Posted by: cctracker | May 14, 2015

Clifford Brown’s Star Shines Bright In Jazz Universe

Most adults thought of me as a “good boy” growing up, but I had a brooding, moody soul I kept mostly to myself. I fell in love with Jazz as a kid before I knew what it was called. A name to match what it sounded and felt like to me might be: “music that sounds like melancholy, late night conversations about how life really is.” Who knows? Maybe I even heard Clifford Brown’s “Land’s End” or “George’s Dilemma” on the radio when I was seven or so, looking out at a dark, St. Louis winter, face pressed against a foggy window on a long cross-town car ride home.

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Listening to those those tracks today, feeling them stab me again with their message of dark beauty and sober truth, I feel like I must have.

When I finally became a conscious fan of Jazz in my early 40’s, it was the trumpet of Miles Davis on “Kind of Blue”—the best selling Jazz record of all time—that caught in my ear. It was the same music I remembered and it triggered the same unnamable emotions.

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Only this time, I became acquainted with some of the characters doing the talking in those virtuosic conversations, including Miles, and found out that radical dysfunction—violence, despair, addiction—was almost always a part of the source material they drew upon.

I’m still a moody and brooding soul and this discovery has run parallel to a larger question, a temptation perhaps, that I’ve had to face in mid-life: maybe there’s no testifying to the dark beauty of this life without giving in and participating in the dark ugliness of it, too. Then I met Clifford Brown.

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Everyone who knew him said Clifford was “clean”—both in the astonishing clarity and definition of his musical lines and in the kindness, humility and responsibility with which he lived his life. Sonny Rollins said that meeting Brown had shown him “that it was possible to live a good, clean life and still be a good jazz musician.” Many still consider him the greatest trumpet player who ever lived. He was 25 years old in 1956, sleeping in the back seat when he died late at night on the Pennsylvania turnpike on the way to a gig in Chicago. Even when Miles Davis—a paragon of virtue in nobody’s estimation—got the news, he is reported to have had the humility to say: “Well now that Clifford’s gone I guess I really am the best.”

In ten or so years of listening to Jazz, beginning with Miles and branching out in all directions, I’ve come to see that I’ll never complete an exploration of all the corners in the galaxy of this music. “Jazz,” after all, doesn’t really describe a single kind of music so much as it captures a conversational way of making it. Good conversation ultimately depends upon respecting the integrity of one voice at a time, whether in testimony to what is noble or base. Clifford Brown’s music was as honest and truthful as anyone’s, but the quality of his life is what makes him a star worth navigating by.

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Posted by: cctracker | January 1, 2015

Pope Francis: Hope for the Climate in the New Year

Pope Francis’ recent scathing remarks to the Curia provided an astonishing moment of truth for the Roman Catholic Church.

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As much as I’ve come to expect the unexpected from him, I was shocked by the directness of that challenge, by the sheer moral and spiritual force of his message on themes the institution has been in denial about since the baptism of Constantine.

Speaking of denial, Andrew Revkin of the NYT reports that now, fresh off a bold global political initiative in Cuba, Francis is preparing to hit world leaders hard on climate change.

Three weeks from now he’ll be in Tacloban, Philippines, site of the worst damage from typhoon Haiyan in 2012.

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Revkin expects we’ll hear the Pope echo themes from speeches by Bishop Sorondo, the Chairman of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Academy of Social Sciences. If we do, it will mark another extraordinary “moment of truth” for the Catholic Church.

Juicy though it was, a sermon to Vatican staffers on the need for personal reform isn’t remotely as newsworthy, or frankly as morally challenging, as what he’s likely to say to all of us about the legacy of poverty, destruction and greed we seem to be planning to leave for our children on a warming planet.

I’m sobered by my responsibility for what’s happening.  We should all feel chastened, like the Cardinals and Bishops Francis took to the woodshed for what they were doing to the Church. I hope the press will give this coming sermon from one of the greatest prophets the Church has ever witnessed, it’s due.

In excerpts from Sorondo’s speeches, what follows are some glimpses of what we might hear.

“Solid scientific evidence exists that global climate is changing and that human activity based on the use of fossil materials contributes decisively to this trend. Coupled with an economy based on profit and on the games finance plays in order to profit from money itself, without a clear orientation to the production of goods, this leads to social exclusion and the new forms of slavery such as forced labour, prostitution, organ trafficking, and the use of drugs as a method of corruption. A program … must include climate stabilization, the sustainable development of the natural environment and social inclusion focused on the centrality of the human being and the common good.

“We have changed the natural environment so much that scientists…define our era as the Anthropocene, a period in which human action is having a decisive impact on the planet due to the use of fossil fuels. If current trends continue, this century will witness unprecedented climate change and the destruction of the ecosystem, with tragic consequences for us all.

“Human action that doesn’t respect nature has a boomerang effect on human beings, creating inequality and increasing a “globalisation of indifference” and an “economics of exclusion” which endanger solidarity and present and future generations.

“Advances in measured productivity in all sectors – agriculture, industry and services ­- enable us to imagine an end to poverty, shared prosperity, and a further increase in life expectancy. However, unjust social structures have become an obstacle to the appropriate and sustainable organization of production and to the equitable distribution of its fruits, which are both necessary to achieve those objectives….

“50 percent of the available energy is used by less than a billion people, whereas its negative impacts on the environmental affect three billion people who do not have access to it. These three billion people, in fact, have so little access to modern energy that they are forced to cook, heat and light their homes using methods harmful to their health.

“Today we need to establish a mutually beneficial relationship: the economy needs to be imbued with true values, and respect for God’s creation should promote human dignity and well being.

“On these issues, all religions and all people of good will can agree. Today’s young people will embrace them to create a better world. The dangers of the Anthropocene are real and the injustice of the globalization of indifference is a serious issue. Yet, our message is also one of hope and joy. This is exactly what the Blessed Pope Paul VI wanted to achieve with his project of the civilization of love: a healthier, safer, fairer, more prosperous and more sustainable world is within our reach. The believers among us ask the Lord to give us our daily bread as food for the body and soul.”


 If the human family, from our leaders down to ourselves, can humbly open our hearts and mind to such a message, it will indeed be a Happy New Year.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 has gotten a lot of attention in its centennial year.

The story of how peace, carols and—though historians can’t establish they really took place—soccer games broke out over the bleak battlefields of WWI Europe on Christmas Day has long inspired song writers, historians and millions of the faithful. I’ve always particularly liked the John McCutcheon song “Christmas in the Trenches.”

But the song raises a difficult question for those who raise their voices in prayers for peace this time of year: Does faith really make the world more peaceful? Many serious thinkers believe the answer is no.

The NYT recently reviewed a new book by a hero of mine, Karen Armstrong.

Fields of Blood makes the case that religion gets a bad rap for causing much of the violence in world history. The author believes that claim is just as mistaken when applied to violent events unfolding in our own times. Co-incidently, Armstrong is making that case right now as I type this post on PRI’s December 28th edition of  “To the Best of Our Knowledge.”  Search for it here on their archives page.

Armstrong became a nun in a strict, contemplative order as a young woman, but eventually left the religious life and completely lost her faith. She remained a scholar of religion, presuming her career would become a lifetime of critique rather than testimony to the value of faith.
When she got a TV gig on the BBC, standing in some of the world’s great holy places to explain the origins, practices and fundamental beliefs of the world’s great religions, something she didn’t expect occurred: her audiences were moved by the beauty and wisdom she revealed. They were encountering a “deep context” for these faith traditions, seeing them with new eyes.

In time, Armstrong realized her own understanding of faith was being transformed, too. Many books followed, including The Spiral Staircase, an astonishingly honest and painful account of her loss of faith, descent into mental illness and eventual return to faith and health.

When I opened the Times to read the review and discovered that another one of my heroes had written it, my heart skipped a beat.

james fallows
James Fallows is a National correspondent for The Atlantic and an NPR News Analyst. A masterful cross-disciplinary journalist, he’s equally at home dealing with technology, aviation, military procurement and global politics, especially China policy. He wrote the cover article in The Atlantic this month that asks why the American Military can’t seem to win wars anymore.
Despite this astonishing range of interests, I didn’t expect expected to find him writing about religion. Now that I think about why I love his work so much though, I shouldn’t have been surprised. For all of his other intellectual roles, Fallows is always also the philosopher, raising fundamental questions about the search for meaning, exploring how the qualitative experience of being a human person is at stake in every cultural or technological movement.

