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.”


Oct 072018

Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 4, 2018

Things go better when we’re attuned to the task at hand. A disciplined focus allows us to avoid the mindless and usually fruitless and frustrating ruminations that seem to hijack our thoughts when we lose our concentration.

And yet something seemingly so simple—staying engaged and on task—is one of the hardest things to do. The mind is a busy place, especially in the age of social media, multitasking and endless cell phone interruptions. Digital distractions claim an ever-larger chunk of our time and efforts.

To see how hard, try this experiment. When out for your next walk or bike ride, focus just on what you can see and hear around you: the sights, the sounds, the colors, even the smells. Should be easy, right? “Wow, look at that rhododendron! Love the colors on those roses! Check out the weird siding on that new house!” See if you can hold that focused attention for just 60 seconds. For most folks (certainly for me) it’s almost impossible.

Call it the “wandering mind,” and while fuzzy, distracted thinking seems innocent enough, and even sometimes pleasant to navel gaze that way, it’s not useful for most activities and altogether dangerous for the ones, like driving or bicycling, that require our complete attention.

So how do we best focus? One way is through “active” attention, that is, mindful concentration. Think of bending your attention laser-like to your work the way kids do playing video games. Have you ever noticed a dog waiting for a scrap of food from the table during a meal? Now that is focused concentration!

Meditation techniques are also useful. Be determined to stay focused, but if your mind wanders, just shrug it off and return to the task. If the errant thought is important, write it down and attend to it later. Practicing this approach can help improve your “mind stillness.”

You can practice this method at meal time. Try focusing on the food you’re eating—the smell, the taste, the mouth feel, the chewing and swallowing—for longer and longer periods, starting with a single bite and aiming for an entire meal.

Another useful metaphor for attentiveness is music. Imagine how a flutist has to tune into her part as she plays. Her major senses—seeing or visualizing the notes, listening for intonation, feeling the flute between her hands and fingers—are highly engaged.

I once saw Midori perform the Sibelius violin concerto with the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall. Near the end of the last movement there was a commotion in the seats just beneath the stage. Symphony staff had to help escort someone out of the hall. During all that time Midori never looked down and never lost her focus on the performance, which was spectacular!

Not everyone gets a standing ovation for paying attention, like she did. But the results can be just as satisfying.

Sep 202018

Evanston RoundTable, Sept. 20, 2018

Imagine that the presidency, instead of being a four-year term, rotates among common citizens. Everyone gets to be the chief executive for 24 hours. And today is your turn. What would you do? Here’s a speech draft you can use to address a joint session of Congress.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have only one goal, and that is to change the way you think about your job. Let me start by telling you what it is not. Your job is not a vehicle to keep yourself permanently in office. It is not a path to power and perquisites. And it’s not a platform to preach exclusively to your base (one definition of which is: mean, low, common) and promote one-sided and self-interested party politics.

“What it is, in fact, is a privilege. Being elected to Congress is one of the greatest gifts your fellow citizens can bestow on you. Because in a republican form of government, you represent all of us. You are our voice and vehicle to get things done.

“By ‘our’ I mean everyone in your district—red and blue, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, centrist and fringe. Reconciling those disparate viewpoints may seem impossible, but it can be done.

“That was the dream of George Washington, who despised factions, calling them ‘a frightful despotism.’ That was the lesson of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, political rivals as young men who later become the best of friends. That is what we the people expect of you: to be civil, to cooperate and to achieve something meaningful.

In that regard it might be instructive to listen to a conversation on June 23, 1964, between President Johnson and Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, the feisty, gravel-voiced Republican Party leader from Pekin, Illinois. (The actual phone call, along with many others taped while Johnson was in office, can be heard online and at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.) Dirksen asked LBJ’s help funding a river project in southern Illinois. LBJ told Dirksen he needed his help on a budget bill. Within three minutes, they had an understanding.

“That is historically how legislative work got done, through compromise, from two masters of the art.

“Of course, what is incumbent on you as our legislators is also incumbent on us as citizens. So I’d like to ask everyone, Members of Congress and fellow citizens alike, to step across the aisle and shake hands and sit down with your opposite number—someone you don’t usually agree or associate with. Talk about your hopes and fears for this wonderful land. Get past your slogans and shibboleths and pieties. Most of all, listen. Listen hard and with your whole mind and heart, without any preconceptions or knee-jerk judgments.

