• We Need Little, But Want Everything

    • Posted on May 15, 2005


    Cell phones, cell phones, everywhere, and not a one worth listening to, usually. Yet we spend small fortunes buying, replacing, and using them. 

    We also erect squatty towers which radiate microwave signals throughout the land and blight the countryside.

    Do we really need cell phones?  Truth be told, rarely, at least most of us.

    Do we want them?  Yes, big time.  I’ve owned one for years now, actually several models, changed companies, and take or make maybe four useful or helpful calls a month. At forty bucks a month, those are expensive calls.

    So I don’t need a cell phone, but want one, just in case of emergency, I tell myself.   
    The older I get, the less I need, but the more I seem to want.

    Now for reasons I’ll explain shortly, I’m questioning both my needs and wants. 

    I don’t need much food, for example.  A bowl of cereal in the morning, a sandwich at lunch, soup for supper will do. But I want far more:  Steaks, fresh salads with creamy dressings, good wine, maybe lobster with hot lemon butter, hot breads, gourmet side dishes, eggs, bacon, desserts, iced caramel double espresso with whipped cream, thank you very much.  

    If I ate what I wanted I’d outgrow my wardrobe in a month.

    Or my new SUV, a shiny and intelligently designed Honda Pilot.  I really don’t need it.  I could get by with a car a third its size. I just didn’t want to.

    I don’t need satellite TV, except for occasional movies that I can use for class. Maybe one a month comes along.  But I wanted it.  Every time I get that monthly bill I wonder whether I really need all this TV coming into my house, especially when I actually watch it so little. But it’s there, just in case.  A want that became a need.  

    Nor do I need both a nylon and steel string guitar, but needed—no, wanted—them both.

    Now I’m beginning to feel guilty, wanting and having so much of what I really don’t need. 

    I’m also convinced I’m not alone.  Most of us get at least some of what we want whether we actually need it or not.   Kids can’t imagine living without their video games, Ipods, DVD players, brand name jeans and sneakers, those cool body piercings, none of which they need. All of which they want.  All of which come at considerable cost.

    When a child gets everything it wants, it becomes a self-centered brat, sure that the world revolves around fulfilling his/her every desire, and they’re only happy for a few minutes after getting the latest toy.

    I’m growing more and more convinced that the same is true of adults.  Too many of us (I’m speaking mostly of Americans here, but Europeans are hardly immune from rampant wanting) believe happiness comes from fulfilling every desire. Look at the starter castles that fill our new neighborhoods, with three and four-car garages, multiple huge bedrooms, and I’m sure high-end, luxury kitchens and playrooms.   

    But it’s a dead end, an addiction to gratification, a wants-based culture that delivers happiness only at a price.

    Or as Greg Brown puts it: “We have no knowledge and so we have stuff.  And stuff with no knowledge is never enough.”

    Human needs are actually few and simple:  Clean air and water, decent food, a bit of exercise, shelter, something to occupy their minds and bodies, socializing, and some sense of contributing to the larger good.  That’s all we actually need for mental and physical health. 

    I was reminded of this when I shared dinner last week with two acquaintances who are facing serious health problems. One has a terminal disease and has been told that he has less than a year to live. The other faces serious treatments, but the outcome seems positive.  It caused me to question my own wants and needs.

    They both agreed that their diseases have forced them to consider their real needs:  Close friends, intimate conversations, quiet sharing evenings, simple peace and quiet. 

    That’s all they need these days, and truth be told, all they want.

    Too bad the threat of death, rather than just living, teaches that simple lesson best.




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  • Pope and UNI's Bob Byrnes Cut from the Same Cloth

    • Posted on Apr 10, 2005


    UNI’s Bob Byrnes and Pope John Paul II might have been cut from the same cloth.  Yes, that’s a stretchy cloth, but bear with me. 

    Last Saturday, the same day that Pope John Paul II died, I saw “Brothers, Sing On: The Road to St. Peter’s” the new documentary by Paul Marlowe on Bob Byrnes, UNI’s Men’s Glee Club director, and couldn’t help but see similarities between these two remarkable men. 

    Both Bob Byrnes and the Pope’s life and work have been documented on film. Byrnes’s work has been captured in this excellent hour-long documentary that was screened at the Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival.  The Pope’s life and work has been documented in thousands of films and videos over the years.

    These visual documents show two men living according to deeply felt principles, using them consistently, and inspiring others to do the same.  One affected literally thousands of UNI students in his 30-year career at UNI, the other affected millions of Catholics worldwide. 

    Bob Byrnes was not a religious man, but he insisted that his approach to music-making offers spirituality as potent and far-reaching as any organized church.  And he lived that credo, devoting his professional life to the Men’s Glee Club and the UNI Carillon.  His groups’ concerts invariably sold out, making more money for the UNI School of Music than all the other musical groups combined. 

    Those principles:  Work hard.  No excuses.  Challenge those become complacent.  Suffer if you must, and don’t complain about it.  Live your beliefs.  Leave the world a better place.  Both men could be counted on to teach and live these life lessons.

    Yet both Byrnes and the Pope embodied deep contradictions.  Byrnes presented a gruff, short-tempered demeanor that scared his UNI singers half to death.  In the documentary, some of his students called him a “jerk” and worse on camera, yet he got results far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams as a director.  His Men’s Glee Club took three European tours, singing in the great Cathedrals of Europe. 

    Still, Byrnes’ singers were devoted to him. When he died last May, the film’s narrator mentions that “never have so many grown men cried.” 

    When the Pope died, no one called him a jerk, but many commentators noted that his conservative positions on reproductive rights and celibacy for priests caused real damage both to the Catholic Church and the laity worldwide. Priests became practically an endangered species during his 27-year tenure, and it will take years for Catholics to restore trust that the Church lost during the shocking child sexual exploitation scandals that occurred on the Pope’s watch.

    Yet Pope John Paul was as deeply beloved as any modern leader, and millions now mourn for him just as they would a member of the family. 

    Both Bob Byrnes and John Paul performed in St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican in Rome.   Bob Byrnes and his UNI Men’s Glee Club performed there three times, most recently in March, 2004, to actual applause—almost unheard of in that sacred place.

     In fact, the documentary on Byrnes offers an extended and loving visual tribute to their March, 2004 performance in St. Peter’s, showing images of the architectural and artistic treasures (including Michelangelo’s “Pieta”) that the Pope must have seen regularly. 

    Finally, both Bob Byrnes and the Pope suffered physical anguish at the end of their lives. The Pope’s struggles with Parkinson’s, debilitating arthritis, and breathing problems regularly made news, yet he carried on without complaint, surprising everyone, providing a model of a determined man.  

    The 54-year-old Byrnes suffered a massive stroke at home last May, lying on his floor paralyzed for days until one of his students discovered him. He was rushed to the hospital, made a brief partial recovery, then quickly declined.  At the moment that his singers offered the final notes of “Brothers, Sing On” at the hospital, he died.  No complaining, no self-pity, just acceptance of the inevitable.

    Musician Bob Byrnes and Pope John Paul II:  May they rest in peace.









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