So what does the great inter-disciplinarian of technology and culture have to say about the new book by the great contextualist of religion?

Importantly, he’s impressed with her scholarship. Despite the breadth of the topic she’s chosen and the demands that consulting historical resources for such an argument places on an author, Fallows says she succeeds.

I haven’t read the book, but with a few direct quotes included, here’s what I got from reading Fallows’ take on the central points in her argument. Afterwards, I want to offer an important perspective that neither Fallows or Armstrong address directly.

If we go back far enough in the lineage of each religious tradition, we don’t find leaders who mixed politics with religion on account of worldly ambition, but rather genuine believers who chose to intertwine religion with the rest of life, including governance, because they wanted to endow everything they did with spiritual significance. It was this intertwining of religion with politics that led to violence—crusaders, conquistadors, jihadists, etc.—not religious content itself. The violence originates with the state and spills over to religion, rather than vice versa.

For most of history any governing body, democratic or tyrannical, peace-loving or expansionist, had little choice but to use violence and coercion in order to protect things like agricultural production from the chaotic and primitive groups seeking to undermine them for their own gain. Practically speaking, historical religions had to face the dilemma of whether to accept the protection of a state, and the threat of violence that protection necessarily entailed, or to live in hermetic isolation. Most chose the former.

Thoughtful people who want to try to control violence carried out by the state in their name, ought not blame religion or imagine that a solution to the problem lies in a cleaner separation of church and state. As an inspiration for terrorism, better to blame nationalism than religion.

Having studied and taught religion for many years, I’m glad to see Armstrong—and Fallows for that matter—defending its integrity. I’ve certainly heard the broad, almost taken-for-granted position that faith is at the root of much of the world’s hatred articulated many times, even among friends and family. When a scholar of Armstrong’s stature exhaustively demonstrates that politics drives violence more than spiritual conviction, I gain another credible source for responding to those attacks. And I certainly share Armstrong’s conviction that the world’s spiritual traditions ought to be regarded as living bodies of wisdom to be called upon in the work of building a vibrant human culture of peace and justice rather than as diseased cultural tissue that must be excised if we are to succeed in that work.

I’m just not sure politics should take the blame, either.

It seems to me that the “thoughtful people” Fallows and Armstrong are writing for need a deeper perspective, one they bring in only tangentially. If we want to get to the root of individual and communal violence, we ought to point the accusatory finger at biology and it’s extended expression in social evolution.

But it’s crucial that we do so in a way that awakens our freedom, the moral agency we’ll need to confront and resist it. That, I believe, is where a renewed appreciation for the power of religion may come in.

Biology and evolution reveal that savagery is built into the chain of being from the very bottom up. Life strains and tears against itself, one species extinguishes another, rivals gore their sexual competitors, one ethnic, territorial or religious community slaughters another. Violence is woven into the very genetic fabric that makes us who we are, individually and socially. It continues to define how we do business.

Image of Congolese refugees at

Image of Congolese refugees at

To give Armstrong credit for being aware of this dimension of the problem, I heard her refer in an online lecture to the “unruly reptilian impulses buried in our brains” against which religion seeks to give us some leverage. But isn’t politics laboring in the same field? Modern political philosophies and structures may have originally been grafted onto the tree of religion, but they have a life of their own now.

The entirely secular United Nations Declaration on Universal Human Rights is the most elevated and idealistic formulation of political vision ever written. Though no nation on earth fully honors it in practice, almost all join in a public profession of faith as to the transcendent truth of its doctrines. Isn’t this document aimed against violence just as surely as the Sermon on the Mount? In other words, doesn’t our political life also have a tap root into the water table of a deep desire for peace? When we clear away the background noise of coercive violence and harsh judgment that are the fruit of how religions have biologically co-evolved with political cultures, don’t we glimpse the prophetic, life affirming truths that lie at the core of both?

That brings the conversation to some critically important, practical theological, philosophical and cultural points:

We are violent by virtue of our biologically inherited needs. Violence is encoded into our cultural practices and institutions, both political and religious.

And yet the dream of peace, as a matter of fact not mere sentiment, has also arisen from biological creation: we long for it, pray for it, sing of it, advocate for it, vote for (or against) it. It’s arrival may be much more recent in the evolution of our species, but, peace, too, has taken root in our political, cultural and religious life.

However, the vast majority of people on our planet have not begun to iaccept the “story” that all that we are, inside and out, heart and mind, together and alone, has come to be through a gradual, material process. Instead, we believe that peace, and the larger truth of universal love from which it flows, has a transcendent character. Which is to say we believe it is a gift, something given to all of us for good keeping rather than something that arose on its own by blind chance or that was created by us for our own purposes.

The explicitly religious versions of the story of peace are particularly dear to us at Christmas time; the angels themselves sing ‘peace on earth’ over Bethlehem. Many other stories are told year ‘round. Jesus commands us to love our enemies.  He proclaims the peacemakers blessed in the Beatitudes’ update of the Ten Commandments.  And he levels a revolutionary critique of the dangers of religious purity and culturally mandated xenophobia in the parable Good Samaritan.

And there many more chapters to the story of peace beyond the realms of the familiar Judeo-Christian west. dStories of Krishna and Arjuna poised on the field of battle in contemplation of the absurdity of war.  Muhammad’s shockingly progressive recommendation that all “people of the book,” including enemies he’s conquered, be treated with respect and due process. These and hundreds of others testify to the depth and variety of stories of peace across many religious traditions.

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But the story of peace also emerges from sources other than religion.

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…

“Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom…

“Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms…

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood…

“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

Does this document speak for the God of Moses and the Father of Jesus of Nazareth? Or has this secular, political articulation of the dream of peace arisen from some source other than the Divine? My conviction is that thoughtful religious people need not fear these questions. I also believe thoughtful non-believers need not reject a posture of reverent openness to the Transcendent in their quest to build a peaceful world.

The truth of peace, testified to in our scriptures and our resolutions is, as a matter of record, expressed in language that explicitly calls us to spiritual openness to truths that transcend us. We ought to trust that language. Adopting this posture of faith, listening to the truths we’ve been given, is the only practical foundation human beings have on which to build universal principles of justice; it is our only global leverage against those “unruly reptilian impulses buried in our brains.”

We won’t be able to convince anyone, or even ourselves, to live by these universal truths and resist our inner reptile if we simply say we’ve decided to follow them, in spite of the fact that they aren’t necessarily true, because they are the best chance we’ve got to coexist rather destroy one another.

If we can’t find ways to affirm the both the value of religion and the transcendent depths of politics, we ultimately undermine the just and peaceful political culture we are all seeking to build.

Image of Raphael's Holy family at

Image of Raphael’s Holy family at

Posted by: cctracker | December 10, 2014

Facing Ugly, Complex Truths the Path to Peace and Liberation

These have been months of being faced with ugly, but complicated truths in the United States, particularly in my part of the country.

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They’re ugly because when we encounter them in pictures, video or transcriptions of witnesses, we’re confronted with one human being directly assaulting the dignity of another.

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They’re complicated because these injustices and insults always occur within a context: a subtle and complex cultural, historical and institutional landscape. Exploring that larger territory, even just taking a look at the map, requires a great deal of patience and discipline. And we’re not long on those virtues in popular culture and media today. Ferguson.Magazine.Covers.000

If you happen to be favored with enough formation to appreciate at least some of the features on the ‘context map’ of these ugly truths, and you’re willing to make an effort at explaining them to someone who can’t see them (or won’t for understandable emotional and psychological reasons), it can be dispiriting, exhausting work.

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Add to that the fact that along the way, one usually discovers his or her complicity in the ugliness. Nevertheless, this work is our only path–individually and communally–to salvation, liberation and peace.

Today’s news carries the story of how agents of our country, in all of our names, assaulted the dignity of other human beings in ways so blatant and gruesome, one would think most of us would be willing to concede immediately that they are a contradiction to our most cherished national ideals.

