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The Old Myths Have Faded; New Ones Are Needed

11 Apr



Homer, the blind poet


Zeus, most powerful of the Olympic gods, is the protector of guests. Remember this when you sit down at diner with enemies.


An ancient Greek tradition requires you to be hospitable to all who visit under your roof, be they friends or enemies. This honored and revered tradition is known as Xenia. If a guest is not treated properly, Zeus could intervene on their behalf.


The abduction of Helen

Paris of Troy ignored Xenia and ignited a war when he ran off with Helen, the wife of his Greek host.  In recent times, a ghastly violation of Xenia was depicted in the famous Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones, where all guests were slaughtered.


Shock at the Red Wedding

Xenia and other intricate facets of ancient Greek culture come down to us through myths. The myths are extensive and far reaching. They involve great heroics, tales of morality, flawed character, the foibles of gods and humans, desire, lust, misjudgment and so much more.  The myths also help explain the world and how it got here.


A statue honoring Heracles and his pillars

For example, it was Heracles (aka Hercules) who connected the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. While traveling to the end of the known world, he reached an impasse. Rather than climb a mountain,  he broke though one and created a narrow strait to the ocean, leaving what we know today as the Pillars of Hercules. From ancient Greek stories we learn how peacocks got their colorful tails, why once-white ravens are now black, and how two people, told by the gods to build a small ark, repopulated the world after a great flood by tossing over their shoulders stones that turned into men and women.


Drunken centaurs creating havoc

The importance of these myths to Greek culture, and later to Roman and European culture, is shown by the art they inspired. A piece of  pottery from the 6th century B.C. shows Bellerophon destroying the fire-breathing Chimera. A first century Roman sculpture is of baby Heracles strangling a viper sent by Hera to kill him. A 16th century painting by Piero Di Cosimo vividly captures the drunken centaurs creating violence at a wedding feast.


That artists desire to retell these stories speaks of their value, even if we don’t understand that value today. While every culture has its stories and myths, the Greek myths are undeniably special. Their depth and originality is unmatched. They took root in multiple cultures and have  persisted over centuries. When we watch Wonder Woman and Gal Gadot, we are being entertained not so much by Hollywood but by the ancient Greeks.


The warrior Amazons were a Greek creation

As I now reread some of these tales, I sense a current vacuum in contemporary western culture. With no disrespect to Gal Gadot, or Jason and the Argonauts, or Brad Pitt as Achilles, I don’t believe the legacies of Greek mythology are doing for America what the original myths did for Greece. I don’t think they educate, inspire and set a correct path for us. And I don’t think anything has effectively replaced them.


Meanwhile, we are being pulled apart by forces like politics, race and class.


In truth, the detailed and fabulous Greek legends never fully unified the Greeks. The Greek city states were almost constantly at war with each other. Yet there is something strong, powerful and wise about using engaging stories to teach people what they are and what they should be. That someone or some group was willing to do this speaks to the inner essence of a humanness that, without help, is prone to chaos. The goal of the storyteller, of course, is to civilize.


Moses leading his people

The Hebrew prophets had this intention when they wrote and compiled scripture for an uncultured, barbaric tribe. To a great extent, those prophets succeeded and the western world, thriving today in commerce and replete with interaction and exchange, is a reflection of their efforts. Even so, the impact of scripture is waning and its messages, like the Greek tales, are being lost or forgotten. What’s needed now are new insights, new stories, new guideposts. It is time for a 21st century Homer, a modern Moses, a fresh light cutting through an old fog – a Greek revival, of sorts, if you will.


Our biggest problem is we have forgotten what we are and what we can be. Teaching this anew,  we can first understand ourselves, then respect and value ourselves. Once we develop true self-respect and visualize a purpose, we can, as individuals, extend respect and dignity to others. Building a culture around respect and dignity will not only strengthen us, it will unify us. And it may do so in ways the Greeks never imagined.


So let the stories be told. Let the heroes flourish. Let us see virtue and valor prevail. Let us know all the things that lead to failure, disrepute and disfavor so a place is reserved for harmony and peace and a new meaning is brought to life.


By Lanny Morgnanesi


Something I recently learned

3 Mar


The reason Chinese students have the highest test scores in the world is because they cheat.

If that is not entirely true, it is at least partially true.

In the U.S., Asian and Asian-American students appear to work harder than their Caucasian classmates. Anyone who has observed this can easily believe the reports of China’s international dominance in reading, science and math. Test results say students from Shanghai lead the world, with the U.S. as a whole coming in 29th.

Why is it then that Americans always win an unusually high number of Nobel Prizes while the Chinese win very few?

Well, maybe we’ve rigged that system – which is something the Chinese seem to have done with the system of international test scores.

