Feb 072019

Evanston RoundTable, Feb. 7, 2019

There’s a famous video on YouTube—blandly titled “Selective Attention Test”—of six college students passing basketballs to each other. Viewers are instructed to count the number of times the students wearing white shirts pass the ball.

The answer is 15, but that’s not the real point. About 25 seconds into the video (plot spoiler!) someone dressed in a gorilla outfit walks across the floor, turns toward the camera, pounds his chest and walks off.

Amazingly, about half the people who watch the video fail to notice the gorilla, says Daniel Simons, author of “The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.” Professor Simons, who teaches cognitive science at the University of Illinois, says that “inattentional blindness” is to blame. In this case viewers are so focused on counting the number of passes that they fail to see the gorilla as it ambles by.

“This experiment reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much,” says Prof. Simons.

There are a lot of psychology experiments online that make the same case. Another video posted by Prof. Simons on his “Invisible Gorilla” website shows two women talking about a surprise party (“Movie Perception Test”). Though their conversation lasts only 35 seconds, it contains nine “intentional editing mistakes.” I challenge anyone to spot more than two, though they seem obvious when they’re pointed out.

“What you actually experience is what your mind and your brain give you. It’s an alternative reality,” says Prof. Simons in a TEDx talk, “Seeing the World As It Isn’t.” He points out that we only focus on a small part of the visual field we take in—about the size of a thumb held at arm’s length. Everything else fades into the background.

This is an important insight into our daily lives. What it means, in effect, is that we look but we don’t really see. Same with the other senses: we listen but we don’t hear; we eat but we don’t taste; we touch but we don’t feel; we inhale but we don’t smell. It’s not that external stimuli fail us: they stream the same information all the time. It’s our minds that fail us, because we’re not paying anywhere near full attention.

This sad state of affairs affects us in two primary ways: it degrades the overall set of sensory inputs we’re exposed to, and it robs us of specific inputs that could be vitally important. Imagine a world without color. That’s how much sensory information is lost to us.

Of course full attention and awareness are not possible: our senses are not set up to apprehend every input and our brains are not equipped to process every stimulus.

But with understanding and effort, we could take in a great deal more than we do.

Jan 242019

Evanston RoundTable, Jan. 24, 2019

Almost 2 million Americans take to the skies every day. Flying is fast, efficient and safe, far safer than driving, as we are constantly assured.

Yet plane crashes occur, some survivable, others not. Ten years ago this month Capt. Chesley Sullivan landed a US Airways flight in the Hudson River. There were no fatalities. A few weeks later a Continental flight crashed near Buffalo, N.Y. There were no survivors.

Living through a plane crash takes luck, but also preparedness, says Evanston resident Jon Ziomek, author of the new book, “Collision on Tenerife.” Mr. Ziomek, a former Chicago newspaper reporter and Northwestern journalism teacher, has written a highly compelling account of the worst plane crash in aviation history. On March 27, 1977, a KLM plane taking off from Tenerife Airport in the Canary Islands clipped a Pan-Am flight taxiing on the same runway. Sixty-one people on the Pan-Am plane survived, and no one on the KLM. Altogether 583 passengers died.

A “sickening series of coincidences” just beforehand – including heavy fog, confusion about takeoff instructions and a missed turn by the taxiing Pan Am plane—led to the disaster, Mr. Ziomek writes. “Changing any one of them would have prevented the accident.”

“I’ve always been interested in aviation,” he said, noting his father had been a pilot during World War II. The book came about when Mr. Ziomek met two of the Tenerife survivors, Linda and Warren Hopkins, of Northbrook. When Ms. Hopkins passed away in 1991, he shelved the project. Twenty-five years later he took it up again, in part because he felt he had an obligation to alert the flying public that they have “some measure of control” over their fate in the event of an accident.

The book’s key takeaway is that just a few minutes of preparation can be lifesaving. That includes paying close attention to the safety presentation at the beginning of a flight, reading the safety card and making careful note of where the nearest exit is located, which may be over a wing rather than through the entrance door.