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But, once again, we’re tempted to turn away from the work at hand, throw up our hands or blame a “system” that has nothing to do with us. The salvation of our individual and collective souls hangs in the balance.

Here is a magnificent, if heart-wrenching, example of what doing the necessary work looks like.

The Torture Report Reminds Us of What America Was –

In his brief essay in today’s New York Times, Eric Fair not only asks us to look at the map in order to understand how our country came to join the ranks of nations who systematically employ torture to manage their affairs, he also reminds us that until we do the hard work together of reforming the systems that create or ignore injustice, those systems can turn us–otherwise good people–into the very personal face of evil.


Posted by: cctracker | May 23, 2014

A Glimpse of “4th Culture” Wisdom?

From the wearable internet to big data dating, new tech tools are, at a breath-taking rate, changing the texture of human experience–what it feels like to walk around in a human skin.

Meanwhile, that skin is still wrapped around sausage tens of millions of years old, seasoned with instincts, patterns of thought and emotions added to the recipe by the demands of survival and trial and error over tens of thousands of years.

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As a species we are beginning to see the problems this creates.


But the moment has opportunity, too.

Like the term postmodern, what “3rd Culture” actually means is up for grabs to some extent. Generally, I take it as a marker for the assertion of science as a source of cultural wisdom over the traditional sources of religion, philosophy and the arts. The procession of high priests and gurus from Aristotle to Aquinas to Freud must give way to Newton, Darwin and Pinker.

Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines among many other books, is a celebrated third culture thinker.


Geneticist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago is another, lesser known, example.

Jerry Coyne

But, like the literary, philosophical and aesthetic Modernists before them, Third Culture thinkers have a messianic sense of mission. They believe that in science we now have the source of true wisdom and in technology the right tools to freely and responsibly shape the future. “We are, at last, the true innovators,” they seem to be saying, “ready to chart a peaceful, creative and productive social future for a new and improved human animal.”

Donald Fagan imagines their type in “I.G.Y.” singing about the future he had imagined as a boy: “Just machines to make big decisions, programmed by fellas with compassion and vision.”


These thoughts came in a rush when I read this piece in NYT about the simple reality of how we wash ourselves. It’s a quick read, take a look.

My No-Soap, No-Shampoo, Bacteria-Rich Hygiene Experiment –

Julia Scott writes: “As a civilization, we’ve just spent the better part of a century doing our unwitting best to wreck the human-associated microbiota. . . . Whether any cures emerge from the exploration of the second genome, the implications of what has already been learned — for our sense of self, for our definition of health and for our attitude toward bacteria in general — are difficult to overstate.”

So what is “4th Culture?”

As far as I know, I’m  making it up. Someone else has probably coined the term but I’m going to wait until I finish this post to check that out. What I mean by it is the emerging new level of respect for the overwhelming complexity of the machinery of nature and the growing sense that our survival–even our happiness–may depend upon respecting and cooperating with it more than tinkering with or replacing it.

Labadie Plant

Photo James Burton

4th cultural trends aren’t characterized by a rejection of science and technology; without them this new level of insight and creative practice would be impossible. In fact it is because we see the complexity of life more clearly, that we are obliged to recognize cultural patterns of blind arrogance to it. We know dispersed pollutants remain in the environment; we’re better than ever at tracking them though we’re only just beginning to slow down the dumping. How can anyone–much less a scientist– propose that we know enough to introduce mobile new genes into the food supply?

Co-operation with nature is going to require spiritual skills and the cultivation of character as much as technical know how. The Humanities may have as vital a role as they ever have in that work.

Are discoveries like the beneficent role of bacteria on our skin a part of a tide we are beginning to feel, a movement toward a synthesis of what it is given with what we are seeking?

Will this new social-spiritual-neurological culture feel good enough and catch on quickly enough for our still-ancient species to affirm the graces of the life we’ve been given? Will we catch on quickly enough to keep from seeing ourselves as “creature-machines” rather than “creature-persons?”

Photo James Burton

Photo James Burton


Of course, when I checked I found out that many people were way ahead of me on this 4th culture thing. But like the many “winning” captions I’ve written but not sent in to the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest, I take some comfort in knowing I came up with it on my own.


I came to Detroit for the first time on a Tuesday a few weeks ago, a sick man from St. Louis staying in a hotel in Greek Town across the street from a gambling casino open 24-7.


My physical troubles I put down to something I ate or something I caught, but along with lingering nausea I arrived in the Motor City feeling lonesome and displaced, acutely aware of the sadness of the world and the hollow, empty places in my chest.

I was thinking about how more and more of our experiences are projected on screens, some tiny in our pockets but opening wide enough to swallow us up when we pull them out.

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Others big as Kubrick’s monolith floating on the wall opposite our beds, pulling us irresistibly in.

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I’d wanted to get out and see the city, maybe hear some music. But it’s hard to beat your fears as a solo pilgrim. Easy to make excuses when you’re still a little under the weather.

It’s impossible to capture feelings like these, but on a deeper level I’d say I was feeling weak before the spare demands of reality, of raw freedom, of God. With the obvious and compelling tasks of family and profession stripped away, the underlying demands of inner integrity, of the need to discipline one’s appetites and impulses comes to the foreground. The opportunity to become more loving and alive by way of silence and humility presents itself…and is refused. When a refusal like that takes hold of you, the abyss looms. I stop feeling like a person. And a terrible temptation arises to see other people merely as instruments of their biology and culture, not as agents, as givers and receivers, as spirits.

On the first night I tried to fight the good fight on physical and spiritual terms with phone calls to loved ones and a bowl of chicken soup in the Casino diner. Later, I was tired enough to sleep a few hours after channel surfing. On the second night, paper-thin walls made my own big screen the only place to hide from stereo porn-flicks playing on either side: one with some hideous sci-fi plot, the other with a screeching electronica soundtrack in a dissonant minor key.

By the third night, my last, I found a partner who was game for getting out and an opportunity to escape from my room, from my self-imposed spiritual prison cell: Jazz at a club called Cliff Bell’s. “Ten dollar cover and great music every night” said Janet the concierge at the hotel desk, her nighttime voice singing like a tenor sax.

But it was a misty night and my partner decided he was too tired. A date with the Sweet Sixteen was easy and available in his room. I didn’t begrudge him for a second. Anyway, I could still go. What a luxury! No one to have to talk to and a little ‘real Detroit’ to take in all by myself.

Nevertheless, I wavered. I still wasn’t feeling very well, right? A big bed in a suite room to myself was its own treat, wasn’t it? Gravity waves from the monolith’s tractor beam had me by the shoulders.

But I’d already spoken to the concierge. Had to at least save face by asking her if it was walkable.  An ugly night and $25 cab fare would be plenty of cover to bow out.

“The shuttle will take you there for free,” she sang. “Runs ’till midnight.”

“Great! I’ll just get my jacket.”

The line, tossed out as an excuse to get me out of there and back to the room, now created a magnetic field of its own: her expectations, the force of social indebtedness. Seemed I was going to lose to something stronger than myself one way or the other.

Why not just go? Preserve at least some of my dignity and maybe hear some good music. I let myself hope I might even hear Miles and Coltrane.

Shack was my shuttle driver. Said nice things about St. Louis. I could tell he was looking out for this pilgrim. Born and raised in Detroit, he spent early adult years in Chicago, then Phoenix. “Too hot,” he said. We navigated triple-wide streets crossing at oblique angles through a cityscape far surpassing St. Louis in scale and variety.

“Mature crowd at Bell’s,” Shack mused, the comment delivered with just enough hesitation to let me know that he didn’t entirely approve of the club, but not enough blatant disapproval to create discomfort for me. I tipped him, stepped out into the mist and walked up under the canopy of lights to go in.


“Closed for private party” the sign read. “Come see us again soon.”

Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” was playing inside. I leaned in to listen. A rich sound, maybe seven-eight pieces. I stepped out into the street, back into the mist. Shack was gone. The threat of the street felt heavier with every step I took further out from under the shelter of the canopy.

I walked back to the door, pulse rising, and went in, pretending not to see the sign. In doing so I experienced that miracle one sometimes feels going from outside to inside: in one moment I was damp, empty and afraid in the great, unprotected realm of the street. The next I was within a womb of mahogany, red velvet,  alcohol, money and the most wonderful and familiar jazz music I could have hoped for. The young maitre’d was suddenly there at my shoulder.

“Name’s Rosy,” he said. “Car people in here tonight.”

He was talking just loud enough for the two of us. “They come in here and spend a lot of money.”

I could feel the meaning of the words in the tone. He was letting me know I was OK– for a minute–and looking out for me.

“Just stepping in to hear Coltrane,” I said, stepping back out through the door. He followed.

I explained I was from St. Louis, trying to find some Jazz. He hung with me a while, passing a few minutes to set me at ease. “Can you get your ride to bring you over to Bert’s Marketplace? Good scene over there.” I made the call. Shack was only a few blocks away and said he would circle back soon. For the next few minutes, Rosy stepped in and out of the club to check on me.

Shack pulled up. I shook Rosy’s hand and stepped back into the shuttle van.  We got to talking again.

“Bert’s, eh? Well yeah, that’s good. Real different from this place.” He seemed uneasy again, but for different reasons.

“I keep sayin’ to people that what need down here is a couple real nice jazz clubs where folks can go to hear good music in a comfortable place.”

I tried to read between the lines. Was he saying there were a few fancy show places for the wealthy and tourists, but no real jazz clubs in safe neighborhoods for pilgrims, particularly white pilgrims? My thoughts went back to the pleasures of Frenchman street clubs in New Orleans. Tonight wasn’t shaping up to be anything close to that.

As we drove back downtown and then looped out toward the Detroit Farmers Market, he talked about growing up in Detroit, about rough years of decline and more recent years of reinvestment downtown.

“Of course all of these buildings down here are Dan Gilbert’s you know.” His tone was so definitive I couldn’t bring myself to ask who that might be. “He gutted ’em all, rehabbed ’em and now he leaves ’em lit up down here all night. That’s his way. Quicken Loans, that’s what rebuilt this part of town.”


In just a few blocks the buildings went from a disorienting juxtaposition of 30 story glass, chrome, brick and concrete to low-slung, bombed-out husks and then to open space dotted with two-story urban strip malls. The newly re-developed Farmer’s Market was off to the right filling in a huge open urban footprint. Shack wheeled past it, turned around and pulled up in front of what looked like a tired pizza joint. “Barbecue Ribs and Soul” was printed on the awning.


“You good or should I wait a minute?” Shack asked.

Why is he asking me that ? I wondered. Am I too green or is this place too gritty for a square like me?

“Thanks, I’m good!” I chirped stepping out. “Give you a call in a couple of hours.”

I couldn’t tell where the door was. Two choices. Picked the wrong one. A 40-something women with a modest, black  church hat and carefully coiffed hair came over to guide me in.

“You look lost!” she said laughing. “Right this way. I’m Edith.”

She ushered me through a brightly lit, heavily used cafe dining room that somehow reminded me of my Aunt Jean’s kitchen. I should have felt like an intruder, but people were smiling at me and I relaxed. Some folks were finishing meals, others were conducting some kind of community business. She let me go once we made our way into the adjacent, much darker, space: a big long bar on the far side, ample stage near the threshold to the diner and tables and chairs going all the way back out to the street to the other door I had unsuccessfully tried to come though when I’d arrived.


I sat down at a table and Roberta, the young waitress working tables who couldn’t have been nicer to a stranger in a tweed jacket, asked about a drink. A few musicians were already setting up: keyboard, drum set, stand up bass. A gray-haired gentleman with hair pulled back in a pony tail seemed to be in charge. But I noticed other folks in the bar with instruments leaning against walls, lying across tables. What’s up here tonight? I wondered.

In a moment Edith was back, just checking on me, she said. She saw my notebook and asked if I was a writer. I laughed and let her know I was just a pilgrim from St. Louis looking for Jazz.

“St. Louis! Mmmm Hmmm!” she exclaimed.  She lingered with motherly care for another moment then moved to leave. I wanted to give her a hug and say something. How grateful I was to meet her, to be here, to have real folks from Detroit looking out for a guy from out of town. But that was too big a gesture for someone I’d just met, someone I didn’t even know in a place I’d never been. But I felt so relaxed, so welcome. I let her go with just a wave.

Eventually, the man with the pony tail stepped to the mic and the night’s entertainment began. His name was Bill Meyer and he welcomed everyone to “Thursday Open Mic Night” at Bert’s.

Image at

Image at

My heart sank for a moment: sounded like I wasn’t going to hear the “real” musicians.  But when Bill launched into a speech about why tonight was special, he got my attention.

“Folks, as most of you know Van Cephus took his life a few days ago. We might as well all face that reality as it is. He was a good man, a generous man, a gifted musician. But when they came to repossess his home the other day he couldn’t overcome his despair.”

I gathered that Van had been a keyboard player, a regular at Bert’s. Bill went on to say that though many in the room might be here as a memorial for Van, the official remembrance would be at Bert’s next week. He apologized for those who got the wrong message, but invited them to stay and honor him this week, too. Then he was back in sermon mode.

“Van’s loss reminds us all that we need to respond to those who call out to us for help. We need to be there for one another. That’s why we’re all here tonight. That’s what this place, this community on Thursday night at Bert’s, is all about.”

Van Cephus

Van Cephus

When Bill finished, a trumpet player stepped up out of the dark and whispered something to the three musicians already on stage and music began. The tune was “Blue Bossa.” It was so good, so soulful and smooth, my night would have been made for that single number.

When the song ended a large man stepped to the mic for more announcements. I was beginning to understand that Bert’s was as much community center as jazz club on Thursday nights. He introduced himself as the brother of Chokwe Lumumba,  recently deceased Mayor of Jackson Mississippi. Born Edwin Talifero in August of 1947, he became a follower of Malcolm X and in 1969 took the name of an African Tribe that had resisted slavery. His brother called upon all present to dedicate themselves to the fight for justice and peace and to please contribute money so that his son could carry on his legacy and be elected to state office in his father’s district.


I don’t know how to describe the night of music and preaching that followed. It was a miracle, like the multiplication of the loaves. I couldn’t have imagined the wealth of talent and soul that was waiting in the dark of such a humble place. As I try to weigh the way it moved and spoke to me, it feels true to say it saved me…mostly from myself. The music began again with a piece featuring a harmonica player in a wide-brimmed straw hat. He set the room rocking and pushed the pace of his solos faster and faster until everyone was hooting, rooting him on and on.

I listened to the humble generosity and utter musical hospitality of Butter Hawkins on the drums and Ibrahim Jones on Stand Up Bass. The two of them together put everybody who stepped up to play that night in the rocking chair of rhythm. Jones was incredibly versatile: he could blur a dozen separate notes way down on the neck but never lose the sweet assurance of the chords and melody. And Hawkins’ drum solos were like someone singing: he was speaking in tones as much rhythms. He wore a straight face most of the night, but when the jazz conversation turned playful and musicians were exchanging silly, out-of-place jazz quotations from broadway or Disney tunes, he beamed at last. The whole room basked in his smile.

Butter Hawkins

Butter Hawkins

Two different solo trumpeters took the stage in the next hour or so. Both were brilliant. One of them was just sitting at the bar when he casually lifted the instrument to his lips, cutting in against the keyboards and then stepping up into the lights to literally blow the room away. There was a clearly revered and veteran sax man on the Alto Sax and and a young kid apprentice on Tenor. Watching them and looking up at the posters on the wall of Armstrong, Miles, Coultrane and Ella, I knew they were both honoring their ancestors, their spiritual mothers and fathers, keeping one of those non-negotiable laws of the spiritual life.

I lost track of time, but it went on like this with one moment more amazing and consoling than the next. I’d been watching a woman in the corner near the stage. She wore a full ball gown and tiara. When she at last took the stage  she was as full of joy and  “I am who I am” spirit as the outfit declared. She was royalty. Queen Audrey Northington. I looked for her picture on the web but couldn’t find her. Perhaps she is more the amateur than many of the others I saw that night, but she was preaching as well any of them. I listened to the words she was actually singing, but the translation to what she was saying to me in spiritual terms was clear as it could be:

“Forget yourself enough to be yourself!” she sang. “See me as I am not as a projection of yourself or as who you want me to be! You will never know the source of my sorrows, my dysfunction, my genius, but you can behold me and try to get out of your own way enough to do the same!” I don’t think she understood when I kissed her hand on my way out that night, but she accepted the gesture gracefully, like royalty.

As the set came to a close Bill got up from the keyboards to announce a break. But he cancelled it when he saw that a young man in a red velvet jacket was in the house. I missed his name, But Bill called him up on stage and the room erupted in applause. Later, I found out this was James Carter, the world class saxaphonist.

“I want to talk to you all about love,” he said. “Anybody here know anything about that?” The song was an old favorite : Bobby Caldwell’s 1978 “What You Won’t Do For Love.” I sang with him though I didn’t know I still remembered the words; they came back into my mouth one at a time from somewhere down in my soul.

“In my world, only you made me do for love what I would not do.”

Even as I type these words weeks later in the week Christians call “Holy,” I’m struck by how they capture, as prayer, all I am trying to say with many more words in this post. “Christ” after all, is a name for the truth that in our experience of this life in the flesh, it is God who gives first, who reaches out, soothes, understands and declares in a human voice: “I am here. Will you take my hand?”

And so it was that a pilgrim from St. Louis was saved by Christ on the streets of Detroit. Delivered to salvation by the loving hands of those who guided me to Bert’s: by Janet the Concierge, Shack the Shuttle Driver, Rosy the Bouncer, Edith the Church Lady, Roberta the Bartender. And once I got there, my salvation–for that night at least–was secured by the salvific tones of those who poured themselves out in music: Bill Meyer, Band Leader on Keyboards, Butter Hawkins on Drums, Ibrahim Jones on Bass, a whole raft of beautiful folks on trumpets, saxes, harmonicas and many others, who, like the great Queen Audrey Northington herself, were delivering the good news on vocals.

Posted by: cctracker | December 4, 2013

Protecting True Play In a Gaming Culture

Have you noticed you don’t play as much as you used to?

I mean in your adult life, of course, not compared to when you were a kid.  But childhood is the best place to start a reflection about play, so let’s begin there.


I remember the sharp pang of pleasure in snapping my wrists around to crack a curving wiffle-ball, watching it rise into blinding summer sun, having to close my eyes to imagine the rest of its flight, wondering whether the last man back was underneath to make the catch.

Image at

Image at

And hundreds of games of tag, plotting improbable, but just barely possible vectors of speed and terrain, narrow windows of escape from whomever was “it” presenting themselves, then the burst of acceleration while twisting a hair’s breath away from straining fingertips.

I remember just sitting in forest forts and tree houses. Breezes on bare skin. Being dirty, bored but unknowingly happy with bosom buddies just as bored and dirty.


I remember flying a couple of kites every year in February and March and launching squadrons of balsa wood gliders in the course of a summer.


Perhaps most of all, I remember endlessly dribbling and shooting a basketball, mostly on a back yard dirt court pounded hard as pavement, the sensual backspin of the ball between my palms just before lifting it up past my face and overhead, the springing motion of jump and release happening in a single string of motion and pleasure.

I was a world-class gamer as a kid. Like pearls on a necklace, these and hundreds of other images of play came back vividly when I went back through the drawers where’d I’d stored them in memory. Retrieving them, I have been reminded of a treasure worth even more than remembered pleasure.

I raised three boys and had 15 years or so of special permission to play again in my late 20’s and 30’s. I reveled in the chance to go back to childhood play.  Those years are gone a long time now.

So why don’t I just keep playing?

I get out on long runs in my neighborhood on sunny afternoons or weekend mornings, but I rarely hear the sounds of kids playing in yards. No tag, no games of horse, no Indian Ball. And I never see adults engaged in casual play. I’m out there running, but the only moments that come close to play are when I zig zag a little bit up the street, climbing an asphalt hill I pretend is a ski slope.

I can’t remember the last time I shot a basket, threw a frisbee, or balanced my way along a wall for no reason. I’ve never been a card player, but I rarely walk in on games at kitchen tables anymore. Same with board games. My brother keeps inviting me to go out and shoot a bow with him. I still haven’t taken him up on it.

Folk singer Greg Brown puts it up to the fact that we’re all “livin’ it up” too much on the internet. We’re “people fascinated by screens” he sings, with “no idea what’s on the other side.”

Despite all the time I spend thinking about the dangers of technology, he’s probably got my number.

If we could do a global scan for the minutes of playtime per person today–pretending, kicking a ball, dealing cards–and cross-reference it with data from 20 years ago, I wonder what we’d discover?

Photo James Burton

Photo James Burton

I did get in a couple of rounds of hide and seek a few weeks ago. My neighbors have a relentless 6-year old and I couldn’t resist him. As soon as I covered my eyes and started counting, the dormant muscle memory of spontaneous, utterly useless play re-animated my limbs and nervous system and an inexpressible delight flooded back into my mind and heart. That experience was one more confirmation of the spiritual value of true play,  a value, it seems to me, that springs precisely from its “uselessness.”

Of course there is an evolutionary “use” for the exercise, social interaction, rule making and improvisational role-playing of our games. We’re building scads of practical skills essential to dealing with life’s challenges when we play.

And play certainly has socio-biological purpose. You don’t need to be Steven J. Gould to see that sports are sublimated tribal warfare. You don’t need to spend much time on the sidelines of youth soccer or baseball to recognize parents competing with one another through their kids.

Image from SLUH Photo Club Archives

Image from SLUH Photo Club Archives

We’re biological creatures. From the angle of science, everything about us, from bowling to bowel movements, has come to be through a stupefyingly complex chain of material causality. Even the breath of inner emotion and thought emerges from a matrix of neuron, bone and gristle. There is, from the perspective of science, a material explanation for everything.

But is that the only story we ought to tell?

This is another version of the question of “science vs faith” I keep coming back to in these posts. Does the fact that we can explain the practical origin and function of something which we at the same time experience as deeply satisfying, meaningful and restorative mean that we’re being false if we seek to protect it–perhaps a better word might be “enshrine” it –in spiritual language?

It seems to me that play time is in need of sanctuary today.


Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, has documented the dramatic loss of unstructured play in the lives of children today, especially the kind that used to happen in trees and creeks. He claims many of our kids have “nature deficit disorder.”

What vital, human truths will be inaccessible to adults who didn’t soak up big doses of forests and fields as children, along with months of unmediated exposure to the elements and seasons in silent, unknowing contemplation ? I can’t imagine who I’d be without the thousands of hours I spent that way. Much of what I have left of play in my life–hiking, canoeing, occasional camping–I owe to the influence of those years.

I was aware of how vital playing in the woods was for kids by the time I became a father, so I got my boys out hiking, camping and playing in creeks a fair bit when they were small. Looking back, I wish we’d done a lot more of it.

Our family creek-walking time was knocked way down when soccer, basketball, baseball, and track came along. There may be fewer kids in the woods these days, but organized sports of every stripe are booming.  You’d like to think that all these “games” would be good news for the human race in terms of reaping the graces of play. Fairer to say they are at least a mixed blessing.


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I’ve spent nearly thirty years as a high school and grade school coach, so I’m not some pointy-headed academic who comes to this subject without a sense of what life is like for ordinary folks. Youth sports can be plenty of fun for kids and parents. And as I’ve mentioned in several posts, they can be great for character formation, beginning with the lesson that the team is more important than the individual.

If I could go back to being a young father again, I’d probably still sign my boys up for sports, but I’d veto the double-sport seasons. I’d stop up my ears against the siren call of “select leagues.” And I’d definitely skip the indoor soccer scene.

There’s a dirty little secret about team sports that parents and coaches ought to be willing to expose to the light of reflection: very often, we’re using our kids. Especially the talented ones. If a kid has notable talent, he or she is likely to be blatantly pressured by adults to specialize in one sport–even one position–and commit to practicing year ’round.  The St. Louis Post Dispatch documents one of the consequences: 3.5 million kids each year under 14 are treated for sports injuries from all those too-specific reps. The story cites none other than Tommy John who calls the trend a “racket” preying on parental vulnerability to the mythological rewards of turning your child an elite athlete. Of course if your kids don’t have much talent, especially once they get beyond 8 or 9, they’re likely to hear the subtle message that they are wasting their time. Paradoxically, that may end up being the healthier message in the long run.

