Leonardo’s Work


“Eighty-two,” the voice on the phone replied.

“The contract specifies one hundred forty.”

The distressed voice said, “The drives are titanium gluttons. We’re doing our best. The Russians…”

“I don’t want your best. I want one hundred forty Roadrunners every week, as the contract stipulates.”

“Have a heart, Dr. Mays.”

“We’re about brains at NASA, not hearts. We have a legal contract that I expect you to honor…or else.”

“The Russians are holding us hostage. We have to pay a king’s ransom for their titanium. Do you want to put us out of business?”

“I want one hundred forty Roadrunners a week. Goodbye.”

Leonardo da Vinci Mays’s mother was a second-rate mathematician and his father was a second-rate sculptor. Fortunately for Leonardo, their union produced a first-rate scientist and artist.  As a measure of his self-confidence, Leonardo had no qualms about the weight of this name, taking it up as if he were a worthy successor to that ancient master.

Leonardo had studied, prepared, and lobbied his entire adult life to lead NASA’s Alien Identification Program—AIP. He had been laboring in obscurity for years when Crewe’s invention irrevocably altered the landscape, catapulting Leonardo to rock star status, at least until the public realized that six-armed, three-eyed monsters wouldn’t be discovered overnight.

When Benedict Crewe discovered the Roadrunner Drive, as it’s popularly called, the universe was suddenly accessible, if not for humans—this was learned by trial and error as men returned physically intact but hopelessly, irreparably addled—then with small, inexpensive Roadrunner Rovers that were built and released by the thousands.

Technically, these Roadrunner Rovers weren’t faster than light. Rather, they were programmed to slip into folds and warps in space-time, like a tightly packed ball of spring where you could “hop” to adjacent string segments rather than being constrained to move linearly along the string. Once science learned how to control this string segment hopping, the search for alien life commenced in earnest. Like busy bees, Roadrunner Rovers landed on designated planets, collected samples—solid, liquid, gas, plasma—and slipped back to Earth, all in a matter of days, or even hours.

So dramatic was Crewe’s discovery that it spawned a movement, nicknamed the Lensmen, who insisted that Crewe came from an advanced alien race, like the Eddorians in Doc Smith’s Lensmen novels, a crackpot notion Leonardo dismissed as summarily as belief in angels and devils.

Though Leonardo’s team had analyzed 11,478 soil samples, 16,309 liquid samples, 8,884 gas samples, and 2,160 plasma samples—all preserved at precise temperatures and pressures—without detecting any life forms, he wasn’t discouraged, knowing as he did that these numbers were infinitesimal in relation to the number of planets in his own galaxy, not to mention the billions of other galaxies that were accessible with the Roadrunner Drive. No sooner were samples retrieved from a Rover than it was launched to a new planet, or moon, based on AIP’s probability model. Like fishing lures, Rovers were cast over and over again into the deep waters of the universe. With trillions upon trillions of heavenly bodies to sample, it would take a while, even with the great majority of planets being screened out by the probability model. A few on his team were even pushing to adapt the Roadrunner Drive to search other universes in the mathematically predicted multiverse.

Leonardo had recently written an article for Cosmopolitania entitled, Recognizing Alien Life—well received by the public—in which he’d said, “There are still some who believe that intelligent life, considering the age of our own Milky Way Galaxy, would have found a way to send probes to every sun-like star by now, so why have we not encountered these probes? There are many reasons why this is an absurd argument, but I shall confine myself to two. First, Alien Life need not—and, no doubt, will not—be intelligent, as we define intelligence. Second, even if an intelligent race reached out—so to speak—recognizing such a probe requires a level of sophistication that we on Earth have only recently achieved…

“You may have heard that Earth is a member of the two percent club, meaning ninety-eight out of every one hundred planetary systems do not allow for Earth-like planets with stable orbits. I answer, so what? In a galaxy of billions of stars, two out of a hundred planetary systems means there are hundreds of millions of such systems that might support life…

