Jan 132018

Evanston RoundTable, Jan. 11, 2018

Funny the things we remember. I read once, as a kid, about a jet fighter pilot who was testing a new plane. The plane stalled and he went into a tailspin. Try as he might he could not engage the gear to pull the plane up. With the ground fast approaching and nothing to lose he rammed the gear in the opposite direction.

It worked.

This made a great and lasting impression on my little mind. The lesson was this: if something is broken, try something else.

This lesson has wide application in real life. People are often handcuffed by bad habits and bad behavior. The antidote is to ask: is it working for me?

If the answer is no, time to push the gears in some other direction.

Take smoking. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 15% of Americans, some 36.5 million people, are addicted. Some people say smoking is harder to quit than heroin. Yet every day, a small number of smokers figure out how to kick the habit. There are three ways to do this: reduce the craving, increase the penalty, or most effectively, do both.

There is a change paradigm that illustrates this, based on the law of supply and demand that many people remember from Econ 101. In that graph, the forces of supply push up as the price goes up, indicating that most manufacturers will provide more of a commodity the higher the price. The forces of demand push down as the price goes up, indicating that most people will buy less of a commodity the higher the price. Where supply and demand meet is the “equilibrium point,” where price and production will settle.

Instead of supply, however, imagine a line that represents resistance to change (in this case, smoking), such as habit, conformity, stress, inertia, the so-called nicotine high, the notion that cigarettes are “cool,” and many other factors.

Instead of demand, imagine a line that represents a need or desire for change. This would include worsening health effects (such as increased coughing and diminished lung capacity), the cost of cigarettes, learning a friend or loved one who smoked has developed a fatal disease, and acknowledging the facts. As the CDC reports, “Smoking leads to disease and disability and harms nearly every organ of the body. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death.”

Where the two lines cross is the point at which change occurs.

I call it the supply and demand curve for personal (in)action.

It may not be strictly scientific (neither is economics), but it has this element of truth, namely that people will only change when the forces for change become stronger than the forces for avoiding change.

The trick is to move the forces for change faster—to talk to people who have lost a lung to cancer, or their survivors, for example. If that sounds extreme, know how difficult and challenging change can be.

Remember, like the jet fighter pilot, if something is not working, shift gears.

Jan 132018

Evanston RoundTable, Dec. 28, 2017

Americans have a fixation on eating and weight, and every year countless articles, books, and TV segments are churned out telling us about the latest diet fad. But rarely do they consider the essential component, which is hunger.

For thousands of years, hunger was humankind’s constant companion and scourge. The Bible spells out dozens of plagues, starting in Exodus with the seven years in Egypt, of which it was said, “But the hunger and destitution and starvation were very severe and extremely distressing in the land.”

In modern times there was The Great Famine of 19th century Ireland, and numerous 20th century famines in Russia, Vietnam, China, and North Korea, each of which resulted in millions of deaths.

Today, despite great advances in agricultural production and food preservation, almost 800 million people—more than 10% of the world’s population—go to bed hungry every night, according to World Hunger Education.

Even here, in The United States of Plenty, hunger remains a stubborn problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2016 some 41 million people were “food insecure.”

Perhaps a more serious problem is obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one-third of all Americans are obese. A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Public Health says obesity may be responsible for almost one in five deaths in the United States. “[O]besity significantly shapes U.S. mortality levels, placing it at the forefront of concern for public health action,” the study concluded.

It would seem strange that hunger and obesity can exist side by side in America, but they do. There are many reasons for this seeming anomaly, everything from the psychology of eating to poverty and the problems of food distribution and preservation. The issues are complex if not intractable.

But at the center of it all is the simple fact of hunger. Many Americans have lost the experience of hunger. Cheap food is plentiful and people eat in clockwork fashion, morning, noon, and night, without regard to whether they are hungry or not. For these people, obese or not, it would be hugely important to regain the sensation of hunger.