These are obvious—but crucial—steps in an emergency, because there may be only a few seconds to decide what to do and where to go.

Ordinarily in the event of an accident one would wait for instructions from the flight crew, who are highly trained to deal with emergencies. But in the Tenerife disaster, many of the flight attendants on the Pan Am plane were killed, and most passengers were left to decide for themselves what to do.

“But the vast majority of accidents are survivable,” Mr. Ziomek says. It just takes the right preparation. He will discuss the book at the North branch of the Evanston Library 7 p.m. March 18 and again at the Evanston Library Book Fair May 11. Check the library website for more information.


Jan 102019

Evanston RoundTable, Jan. 10, 2019

There are two ways to come at “Green Book,” the new biopic about Don Shirley, the renowned African American pianist and composer who died in 2013. The movie purports to tell the “inspired-by-a-true story” account of Shirley’s 1962 concert tour through the south with his jazz trio, at a time when Jim Crow restrictions were in full force. Shirley hires a New York Italian-American bouncer and chauffeur nicknamed Tony Lip (real name Tony Vallelonga), who is portrayed by actor Viggo Mortensen as a comically lunkheaded racist but sensitive and strong family man.

Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, and Tony head down below the Mason-Dixon line with the famous “Green Book” in hand. This was a guide book, developed in 1936 and updated annually for three decades, detailing where Blacks could safely shop, eat, gas up and use the facilities while traveling through the south.

The script, written in part by Nick Villelonga, Tony’s son, is a loving portrait of a complex, flawed but ultimately decent man who comes to respect Shirley’s musical talent and courageously principled stand against prejudice and color barriers.

Shirley is portrayed by Ali as a brilliant but cold and aloof man who gradually warms to Tony Lip’s humor and earthiness. Seen in these simple terms, the movie is a joy to watch and listen to, especially Ali’s subtle performance of the proud musician and Mortensen’s delightful portrayal of the lovable bodyguard. Shirley’s music, a wonderful hybrid of Bach and jazz, is an added bonus.

But there’s a problem with the movie’s accuracy. According to Shirley’s surviving brother, Maurice, the movie is “a symphony of lies.” In the movie Shirley claims he is alienated from his family, and the end credits claim the two men—musician and driver—developed a lifelong friendship that only ended with Tony’s death in 2013. (Shirley died three months later.) But Maurice says Don talked with his siblings all the time, and Tony was no more of a friend than many other chauffeurs who were hired and fired by his brother.

More disturbing are charges that the movie is another in a long line of films with a “Magical Negro” problem, in which Black characters exist to help transform their benighted White companions. “Let it be resolved in 2019,” writes Salon critic Melanie McFarland: “no more movies about race that center on White people’s feelings.”

Yes and no. Moviegoers can regret the inaccuracies and Hollywood treatment and still come away deeply impressed by Don Shirley’s talents (“worthy of gods,” said Igor Stravinsky) and legacy. Maybe that’s the best way to enjoy “Green Book.” Then go to YouTube and enjoy the many clips of the real Don Shirley, in performance and at home. 

Jan 102019

Evanston RoundTable, Jan. 10, 2019

Luck is usually considered to be random, inconstant and, well…lucky, something other people seem to have more of. “Success or failure,” the dictionary says, “apparently brought on by chance rather than through one’s own actions.”

But that definition obscures the true meaning of luck, which might be more accurately said to be good fortune brought on by hard work, preparation and the foresight and insight to take advantage of favorable opportunities.

In other words, we make our own luck. Unfortunately, most people don’t believe that—or make enough effort to make it happen.

Take a man considered so lucky it became part of his name. Charles Lindbergh was known as “Lucky Lindy” because he survived a number of accidents, including a midair collision, that might have killed a lesser pilot. (His other nickname was “Daredevil Lindbergh.”) A lot of people in 1927 thought flying solo across the Atlantic was a suicide mission. But he made it and became the most famous person of his time, because he had put in years of preparation and had the knowledge and confidence to pull it off.

