May 202019

Evanston RoundTable, May 16, 2019

Is it a good thing not to know the moment you’re going to die? Of course, some people do: patients in the final stages of an incurable illness and prisoners destined for execution know.

But most of us are spared this terrible knowledge. The young hardly notice. For them, life seems to stretch out forever, like Elysian fields in a vast park. Even in middle-age the day of reckoning seems comfortably far off, distant enough to ignore.

Only in old age do we begin to know: now—any month, any week, any day—could be the time, especially as we witness the passing of dear friends.

What’s that knowledge like? For many years I’ve interviewed the very elderly about their lives, their regrets, their joys. (Some of those interviews are posted on my web site,, under “Received Wisdom.”)

The one question I gingerly posed to them, nervous that they might be offended, was what they thought about dying. Were they ready for it? Did it scare them?

To a person the answer was no. They weren’t offended, they weren’t ready and they weren’t afraid.

Now that I’m approaching something like that age, past the biblical life expectancy of three score and 10, I think I know why.

People are rarely “ready.” There is always more to do, to see, to be. We are never finished on the journey to become the person we want to be.

And yet, for many people, death’s grasp is no longer fearsome; sometimes it is welcome. T.S. Eliot wrote, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” But he wrote it (in “The Waste Land”) at the age of 34, less than midway through his 77 years. Death is a foreign country for the young; for the old, especially if theirs has been a life well and fully lived, it is something they’ve come to expect and hopefully prepared for, by being, to the best of their ability, their best self. That usually means how they’ve helped others, by minimizing selfishness and maximizing empathy.

Life is a journey to reduce the ego enough to think of others first. It means acquiring and displaying compassion and forgiveness. Ego is strongest among the young, who are trying to find their identity, and the middle-aged, who are trying to leverage it for self-interest. Only at the end, when we are stripped to our essence, can we really feel free to discard the ego.

So maybe that is the answer: it isn’t t bad to know when you’re going to die—if you have lived well and fully and let go of pain and regret. That’s when we can look back and cherish and appreciate the precious time that was given to us so that we could do our best to help others.

May 042019

Evanston RoundTable, May 2, 2019

While T.S. Eliot’s assertion that “April is the cruelest month” might be true in the Chicago area, May is quite another story, the genuine advent of Midwestern spring.

April’s intermittent snowstorms and blustery weather are sandwiched between some sunny days, which gives the month its deserved reputation as a tease, a false positive, a trailer for better things to come.

May is the real deal.

Already temps are heading higher and spring flowers—hyacinths, tulips and daffodils among them—are starting to make their annual appearance, brightening our gardens and parkways. Trees are beginning to bud and leaves to unfurl. Best of all, our neighbors, housebound all winter, are venturing outside, where we can visit with them to renew the ties of communal friendship.

Of course, these things happen every year and along with other seasonal rituals such as spring cleaning and Cub rainouts are easy to take for granted.


Spring deserves our undivided attention. The mother of all seasons, harbinger of longer days and sweeter nights, it showcases the glorious rebirth of nature.

We tend to cocoon in the winter. Spring is the season to get out. Here are a few tips for soaking up spring in Evanston:

  • Walk the beaches. Discounted tokens are already on sale, but the beach season in Evanston doesn’t begin until Memorial Day weekend. So head out to one of the City’s wonderful beaches, take off your shoes and slide your toes through the grainy sand and tickly surf.
  • Stroll the parks. Evanston has wonderful lakefront parkland as well as walking trails at Lovelace, Twiggs, Dawes and Butler parks and elsewhere.
  • Visit Northwestern. The university landfill is a favorite destination, with striking vistas of the lake and campus.
  • Dine al fresco. With the advent of warm weather, restaurants roll out their sidewalk cafes. What better way to take in the glorious parade of humanity than to enjoy a coffee at the curb or a burger on the boulevard?
  • Stride the perimeter. For the truly adventuresome, there’s the Perimeter Walk, hiking all four sides of the City, the 14-plus miles of the City’s borders, bounded roughly by Howard Street to the south, Sheridan Road to the east, Isabella Street to the north and Crawford and McCormick Avenues to the west.

There is another, more poignant aspect of spring. While the other seasons have their appeal—summer is serene, fall is crisp and winter has cozy fires and holiday lights—it is spring we most anticipate, the beginning of new life and better weather. And yet there aren’t that many for us to enjoy: maybe four score and 10 if we’re very lucky.