For one thing, hunger is an essential signal, the body’s way of regulating appetite and intake. Without it, we eat mindlessly and mechanically, heedless of appetite or taste.

More generally, hunger is a reminder of the huge problem of food insecurity and starvation around the world. To experience hunger, even a little, is to remind ourselves of what many so many people around the world face every day. That is one reason why so many religious observances—including Lent, Yom Kippur and Ramadan—include some form of abstinence.

Even in the secular world, hunger can be a spiritual statement. As former U.N. General Secretary Dag Hammarskjold put it, “Hunger is my native place in the land of the passions.”

We need to reacquaint ourselves with the experience of hunger.


Dec 152017

Evanston RoundTable, Dec. 14, 2017

Welcome, everyone, thanks for coming. So glad you all could be here.

Wish I could too!

(Awkward pause.)

It’s OK to laugh, I’m just kidding!

Actually of course, I am here, laid out in this nice plywood box, very comfy in my favorite cashmere sweater, blue jeans and sensible loafers. No suit and tie for me. It’s casual eternity where I’m headed!

I have asked that some of my favorite things be included in the casket: family photos, a few Russian novels for the long days, fleece blanket for the long nights, and several gallons of coffee-flavored Haagen Dazs ice cream. Can sure use a sugar buzz for the eternal trip.

Aside from the corporeal me, I am also here in spirit, which according to our religious tradition lingers around the body for several days, like Homer at Moe’s Tavern, until it is ready to depart. That means I’m actually keeping an eye on the proceedings, so no snarky asides or inappropriate speeches, people.

Kidding aside, I can say without exaggeration that I have had the extraordinary good fortune to be born in this country, in this era, and with this family. I have been truly blessed, with good jobs, great friends, extensive travel, and the opportunity to work in journalism, write my columns as well as some fiction, play great music, read wonderful books, and meet delightful people, many of whom are here today for this rousing sendoff.

There have been lots of highlights. Spending a year as an undergraduate living in London and hitchhiking through Europe. Serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa. Meeting my future wife in Lincoln Park. Our many decades together in good health. Raising two wonderful children and spending so much time with our fabulous grandson.

I have also been lucky to have inherited my father’s passionate curiosity about the world, and why not? This place we call home is endlessly fascinating. Luckier still to have inherited my mother’s sense of humor and compassion, without which the world’s stupidity and suffering would be insupportable.

And luckiest of all, perhaps, to realize that the best thing in life boils down to just this: do everything possible to help make other people feel better, happier, more secure, and more productive.

I am not gloomy about the void. After all, it is where we all came from. Worms will chomp on my innards, it is true. But the worms will be eaten by birds, and the birds will poop by a tree, and the tree will absorb and process and expel my essence as oxygen, and I will be of the air and the sky, still part of the universe and inevitably settle back onto earth to blend with the soil and grow as a stalk of corn or a lilac bush, to be eaten and become part of another living thing, the cycle of birth and death playing out again and again.

An eternal adventure, like life itself.




Dec 012017

Evanston RoundTable, Nov. 30, 2017

There were two boys who were schoolmates and best friends. But they were very different. Bobby seemed to have it all: smart, good-looking, and athletic, he was quarterback of the football team, dated the most popular girls, and had top grades. Plus his family had a lot of money. Kasheem wasn’t much of a student but he was good with his hands, had an aptitude for fixing things, and loved to tinker with cars.

When they graduated high school, Bobby went to an Ivy League school where he planned to get an engineering degree. Kasheem went to work as a trainee at a local auto dealership.

As often happens, they lost touch, and it wasn’t until 20 years later, at their high school reunion, when they reunited.

“What have you been up to?” Kasheem excitedly asked his old friend after they greeted each other with big hugs.

“I’m doing OK,” said Bobby, a little less excitedly. “I’m working in a big software firm. But I’m stuck in a lousy job, and frankly, I’m ready to quit. And unfortunately, I’m twice divorced. Guess I’m unlucky in love. What about you?” he asked Kasheem.