So from Lindy’s experience we can adduce the first lesson of luck: do the work. As they say, luck favors the prepared.

The second lesson is another truism: plan for the worst. This too takes thoughtful preparation. It requires one to identify and assess the likeliest risks.

If one puts in the work upfront and plans for the worst, good things—so-called “lucky breaks”—can happen.

But what if they don’t? Despite hard work and preparation, despite the planning and calibration, despite the best efforts a person can make, bad luck can haunt us.

There again, however, bad luck often leads to good. As the saying goes, experience is a harsh teacher. There are lessons in every disaster, windows that open up when doors slam shut. It just takes the proper attitude, insight and intuition to learn from mistakes and hardships.

When I was 19 I began to flounder in college. I was a sophomore at the University of Illinois downstate and had signed up for some difficult courses, for which I was too lazy and ill-prepared to do the work. And I was tired of the Champaign-Urbana campus. So I dropped out before I flunked out.

Three favorable outcomes ensued. I took a job at a large accounting firm downtown, where I learned valuable lessons about commerce and a good work ethic. I enrolled at University of Illinois at Chicago, then known as “Circle” campus—and loved it. And perhaps most important, I took the time off before I went back to school to start taking violin lessons, which led to a decades-long love of playing classical music.

Dropping out produced the most wondrous results. Call it good luck, but it was only because I was willing to take advantage of the opportunities life happily afforded me.

Dec 272018

Evanston RoundTable, Dec. 27, 2018

What if we could decide that betting on love is a good bet, a wager worth making?

The 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal famously made a similar bet, only it was wagered on God. Pascal said the effort to bet for or against the existence of God was the same. But if God doesexist, and you refuse to believe it, then everlasting hell is almost certainly your reward. If God doesn’t exist, despite your fervent prayers and devotion, why, no harm done! Ipso facto, it is better to believe in God than to be an atheist.

“Belief is a wise wager,” Pascal wrote. “Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”

This may seem more cold-blooded than devout. “Any God worth believing in would prefer an honest agnostic to a calculating hypocrite,” objected attorney Alan Dershowitz.

But still, what is the downside of faith? 

There is a similar case to be made for wagering on love and affection, particularly when the effort is extended to “difficult” people—exasperating friends, family, colleagues, even partners, spouses and children. We often respond with anger, judgement, egotism and condescension.

But that’s a mistake. For one thing, everyone—including you and me—can be maddening. It is part of the human condition.

All faith traditions understand and accept human frailty and the need to err on the side of love, from “turn the other cheek” to “the golden rule.” As the Buddha said, “Hatred never ends by hatred but by love alone.”

So does that mean I have to “make nice” with my crackpot brother-in-law at family occasions?

Yes. Because to paraphrase Pascal, what is the downside?

Wagering on love means giving other people, even the ones we don’t like, the benefit of the doubt. It means making the effort to walk a mile in their shoes. It means accepting with empathy, grace and, most of all, humor, that we are all profoundly limited. It means, in short, working to be your most understanding, loving and best self.

Easy words, hard actions. But the result is worth the trying. For one thing, it’s good for you. WebMD reports “10 Surprising Health Benefits of Love,” including lower blood pressure, fewer colds, less depression, better stress management and a longer life.

More spiritually, manifesting goodness is a powerful corrective to the corrosive and toxic effects of hatred. Lincoln had good reason to despise the Confederacy. Instead, he said, “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

So take a chance on love. There is no downside. 

Dec 142018

Evanston RoundTable, Dec. 13, 2018

In this centenary year of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, we rightly celebrate his genius as a conductor, composer, educator and pianist.

            But no less important was Lenny’s enormous impact on people’s lives.

            Take the life of Evanstonian Victor Yampolsky, Director of Orchestras and Professor in Music Performance at Northwestern.