So take it in, breathe the rich air, bask in the warming temperatures, exhilarate in the beauty of leafing trees and blooming flowers and remember: spring is a rare and beloved gift that deserves our full attention and appreciation.




Apr 182019

Evanston RoundTable, April 18, 2018

The arc of life is simple and inexorable: we are born, grow up, age and die. But what if we could change that, could live forever, or at least for a very long time?

Living longer, healthier lives is a hot topic these days. A February article in Time magazine described how food is the new medicine, targeting illnesses as a critical part of a patient’s medical care “that can have as much power to heal as drugs.”

A March story in the Wall Street Journal titled “The A.I. Diet” described how algorithms could select the best foods for every person’s unique biological profile.

Silicon Valley corporations and billionaires have been busy funding and exploring the science to extend healthy lifespans well beyond what is possible today.

The Palo Alto Longevity Prize, established by hedge fund president Joon Yun, will pay $1 million to the first team to “hack the code” that regulates health and lifespan. Dr. Joon also donated $2 million to launch the National Academy of Medicine Aging and Longevity Grand Challenge.

In 2013 Google established Calico to “harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan.” Funding is already in place for what the company calls an “unprecedented level of interdisciplinary effort.”

Human Longevity Inc., founded in 2014 by biologist Craig Venter, is building a database of 1 million human genome sequences to study the biology of “supercentenarians,” extremely long-lived and healthy individuals.

Tech billionaires in the anti-aging field include Larry Ellision, founder and chairman of Oracle; Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal; and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.

Their initiatives have already produced some big anti-aging breakthroughs. The supplement resveratrol and drugs such as metformin (used for diabetes) and rapamycin (used in cancer treatments and organ transplants) have shown potential to extend life in both animals and humans.

Of course, the goal is not just to extend life but to achieve an active, alert and contented old age.

My formula for longer life is part practical and part fantastical. The practical part is obvious: exercise regularly, eat healthy foods in moderation, stay active and surround yourself with loving friends and family. Don’t stress over inconsequential matters and don’t take yourself too seriously. Laugh and smile often. Strive to enhance the lives of others.

The fantastical part goes like this: 120 seems to be the current age limit to human life. From there, it’s possible to become almost immortal. Since the aging process slows as we get older, the goal is to get to 100. This is entirely feasible: there are currently more than 70,000 centenarians nationwide, and the number is projected to increase to almost a million by 2050. From 100, keep going. Like a rocket that breaks through the earth’s atmosphere and cruises gravity-free in space, once you celebrate 120, you’re home free.

Happy aging.



Apr 042019

Evanston RoundTable, April 4, 2019

Reflecting on it later, he decided it was wonderful happenstance, “pocketing the key of knowledge” in that way. It had happened, as many wonderful things do, on a visit to the Evanston Public Library, where he had gone to find a Tolstoy CD to play in his car.

He loved the building, that beautiful red-brick structure, the annual redoubt of a family of peregrine falcons, frequented also by a constant stream of children and parents, students researching papers, groups attending meetings, individuals looking for books and people just happy to settle in to read.

He skipped up the right-angled staircase, admiring the long and lovely mobile that hung from the ceiling—the “three-dimensional Pointillist structure,” as described by its creators. Rounding the landing he stopped to enjoy the artwork and photos by District 65 school children.

Then a sprightly left turn to the “T” section of the CD fiction shelves. But the Tolstoy was out. He let his eyes play over the Ts and saw an interesting-sounding novel by the Irish author Colm Tóibín. He had never read anything by Mr. Tóibín, nor anything by the great author Henry James, a double plus, because this book, “The Master,” was a novel about James.

He hesitated: James had a fearsome reputation as a dense and arid writer about characters—mostly upper crust Europeans and Americans—whose lives and conversations were dry as fall leaves. On the other hand, it could also be a profound discovery, as sometimes happens: a door that opens to a new and wondrous landscape. Why not?

Turned out “The Master” was something of a Jamesian masterpiece, written in the thoughtful, deeply intense James style of brilliant revelations yielding great meaning that arise from seemingly prosaic actions.