Image at

Image at

Most of this isn’t our fault. We’re not using kids on purpose. But make no mistake: biologically speaking, winning is deeply satisfying for our species. Scientists have found that testosterone levels actually rise significantly in men when their team wins, whether they are on the field or not. We ought to at least be aware that when our kids win, we win.

Even after years of teaching ‘the dignity and value of the human person’ in my theology classes and putting all of the right language into team handouts and speeches about how every person’s contribution to the team is valuable, how winning isn’t as important as how the game is played, I was caught off guard many times as a coach by how much I wanted to win. I wanted my boys to beat their boys. The desire to best rival coaches was especially strong. In my earliest years, there were times I might as well have dismissed my athletes and called the other coach out into an open meadow to lock antlers.

Image from SLUH XC Archives

Image from SLUH XC Archives

When my “ace” was hurt or looked doubtful for the next contest, I was a wreck. Why? Was it really worry for him as a person unto himself? Or was it more about me? When a bench rider got hurt I certainly cared, even felt keen disappointment for him. But I wasn’t a wreck.

I’m convinced the stars of the team know this at some level. They feel it even if they can’t put it into words. They sense the coach cares about them, at least in part, because they deliver the “W’s.” Talent is an anxious burden for many, if not most, of our star athletes. On the one hand their gifts lift them above the crowd. On the other, they know they’re not actually being lifted up for who they are, but for what they can do. It’s hard, unjust really, for them to have to carry the weight of the biological drives of the adult community on the sidelines, but so it goes for us embodied, tribal creatures.

Afgani Tribal Game-Image at

Afgani Tribal Game-Image at

Later in my coaching career I tried to make a habit of taking my super stars off to the side at some key point in the season. I wanted to make sure they heard me say they were free to walk away. That my support for them ran deeper than their value to the team, deeper than my respect for their talent and achievements.  I tried to back up those words by making an effort to tend to every kid on the team, particularly the lowest in the pecking order, the same way I would care for the champion.  I never totally succeeded; I was still a critter who wanted to win for all the ancient reasons.

But I think the conscious effort and practice eventually did me and my teams a fair bit of good. By the time I retired from coaching we had a team ethos marked more by joy than worry.  There was a spirit of play, even on the days of Championship competition. It’s one of my accomplishments as a coach of which I am most proud.

High school sports, existing as they do in the world between childhood and adulthood, will probably always be at least a balance of business as pleasure.  But at lower levels organized sports should be much more playful than they are. The “stakes” of games should be lowered for kids and parents in grade school, while “loving the process,” learning life lessons and just plain having fun should be raised to a much higher profile. If you get the mix right you can have fun and engage in healthy competition. But practically speaking, coaches and parents need guidance and encouragement to pull off this balance.


It is good to know that there are organizations like Bill Bommarito’s  Coaching Coaches stepping up to do this important work.

Of course the bite organized sports have taken out of unstructured play time is dwarfed by the real bully on the block: video gaming.


Video games are such a dominant part of our cultural landscape that they’ve nearly enveloped the word “game” itself. We all know what it means to call a kid a “gamer” today.


70% of American households report video game play. First person shooter games like “Call of Duty” and “Modern Warfare” account for 40% of video game play. Studies show that the average American 8th grader spends 23 hours a week playing video games as opposed to 12 hours invested in such games by average 8th grader in 2001. See an article for some of this research here.

We’ve got an older model Wii console at home and I’ll admit there is some genuine, time-wasting fun to be had on the archery range of Wii Resort.

wii-sports-resort-archeryOf course, as I said at the start, I rarely play games anymore, virtual or otherwise.  And I’d feel a bit sheepish shooting virtual arrows when my brother is still waiting for me to join him for the real thing.

While traditional games have always been supported by a wide variety of commercial tackle and trim, video gaming has taken this product-driven dimension of play to unimaginable heights:  a reasonable estimate for its footprint in this year’s economy is over 25 billion dollars.

The most popular video game series in history is Grand Theft Auto.


The 2013 edition has just come out. My 27-year old son recently had a few minutes to play the game. He said it was the most fully realized virtual world he’d ever experienced.

Imagine–or sample for yourself, I suppose–a video game in which you can simply sit in your room and watch TV! I mean actual, current television programming inside the game environment. I wonder if you can look into opposing TV screens–shot by opposing virtual video cameras–like we did with opposing mirrors when were kids? That was creepy enough, but infinitely receding virtual reality within an already virtual world makes my flesh crawl. You can also practice yoga. I assume you can throw virtual rocks into virtual rivers all day long, too, if you want to.

But other activities are much more popular than throwing rocks or watching TV in the world of Grand Theft Auto. And they’re built in with astonishing detail.

The text in this image instructs players to rotate the pliers to pull out the victim's eyes.

The text in this image instructs players to rotate the pliers to pull out the victim’s eyes.

As you drive around planning your next crime, you can take congratulatory “selfies”–cell phone pictures of yourself. But be warned!  You’ll encounter other avatars via the internet with lives and criminal plans of their own, including sadistic scenarios of rape and torture. This is a world where you can play through a series of murders designed mostly for laughs. Or visit a strip club where women’s nipples are more fully graphically realized than their eyes.

The text here includes instructions to "hold down A to touch."

The text here includes instructions to “hold down A to touch.”

Jospeph Berstein of Buzzfeed reports that “Trevor,” GTA’s most “sentimental psychopath”, is the character we’re supposed to have the most fun with.

Trevor Philips Character in GTA

Trevor Philips Character in GTA

Andy Corrigan, writing on a website called Gift Ideas for Horror Fans captures the essence of the man in this particularly chilling passage:

“There are two very distinct sides to Trevor Philips…  On one hand, he’s an unhinged, spiteful bastard. The first time you meet him in-game, he does something so sickening that you just know you’re going to spend a lot of time feeling uncomfortable when playing as him. He doesn’t disappoint either; his obvious taste for the distasteful only snowballs the further you get. On the other, he’s a man with strange sense of morality, a man with a layer of depth not obviously apparent at first. Unlike anyone else in the game, Trevor is the one character that’s somewhat respectful towards women, berating his subordinate, Wade, early on for “disrespecting women” after he calls a woman he was just fornicating with a “bitch”. He’s also the only one of the playable trio to harbour any real feelings of love towards someone else in the game; a result of an unexpected infatuation later on. In opening up, Trevor shows real vulnerability, even if it’s played out for laughs at his expense.”

I watched some long segments of this game on Youtube, and, as you might imagine, the research was tough on me.  I’ve worked with teenagers all my adult life so the thought of 14-year olds all over the country spending uncountable hours in a world like this was hard on the soul.

I try to take comfort from the fact that my emotions were wired in another era. Maybe this kind of content mostly bounces off the psyches of young people today. That’s certainly what they tell you when you ask them. But I just can’t convince myself that this isn’t unavoidably corrosive stuff.


Greg Tito of The Escapist, an expert on gaming who writes for one of the hobby’s most popular magazine–someone whom I presume feels free to tell the truth–confirms my intuitive diagnosis. “The defining emotion of GTA V,” he says, “isn’t excitement or elation, but sadness.” Should I take a crazy kind of comfort in the fact that such a horrible game is at least metaphysically honest?

Nope. As it turns out there is a sophisticated level of dishonesty and manipulation built right in to many of today’s most popular video games.

Though our physical and psychological desires and cravings are “original”, that is built in by evolution, our arrival as human beings with freedom and a conscience requires us to distinguish ourselves from the mostly reflexive life of animals. Who knows what the dolphins are thinking, so let’s respect them for the subtle beings they are. But as for the way we think of ourselves let’s be clear: limited though our freedom may be, accountability for what we choose–both individually and societally– is an essential part of what it means to be human.  It is inexcusable that for centuries we’ve come up with ways to inflame and satisfy our baser appetites for a price.

Image at

Image at

A recent story on NPR’s All Tech Considered paints the disturbing picture that video games are taking that history to the next level. Read the piece here:

How Video Games Are Getting Inside Your Head — And Wallet

It turns out that gaming companies–and let’s remember: practically speaking these are the adults in charge of a lot of our kids today– analyze every choice their “customers” make while “in game.”  And they use what they learn to influence the behavior of gamers. NPR reports that they’ve  figured out game features that make players want to stay on longer. They also sell virtual goods–for real money–inside the games. They set up uncomfortable and frustrating scenarios like crushing kid’s forts and then, just in the nick of time, offer them a way to save the day, for a price.


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The All Tech reporter goes on to note that many of the people spending the cash in these games are kids, including his own children. Game console manufacturers, he adds, sell gift cards at convenience stores allowing kids to make purchases on video games, even if they don’t have a parent credit card.

When I read this piece, I was immediately reminded of the story of Jeffry Wigand’s confrontation with Cigarette manufacturers so brilliantly captured in the film “The Insider.”

The moment of truth for Wigand was when he realized that a smoker’s addiction wasn’t an accidental result of consuming a “natural” product. Instead, the indisputably lethal addiction was intentionally designed in to cigarettes. In fact, the addictive properties were intentionally amplified to increase sales. This is a fact I still don’t believe has really penetrated the popular imagination.

There is no polite way to put this: for cigarette manufactures, human beings are regarded as consumer objects to be used for economic benefit, not as human beings with inestimable value and inviolable dignity.

Video games like Grand Theft Auto V may not kill you, but spend some time driving around and getting into trouble in that world and you won’t be arguing with the point that it injects the soul with a destructive drug.  A drug its manufactures know is addictive and are constantly working to make even more so. Our kids are profit margins, not people, for them. Puts a very dark spin on the popular phrase “our children are our future” doesn’t it?  Even at their worst, at least team sports aren’t intentionally addicting kids to practicing pitching and corner kicks.

Photo James Burton

Photo James Burton

Every year I get to be both Field Biologist and Middle School teacher in a summer program called Walkabout. It brings together a diverse group of 20 or so rising 6th graders from urban schools for three weeks of interdisciplinary study and activities in Reading, Writing, Field Biology and Art. Every other day we climb into vans and head out to discover the critters and creeks of Missouri first hand. I’m happy to report that even though many of the boys have spent very little time in nature, it still works its magic on them.

Stream Dreamers

Photo James Burton

Video games, electronics and cell phones are strictly prohibited on our trips. So while we’re riding in the vans they can’t play the hand-held games that are such a dominant feature of their lives. We have them listening to American Folk, Blues and Jazz music instead. We do let them talk, though, and for about a week and half they’re in withdrawal. Almost all they talk about are video games, recounting their exploits in virtual worlds and sharing secrets level by level. The fact that their conversations eventually turn to stories of our adventures together is another one of those things I take great pride in as an educator.


I’ve been trying to make the point that play is deeply spiritual–and that is under attack. Let me get back to counting some of the delights of that game of Hide and Seek I spoke of early in this post and use those reflections as a way to name some of the graces of play.

First, there was the simple, physical pleasure of whimsically scurrying about in a mock search. You get to certain age and you don’t do so much whimsical scurrying about, know what I mean? It was fun just moving that way. The pleasure of our bodies in ritual motion is a wonderful grace to be savored.

Photo from Family Archives

Photo from Family Archives

I remember basking in the pleasure of a warm autumn day while my little neighbor and I traded roles as hider and seeker. “Gold” captures how I felt inside just as much it as describes the sunlight filtering through Tulip Poplar leaves. Play invites this kind of unguarded openness to the world around us.

Photo James Burton

Photo James Burton

Most of all, there was joy–astonishment really–at such a vivid encounter with the inner life of another human being. To play Hide and Seek was to behold a particular child’s mind, in myself as well as in my little partner. Isn’t this what we are trying to express when we say we believe in Christ, in a God revealed in the flesh and blood life of another?

Don’t delights like these call us to be open to fundamental truths that lie at the heart of the world’s great religions?

“Being” is it’s own value, these traditions tell us. It transcends our judgment and our freedom. There is no reason why. No way to name and own it. God simply says “I am” and declares that each of us are reflections of this same, irreducible truth. Human beings are not “for” anything in an ultimate sense, unless it be “for ourselves,” “for one another” or  “for being.”

Image from SLUH Photo Club Archives

Image from SLUH Photo Club Archives

Any story about our “purpose” that seeks to tell the whole truth must include the mystery of being itself. In this mode of awareness we can retrieve the significance of a rather standard theological truth: Even the orthodox terms “God” and “Love”  are inadequate ways to name that which cannot be named. They are just the best we have.

If you want to cut to the more practical realm of ethics and morality, the same truth can be expressed this way:

“We must never make another person an object to be used, nor must we ever regard ourselves in this way. To do so is a violation of a truth that transcends us.”

This is the Law and the Prophets isn’t it?

If true play is disappearing, there are dangerous spiritual implications–which is to say dangerous real world consequences–for how human beings are coming to think of themselves and relate to one another.

In 1978 on the occasion of the World Cup in Argentina, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, called our desire for true play “a longing for the paradisal life – an escape from the wearisome enslavement of daily life.”


Commentator Josef Clemon’s take on Benedict’s insight about play is that it ought to be “totally free, without limits or constrictions.. Something that ‘should not be so’ in the mechanical order of creation , the ongoing weary way of things. It is, therefore, all the more beautiful for its ‘uselessness'”.

What will it take to provide a true sanctuary for play–for human beings themselves for that matter–in the 21st century? In an an increasingly technological and data driven era, how will we keep from treating one another as objects to manipulate and consume, even in the pursuit of something as pure as our recreational activities?

Pope Francis, in the kind of powerful, direct, prosaic speech for which he is already so well-known, put it this way over 10 years ago:

“When images and information have as their sole objective the intent of provoking consumption or manipulating people…we find ourselves in front of an assault, an act of violence, a kidnapping.”

-Homily October 10, 2001

So, will we allow the innocent, useless, child-like and transcendent approach to living life, so wonderfully expressed in our moments of “true play,” to be kidnapped by society’s super-scaled market and mechanical forces?

Resisting such a future will require a dauntingly high level of cultural awareness and a very skilled, disciplined approach to the way we govern ourselves and conduct our business. Each of us has to commit to playing our part in that massive undertaking as our competencies and consciences recommend.

But what we all can do–beginning today– is to create a sanctuary for true play in our lives, in our own hearts. And we can try to open this sanctuary for as many others as we can invite to the next game of cards, the next gig, the next moment of wonderfully useless, restorative, fun.


Posted by: cctracker | November 2, 2013

Elvis, Judd, Burt and The Roots in Vanity Fair

Sooner or later I will get around to doing the post on why I love Elvis Costello.

Until then, here’s one more testimony to his range and integrity. Coming soon: A MUSICAL in collaboration with Burt Bacharach!

Elvis Costello Talks to Judd Apatow About Wise Up Ghost, His Album with the Roots, and His Musical with Burt Bacharach | Vanity Fair.

Posted by: cctracker | October 7, 2013

Louis C.K.’s Mystical Experience: “The Forever Empty”

I’ve been wary of Louis C.K. for years, keeping him at arm’s length in spite of sensing that he was among the cleverest, most cerebral comic voices of today. A few days ago, a friend sent me a link to a remarkable interview he did with Conan O’Brien.  I’m officially a fan, now.


Before I send you to that interview, a little context.

My first exposure to Louis C.K. was indirect: an offhand comment by my son. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I heard conflicting messages. First: “This guy is brilliant and hilarious!”  But also–more subtly between the lines: “I’m not recommending him to you, Dad. Pretty dark and offensive.”

The few glimpses I had of his stuff after that confirmed both messages. I saw some very creative and original bits on the classic comedic theme of what is really going on inside the human mind as the world swirls around us, but I also heard a torrent of gratuitous f-bombs and obscenities woven into stories about the irredeemable darkness of the human situation. I kept my distance.

The trouble is I have a “Void-O-Meter” in my chest. It thrums a warning in the presence of anything drawing seductive energy from the moral anti-matter of ugliness, cynicism and nihilism to entertain an audience.


You know when you’re watching one of those movies about a meltdown in a nuclear reactor or the release of a toxic, alien virus in some sci-fi lab?