“I am confident that with our growing army of Roadrunner Rovers, we will find abundant Alien Life, though it will probably resemble protozoa, or worms. We—living creatures—may be rare, but we are hardly unique. This is not just Leonardo Mays’s opinion as it is also supported by Bayes Theorem, which accounts for previously known probabilities andthe new information our Roadrunner Rovers have accumulated in their journeys about the universe. We have no need to invent angels, devils, fairies, goblins, or other supernatural creatures, because we will discover even stranger creatures that are real, creatures we can measurewith the marvelous tools science has bequeathed us. In a word, thinking men and women have learned that only things we can measure are real, that is, worthy of our time and attention.”

Leonardo knew that the most important element of the program was data integrity. Since the most likely alien life would be unicellular, or spore-like, it was essential that samples be protected from contamination. He was well aware of the number of now-discredited researchers who had announced the discovery of alien life in an extraterrestrial sample that was later proven to have been contaminated—Nitrosomonason one of Jupiter’s moons?

Probability models had also been developed for the most likely forms of life. It was universally accepted that when life was discovered it would be classified Level One, unicellular or simple multicellular organisms. Level Two: simple life forms—whipworms, for example—were possible, but extremely unlikely. And Level Three life—organisms as complex as grasshoppers—was entertained by only a few on the fringe of serious science. As far as higher forms of life, only nuts like the Lensmen believed in such things.

Having assured himself that Dr. Foster and her team of technicians were scrupulously adhering to protocol, Leonardo walked through the vacuum-sealed revolving door into a parlor, where he was enveloped with a viscous antibiotic gas, like standing in a rain forest during a monsoon. He stood in place for the obligatory five minutes before the gas was exhausted and he passed through an airlock into the robing-disrobing chamber. There, he put on his street clothes and went through another vacuum-sealed door into the data center, all to prevent Earthly biological “intruders” from entering the lab.

No sooner had Leonardo entered the data center than a colleague from Program Management approached him. Joe Smith was a natty dresser, adept at combining stripes and checks without appearing garish. Tall, slim, and bald, he was a haberdasher’s dream. Smith was known for his languid demeanor, though when excited, he could erupt into frenetic activity.

“Morning, Leon,” Smith said, his long tongue flicking in and out of his mouth. “I’d like to talk to you about something before the rumor mill fires up.”

“Go on,” Leonardo said, briskly, as he had plenty to do that day.

“It’s like this. I’m leaving NASA,” Smith said, in that hissing voice to which he succumbed when he was excited.

“Leaving?” Leonardo said, incredulously. “Don’t tell me you’re joining Kung or Po.” Though Smith wasn’t essential to the Program, he had a cold-blooded talent for organizing, scheduling, and expediting that kept the science humming.

“Actually, I’m going to Tibet. I intend to become a monk.”

“A what?” Leonardo stammered.

“A Buddhist monk, Leon.”

“Why would you do such a thing? Do they have a science program?”

Smith said, “I’m following my heart.”

“What about your mind…you know, the organ that regulates rational thinking.”

“That too, of course.”

“Well, it doesn’t sound like it. Have you had some kind of breakdown?”

“Not at all. Just the opposite…clarity.”

“Listen, the employee assistance program is good for crises like these. Have you talked to them yet?”

“This isn’t a crisis. I know what I’m doing.”

“You could have fooled me. Abandoning the most exciting science project in history, traveling halfway across the world, climbing a mountain, and living like a beggar. It isn’t rational.”

Smith said, “A week ago, I had a dream I was in a chariot…ascending into heaven…”

“Stop right there. The only chariot that should concern you is a Roadrunner Rover, and the only heaven you should be thinking about is this universe…or the multiverse, if we ever find it.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Leon.” Smith extended a hand. “I hope you find your aliens.”