As a biographical novel “The Master” also provided some of the pleasure of non-fiction: he learned about the James family’s history—grandfather William, who came to America from Scotland almost penniless and made a fortune in business; and Henry James Sr., friend of Thackeray and Thoreau, who expounded a kind of Swedenborgian philosophy of “spiritualized psychology” that influenced both his famous sons.

And then there were those fabulous James’ boys. William trained as an artist and eventually became “the father of American psychology”; Henry moved to London and became America’s great expatriate novelist. Henry wrote novels like a psychologist, people said, and William wrote psychology texts like a novelist. They were, according to one biographer, “among America’s most original productions of the 19th century.”

For want of a Tolstoy his journey had taken him from one great book, “The Master,” to a succession of James’ classics. To paraphrase James in “The Wings of the Dove,” he had entered the library and “carried off in [his] pocket the key of knowledge itself.”

“Ah, happy library serendipity,” he thought, not for the first time. A door had swung open and he had walked right through.

Mar 212019

Evanston RoundTable, March 21, 2019

It would be interesting to hold a contest for the “next worst” sin. Surely, despite its curiously low ranking in the Ten Commandments (number six, below respecting your parents), murder tops the list. It is so violent, so irrevocable.

But even murder is not, as they say, an open and shut case. I want to suggest that another sin, one deceptively innocuous, is almost as bad.

Despite the biblical proscription, murder remains tragically commonplace—roughly five homicides per 100,000 in the U.S. It is also sanctioned under certain circumstances, by soldiers in wartime and the 30 states that still execute convicted felons. Killing is considered justifiable in other situations too, such as defending one’s family. Still, it strikes a decided discomfort and even dread in most people, which is why 108 countries have banned executions in most or all circumstances.

Nevertheless, none of the other sins proscribed in the Decalogue—such as lying, violating the Sabbath, committing adultery and not honoring good old Mom and Dad—seem to come close in egregious sinfulness to taking a life.

Next are the “seven deadly sins”—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Are these really so bad? They sound more like a working description of human kind, ourselves included.

It is the last item, however, sloth, or laziness, that excepting murder strikes me as the worst sin. In a sense, it isa murder.

There are two crimes committed in laziness: against the self and against the other. The first is obvious: laziness robs the individual of the benefit of the effort he or she foregoes. Laziness deprives the offender of all the fruits of serious labor—the dignity of their work and the beauty and fulfillment of their creative endeavors.

The same principle applies to the lazy person’s crime against others: it deprives friends, family and people in general the same benefits.

What if Bach had been lazy? We laugh at the notion: after all, in reproductive capacity alone he was busy as a beaver: he fathered 20 children!

But just suppose. We would today be deprived of the magisterial B Minor Mass and St. Matthew’s Passion, the wonderful Brandenburg Concertos, the exquisite violin and piano and organ works and sacred hymns and scores of other masterpieces that exalt and sanctify our world. Humanity would be far the poorer.

Bach’s slothfulness would be a kind of murder, killing not people but the spiritual and secular enjoyment of generations to follow. The same applies to everyone—not just artists and novelists and scientists but cooks and carpenters and cleaning people—everyone whose output leaves us better off.

We’re all lazy from time to time. Kicking back is one of life’s great pleasures and a necessary release from the rigors of the daily grind.

But constant, purposeful and irredeemable slothfulness is a terrible waste, maybe even a crime against humanity.

Mar 082019

Evanston RoundTable, March 7, 2019

Five times in our nation’s history, including twice in the last generation, the will of the people has been subverted by a process that is obsolete and undemocratic. I am referring, of course, to the Electoral College.

It is hard to justify its continued existence. Every four years it disenfranchises a minority of citizens in any given state, whose electoral votes are wiped out by the “winner take all” system. “Too many Americans don’t believe their vote matters,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer in introducing a bill in 2016 to abolish the Electoral College. She called it “an outdated, undemocratic system that doesn’t reflect our modern society.”

The system was devised for a number of reasons (preserving slavery may have been one), principally James Madison’s fear of “factions,” that is, domination by special interest groups, and Alexander Hamilton’s concern that the presidency should never fall to any man “not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” In addition, the system was designed to “balance” rural America vs. the more heavily populated urban regions.

Some people—currently a third of those polled—evidently think those are still valid reasons. Let’s examine them one at a time.