There’s that deep, resonant, repeated blaring of an alarm.  A horrible, gauzy red light flashing down a corridor. That’s how it feels.

I’ve found it to be especially sensitive to the presence of corrosive cultural material when kids are around.

I’m a huge fan of movies, but they’re the most frequent trigger.  My sons know about the void-o-meter without our ever having talked about it. They remember what it was like to be with me at the video store. I felt like Holden Caulfield on some ridiculously high plateau. My kids running through the rows of videos, pointing or reaching, oblivious to the danger all around them. The void, looming, reaching out, trying to get inside them. I was a madman.

“No Freddy Kruger under any circumstances!!” Heart of Summer

“How about the next “Pink Panther, instead?” 


I’m not going to pretend my void-o-meter measures objective truths about the quality of one cultural artifact vs another. It makes up its own mind, making me feel the soullessness of a movie before I’ve even taken a moment to think about the underlying values driving the characters or the story.

That’s how it was with American Pie. My students were talking about how funny it was. I suspected the worst, but rented it one night so that my critique would be honest. Though I railed against it for years, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t watch it for more than a few minutes. It bothered me that much. When students asked if I’d seen it, I lied.

But here’s the thing: it barely even beeped for Animal House. I was a freshman in college. I laughed so hard it nearly made me sick. Years later when my own boys saw it in high school, I took great delight in replaying my favorite scenes.











I realize this is subtle, subjective territory, but it seems like all the void-o-meter needs to stay quiet in the presence of crude, ugly or dark content is an “inner cue” of some kind–a crucial bit of context in a plot, sometimes just a simple facial expression– to let the audience know that somewhere, underneath the events being depicted , a human soul still breathes.

It needs to hear the voice of one soul saying to another:  “I know this is potentially corrosive stuff, but I’m with you. We’re in this together. I’m not using you in asking you to look; this isn’t a private peep show  for your dark, solitary obsessions. I’m sharing this with you. So, it’s OK. Let’s laugh together.”

You know that moment when Belushi looks back at the camera up on the ladder? Hardly an edifying moral moment for an impressionable teenager, right? And yet, isn’t there something very generous, very human, about it?

When “The Simpsons” first aired there was quite a stir in ” youth formation” circles. What would selfish smart aleck Bart Simpson do to the souls of our children? They needn’t have worried; the show was full of affection for  its characters.  And despite all this dysfunction they loved each other! Besides, Marge was clearly the norm for the Satire and she was as good as gold.


Whereas even the most innocuous detail from an episode of “Family Guy” sets off the void-o-meter full tilt. family_guy

“Hatred” is not too strong a word for my reaction to that show. Everything is mocked. Everything exposed as ugly. Nothing authentically affirmed. No one really loved.

I could run through a long catalog of other examples from popular culture, comparing one voice to another trying to capture the line between spirit and void:

Why I think Richard Pryor, even at his crudest moments, rarely triggered the void-ometer…


…and how, after many years of delivering extraordinary, soul-affirming material, something went terribly wrong in the heart of George Carlin.


But this post is getting long and I haven’t gotten back to the Louis C.K. interview yet. Let me add one more bit of context before you take a look at it.

So far I’ve only spoken of “the void” in negative terms, as something menacing, something from which to protect small children. Something that threatens the child-like vulnerability and openness of every human soul.

I’ve expressed the visceral alarm I’ve felt when I sense that a person is being is manipulated–ultimately used–by those who cynically arouse their desires for sex, violence, revenge, superiority or security, so that they can temporarily satisfy those appetites in a commercial consumer transaction.

Louis C.K. works a very different angle.

Even before I’d seen the Conan clip, I should have caught that difference between C.K.’s message and the horrifying commercial soullessness of a film like American Pie or the relentless, empty obscenity of a comedian like Andrew Dice Clay in his younger days. (Who really redeems himself in his recent performance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine) Voices like those are cashing in on fundamentally manipulative–and therefore deceptive– content.

Louis C.K. is making plenty of money, but his take home pay is the fruit of a clear intention to share the truth of how he sees the world with adults who have to be thinking pretty hard about the meaning of life to get the humor. Respect and authenticity are woven into the very fabric of his humor.

I once heard prayer described as a “long, loving look at the real.” The little I’d heard from Louis CK gave me the sense that his comedy had emerged from a “long, loving look at the void.”

“Emptiness,” however, is one of the classically honored doorways to an experience of God. And in Christianity our “poverty” before the forces that surge around us and through us–which is another way of saying our acceptance of them– is the inner secret to our strength.

I still didn’t trust him.

“Absolutely nothing is sacred,” I heard him saying between the lines. “And I’m going to make you laugh in recognition of that brutal truth.”

I had serious “theological” objections to that message. What hope was he offering in the midst of all the darkness? What was worthy of love and affirmation amidst all the ugliness and dishonesty? Why love even your children, much less the rest of humanity?

Now, about the video.

He begins by talking about why kids shouldn’t have cell phones. That leads him to describe what it means to be a “person.” Then he really gets going and the mystical insights come one after another:

Their is a great sadness to life.

It must nevertheless be faced, known and accepted.

What comes after is an even deeper happiness: gratitude for being alive enough to feel the sadness.

He doesn’t say the next part out loud, but his vocation is witness to it: that gratitude is the energy from which one draws the strength and hope to share one’s life with others.

His remarks are one of the best articulations of the perils and graces of the inner life I’ve ever heard. I find them profoundly spiritual, even implicitly Christian.

Take a look.

Embracing The Ability To Just Sit There « The Dish.

Louis C.K. is reminding us that having the courage and honesty to look squarely at the inescapable void, the emptiness and vast sadness built into our experience of the world, is a necessary step to living an authentic and creative life.

There is an essential kind of “letting go” that enables a person to embrace being, despite its vulnerability before nothingness,  in such a way as to allow gratitude–we could simply call it happiness–to well up within.  This is one way, perhaps, to capture what it means to “put on the mind of Christ.”


He may be using other words, but Louis C.K. is saying all of that in this interview. I hear faith in his words, even if he and I wouldn’t agree on whether they correspond to religious language.

To close this post, here is an extended passage from a recent reflection by Richard Rohr that captures Louis C.K.’s “spirituality” in more explicit terms:

“We fear nothingness. That’s why we fear death, of course, which feels like nothingness. Death is the shocking realization that everything I thought was me, everything I held onto so desperately, was finally nothing.

“The nothingness we fear so much is, in fact, the treasure and freedom that we long for, which is revealed in the joy and glory of the Risen Christ. We long for the space where there is nothing to prove and nothing to protect; where I am who I am, in the mind and heart of God, and that is more than enough.

“Spirituality teaches us how to get naked ahead of time, so God can make love to us as we really are.”


Posted by: cctracker | October 2, 2013

Scalfari Interview with Pope Francis: Too Much To Absorb

I have been working for several days on a post about the unprecedented extended interview Pope Francis did for America Magazine. I simply haven’t had time enough to absorb the material to know where to begin.

It made headlines all over the world, garnering praise not just from Stephen Colbert, who is a Catholic after all, but from John Stewart as well. Talk about the New Evangelism!

This Pope has continued to catch the commentators–and the faithful–off guard from the day he took his name and stood before us with arms at his side. It seems that before we can adjust to one remarkable gesture, story or homily, the next follows right on its heels.

Tonight, still trying to finish that post, I followed a link in the New York Times to an interview that has stunned me to a degree beyond even the America piece.

The Pope of the Roman Catholic Church calls one of Italy‘s most well-known journalists and atheists on the phone and asks for an appointment. They meet for a conversation that wouldn’t have been considered credible enough for a Hollywood screenplay.

The room around me disappeared as I read. I’m certain my pulse was racing. I read a few phrases aloud just to hear them in the air and taste them on my tongue. Take a moment to read them yourself.

If you love the Church and know it well, you may be frightened that he is telling too much truth, perhaps risking scandal. But below that fear, your heart make take joy, as mine did, to hear the essence of what the Church is named with such courage and faith.

If you have fallen away from love of the Church, or from faith in God altogether, you will hear the words of a man who does not stand in judgement, but inclines his heart and ear toward you, in order to listen.

The Pope: how the Church will change –


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