“I’m doing good,” Kasheem replied. “I’m head of sales at the auto dealership where I started after high school. The president says I’m in line for his job when he retires. And I have a wonderful wife and two great kids.”

“Wow,” said Bobby, a little surprised and even deflated. Hadn’t he had all the advantages, the smarts and the family wealth? “If I may ask, what’s your secret?”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s a secret, but after I started there the president assigned me a mentor, someone who would show me the ropes. And one day, kind of frustrated, I said to him, ‘You know, I’m just not making it here. I don’t think I’m smart enough. I think I’m ready to quit.’

“And he said, ‘Let me show you something.’ We were sitting in the cafeteria, and he took two drinking glasses, different in size. And he poured water to the top of the small glass and just a little water in the larger glass.

“’Here are two people,’ he said. ‘Each is a different vessel, with different potentials and abilities. But that really doesn’t matter; it’s what they do with those abilities that counts.’

“I must have looked confused, because he went on, ‘The water represents what we put into those vessels. Notice the smaller vessel has the most water. That vessel—that person—worked the hardest to fulfill his or her capabilities.’

“That’s when I got it. I started working harder, went to night school, volunteered to do all the jobs no one else wanted to do. I worked my way up. And now I’m in line to be president.”

Bobby laughed and high-fived his friend. “ Maybe I’ll take your mentor’s advice,” he said, “and start applying myself more.”

“Why not?” said Kasheem. “It can’t hurt.”



Nov 172017

Evanston RoundTable, Nov. 16, 2017

Every day seems to bring more accusations of and discussion about sexual harassment, as women everywhere are emboldened to speak out and men begin to realize that sexual misconduct of any type (whether theirs or someone else’s) is no longer amusing or acceptable.

It is not hard to pinpoint the exact moment when this thinking changed. Anita Hill testified in 1991. Since then there have been numerous accusations, but until the New York Times and The New Yorker broke their stories about Harvey Weinstein (little more than a month ago!) nothing seemed that different. Now the dam has broken.

The more important issue is: how can we put an end to it? Given that predatory misbehavior derives from the confluence of three powerful forces—sex, power and ego—it will not be not easy. But it is not impossible.

It requires at least two things.

First is knowledge: that sexual harassment, male misconduct, sexual predation, violent misogyny, objectification, dehumanization—call it what you will—is far more prevalent and serious than most men realize or are willing to acknowledge, and that it is utterly wrong. If you doubt any of this, ask your female colleagues, a third of whom in a 2015 survey said they have been the target of unwanted sexual advances at work.

I asked, on my Facebook page, and got immediate and powerful responses. One of my correspondents, a North Shore woman, after detailing numerous episodes of egregiously bad behavior, concluded, “All of the foregoing is quite ordinary; more or less the norm for what my female colleagues and I put up with.  I doubt there is a single business or institution in which the casual harassment of women is not business as usual. Especially given the example offered by our current Predator-in-Chief.” Another told me, “Each time it happens we’ve had to decide whether to say anything. In that sense we’ve all been complicit.” (Both women gave me permission to quote them.)

Thanks to the recent outpouring of such stories, that knowledge is now seeping into the general consciousness.

Second is the harder step: how to make it stop.

One problem is that the image of women as flesh-and-blood people—as mothers, sisters, daughters, friends—is distorted beyond all recognition in the violent lyrics of gangsta rap, salacious ads in glossy magazines, titillating stories that air on cable TV and R-rated movies, even in suggestive games on the devices where boys spend so much of their time.

Maybe is it time to say these depictions of women (produced mostly by men) as exciting, dangerous, voluptuous, and eagerly available are totally inappropriate, as offensive and barbaric as racism.

The way to fix that, as Hemingway said about how things change, is gradually, then fast. Gradual would be the teaching of ethics, responsibility, and proper behavior to boys and girls throughout their school years. Fast would be things we can do now: training classes in the workplace, pressure on Hollywood and Madison Avenue to change the way they depict women, insistence that organizations advance women more quickly until they reach parity with men in pay, responsibility, and in numbers proportional to the population.