“I shall,” said Leonardo, still shaking his head after Smith had left the room. The mere odor of religion was enough to stir his gastric juices. Leonardo didn’t believe in God, unless God could be described as the fundamental particles-waves that regulated space and time; certainly not a personal God who cared whether he lived or died, or whether worlds survived or perished. Leonardo believed in man—well, some men, chiefly himself, when it came right down to it. This self-conviction was the reason he’d ascended so rapidly in the scientific community, that and the artistic talent through which he conveyed the wonder of science to the masses.

For the remainder of the workday, Leonardo was uncharacteristically preoccupied with Smith’s resignation and irrational behavior, finally admitting to himself that there had always been something odd about Smith, though he’d never been able to put a finger on it.

In his car, on a day in which a preliminarily positive test was vetoed by the quality control technicians, Leonardo received a call.

“Hello Leonardo.” The NASA Director’s mellifluous voice permeated the Mercedes.

Leonardo despised this political flunky. “Good to hear from you, Conrad,” he said, jovially.

“You heard about Smith’s departure?”

“I heard,” Leonardo said, sourly.

“Do you think he’s angling for a raise?”

“I don’t think so. He didn’t say anything about money. He wants to be a monk on a mountain.”

“Then it’s better he leave before he goes completely nuts. He’s someone else’s problem now. Listen, my niece is looking for a job.”

Oh crap, Leonardo said to himself. How quickly could he change the subject, distract this idiot?

“Did you hear me?”

“What are her qualifications?”

“Um…ethnic…gender studies. Listen, Leon. Aliens, when we find them…ah…ethnicity will have to be assigned…brand new genders too. Right?”

“She’ll do nicely,” Leonardo forced himself to say.

“I knew you’d agree. By the way, I’m going to the White House next week…”—Smarmy bastard, Leonardo said to himself—“…and I’ll let the President know you’re doing a bang-up job.”

“Bring back a nice Barolo…ha ha.”

“My niece…you’ll take care of everything, right? Ciao.”

Leonardo had just traded an experienced, efficient administrator for a clueless whelp, and had done so without a whimper. So far, so bad, considering the deficit of Roadrunners, Smith’s resignation, and the Director’s request. He could use a drink. Fortunately, he could always count on Matilda to have a cocktail ready at his arrival.

Leonardo’s next-door neighbor approached him as he got out of the car. Jones was a jazz musician, a saxophonist with a swinging sound like Stan Getz. Jonesy, as he was called, favored laid-back attire: jeans, sweaters, leather vests, berets. Notwithstanding Jonesy’s musical talent, how the man could afford to live in Leonardo’s exclusive gated community was a mystery.

Jonesy’s protuberant eyes took Leonardo’s measure from head to toe. Something was moving under the beret, but Leonardo barely noticed. He was thinking about the cocktail that awaited him inside.

“I have a proposition for you,” Jonesy said.

Leonardo was cautious about propositions, about anything that distracted him from his work. He frowned and waited.

“You’re an artist,” Jonesy said. “The band needs an artist for our album cover.”

Did Jonesy really think an artist of Leonardo’s caliber would stoop to crass commercialism, mere cartoonery? Leonardo’s expression must have revealed his feelings because Jonesy’s hand came from behind his back with a record album. “Here,” he said, one of his eyes swirling like a marble in a raceway. “Brubeck’s Time Further Out…real art…abstract…meaningful…what do you say?”

The art wasn’t bad, but it was an album cover. Leonardo said, “I’m too busy. My work, you know. I’m the quarterback of a team that’s scouring the universe for alien life.” He liked this analogy, had used it on more than one occasion when deflecting requests for assistance.

“But music is the universal language,” protested Jonesy.

“Universal? The universe is trillions of light years in diameter, and music is limited to one life form on one planet, so far as we know.”

“Ah, but how do we know that?” asked Jonesy.

Wagging his head, Leonardo said, “I should have said that we have no evidencethat music extends beyond one life form on one planet.”