“Because at the end of the day, we are all here—whether in Washington or Evanston—for the same reason: to help make our communities and our country and our world a better place.

“Thank you very much.”


Sep 062018

Evanston RoundTable, Sept. 6, 2018

Are we tied implacably to our personalities or are we free to reinvent ourselves?

That’s a question scientists, philosophers and even novelists have long explored. One take on this question comes from an unlikely source, the 1929 noir masterpiece “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett.

Film buffs remember Hammett’s gumshoe anti-hero Sam Spade, played in John Huston’s classic movie by Humphrey Bogart. There’s an episode in the book that didn’t make it into the film. In it, Spade sits his nemesis Brigid O’Shaughnessy down to tell her a little story. Spade may suspect O’Shaughnessy of having killed his partner, but he can’t yet prove it.

The story is simple: a client many years back asks Spade to find out what happened to her husband, who had disappeared “like a fist when you open your hand.” There had been no evidence of foul play and no indication that the man, a conscientious businessman who loved his wife and family, had harbored the slightest interest in abandoning them.

Spade eventually discovered what happened. The man, named Flitcraft, had been walking to lunch down a Tacoma street one day when a girder fell from a construction site and narrowly missed killing him. “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works,” Spade related.

Instead of being “orderly, sane and responsible,” Flitcraft realized, life was random, irrational and hung by a thread. “He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.”

Stunned by the near-fatal episode, Flitcraft kept walking, away from his family and his old life. He bounced around the west coast for several years before settling in Spokane, where, curiously, he didn’t so much reinvent as repeat himself, starting another business, remarrying and starting a new family.

The meaning of the story is ambiguous, and Spade never explains it. Perhaps it illustrates the invariable constancy of human nature. O’Shaughnessy may pretend to be a neurotic ditz, Spade seems to be saying, but her true character remains dark and threatening. Or, as the educational website Shmoop hypothesizes, the story may be a parable of free will and fate.

In any case, it raises the question: do we have the free will we assume we do to change the course of our lives? Or are we forever bound up by genetics and custom to follow the same path day after day?

We like to think we’re not creatures of habit, but most people live lives very much like their parents and siblings. Few of us slip away to follow a different path.

Sometimes it takes a shock, like the girder that lands at our feet, to set us free from the “ruts worn deep by time and habit,” as Mark Twain put it. But most often, for better or worse, we are as chained to our nature as gravity chains us to the earth.

Aug 232018

Evanston RoundTable, Aug. 23, 2018

Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Democratic Convention, held in Chicago at the International Amphitheatre. I remember it well: I was there.

The author’s badge from the 1968 Convention.

Reports had been circulating for weeks beforehand about planned demonstrations by anti-Vietnam War activists. The more radical fringe elements, led by master provocateurs Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were intent on protesting, creating a spectacle and having a good time, not necessarily in that order.

Hoffman and Rubin announced that tens of thousand of hippies and Yippies would flood the city to protest the war.  Their plan was to camp out in Lincoln Park. Mayor Richard J. Daley insisted the park’s 11 p.m. curfew would be strictly enforced. This set up a dynamic of potential conflict and confrontation.

Eager to witness history, I volunteered to drive a limousine for the Democratic National Committee and was assigned to chauffeur the legendary Averell Harriman, Secretary of Commerce under President Truman and Governor of New York from 1954 to 1958.

But along with many other prominent Democrats, Harriman sensed trouble brewing and declined to attend the convention. This was a blow. Squiring the Governor would have been memorable. Nevertheless I consoled myself that in his absence I had more time to take in the spectacle.

There was so much to take in. Thousands of people were pouring into the city. Clusters of them were gathering in the streets and parks, singing folk songs and mounting street-theater demonstrations. The famed poet Allen Ginsberg was leading sunrise Buddhist prayer sessions along the lakefront. The Yippies held a “counter convention” at the Civic Center downtown and nominated a pig for president.

One afternoon, walking along Michigan Avenue a few days before the convention started, I spotted an exotic figure familiar from his picture in my 20th century drama textbook. It was Jean Genet! The French novelist-poet-playwright was in town to cover the convention for Esquire magazine.

I walked up and said, “Monsieur Genet, oui, oui?” “Alors, oui, oui,” he replied. I had an inspiring thought. What if, I proposed, I were to be your driver in the limousine assigned to Governor Harriman? Surely, Esquire readers would appreciate the delicious irony of putting his car at the disposal of the gay rebel and famous anti-American journalist? Alas, but he already had transportation, merci.