Perhaps most importantly, men need to ask themselves: am I to blame in ways large and small? Can I do better?

Many men will object: “Not me, I’ve never done any of these awful things!” But even acquiescing silently in locker room talk when another man makes a lewd comment or a dirty joke—and face it guys, who among us hasn’t?—is reinforcing the “boys will be boys” culture of disrespect and intolerance that can lead to harassment and violence.

It is time for men to stand up and strongly support an end to these practices.





Nov 022017

Evanston RoundTable, Nov. 2, 2017

It seems like every other Evanston conversation begins with a complaint and ends with a question.

The complaint is about the state of the world, from dysfunction in Washington and Springfield to rampant gun violence, crumbling infrastructure, racial and gender inequity, and much more.

The question is, what can be done?

Most of us feel too insignificant and ineffective to make a difference. So instead we mutter some heartfelt but useless pieties and try to push it all out of our minds.

But there is something we can do. Just like all politics are local, so are the solutions.

And the best, easiest, and most convenient solution is to mentor a young person. Best because it can shape and strengthen a life; easiest because it is right here in Evanston; convenient because both Ys — the YWCA of Evanston/North Shore and McGaw YMCA — offer mentoring programs.

The YWCA’s Advancement Project helps women improve their money management skills. The program, which began this past summer, currently has 12 coaches working one-on-one with participants to develop a personalized financial plan. Coaches go through a six-hour training program. People interested in joining, either as a coach or participant, should call Shannon Callahan at the YWCA.

The McGaw YMCA’s program, Project SOAR, has 71 mentor/mentee pairs. The program was started in 1990 and has matched more than 1,000 kids since then. Today most mentors are Northwestern students, but there are also openings for community members. Mentors go through a seven-hour training program. Call Elise Roug at the McGaw Y for more information.

Through Project SOAR, I mentored a young Evanston man for 10 years — from the time he was 11 until he turned 21. On our Saturday outings we would go to ballgames, movies, museums, even (twice) horseback riding. I can’t count the number of meals we shared. He came to our family Seders and learned to drive on our excursions to Fort Sheridan. Sometimes we would do schoolwork together, and when he was considering going into the military, we studied the Army ASVAB test.

Now he is married with children, lives in a distant suburb, holds a good job and, whenever he is planning to come to Evanston, will call to get together for lunch. It is remarkably rewarding to see how well things are going for him. We catch up, laugh about marriage and kids, and reminisce about all our splendid get-togethers.

He is always quick to thank me for the time we spent and the things we did together. And I am quick to say I got more out of the relationship than he did. We became a wonderful team, thanks to Project SOAR.

You can help someone too. As the Talmud says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief…. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

No more need to feel frustrated and angry about the state of the world. Change it — become a mentor.



Oct 192017

Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 19, 2017

From Kafka to the Existentialists, alienation and isolation have been central tenets of modern life. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, everyone experiences “the same condition of infinite remoteness.” But is that really true? The facts suggest otherwise. We are all wrapped up in and connected by togetherness, and our remoteness is mostly an aberration, an artifact of the peculiar way we apprehend the universe.

One can understand the sense of aloneness, the impression that the self—our individual feelings and understanding—is all that can really be proved to exist. After all, we see the world as unique individuals, through the portals of our senses, the streams of light and vibrations of sound playing out on our singular brains. Nothing else registers with the same impact and immediacy.

Children often imagine that they are not only the stars but the only real people of their life dramas, and everyone else fades away when they leave the stage. There is even a name for it: infant solipsism. But eventually they outgrow that misconception. As adults, we know that we are so much more alike than apart.

Sadly, with all the worldly travails, the corrosive politics, the hate-filled rants, the frequency of shootings and warfare, the news media’s focus on death and destruction, it might not seem that way. Even the classic stance of the cell phone user, head down, eyes locked, oblivious to surroundings, suggests a posture and attitude more reclusive than connective.