“It isthe universal language. You’ll have to take my word for it.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t take your word. What does your word have to do with science, evidence, reason?”

Jonesy was a picture of forlornness. Leonardo’s strong personality often had that effect on people, especially those he was deflecting.  “Think about the album cover, won’t you?” said the musician.

Leonardo said he would—though he wouldn’t—and began sidling toward the front door. Record album extended, Jonesy followed him up the steps.

“Art,” Jonesy said.

Leonardo closed the door and sighed.

“Hello, Dr. Mays,” Leonardo’s housekeeper said.

This welcome, reassuring voice, belonged to a person who never made propositions or demands. Instead, she ensured that Leonardo’s domicile whirred like a finely tuned Swiss clock.

Matilda was short and squat. She preferred loose fitting one-piece dresses that swept the floor. Most of the time, the fabric covered her tentacular legs, but, occasionally one protruded—when Matilda’s hands were full—to collect an out-of-place object. She was friendly, but not intrusive, knowing by long association when Leonardo desired companionship and when he wanted privacy.

“What’s for dinner, Matilda?”

“Your favorite: Rosemary Lamb with zesty creamed corn, and I’ve opened a bottle of the 2009 Barolo. I’ll serve as soon as you’ve changed for dinner. Your martini is on the counter.”

As he walked through the cavernous house, drink in hand, his eyes were invariably drawn to his own pictures. Leonardo’s walls were crowded with his original art, the only activity he let interfere with his relentless pursuit of alien life. His pictures were abstract depictions of the microcosmic and macrocosmic universe: nebulae, black holes, neutron stars, exotic planets, quasars, gluons, strings, quarks, all portrayed in a manner that synthesized his scientific understanding of these things with his artistic sensibility. The few he had deigned to sell had purchased some of the best wine in the world.

As expected, the meal was delicious. He didn’t rush the experience, savoring the food and wine. He felt a warm glow that crowded out those recent memories of Smith, the Director, and that maddening Roadrunner contractor.

“Matilda,” Leonardo said, “I’ve traveled from one end of this planet to the other and have never tasted the spices you use in your cooking. What are they? Where do they come from?”

“They come from a long way away. I doubt if you have ever heard of them.”


“Not exactly.”

“Family secret?”

“That’s it.”

“Delicious, Matilda. You have a gift.” Not exactly a gift in the sense of his own aptitude for science and art, but the compliment hadn’t cost him anything.

Something was askew, and it was more than the day’s travails. Leonardo asked himself why Matilda was sitting across from him at the dinner table, a liberty she had never before taken?

“May I speak to you about something, sir?” So short was Matilda, that only half a neck and her scarfed head were visible above the tabletop.

Leonardo anxiously opened and closed his hands beneath the table.

“My daughter is…ah…expecting. I have to go to her.”

Leonardo hadn’t been aware that Matilda had a family, not that he had ever inquired. Even with his prodigious mental resources, it took a moment for the outlandish thing she’d said to register, and when it did it provoked this question: Should ephemeral people like her, who saw to the needs of essential people like him, be allowed to have personal entanglements that interfered with doing their duty? The answer was obvious. He forced himself to say, “I suppose I could do without you for a few days…but only if it’s absolutely necessary.”

She was already shaking her head. “I’m sorry, sir. This will be a longtrip.”

Taking a healthy gulp of wine, he said, “How long?”


How much time could a baby take anyway? “Is your daughter sick? Is the baby sick?”

She stared at him through squinting eyes. “Um…quintuplets…five.”

“Good God!” erupted Leonardo, putting wine glass to lips. The glass being empty, he reached across the table and re-filled it.

“I might be able to return in nine months…maybe a bit sooner…”

“Months? Months? Months!”

“Nine, or so.”

“Did your daughter take fertility drugs?”

“No, it’s common in our…family.”