Every day brought fresh reports of impending violence and mayhem. On the Sunday before the convention opened, protesters just south of the Lincoln Park Zoo had pulled park benches into a large circle and taken refuge inside, as if daring the police to attack their barricade. Amid loud cheers someone tied a Viet Cong flag to a pole. Police waded in wielding heavy wooden clubs and spraying tear gas. Friends of mine who were there said, “We ran for our lives, it was pandemonium.”

Early Monday morning a thousand protesters marched on police headquarters at 11th and State. Police cordoned the area and forced the marchers away, so they took refuge a mile east, in Grant Park across from the Conrad Hilton, the Party’s convention headquarters. Police swept the area and forced protesters to disperse. Nonetheless, from this point on the small hillside directly across from the hotel became the protesters’ rallying point.

The convention formally opened Monday and tension ratcheted up still higher. Responding to criticism, Mayor Daley said angrily: “The police aren’t here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder,” and he was right. Chicago resembled a war zone. Even newspaper and TV reporters were starting to decry the police violence.

On Tuesday night Black Panther leader Bobby Seale spoke at a Lincoln Park rally and exhorted the crowd to defend themselves if attacked “by any means necessary.” Later several hundred church leaders, toting a giant cross, joined protesters rallying against the curfew. Once again police used tear gas and clubs to subdue protesters and clear the area.

Wednesday was the climax. Thousands of people attended an evening rally in Grant Park. Midway through the speeches news swept through the crowd that Party officials at the convention had rejected a peace plank calling for all troops to be withdrawn from Vietnam. Someone tried to lower an American flag and when police moved in to arrest him, new fighting erupted. The crowd dispersed and attempted to march to the Amphitheater, three miles away. Police moved in, swinging clubs and spraying tear gas and Mace on the crowd. The protesters shouted, “The whole world is watching.” The chant was picked up on the news, along with footage of police clubbing and dragging demonstrators to squad cars.

Appalled by the spectacle, I decided on Thursday to join the protesters. I wanted to show my solidarity and witness history close up. So after finishing my day shift at the Sun-Times and Daily News (where I was an ad-taker) I wandered the few blocks south to Grant Park and joined a somewhat restive crowd of young people across the street from the Hilton.

In the midst of the crowd were Hoffman and Rubin, conferring with various city officials. I walked up to Hoffman, a short, swarthy fellow with a swirl of long hair, and asked him what was going on. “I don’t know man,” he said gravely. “They promised we could march to the Amphitheater but now the pigs are reneging. [Blank] the pigs, man, we’re gonna march anyway.” Not exactly heartening words.

Hoffman took to the crest of the hill to make an announcement. “Listen up, people. The police have agreed to let us march to the Amphitheater!” The crowd shouted its approval. Hoffman said we’d march south on Michigan Avenue to Roosevelt Road, west to Halsted Street and south on Halsted to the Amphitheater. There we’d be permitted to rally peacefully against the war.

Around 10:30 p.m. we shoved off. Someone next to me pointed out this was ominous timing, coming right after the evening news broadcast.  If there was to be violence, this would be the time.

Nevertheless spirits were buoyant as we slowly started to head south along Michigan Ave. It was a fine night and the crowd seemed to be in a festive mood. I was more elated than scared: at last we were under way.

A few blocks south, however, at 9th Street, forward motion accordioned to a halt.  A few hundred feet ahead, arrayed like alien monsters in a sci-fi flick, were armored National Guard Jeeps seven or eight across and equipped with heavy metal frames strung tight with barbed wire. Slowly the Jeeps began to move in on us. Turning around, I saw half a dozen similarly equipped Jeeps close in from the north. It was a trap. Someone shouted “Tear gas!” and people stampeded in panic. I took off down an alley, escaping safely west to the next block. From there I walked back downtown, toward Grant Park. Others were streaming back too, but no one seemed hurt. After that, most people began to drift off, and so did I.

If I have any prominent memory of the evening, it was just this: God, what fun!

Aug 122018

Evanston RoundTable, Aug. 9, 2018

Aug. 16 is International Apostrophe Day (right, who knew?) and to celebrate let us examine a short story, “Displaced,” in the current New Yorker by the estimable Richard Ford, winner of the Pulitzer, Pen/Faulkner and many other fiction awards.