But it is possible to demonstrate the opposite. Imagine a bevy of Martians beaming down for their first foray with Earthlings. Only instead of landing at, say, the new Fountain Square, and heading to the nearest coffee shop for a whipped-cream-topped, honey-flavored, extra-foamy latte (impossible to find on the Red Planet), they prefer to examine us from overhead, hovering invisibly just a few yards off the ground. At that remove, what would they make of our species?

Mostly that we are alike. Sure, our hair and skin color may be different, and our gender identities and personalities vary along a fairly narrow range. But when it comes to basics, we might as well be one. After all, we stand, walk, talk, laugh, sing, play, and act almost identically. We empathize with the sufferings of others. We love our children and detest pain and privation.

Our universal bonds are not only intuitive but scientifically sound. Researchers at Cambridge University have uncovered DNA evidence that suggests all modern humans have a common ancestry.

And modern religions tell the same story. “God willed to create all men out of one,” wrote St. Augustine, “in order that they might be held in their society not only by likeness of kind, but also by bond of kindred.”

It is true that we are born and die alone, and spend a good deal of our lives feeling apart from others, Emerson’s “infinite remoteness.” But we are always alone together.

Oct 052017

Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 5, 2017

There is a big upside to the downside of life’s brevity: it focuses our attention on getting things done.

Many years ago I volunteered at an Evanston-based hospice that worked with the dying. We were there to provide essential chores and relieve the main caregivers for a few hours so they could get out. Given my background in journalism I thought I could help clients narrate their life stories, and indeed, I did assist one elderly gentleman on his memoirs.

But before starting, all volunteers were required to attend several half-day training sessions. At one our facilitator asked us to list in order the 10 things that gave us the most pleasure in life. I’m sure my list was similar to most everyone else’s—spending time with family, enjoying good food, hanging out with friends, listening to music, reading, traveling, etc.

“OK, starting at the bottom of the list, cross out the last item,” the facilitator instructed. I ran a line through “Taking long walks.”

“Now cross out the next item.” Gone was “Watching movies.”

We deleted a few more items on the list. “You get the idea,” she said. “For someone who is dying, all their favorite activities are eventually denied them.”

I was perhaps 35 years old at the time and while this was an interesting, even eye-opening exercise, it did not have the impact of real life. Like everyone else at that age, I thought I was decades away from these considerations.

But the fact is, as I have learned to appreciate, life is always shorter than one can imagine. We are all only a step away from disaster, whether that step is getting into a car or climbing into a bathtub. Of course, we know this in theory but in practice rarely give it much thought. Most of our daily activities are too routine for us to really worry about them. Even when we read or hear about disasters, they are usually someone else’s problem.

Until they aren’t. Every day, some 7,200 people die in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means every 10 days, on average, almost the entire population of Evanston is wiped out. More than one third of those deaths are sudden and unexpected, from heart attacks and auto accidents and dozens of other causes.

The point is not to be morbid or depressing. Quite the contrary, it is to heighten our awareness of the tenuous and ephemeral nature of life, and the joy we should get from living. As Virgil said, “Death plucks at my ear and says: Live! I am coming.”

Which is why the exercise of listing our most important priorities, our personal bucket lists, is so important. To really live, we need to prioritize what it is we want to do, and then go about doing it.

So make the list, study and hold it close, and adjust your life to make it happen.


Sep 222017

Evanston RoundTable, Sept. 21, 2017

Northwestern University’s Block Museum is readying a major exhibit on the English poet and artist William Blake, who died in obscurity in 1827 at the age of 69.

Blake illustration to “The Shepherd” from Songs of Innocence, 1789

Since then countless artists, radicals, critics, and connoisseurs have discovered Blake’s intense and passionate vision and radical approach to art and verse, especially in the second half of the 20th Century, said chief curator Stephen Eisenman, Professor of Art History at Northwestern. As he writes in the exhibit catalogue: “…every generation that needs a model of independence, imagination, and resistance to law and authority turns to [Blake].”