For an instant, Leonardo entertained the notion of inviting Matilda’s daughter to live here for a while, but an image of a houseful of infants obliterated that crazy idea. His blood ran cold. He couldn’t help himself when he said, “This is damned inconvenient, Matilda.”

“I’m sorry.”

Another big gulp of wine. “You won’t reconsider?”

“I’m sorry, sir.” She rose from her chair, with a barely perceptible increase in height, fetched his now-empty wine glass, and crept out of the room.

By the time he went to bed, Leonardo had convinced himself that another—and perhaps better—housekeeper could be had. He would have to sack Matilda by email, as he had always found this means of communication the best option for delicate matters. The sticking point would be the haute cuisineto which he’d become accustomed. If he sold a few more paintings, perhaps a housekeeper anda chef could be managed.

He checked his APD and was delighted to learn that several dozen samples would be arriving at the lab tomorrow, some from Earth-like planets. Kung and Po wouldn’t steal the watch on him—or his Nobel Prize, not if energy and determination had anything to do with it. As he had come to expect, Dr. Foster’s standard end of day note greeted him: “15 soil, 11 liquid, 8 gas, and 2 plasma samples were analyzed today. No evidence of alien life was discovered.”

Tomorrow was a new day, Leonardo told himself. New samples to be analyzed. Hundreds, thousands of new Roadrunner Rovers being built to supplement the current armada. It was only a matter of time. Someday, they’d make a film of Leonardo’s work, along the lines of A Beautiful Mind or Infinity. He set his alarm an hour early, queued-up Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and fell into blissful sleep.

After Leonardo had drifted off, his purple-eyed pet cat—a stray from faraway—changed the music. Like Jonesy, the cat was a jazz fan.

“That’s better,” he purred.

Copyright T. M. Doran 2015/2019

Project Management: From Red Lights to Green Lights

How many books have been published and classes taught on project management? Yet, we have too many projects that are “Red”, “Pink”, or “Yellow” rather than the “Green Light” projects and products we celebrate.


  • A city in Michigan switches from one water supply to another and experiences elevated levels of lead in their drinking water. If crimes were committed, they weren’t the root cause of the mess, and an exclusive focus on legal remedies won’t prevent messes like this from occurring again.
  • On a high profile facility project where the designers/constructors were capable organizations with good reputations, the cost escalates to where the project has to be suspended and a political tsunami occurs.
  • Many projects, like the California rail project, using early-stage estimates to set budgets, with many unknowns and important decisions still to be made, end up costing 50% more than originally estimated, or 2-3 times as much.


Reading and listening to the news, these aren’t rare occurrences. Must we accept such outcomes now and then—bad luck, bad karma, once in a lifetime “asteroid strikes”?


Some would like to reduce project management to a mechanical exercise, good software, the right reports, but good PM is also an art, especially in relation to communications, and it requires virtue: prudence, humility, and perseverance. Focusing exclusively on reports and software may make you a better PM, but not a great one. My experience managing many projects, conducting hundreds of pre, mid, and post-project face to face customer interviews, conducting hundreds of project audits with project managers, and hearing plenty from project team members who have experienced too many troubled projects, suggests measures that can significantly reduce the number of “Red Light” projects.


ISO certification and Ford Q1 taught us that some ISO procedures produce little if any practical benefit, many produce some benefit some of the time, and a few are high impact. These highest impact processes are where we applied most of our energy, where I focused on my own projects, and when training, coaching, and auditing project managers. Yes, these high impact processes take effort, but organizations find the time to clean up “Red Light” projects, so why not invest a fraction of the time to prevent these messes? I’m convinced a one-day What Could Go Wrong session with the right water expert could have prevented the Flint heartbreak and subsequent remediation/legal costs.


Excellent project management is a differentiator, just as a great quarterback is a differentiator. I’ve conducted project completion interviews with satisfied customers on projects I knew had experienced problems. Conversely, I’ve interviewed customers who were less than satisfied than I’d expected on projects with very few technical/delivery problems—project management was the difference.