Book-Afraid of the DragonA new book has put a spotlight on the weaknesses of the Chinese education system and exposed fraud and cheating. It was written by Yong Zhao and is entitled, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.” A full discussion of the book can be found in a Nov. 20 article by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books. (subscription required)

Here are three items plucked from the review:

  • It is not uncommon for Chinese test takers to use wireless cheating devices.
  • Sometimes the students just buy the test answers on the open market.
  • When there was a rare crackdown on cheating in Hubei Province, a riot broke out. Two thousand people reportedly smashed cars and chanted, “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”

This is not to deny that there is incredible test preparation in China. One famous test-prep school starts at 6:30 a.m., finishes at 10:30 p.m. and gives homework. But do these students actually learn anything? There is increasing legitimacy, in both America and China, in the argument that teaching to the test does not a genius make.

In the final analysis, creativity and innovation are sacrificed.

PISA-test-scoresZhao points out that the Chinese invented the compass but instead of using it to navigate the globe, they used it to find locations and burial sites with good fengshui. He said China – which had no Renaissance, no Enlightenment and no Industrial Revolution — was the first with gunpowder but never used it for modern weaponry.

Then there is this business of the Nobel Prize. A quick search of the Internet shows the Chinese have won six while the U.S. has won 353.

In his book, Zhao quotes a professor at Beijing University who says that since 1949 there has not been a single Nobel laureate among the 1 billion people educated in mainline China:

“No one, after 12 years of Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge for college. . . . This forcefully testifies [to] the power of education in destroying creativity on behalf of the [Chinese] society.”

It’s been said that Zhao wrote his book to convince the U.S. not to discard an education system that emphasizes fresh ideas and the spirit of individualism. It’s for certain he doesn’t want us to be suckered in by reports of China’s high test scores.

Standardized tests and teaching to those test is a growing America practice due to current government policy, but Zhao and Ravitch warn:

If the West is concerned about being overtaken by China, then the best solution is to avoid becoming China.


My own opinion is that the Chinese are a lot smarter than Zhao lets on. For one, I think Chinese mariners of old did a lot more global navigation than his statements suggest. And with respect to gunpowder, in some circles China might be considered highly moral and civilized for preferring firecrackers over canons.

I’ve been amazed by both the ancient and the modern Chinese mind. Its effectiveness should never be underestimated or said to lack creativity. If the American mind has dulled – and there really is no evidence of that – it is because it has become too comfortable. Fortunately, the Chinese economic miracle has given it some discomfort.

If it is napping, it will surely wake, and soon.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Where did everyone go? “Baby Bust” affects both prison population and college enrollment

9 Nov


Someone once told me if you build a prison, it will fill up. Conversely, if a prison is full, criminals will be let out.

From this it is easy to conclude that a person who normally would be free might get locked up, and a person who normally would be jailed might go free.

Both are frightening thoughts. Neither says much about justice.

Prison pop worldMore frightening is the widely known but often ignored fact that the United States puts more people behind bars than any other nation. That figure is about 2 million.

The U.S. population has increased by about one-third since 1980, but the federal prison population has grown by about 800 percent.

Yet we still call ourselves the land of the free.

So it goes. I wish I understood why. I wish there was someone who could explain these problems and come up with a method to reverse them.

Well, sometimes things reverse themselves.

A recent story that was basically overlooked said that the federal prison population has declined by 4,800 inmates. This is the first decline in a decade. And it turns out that the populations in state and county lockups have been dropping for the past five years.

“Our new projections anticipate that the number of federal inmates will fall by just over 2,000 in the next 12 months — and by almost 10,000 in the year after,” said Attorney General Eric Holder “This is nothing less than historic.”

Fine, but no one explained why.

Prison poulation-WikiIt is doubtful our government has the ability to stop crime. Government can take credit for it, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. After crime dropped years ago, improvements in law enforcement were credited. Later, under the category of Freakanomics, it was determined that the drop in crime occurred about 18 years after the legalization of abortion. This means that there was was less crime because fewer criminals were born.

It was that simple.

Abortion may not be behind these new figures, but fewer criminals being born may be.
A running demographic trend called the “baby bust” has now caused a decline in the number of young adults, the same people who commit most crimes. A bad economy, it seems, affects childbirth, and the economy hasn’t been good for quite some time. It is said that the recession of 2008 alone resulted in a half million fewer births.

I’m familiar with the baby bust because I’ve seen its impact on higher education. With fewer students of college age, enrollments are declining at colleges and universities across the nation.

“They can’t go to college if they haven’t been born,” one educator explained.

Birth ratesIn 1900, Mark Twain looked for some linkage between crime and education and said, “Every time you close a school, you have to build a jail.” While the reserve could be true, new colleges aren’t needed right now because of the enrollment decline. But because of the savings from the decline in prison population – the feds spend $80 billion a year on incarceration — money could be available to help students with tuition.