The exhibit, titled “William Blake and the Age of Aquarius,” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, which Blake helped to inspire, Prof. Eisenman said. As evidence he cites Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and Bob Dylan, all of whom quoted from Blake’s lyrics. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg claimed to hear Blake’s voice in his head, and became obsessed with his work. Visual artists such as the famous rock poster illustrators found inspiration in Blake’s frequently phantasmagoric prints. A wide range of modern artists, such as Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Maurice Sendak, and Jackson Pollock appreciated and appropriated Blake’s imagery. Writers as diverse as Walt Whitman, James Joyce, and Jack Kerouac admired Blake’s poetry.

“This is the first exhibition to explore Blake’s impact on 20th century popular culture, and is populated by beats, hippies, poets, rockers, and artistic voices of the counterculture,” said Prof. Eisenman. “Blake’s protests against the conventions and repressions of his own society became a model for many young Americans, particularly those disillusioned by social conformity, consumerism, racial and gender discrimination, environmental degradation, and the Vietnam War.”

The exhibit runs through March 11, 2018, and will feature a public opening celebration titled “Music, Art, and Aquarius” on Sept. 23, followed by numerous lectures and presentations that reflect Blake’s protean achievements. Featured are more than 200 paintings, drawings, photographs, films, posters, and other media from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. In addition, there are more than 45 rare Blake engravings and pages from illuminated books on loan from the Yale Center for British Art; The Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia; the Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern; as well as one private collection.

“This exhibition plays to Block’s strengths, which has a history of placing art in a broad historic and cultural context by exhibiting together art, archives, popular, and material culture,” said Lisa Corrin, the Museum’s Director. “This approach exemplifies Block’s mission as a teaching museum, and the University-wide emphasis on cross-disciplinary inquiry.”

“Blake is full of contradictions, he’s difficult to teach,” said Prof. Eisenman. “He doesn’t fit into any categories. That’s one of the reasons I decided I wanted to take him up in a major exhibit.

“In art, he pioneered the technique for printing words and paintings on the same page. In literature, his poems had a profound influence on generations of writers. In society, he championed democracy and equality and rejected establishment law and morality. He is a salient figure for our time.”

The exhibit has been in the works for years. Prof. Eisenman originally approached the Block in 2010 to suggest a show on Blake and his influence on subsequent styles, such as Art Nouveau. At the suggestion of Ms. Corrin, the focus was subsequently narrowed for greater impact.

Here is the schedule:

Sept. 23: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. “Music, Art, and Aquarius,” a family-friendly opening at the Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Drive, on the south end of Northwestern’s campus. “The event seeks to capture the imaginative spirit that unites Blake and the Age of Aquarius,” said Lindsay Bosch, Museum Communications Manager. This includes Old Town School of Folk Music leading a counterculture jam session with songs from the ’60s; DJs from campus radio station WNUR DJs playing songs of the ’60s; Poetry While You Wait, a collective of poets with typewriters who write poems on the spot prompted by audience suggestions; and Spudnik Press, a print collective that hosts hands-on print-making.

At 2 p.m. Prof. Eisenman and Blake Scholar and University of Chicago Professor W.J.T Mitchell will present a program titled “Blake, Now and Then.” The talk will explore Blake’s role within his own time, his influence on countercultural American artists and musicians, and the ways in which Blake’s independence, imagination, and resistance to authority continue to resonate in contemporary life. Free at the Block, however this popular event has a waiting list. See below to sign up.

Oct. 4, 6 p.m. “Love and Then Some.” Northwestern scholars will focus on the 1960s, from protest and liberation to civil and human rights. Panelists include Michael Allen, Assistant Professor of History; Michael Kramer, Visiting Assistant Professor, History and American Studies; Amy Partridge, Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program; and Martha Biondi, Professor of African American Studies and History. Free at the Block.