What is necessary to get to “Green Light” projects and products (consistently superior outcomes) rather than “Yellow Light” (superior outcomes mixed with mediocre outcomes), “Pink Light” (consistently mediocre outcomes), and “Red Light” (too many bad outcomes)?


  • Work Definition that is as clear to all parties as possible, including identifying Work Not Included. This means thinking expansively about the project/product, asking What Could Go Wrong, what aren’t we considering. In our rush to get the work underway, we often shortchange the probing questions that can make a big difference. Without clear definition, the project manager is vulnerable to all kinds of project twists and turns and the customer won’t know, or will misunderstand, what to expect.
  • A documented face to face pre-project Customer Interview to confirm expectations, as well as outcomes the customer cannot accept, to resolve discrepancies between expectations and the contracted work before the project proceeds, with mid-project interviews on longer duration projects to identify essential adjustments, and a project completion interview to measure performance and identify systemic issues. I have done hundreds of these interviews and every one has produced something we hadn’t expected or considered.
  • A concise Project Work Plan (Roadmap) that includes more than just the contracted work definition, addressing risk (What Could Go Wrong—see Michigan lead mess), measures to eliminate or mitigate risks, project communications, team budgets that may be different than anticipated in the proposal, when quality reviews will occur and by whom. 2-4 pages rather than a thesis. For early-stage cost estimates, risk can be mitigated by providing a cost range with a best estimate within this range rather than one number packed with assumptions and contingencies. This approach frames the degree of risk and allows the customer to participate in establishing risk tolerance. An organic Roadmap that changes when the project changes so the project manager and team have a common understanding of responsibilities and accountability. In this era of emails and texting, with big generational differences in job/life priorities, project managers must take time for face-to-face conversations when important commitments are being sought. Clarity with delivery dates and times, product content, level of effort, obstacles to the commitment, with repetition as necessary.
  • Status Reports to the customer that address work performed, including requested or perceived changes in the work that may affect budget, schedule, and risk (the high profile facility project that progressed so far without official change/cost authorization). This requires the project manager to be knowledgeable about the true status of the project, probing risk as the project/product development proceeds, and puts the customer on notice if they have essential responsibilities to fulfill or decisions to make.
  • A means to regularly assess Work Actually Completed in relation to the hours/dollars spent. More than a few project managers have asked how their project could be 90% complete a month earlier, with 50% of the budget being spent since that time. The answer? The PM’s estimate of work actually completed was flawed, or the project team didn’t want to bear bad news, or the PM/team succumbed to the inclination to be overly optimistic about completion, or a combination of the above. Best if the project manager comes at this estimate from more than one angle—task by task completion, deliverables completed, drawing status, QC feedback. Strive for your best estimate of percent complete, then reduce this percentage by 10-30%. If you estimate 70% complete, actual completion is probably closer to 40-60%. What harsh experience has taught me.


An article could be written about each of these high impact processes identifying things that can make them more effective (useful) but the most important thing is to do them with prudence, humility, and perseverance. All can be adapted to PM programs and customer requirements already in place. These high impact processes presuppose a competent project team. Good project management can’t make up for incompetent planners, designers, QC, or builders.


My “Red Light” hell: poorly defined work, no pre or post project customer interviews, no project work plan, no project status reports, pro forma/superficial quality reviews, a belief that what’s spent equals work actually completed.


Meeting project budgets is essential, but the best project managers know project/product success is more than dollars and cents. Satisfied customers, companies that meet their profit goals to stay healthy, project teams that take satisfaction in their work, communities and companies and environments enhanced. More than just mess avoidance; the bigger picture, the things we remember when the dust has settled. Getting from “Red Lights” to “Green Lights” makes life better.