            Prof. Yampolsky was born in the Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan in 1942. His father was David Oistrakh’s piano accompanist. Growing up he studied violin with Oistrakh and played with the Moscow Philharmonic from 1965 to 1973.  During that time the orchestra traveled to more than 30 countries, twice to America.

            With the orchestra’s prestige and perquisites—attractive salaries and benefits—life was good. “I lived in a cocoon,” Prof. Yampolsky said of his early years, shielded from hardship, performing with some of the world’s finest musicians.

            But in 1972 Prof. Yampolsky’s younger brother dropped a bombshell: he was applying to emigrate to Israel. That meant he was now deemed a “security risk” by the KGB, so Prof. Yampolsky was forced to leave the orchestra.

            With no job and no prospects, life in Russia became intolerable. “I was living from hour to hour. I felt totally suspended in the air,” Prof. Yampolsky recalled.

            The only remedy was to emigrate himself. He left Russia in April of 1973 for Rome, hoping eventually to get to America. There were numerous obstacles, but the American embassy held out hope. If Prof. Yampolsky and his fellow émigré, Michael Zaretsky, a violist from the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, could get recommendations from a well-known conductor, they might be allowed to go to America. Zubin Mehta wrote such a letter, but it wasn’t considered strong enough.

            That’s when Prof. Yampolsky and Mr. Zaretsky learned Bernstein was going to be in Rome. A mutual friend arranged an introduction as the maestro was leaving a rehearsal.

            “I met him in the corridor backstage and literally blocked his way. I said to him, ‘Mr. Bernstein, we are Russian refugees who want to go to America,’” Prof. Yampolsky recalled. “Lenny hugged us. He said, ‘You are Russian Jews. I love you! What can I do for you?’ We told him we had a letter from Maestro Mehta but needed another letter.”

            Bernstein arranged for an informal audition three days later. Prof. Yampolsky played selections from a Bach sonata. Bernstein’s reaction was immediate. “Would you like to go to Tanglewood [the Boston Symphony’s summer home]?” 

            “It was an incredibly dramatic turn of events,” Prof. Yampolsky said. Bernstein spoke with his friend Senator Ted Kennedy and a visa was quickly arranged. Soon Prof. Yampolsky and his family were on their way to Massachusetts. While playing with the Tanglewood, orchestra, he saw a notice about an opening in the Boston Symphony violin section. He tried out two weeks later and won the position.

            Thanks to Leonard Bernstein, he was firmly established in the New World.



Nov 302018

“Movies are the most important artistic medium of the last century, where we learn how to love, fight, live and die.”

Evanston RoundTable, Nov. 27, 2018

A month ago I was “tagged” by retired Columbia College film professor Judd Chesler, an Evanston resident, to take “The Facebook Movie Challenge.” The “rules” are simple: just post an image from each of your 10 favorite movies on successive days. No title, no commentary—just a photo.

But wait, I thought: how can anyone identify a movie from a single shot? OK, some scenes are so famous you don’t need to name them: the crop-duster shooting at Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” the chariot race in “Ben-Hur,” ET sailing across a moon-lit sky.

But in general, if the average movie has 50 scenes, what’s the likelihood of recognizing all of them?

So, rule-breaker that I am, I listed my favorites and explained what I loved about them. That was the easy part. Getting the list down to 10 was hard. I wound up with 12.

I’ve been an avid moviegoer since I was a kid. I have wonderful memories of going downtown to see big screen epics like “Ben-Hur” and “Bridge on the River Kwai.” When I was in college I joined a film club and every week we’d watch a classic, directed by such masters as John Huston, Ingmar Bergman and Billy Wilder.

One year I reviewed movies for the RoundTable. The challenge was deciding—on the spot—why I liked or didn’t like the movie. The effort of being a “critic” drained the enjoyment from watching.

But I loved the Movie Challenge. What fun to think about my favorites.