Clearly the founding fathers distrusted the common man. The Constitution of 1787 stipulated that only landowning white men could vote, hardly a show of support for universal suffrage. They may have been influenced by their study of ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and ancient Rome, the model of the American republic, where early forms of democracy led to violence and “mobocracy,” according to Alex Hobson, a post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Chabraja Center for Historical Studies. “The founders saw democracy as too much of a free-for-all,” he said.

In that context, Madison’s concern about “the tyranny of factions” might have been understandable. Today such a concern would be considered laughable if not dangerous. Imagine a proposal to revert to indirect election of Senators.

Hamilton’s objection presupposes that selected electors are more qualified than the average citizen to select a chief executive. That may have been true 230 years ago, when an estimated 40% of the population couldn’t read and many people didn’t have access to newspapers and such resources as the Federalist Papers. But it is certainly untrue today in our media-saturated age. We are in no danger of a dearth of information or opinions!

The founders also were predisposed to “protect their own economic interests” and to “legitimate their right to rule” by narrowing the electorate, said Dr. Hobson.

As for advantaging underpopulated rural areas, establishing some kind of balance between different parts of the country was probably even then an unrealistic and unjustifiable goal. There is only one way to ensure fairness and accuracy of the popular will: count one vote per person. This principle was firmly established in a 1964 Supreme Court decision. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the case that established the one person-one vote principle: ”People, not land or trees or pastures vote.”

The Constitution Project has written, “… the value of ‘one person, one vote,’ once brought to light, seemed so profoundly rooted in the Constitution its practice became inevitable.”

Does the Electoral College have any place in the modern world? Writing on the day Michael Cohen testified in Congress about the President’s avarice, duplicity and criminal behavior, clearly Hamilton’s belief that the system would screen out unqualified office-holders has failed.

“The founding fathers must be spinning in their graves now,” said Northwestern History Professor Leslie Harris. “This is not what they envisioned, this is what they were trying to prevent—using the office for personal gain.”

One person equals one vote is the gold standard of democracy. Overturning free and fair elections should never happen. If we fear the majority then we fear democracy. And while majorities can sometimes be wrong, that is a risk we willingly take in a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”


Feb 212019

Evanston RoundTable, Feb. 21, 2019

When I exercise doing planks, I pick out 60 seconds on the clock and start counting to myself. When I pass five seconds, I note that one-twelfth of the exercise is done. At 10 seconds it’s one-sixth. Fifteen seconds is a quarter. Twenty seconds is a third, 30 a half, and so on.

In other words, I chop up the intervals into ever-larger fractions and marvel at how quickly the fractions mount. The time seems to go faster and the mental distraction of finding the lowest common denominator makes the exercise less onerous and more doable.

When starting a big project, the best approach is to divide it into small parts and start with the first. As the old saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Since there are roughly 2,000 steps in a mile, we could say the first step is one two-millionth of a thousand miles, and the next step is two two-millionths. Behold: we have just gone twice as many steps!

Such mathematical curiosities are perhaps what the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno was getting at with his famous Paradox. He said (as one example) in pursuing someone in a footrace you could close the gap a fraction at a time, but since there are an infinite number of fractions and because infinity is unreachable, you could never win the race. The absurdity is paradoxical.

Zeno was making the point that motion, in a sense, is imaginary, but we know this is untrue. In fact, most seemingly intractable problems can be solved this way, a step at a time. As Neil Armstrong said, one small step for man, one giant leap (of many steps) for mankind. To take another example, does writing your long-imagined novel seem impossible? At just a page a day (250 words), it could be finished in 35 weeks.

A few summers ago, setting herself an unusual challenge, a friend of mine walked from her south Evanston home to Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, a distance of 270 miles. She spent months mapping out the journey. By chopping the distance down to doable bites, ranging from eight to 23 miles a day, she made the trip in 27 days.

Thus inspired, I choose a sunny winter day to walk to work. It’s about three miles. But instead of counting fractions I count items of trash. Walking east on the Dempster Street bridge at McCormick I spot haphazardly discarded bottles, cans, newspapers and other litter on the curb and sidewalks, in the bushes and on the street. I’ve written about this problem before, on Earth Day, though truly it is a problem in need of a solution every day.

In this fashion I get to work while expending a few hundred calories and dispensing with a few dozen items of trash. Plus I have the makings of a column.

In  other words, the numbers add up!







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.