Free Markets, Human Liberty and The Environment

Edmund Burke, an eighteenth century promoter of responsible human liberty, opposed the French version of Liberté and consequently suffered many insults and rebukes. In England, the French version of liberty was also popular and to many Burke was more reactionary than libertarian. Likewise, George Washington sought to prevent French Liberté from invading America, and was chastised by many “democrats”. Burke and Washington opposed the ideology of the French Revolution because they understood it would merely replace one form of tyranny with another, one ruling oligarchy with another.


We are well into the twenty-first century and if there is a predominant ideology in the West it is an environmental socialism that is skeptical of free markets, skeptical of local decision-making, skeptical of human liberties and enterprise that conflict with the “rights” of snails, mad as hell about human assaults on the environment, a twenty-first century Liberté where opposing perspectives are ridiculed and put down rather than investigated with reason and evidence.


Much good has been accomplished and promoted by people with strong ecological sensibilities, but the greatest good has been achieved when evidence, reason, and civil debate were the guideposts, not ideological dogma: early 20thcentury water filtration and disinfection to prevent drinking water-borne diseases; mid and later 20thcentury programs to advance wastewater treatment and management of the residuals they produce; utility, industry, and home technologies to get soot and smog out of urban areas. Programs that made a big difference in people’s lives, not virtue-signaling “crises” with marginal impacts that cost a fortune and eliminate jobs.


Evidence and reason reveal that representative democracies that value human liberty, personal responsibility, and freer markets, societies that still esteem time-tested virtues, are far better environmental stewards than top down oligarchies like Russia and China, and better environmental stewards than oligarchies posing as democracies (in the Industrial Age and today). We know that none of the world’s representative democracies are perfect—not even close, but those with legislative, judicial, and societal brakes on oligarchs, bureaucracies that answer to no one, and criminal opportunists best serve their citizens andthe environment. Look it up.


Why are so many well-educated people skeptical of free markets, individual liberty informed by personal responsibility, the classical virtues? Because for all the information at our fingertips the ability to distinguish between evidence and speculation, or ideology, has atrophied; because mainstream and social media reward those who hold “enlightened” views while punishing those who challenge the “virtuous” consensus; because, for many, environmental talking points and funding streams are more important than evidence.  Reasoning itself is suspect as a weapon of imperialistic, racist, or sexist societies, despite paragons of reasoning abiding in every culture. So many problems—global, local, economic, health related—are blamed on climate change because the claims are never challenged, because we are unable to distinguish between carefully reasoned and superficial arguments. Sadly, much more practical good could be accomplished on the climate front if we separated speculation from evidence-based conclusions.


In the 1960s, flower children inscribed “Frodo lives” on subway and building walls, and while they were muddled in many things they were on to something, esteeming the democratic society, individual liberties, free trade, personal virtue, and care for the natural world that predominated in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire. Of all the fads of the 60s that have faded, too bad it was the one closest to the truth.

The Lord of The Rings as Realism

Imagine proposing Monet or Picasso as art realists—the reaction one expects when asserting that J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of The Rings”, notwithstanding elves, goblins, wizards, dragons, is radically realistic.


Don’t be fooled by Tolkien’s archaic forms of speech, jaw breaking names for people and places, or dense song-making, as this story is more realistic than storytelling deeply rooted in the modern world or rife with modern angst. Starting with the consequences of self-sacrifice, when such sacrifice is likely to end in failure and destruction. Frodo and Sam take on the mission of conveying the Ring of Power to Mordor so as to destroy it, but the likelihood of success is close to zero and the probability that the Ring will destroy them—destruction in a sense worse than death—is all but certain. Not because there is glory in this mission, because it is necessary. Where else have the stakes been portrayed so graphically as in the person of Gollum, who is both Frodo’s guide and fallen self? Even Frodo’s grand “success” leaves him in a world in which the damage he sustained cannot be healed, as often occurs with those who make heroic sacrifices. If final healing can be obtained, Tolkien suggests it must occur beyond the confines of this world.