Here’s what I wrote about my # 6 favorite: “Can’t assemble a best-movie list without a Bogie movie. There are so many great ones: “Casablanca” and “African Queen” and “Maltese Falcon” to name a few. But my favorite is “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) written and directed by John Huston and starring his father, Walter Huston, Tim Holt and Bogart as three grizzled prospectors digging for gold in Mexico. Memorable performances and a great story about greed and madness.”

Also on my list: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Bridge on the River Kwai,” “The Gold Rush,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” “Hobson’s Choice,” “The Third Man,” “Groundhog Day,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Hugo” and “North by Northwest.”

It’s a varied if somewhat conventional list: a documentary, a comedy, a silent movie, a Hitchcock thriller, a foreign movie, a Scorsese movie, two anti-war movies, featuring such great actors as Charles Laughton, Jimmy Stewart, Peter Sellers and Orson Welles.

I was reminded again how wonderful and transformative two hours in the dark staring at a big screen can be. Movies are the most important artistic medium of the last century, where we learn how to love, fight, live and die.

So now it’s your turn. I “tag” you, dear reader, to take the Challenge. Have fun.




Nov 162018

Evanston RoundTable, Nov. 15,2018

I’m obsessed with knowledge. I want to know everything. Well, not everything, of course, that’s impossible, but the big things: quantum physics and plate tectonics and macroeconomics and…all the stuff I didn’t get around to studying in school because I was too lazy or preoccupied with other, more important stuff, like getting a date.

But that’s problematic from a number of angles. For starters there’s an almost infinite number of big things to know and very limited time—a mere lifetime—to get to know them.

For another the effort of gaining total knowledge involves a certain amount of hubris. Who am I to play God? Because only God can know everything. Or even all the big things.

The problem was addressed in the Bible. God forbids Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some scholars consider that to mean all understanding—not just good and evil but everything in between. Forbidding that knowledge would make sense, because to know everything would be Godlike. But if Adam and Eve did indeed munch on  the apple, how come we’re so short of knowledge today?

Another interpretation suggests that after the irrevocable bite, good and evil became confused, introducing moral ambiguity.

Two millennia later Goethe and Marlowe took up the theme. In their Faust plays, the title character is brilliant but unprincipled. Dissatisfied with his limited understanding, he trades his soul for perfect knowledge, worldly power and “all voluptuousness.”

Since then numerous Faust symphonies, ballets, operas, movies, TV and radio programs, songs and novels have been written. The concept is, after all, intriguing. Would we too make a “deal” for greater understanding?

When I was younger I didn’t worry about it. What knowledge I needed seemed always sufficiently at hand. Then, as older people generally do, I got more curious about things. How does gravity work? Why does evil exist? What’s the weird baby signify at the end of “2001”?

In response I started reading more widely. It was like a drug: it seemed to lead to ever more reading, almost to the exclusion of everything else. The problem of unlimited information and limited time became onerous, then impossible. All one could do was explore a smattering of the world’s knowledge, the thinnest topsoil of the depthless earth.

In view of the challenge, how should one proceed? Some people take the “hedgehog approach,” studying deeply in a narrow range of subjects. Others, like the proverbial fox, range across a broad field of knowledge.

But either way, there’s no good strategy to attain omniscience. The best we can do is study assiduously, listen to smart people (through conversations, lectures, podcasts, CDs, Ted Talks and the like) and think carefully about the big topics: why are we here and what can we do to make life better?

That’s the next best thing to perfect knowledge.

Note: This is the online version of the column, which varies slightly from the print version.

Nov 012018

Evanston RoundTable, Nov. 1, 2018

We know this much about life, that it will contain its share of hardship and there is no way to avoid the end. So we must learn to endure, otherwise suffering is certain.

Churchill famously said. “Never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in—except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

And as he proved, endurance, resilience and perseverance are the pathways to salvation, even triumph.

Examples from history attest to this. Take Beethoven. In early middle age he discovered he was losing his hearing, the greatest tragedy a composer can experience. Deafness for Beethoven meant never hearing music again—his or anyone else’s. It also meant he could no longer play the piano in public. Since performing was a source of great joy and pride as well as financial security, this was an additional calamity.

