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Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 1999 /1 Teves, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The simple things, or: Wednesdays with Morrie, too --

I WATCHED a few scenes from "Tuesdays with Morrie'' the other night and was glad I did. First because I love Jack Lemmon, who's both so human and such a ham, but I repeat myself. And because the television special illustrated so well how America's pop culture, including journalism, seems forever caught between a hard-boiled sentimentality and what George Orwell called the "lust for the profound.`

The result is a kind of Hallmark philosophy that, for all its superficiality, reflects a basic wholesomeness, generosity and optimism that the whole world has come to identify with Americans, and to envy -- even when we're being criticized, or condescended to. Which may explain why so many still flow to this land.

Foreigners may think of Americans as naive, as the kind of people who don't appreciate what they've got, as childlike; but nevertheless millions around the world want their children to have what we do -- the rights, the opportunities, the freedom. And so they still knock on the golden door.

Those folks will do whatever it takes to get in. Wouldn't you? That's why that young Cuban mother risked all to get her boy across the narrow but vast distance between the land of the free and Fidel's. And that's why no American court should deprive her 6-year-old son of the choice his mother made for him, and died for.

I see that some of my colleagues in this country's still-free press are all for sending little Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba. Why, sure. He's not their kid. --OPTIONAL TRIM BEGINS HERE-- As for Maximum Leader, did you catch that sclerotic old man in his pressed fatigues? If only he himself were as unwrinkled and unstained. He was hyperventilating about the million demonstrators he'd call out if this one innocent child wasn't returned to his prison isle. Even now he's putting up bleachers outside the U.S. interest section in Havana for the usual "spontaneous'' demonstrations. It's enough to bring back the ghost of Soviet Unions past. A million, 5 million, let that whole caged island march and chant canned slogans before one single child is turned over to that screaming old megalomaniac. What do free men care? One wonders how many of those demonstrators, who doubtless will get a day off and their orders, would gladly march to the Land of the Free -- if only they could.

These are the kinds of star-spangled thoughts inspired by watching "Tuesdays with Morrie,'' for the professor whose story it tells was the child of immigrants, too, and the lives of those he touched would have been so much poorer without him. Who knows what young Elian Gonzalez might teach us someday?

If this made-for-television, made-for-Middle America movie was a four-hankie special, then some tears may say more than sophisticated critics and political pundits can.

The two-hour special had some lovely photography -- falling leaves, a New England snowfall and Jack Lemmon's lined face. And some fine music. Perhaps most impressive was the contrast between the wisdom literature that Morrie was passing on as he lay living -- his words were about love, forgiveness and the simple joys of life -- and the glaring commercials that kept interrupting the movie. Their message seemed the opposite of Morrie's: Buy, sell, grab! Speed, Power and The American Way!

In contrast, Morrie's words were neither New, Improved nor An Extra Added Bonus. Most of us had doubtless heard them before -- Love one another, as I have loved you -- but they tend to be reserved for church services, and for our new church: seasonal television specials. Morrie was just reflecting what Zen, Torah, the Christian Bible and every great mystical faith has always told us. It's not the knowing that is hard but, as this movie demonstrated, especially during the breaks, the practicing.

The lessons Morrie taught seem to grow particularly clear at certain times, like when Life and Death are newly present: at the birth of a child with all its shining promise, or the death of a parent or teacher, when our mourning and gratitude overwhelm us, and we suddenly see things clear.

Clarity also seems to come at this time of the year -- like a starry winter sky and the kind of cold that makes your breath visible in the crisp air. Christmas is coming, Chanukah is here. That's when an old and always new spirit begins to rise in each of us, and "the stupid, harsh mechanism of the world runs down, and we permit ourselves to live according to untrammeled common sense, the unconquerable efficiency of good will.'' -- Christopher Morley.

A fire on the hearth, a cup of hot chocolate, the presence of someone you love, and things fall into place. For it's the simple, priceless things that matter in life -- like freedom itself.

It all suddenly seems so simple this time of year and -- when we're caught in the milling crowds with a thousand things to do, or lost in the usual tangle of our own frets and crochets -- so impossible.

Here's my wish for you, Gentle Reader, and for myself: that as the great swirl commences, we'll remember what the holiday is about -- and what life, and death, are about. The simple things.

Morrie just reminded us.

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate