...three endearing friends-along-the-Yellow-Brick-Road who spoke to our little hearts of our large need for wits, heart and courage....then at last the click of the Ruby Slippers as we learned Glinda was correct: "You had the power to get home all along."

Like everyone else, I wanted to believe Judy Garland personified a bit of that grand narrative. True, she had grown older. Harsher. Replete with the usual signs of another star burning out. Still, I wanted to meet her. Before it was all too late. In my sepia world filled with the Flying Monkeys of danger and evil all around, my meeting just might turn out to be in the technicolor I always loved..

I had lied to get this date. Earlier in the week I had called her husband-agent Sid Luft, and said I was the editor of the student newspaper at Northwestern [where I was doing my doctoral work]. He was always thinking gate receipts, so figured a campus story couldn't hurt. I recall him passionately defending his falling star with comments like: "Judy's no wishy-washy Rosemary Clooney singer. She's a belter with a heart."

Today, 43 years after her unsettling death of an accidental overdose [cue up half the bio's in Hollywood history], I look back at that night with mixed emotions. For at the last minute, Judy didn't cancel, I did!

I still ask myself why. Here was a chance to meet a living legend. To experience the cinematic certainty that her enduring Dorothy had meant to my parents' generation, the Greatest Generation. It would have been a little like touching Gibraltar's sureness during all the storms around it. And even though I knew it would be a lie, my what a spectacular lie to live. For just a few backstage moments.

Didn't happen....! In retrospect, good thing....! This way one of my important myths from those terrible War years was left unscathed by sepia-tone Depression Kansas that we all wanted to believe Judy overcame.

Monday, April 2, 2012


In the United States, as with most Western democracies today, everything has become show business. It's not hard to understand why. Everyone is trying to make a cash-able impression on their audience. And what better way to lure the patrons in the seats than with a now-you-see-it-now-you- don't performance on the stage. We love it so! The lights, the action, the dialog, the sound effects, and especially the sense of reality the cast is fooling you with.

It hasn't always been this way. At one time -- even in the heralded days of Shakespeare -- the stage and its players were considered second class citizens. Show people hired to entertain us; but surely not to mix in with our class after the show.

Through a remarkable century of social transformation in the United States, show people are now the people everyone wants to know. From their performances to their autographs and certainly to their paparazzi backstories. Which, just possibly, is one of the reasons show people still carry a little grudge.

Grudge...? Consider the combative if not angry way they approach a performance. "We'll kill 'em tonight...!" "Lets blow their socks off...!" "Knock 'em dead out there...!" It's as if show people are still a little insecure with their recent status. As if they still have to prove themselves every time.

Nothing wrong with fire in the belly. What may be wrong is that this same almost bellicose feeling is now inherent in virtually everyone in the business of showing. Advertisers...professional athletes... celebrated professors in the classroom... pundits on television... and now every politician from dog catcher to mayor to president. As kids they all wanted to be in show business. Now they are!

Just watch 'em in their well scripted action. Every wave...every speech...every parade...every interview. The assumption in our times may be unspoken but it's undeniable. "I've got the spotlight. Just watch me in action. I'm going to kill ya...!"

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Once upon a time not so long ago, we feared every time we stepped out of our cave. Later, our village. Now, our comfort zone. Oh we have them, all right. Each of us has gradually constructed them for our protection. Part fears, part lies; part desires, part dreams; part this book and that pundit.

We each live in our zones as snugly and safely as we can make them. After all, out there we have dinosaurs of terrifying new cultures and demons of frighteningly different people. The cast of terrors changes every few decades. But fear not, there is always someone to fear. At one time the British! the Red Man! the Confederates! the Yanks! the Huns! the Nazis! the Reds! Hussein! Ben Ladin!

It would appear our personal and national comfort zones are forever under assault. By those whose fundamental crime is their "otherness." Right now Iranians fill the bill perfectly. But here at home, some of us have our own President as an "otherness" unlike anyone else who has ever held that office with violent Muslim blood out to bring our civilization down. [These folks have a good many allies in Washington, in the gun-toting survivalist communities out west, and on Fox News. But that is another story for another time].

Still, those threats to our comfort zones are at least visible. Say like the tribal marauders, ocean pirates, and highway men of old. But damn, if now the threats have gone under the radar. Consider for instance an entirely new breed of -- the hacker. These faceless, conscienceless enemies are everywhere. But then so are our security cameras and GPS satellites standing against them. Toe to to technology...the hubris of the hacker vs the hubris of the state.

You sometimes get the feeling your little comfort zone offers very little comfort anymore. We crouch in it -- playing with our computers and their ubiquitous offspring -- giving our attention to only what we want to, hoping no one notices us in here. At least not the bad guys.

But then who exactly is the bad guy? The cave man and the villager at one time understood the rules of the game. These days the rules keep changing. The faces keep altering. The plot keeps shifting. Our wondrous widgets here inside our comfort zones....? To our great discomfort, we soon realize they can only report the dangers; they can't repair them.