In the piece he writes from the perspective of a 16-year-old who has lost his father: “And there is your mother and her loss to fill—at least, to step into—while you manage all your own sensations, and others.”

Let us examine that fine and not-so-fine sentence. It has elegance and intelligence. “…her loss to fill—at least to step into–…” acknowledges that from a boy’s perspective, attending to a parent’s mortal grief is unavoidable—and impossible. The loss is staggering.  He is too young to manage it, try as he must and try, in some fumbling, adolescent fashion, as he will.

But authors have a tendency to overwrite (certainly this one does—it’s so much fun!), and there’s this in Mr. Ford’s story that comes next: “…while you manage all your own sensations, and others.”


What others? If they are your own sensations there are no others. You cannot have sensations that are not your own. Does Mr. Ford mean others’ (note the all-critical apostrophe) indicating all other people whose emotions he needs to manage or at least deal with—his BFFs, his mother’s well-meaning friends, the school social worker, all the folks who will walk up to him at the funeral service (and for years after) and say: “I knew your dad, I worked with him, he was a fine man, you were lucky to have him for a father,” all while he’s thinking, who is this person they are talking about?

That would be an OK sentence, though one could quibble with trying to pack all that presumed meaning into one lowly grammatical mark.

But wait, there is none! Bells and whistles, klaxons and sirens are going off: no apostrophe!

So strike that reading from the record.

That leaves zero reasons to couple the caboose of “…, and others” to the rest of this train.

This isn’t a criticism of Richard Ford, or the editors and fact-checkers at the New Yorker. I’ve read many of Mr. Ford’s novels and their lean, sinewy prose and vivid characters are stunning. Even Homer nods, as they say.

My point is that the missing apostrophe is like a bulletin board upon which we can hang the sign: “Bad Sentence, Confusing Structure, Unclear Meaning.” OK, so it’s a big sign. But you see it around a lot.

I could adduce many famous examples of the confusion and despondency engendered by a missing or misplaced apostrophe. You can find them yourself at the hilariously named website “Apostrophe Catastrophes,” which is sub-titled “The Worlds’ Worst. Punctuation;”

It’s just that this story is hot off the New Yorker’s presses, just in time to celebrate apostrophe’s (or is that apostrophes’?) very own day.

Jul 272018

Evanston RoundTable, July 26, 2018

During these difficult and trying times, we find comfort in heroism and inspiration. That’s why the rescue of the 12 young soccer players and their 25-year-old assistant coach from the flooded Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand has been so satisfying: it reinforces the notion that global teamwork, individual courage and effective decision-making can still work.

These kinds of gargantuan emergency rescues have mesmerized the world before. In October 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure Morales tumbled into her aunt’s backyard well in Midland, Texas. She was safely evacuated after a tense 56 hours. And in August 2010 33 Chilean gold miners were trapped following a cave-in. It took 69 days to get them out.

But the Thai rescue was in some way more daunting. Spelunkers consider Tham Luang among the most dangerous and challenging caves in the world. Storm waters threatened to completely flood the cave network, and none of the 11- to 16-year-old boys could swim, let alone dive. Calling it a miracle is not too much of an exaggeration. “We have done something that no one expected we could complete,” said Narongsak Osottanakorn, the rescue operations chief. “It was an impossible mission.”

Sometimes, given the right combination of elements, the impossible becomes possible.

It took incredible luck just to locate the boys, who had wandered into the cave as sightseers and then retreated deep underground to avoid the rising floodwaters. Two British divers happened on the group 10 days later while laying guide ropes through the cave’s more remote regions.

In a reminder of the quick and creative thinking that saved the American astronauts in the famous Apollo 13 space flight, the Thai rescue mission was accomplished with such spit-and-baling-wire solutions as plastic cocoons, floating stretchers and a rope line to guide the way through sunken caverns of jagged rock.

In the end 10,000 people took part in the rescue operation, including 2,000 Thai soldiers, 100 volunteer cooks and 200 divers from around the world.

Quite aside from the innate drama, stories like this capture our imagination because they provide a lovely metaphor for a better world, in this case a large cast of international experts and helpers whose dedication and expertise helped pull off a most improbable success. And luck worked in their favor too, though luck always favors the prepared.

Fred Rogers’ oft-repeated saying bears on this story too. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” he said, “my mother would tell me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

To see the new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is to be reminded that we don’t need periodic emergency rescues to be inspired by goodness and civility. They surround us all the time. We just need to know where to look.