What a great nation ours would be if, like some others, we made it easy and cheap for young people to get an education. But we still would have the empty prisons and we’ll need to figure out what to do with them.

Maybe we can just let them rot. They can become sad displays of a culture that with a blind eye created and nourished the darker side of humanity. But a demographic bump doesn’t permanently correct a problem. So a better idea might be to turn the prisons into factories, which will improve the economy, which will increase the birth rate, which will create more crime, which will require more prisons. At that point, we can close the factories, open the prisons, and wait for economy to go bad and the birth rate to drop again.

That sounds so right it has got to be wrong. But I’m not hearing much better from the experts. Do you think we can put a little pressure on them? Or should we just wait until everything fixes itself? Actually, this seems much more likely.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Is the mother of invention dead?

11 Jun


It has been said that in very ancient times a person with bad teeth would die. Disease didn’t kill them. Starvation did. Apparently, there was no soft food. All this changed with the invention of pottery, allowing for the cooking of soups and stews.

While I tend to think tooth-less early man would tenderize his meat with a rock before starving, or just eat berries, I nevertheless brought up the pot as a life-saving invention while speaking to a millennial.

Millennials are members of a generation that greatly mourns the passing of the American age and the lost opportunities that went with it.

“I wish it were as easy now as it was back when they had the first pot,” he said. “Nothing was invented so almost anyone with a good idea could change the face of history.  You didn’t need a Ph.D. in nuclear science. You didn’t have to know a lot. All you needed was a good idea and you’d be famous.  How hard could it have been to invent something like the pot?”

I argued that coming up with the idea for a pot when there were no such things as pots required more than an idea, that strong vision and imagination was needed.

“Well, I’m not saying I could have invented the pot, but you do see my point, don’t you? I mean, what did it take to invent the wheel? Anyone could have done it. Or even fire. These people didn’t go to school. The field was wide open. Nowadays, it requires too much. Too much has already been invited; too much is known.”

I felt bad because he and perhaps many others were victimized by the times; their creativity stifled by a bad economy and the aggressive, eager multitudes in developing countries. Still, he made me wonder just how hard or easy it might have been to invent the pot.

The usual case is that most people are blind to innovation. They just can’t see possibilities outside of normal routine. There are, however, a few who do. After first being treated like loons and maniacs, they eventually win over the tribe and move society forward.

But I guessing it is likely that pottery and even the wheel may have been discovered by accident, in multiple places, at multiple times. These were things waiting to happen. In that respect, I can sympathize with the millennial.

I tried thinking of something relatively simple that has changed people’s lives in that past 100 years or so. Sliced bread? Air in tires? The ballpoint pen? There must be something. Nothing really hit me, although I’m certain it is there. If someone reading can think of it, please comment and let me know.

In the meantime, I think my millennial friend is just going to have to become a nuclear scientist, or something of that sort – and if he’s to change the world he still will need an incredibly creative, open, unfettered mind.

By Lanny Morgnanesi


Smart pills may be in your future

21 Nov

The young man hoping to attend medical school explained that Adderall doesn’t make you smarter; it just lets you focus.

“But it won’t be long before there are drugs that do make you smarter,” he said. “The ethical questions will be: do you take them or not?”

Other issues may quickly overshadow this one. For example, can and should employers require the use of this new artificial intelligence?

Will users be held in higher or lower regard? Do we respect them or mock them? Should an asterisk be placed after the names of Nobel Prize winners who juiced?

It would seem more beneficial to life and career if those on the medication announced it. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals could put it in their ads.

Society might slowly form two strata, those who do and those who don’t. Or will we all eventually use – just as we all eat?

In the end, will we be better off or worse?

Such things will be decided much later.

For now, there is Adderall.

Adderall and drugs like it originally were used for something called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, A.D.H.D. Then they were used to calm down unruly children. Now they are used to make inadequate schools look better.

An Oct. 9 article in the New York Times by Alan Schwarz cites examples of family physicians giving Adderall to children who are struggling in elementary school.

Schwarz interviews Dr. Michael Anderson, a pediatrician in a poor area of Georgia who claims A.D.H.D is an imaginary syndrome used to mask poor academic performance in inadequate schools.

He gives out the drug so students do better.

“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” he said. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

It is difficult to say how many doctors do this, but their numbers must be growing. Parents of A.D.H.D. children say they can no longer get adequate supplies of Adderall because so many others now take it.

Well, Adderall won’t be in much demand when the real stuff hits the market. I hope they come up with a more descriptive name than Adderall, something like Instant Einstein or Bottle Smarts. And I hope I have stock in the company that gets the first patent. What I really look forward to is writing a very good novel while on this drug. There may not be a novel in me, but there surely is one in those pills.

Of course, it will be hard to sell a good novel when everyone is capable of writing one. Perhaps I need a different plan.

I’ll have to think this over . . . if you can call such an unassisted exercise thinking.