The Voice of Saruman the traitorous wizard is depicted as having the power to sway the minds of the great and small alike. Though we are loath to admit that we can be so swayed, how often do we make decisions based on what compelling voices, laden with appeals to our emotions and predispositions, tell us to do? How hard it is, especially for the educated and strong-minded, to admit they can be twisted, yet history repeatedly demonstrates that human beings can be convinced of anything when “Voices” appeal to their self-interests or kindle strong fears.


The Palantir is a kind of crystal ball in which other places and events can be viewed, a seeing stone that ostensibly bestows power on the viewer. In fact, it is employed to make Denethor, the steward/ruler of Gondor, see what the Enemy wants him to see, to twist and ultimately break his mind with rage and despondency. Don’t our modern Palantirs—Internet, phones, virtual reality games, social media, TV—promise knowledge, entertainment, or power while manipulating our emotions and beliefs? Aren’t we often enfeebled rather than empowered by such things?


Most of us would have endless life if we could, but the immortal elves in Middle Earth, for all their creativity and wisdom, are restless with the impermanence of the world around them, a restlessness that days without end cannot ameliorate; the reason the elves are slowly embarking from a Middle Earth to which they are still strongly attached. Tolkien well understood Augustine’s admonition that nothing in this world can ultimately satisfy.


Lastly, the Ring of Power; rather, the Ring of Slavery, its effects depicted in the Ringwraiths and Gollum: an endlessly horrible existence, the eradication of freedom, power to destroy but not create anything with a sliver of beauty, utter slavery to the Maker of the Ring. When tormented by a “Voice” or “Palantir” or “Ring”, haven’t we had internal conversations eerily similar to Gollum’s terrifying soliloquies? Is the Ring in the story so different from the effects of drug addictions, sexual obsessions, the relentless accumulation of things and power, all-consuming hatred of the “other”, that plague humankind? Every one of us must make choices, sometimes daily, as to whether to put on the Ring that promises what our fallen self desires, or to put it away.


Contrast the realism depicted in modern literature with Tolkien’s realism. For the moderns: our perspective defined by psychology, culture, education, victimhood, chance; our purpose self-defined; a materialistic universe and the finality of death. For Tolkien: the insidious lure of sin, the call to “irrational” self-donation, hope beyond our human frailty and the grave. One might say mutually exclusive realities. I’ve read “The Lord of The Rings” many times, first as fantasy and adventure—a heroic saga, as myth come to life—but in the twilight of my life as a relentlessly realistic portrayal of the human condition that we’d do well to heed.


The human heart

Those who live only for pleasure become cynical in middle age. A cynic has been defined as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. You blame things, rather than self. If you are married, you say: “If I had another husband, or another wife, I could be happy.” Or you say, “If I had another job…” or, “If I were in another city, I would be happy”…


Once you realize that God is your end…you begin to see that friendship, the joys of marriage, the thrill of possession, the sunset and the evening star, masterpieces of art and music, the gold and silver of earth, the industries and the comfort of life, are all the gifts of God. He dropped them on the roadway of life to remind you that if these are so beautiful then what must be BEAUTY? He intended them to be bridges to cross over to him…


Unfortunately, many become so enamored of the gifts the great Giver of Life has dropped on the roadway of life that they build their cities around the gift, and forget the Giver, and when the gifts, out of loyalty to their Maker, fail to give them perfect happiness, they rebel against God and become cynical and disillusioned…


Look at your heart! It tells the story of why you were made. It is not perfect in shape and contour, like a Valentine heart. There seems to be a small piece missing out of the side of every human heart. That may be to symbolize a piece that was torn out of the heart of Christ, which embraced all humanity on the cross…


When God made your human heart, he found it so good and so lovable that he kept a small sample of it in heaven. He sent the rest of it into this world to enjoy his gifts and to use them as steppingstones back to him.   (Fulton Sheen)