His despair was so complete he thought of killing himself. But after writing a suicide note—the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he said, “…with joy I hasten towards death…Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead”—he put it in a drawer and went on to compose the greatest music of his career, the majestic and powerful symphonies and concertos of his middle period and the transcendent late piano sonatas and string quartets.

The painter Claude Monet experienced a similar tragedy, growing blind near the end of his long career. He complained to his close friend Georges Clemenceau he could no longer distinguish colors, until Clemenceau convinced him to have an operation that restored some sight. Monet wrote to a friend that, “Age and chagrin have worn me out. My life has been nothing but a failure, and all that’s left for me to do is to destroy my paintings before I disappear.”

Despite his feelings of despair, he continued painting until his final days, donating his monumental and highly abstract “Water Lilies” to the City of Paris that today hang in the Orangerie.

There’s another example—less inspiring but closer to home, only 50 miles northwest of Evanston, in Woodstock, Ill. That is the site of the Chester Gould Museum. Gould was the famous cartoonist who developed the Dick Tracy comic strip, one of the most successful in comic strip history. But the museum tells a different story, one of fanatic dedication. A poster there labeled “Perseverance” describes Gould’s early efforts to syndicate a cartoon strip. All through the 1920s he submitted drawing after drawing and idea after idea to the Chicago Tribune. They were all rejected—60 of them. The 61st was Dick Tracy.

Perseverance is almost trite, it’s so frequently cited. “Winners never quit, quitters never win,” etc. But in the face of despair, disaster and disappointment, it can be hard to summon the energy and persistence.

These three did, and in the process left the world far better off.

Oct 182018

Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 18, 2018

Research tells us that music education is critical to the development of young minds. At Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab, directed by Prof. Nina Kraus, studies have shown that music training helps strengthen speech and reading. People who regularly make music have “enhanced neural speech processing” important also for reading, and these benefits build up over the course of a lifetime. Furthermore, “high school music training helps brain development in at-risk adolescents.”

The evidence is convincing. But if there is any parent out there undecided about encouraging their child to play a musical instrument, let me share my story.

My grade school provided vouchers for students to rent a musical instrument of their choice, and being a big rock ‘n’ roll fan, I selected drums. This entitled me to a drum pad and two sticks. After fooling around with it for a couple of weeks, I returned the set. And except for singing in high school choir, that was the end of my performing career for the next 10 years.

At 19, finding myself with a little time on my hands, I started taking violin lessons from Sam Arron (whose son, Julian, was the concertmaster of the Evanston Symphony for many years) and that was a life-changing experience. Working with Sam was thrilling. Since then I’ve played in many community orchestras and local chamber music groups. It is always wondrous. I only wish someone had pushed me 10 years earlier.

Just off the top of my head I can list a handful of huge reasons to study music.

Intonation. Playing in tune is the most important aspect of making music. It is also impossible. A performer is never exactlyin tune. Striving always to be more so is a great life lesson.

Coaching. I’ve had many fine teachers, everyone from Sam and Julian Arron to Milton Preves, the longtime principal violist of the Chicago Symphony. (I switched to viola in the 1990s. Violas are generally easier and definitely more fun to play.) The difference a great teacher can make is incalculable.

Persistence. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. But musical mastery is achieved only by a few, and anyway it’s not the point. Music is spiritual fun. There is nothing better. Keeping at it, no matter how many hours you put in, is the goal.

Ensemble. Teamwork is the point of playing music. You can practice alone for thousands of hours, but whether you’re in a garage band playing Beatles or a string quartet playing Beethoven, making music together is magic.

Beauty and Joy. Making music is one of the best remedies for life’s disappointments. As Vermeer Quartet violist Richard Young has written, “There is enough ugliness and chaos that surrounds us in our everyday lives… But at the moment we put the bow to the strings, we have the power to dictate the beauty in our immediate environment.”