Oct. 6, 7 p.m. “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” experimental short films focusing on the rock music of the era. Free at the Block.

Oct. 13, 7 p.m. “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” featuring the experimental movies of Lawrence Jordan, avant-garde American filmmaker. Free at the Block.

Oct. 18, 6 p.m. UCLA Professor of English and Comparative Literature Saree Makdisi will discuss “Beholding William Blake at the End of Empire in the 1960s,” framing the historical parallels between Blake’s era and the 1960s. Free at the Block.

Oct. 28, 2:30 p.m. As part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, antiwar activist Michael Ferber will discuss “The Social Vision of William Blake,” specifically how Blake’s work reveals connections between art, belief, and action. Tickets required, information at chicagohumanities.org.

Nov. 3, 6 p.m. “Printing in the ‘Infernal’ Method: William Blake’s Method of Illuminated Printing.” University of York (England) Professor Michael Phillips will discuss Blake’s invention of relief etching, which he called “Illuminated Printing,” making it possible to print both the text and illustrations of his poems from the same copper plate. Free at the Block.

Nov. 15, 6 p.m. Prof. Stephen Eisenman will lead a gallery tour with Visiting Artist Brendan Fernandes. Free at the Block.

The 224-page exhibit catalog, published by Princeton University Press, will be available for $45 at the Museum.

The Block Museum asks that, if possible, people register for events they plan to attend at www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu and go to “Upcoming Programs” and then to the event to RSVP.

Note: This was the original article; the one that appeared in the paper was shortened for space.


Sep 222017

Evanston RoundTable, Sept. 21, 2017

In a world brought low by hateful politics, toxic weather, and a seemingly endless supply of misery and divisiveness, it is well to remember the everyday miracles we take for granted.

Consider flight.

A recent trip to New York began with a phone call to a cab company to drive me to the airport. I got a text when the driver arrived. On the way there, a lush Tchaikovsky symphony poured out of the speakers. Commonplace, but let’s unpack it. On a device smaller than the palm of my hand, the driver pinged me to let me know he had arrived. His signal reached me via one of hundreds of satellites orbiting the planet, ricocheting from earth to sky and back again in less time than it takes to read this sentence.

The drive itself was routine, if a 4,000-pound room-sized conveyance of metal and rubber guided by computer chips can be considered routine. But just imagine what our Founding Fathers would have thought, how Washington and Jefferson would have quaked in their broadcloth suits to hear an orchestra swelling forth from hidden panels behind the dashboard of a big two-eyed monster cruising along effortlessly on a modern expressway at two or three times the speed of the fastest horse.

The airport itself is, of course, a kind of marvel, but the security process is a gauntlet of indignities, until we finally settle into the plane—a 400,000-pound marvel of incredible complexity, threaded with hundreds of miles of wiring and powered by giant batteries and liquid fuel sufficient to lift us five miles into the air and hurl us 760 feet per second a third of the way across the country in a little over two hours, operated by a commercial enterprise of tens of thousands of people and built in a giant factory on the other side of the continent—and take off, the ground rolling away, the plane released from the clutches of gravity, and oh, what a thing of beauty!

In short order we are flying above layers of clouds that appear like white-capped mountains, frozen in their manifold frothy tufts and puffs, fantastic, phantasmagoric images like a Fellini or Kubrick masterpiece, cinema altocumulus, unspooling at a stately pace until finally the mountains give ways to hills and the hills to puffy clumps of snow that seem to melt and disappear altogether, revealing five miles below great cities and blue-flecked lakes and vast patchworks of green, with dark roadway ribbons lining the earth and rivers splayed out like puddles, until we begin to descend ever so daintily, like a ballerina, the earth rolling slowly up and gently shaking us from our reverie, landing at night amid a million city and airport lights shimmering a friendly greeting.

“Welcome to New York,” the P.A. system squawks, and we are back to rude reality. But for two hours we have lived a miraculous dream.