 — By Lanny Morgnanesi

At the beach on a sunny day, what would the old tell the young?

17 Jul

If you look deep, faces reveal stories. One day on the beach, with faces all around, thoughts leaped from them.

In the posturing young males there was a cocky yet fragile confidence; a faith in one’s self, one’s strength and one’s energy, but also a poorly hidden fear of the unknown. There was a willingness to stay in place and time, and the troublesome idea that knowledge may be more important than charisma.

In the young females there was desire and hesitancy; a need for some unformed quality not found in the males; a necessity to move forward in place and time; a deep yet unacknowledged realization of superiority kept in the shadows by overly cautious optimism.

In the old there was either satisfaction and peace or pain and disgust. The first group had goals, some modest, that were met. The second harbored resentment; unhappy with fate and exhausted of second chances.

Seeing young and old together made me wonder what the old might tell the young.

Here is the advice I would give:


  • Realize you are much smarter than you think but that you know almost nothing.
  • Accept that good work requires lots of bad work.
  • Learn a second language; it will get you a second soul.
  • Play an instrument . . . well.
  • Read the great stories and myths of your culture. Let them guide you.
  • Place honor before money.
  • Know that truth is relative, fluid and deceptive.
  • Never deny a person his or her dignity.
  • Don’t wait.
  • Happiness is attainable but difficult to recognize.


As the words surface, the young, for a short time, will be both blind and deaf and wonderfully preoccupied. Then they will politely move on, overwhelmed by their own brand of discovery and their own style of learning, a more important kind, the kind even the old hold in high, if unspoken, regard; the juice of life that lodges forever in the mind.

Canada – not flashy but likeable, and with an example to follow.

23 Jun

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Gerry always tried to be funny. He’d introduce himself this way: “Hi, I’m Gerry, a Canadian, bland and inoffensive.”

Like his country, Gerry was neither.

It was during the Vietnam War that I first realized Canada was different, hardly bland and willing to offend. Without fear of U.S. retribution, it welcomed Americans dodging the war, coming off like some hippie outlaw country. Later, in another context, I remember people talking disparagingly about “Canadian socialism.” They made Canada sound evil when I think it was just trying to be nice to its people.

More recently, comedian Dave Chappell used a satirical sketch to show at least one difference between Canada and the U.S. In the sketch, he posed as a political candidate with a solution to expensive American health care: Fake Canadian ID.

Canada is the country where people have lots of guns but don’t use them on each other. Canadians seem to be more comfortable with life, more at peace with themselves and each other, and less stressed. Their cordial mantra is the simple: Eh?

Internationally, they have few enemies.

While traveling, Gerry and I once met two young women from Eastern Europe, which then was Communist. President Reagan recently had taken a strong stance against their patron, the Soviet Union, calling it the Evil Empire.

Nothing like that had occurred in Canada.

The two women were strikingly beautiful but cold and dead serious. We tried to start a conversation. It didn’t take long before I noticed they would speak to Gerry but not to me. I asked why and they said they could not understand me because I wasn’t speaking Oxford English. So Gerry, in his inoffensive way, began acted as a translator, taking my English and “translating” it into — English. He did the same for them.

Funny, eh? We had recreated a bit from the film “Bananas,” but the Eastern Europeans didn’t get it.

But back to Canada.

In Montreal this spring, thousands of students took to the streets to protest an 80 percent increase in college tuition.

According to a newspaper report, tuition for higher education in the province of Quebec was to go from $2,611 a year to $4,700. It would be instituted gradually, $254 a year over seven years.

I was sorry to hear this. My sympathies, however, were not with the Canadian students but with American students, who must pay so much more. My concern was not with the Canadian government but with the American government, which clearly doesn’t value education as much as its northern neighbor.

While I haven’t done the math, and don’t want to do the math, I’m guessing one less war a year would provide more than enough funding to make college affordable; or the end of a subsidy to one or two highly profitable industries; or – dare it be said – taxing a bit more, or just cutting a few loopholes or simply being fairer about the whole process.

The goal would be to put money where it pays national dividends, and educating the populace tends to do this.

The U.S., by its own design, finds itself in the precarious and costly position of having to police the world. Meanwhile, nations that benefit from this use their money to build vibrant economies, keeping their infrastructure modern and their industries competitive . And some allow college students to sit in a  classroom for less than it cost to go to the movies.

If this pattern continues, the natural outcome is they will get stronger and we will get weaker. In time, the great American military won’t have much of a country left to protect.

A strong defense is important. What I find of questionable value is a strong offense.

Somehow, by someone, balance will have to be restored. The richest and most powerful country on Earth should be able to educate itself. Only when we have fallen from that top position will it be easier to understand that fending for one self must be the norm.

Then fake Canadian ID will really be important. I hope they don’t put up a fence.

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