Pick Your Tree Carefully

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Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is a beautifully written memoir about work, love, friendship, illness, and the tenacity female scientists need to succeed. This is a brave book; it is raw and honest and overall inspiring. I recommend it enthusiastically.

 

After reading Lab Girl, it is impossible to look at any tree or even a leaf without begrudging respect for everything it took for that respective piece of vegetation to venture into the world and live.

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is only known to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance–to take its one and only chance to grow.

Jahren tells of growing up in a family that rarely talked and barely emoted. (“The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.”) Her relationship with her mother was strained, but she drew comfort and strength from her scientist father whom she idolized.

I grew up in my father’s laboratory and played beneath the chemical benches until I was tall enough to play on them. My father taught forty-two years’ worth of introductory physics and earth science in that laboratory, nestled within a community college deep in rural Minnesota; he loved his lab, and it was a place that my brothers and I loved also.

Jahren is passionate about science and driven to succeed. She describes the obstacles female scientists often encounter — narrow-mindedness, failure to be taken seriously and be included, prejudice, sexual harassment — and how she barreled through and worked harder than anyone else to prove she belonged. Belong she does, and she has succeeded magnificently: three Fulbright Awards, one of only four scientists (and the only woman, natch) to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given in the earth sciences, tenured professor, and kick-ass writer.

There is a special skill to writing about science. It’s a secret language to those of us on the outside and one has to be especially adept to explain what’s taking place without losing the reader in complex jargon. Jahren is gifted with luminous prose when describing scientific experiments, the rhythms of efficient soil sampling, and proper laboratory procedures. I fell in love with her as she struggled and persevered, and cheered her professional and personal milestones. The passages in which she meets and falls in love with her husband, and regales us with tales of work adventures and friendship with her lab partner, Bill, testify to the depth of her feelings and the fullness of her heart.

She also wrestles mightily with manic depressive illness. Her raw candor about its effects on her life are mesmerizing and heartbreaking. I was awestruck by her strength, grit, and bravery, especially in the section where she describes the impact stopping her medication for 26 weeks (she was pregnant) had on her life. Thankfully what she had to endure worked successfully and her son was born completely healthy. She is fortunate: she has a true partner in her husband, who cared for her and advocated for the medical care she needed; she has access to the best medical care in the world; she has financial resources. That Jahren is aware of and appreciates these gifts make her triumph all the sweeter.

The Jahren Lab is in Norway now but you can keep up with her on her blog and be on the lookout for random op-ed pieces in The New York Times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Week That Changed Everything

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World Series Cubs Indians Baseball

It has been a strange year.

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Donald Trump won the Presidential election. To me, those two events symbolize the best and worst of us.

The Cubs’ World Series victory is the major sports story of 2016…maybe even the decade.  But business schools will also be studying this team for years; a case study is already in the works. And I can’t wait to read it. It’s a gold mine for research into the organization’s management style, investment choices, business goals, and hiring practices.  I want the details about how Joe Madden’s unique style was able to inspire and motivate this particular group of players.

The penultimate example of this management ethos was during the fateful, 17-minute rain delay during Game 7. In any business, meetings are frequent yet often ineffective. Not so with the meeting Jason Heyward initiated. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be an invisible eavesdropper on that meeting?

There are many great business lessons — even life lessons — to take away from this team. The entire organization worked toward their goal with skill, class, sportsmanship, camaraderie, and collaboration. They were focused and professional. They helped each other. They learned from their mistakes, worked to correct them going forward, yet did not dwell on them. They appreciated their customers (fans) and one another. They respected their differences and understood how each person contributed toward part of the larger ‘whole.’ These Cubs were multicultural, multi-racial, and observed different religious faiths. They played cleanly and followed the rules.

Even if you did not follow sports in general or baseball in particular, it was difficult to ignore the Cubs. They made baseball fun to watch. The games were also a great distraction from the endless election talk on television, radio, and social media. The euphoria of winning Game 7, in extra innings after a rain delay, made the final victory that much sweeter. After 108 years, it was an emotional and sentimental win, especially for those with relatives and friends who had not lived long enough to experience the victory.

The exuberance after the final out was pure joy. You can see it in the photographs of the players, the sounds of the crowd outside Wrigley Field, the overview of the city immediately after the game and during the parade two days later. Unbridled happiness. Joy. Euphoria. The sun shined on the city and the country shared in this win. Wednesday, November 2, the day they clinched the Series, through Friday, November 4, the day of the parade, were days to savor and remember, regardless of where you lived.

But the stupor of baseball bliss petered out by Monday, November 7, and then it was election day. More partisan talking and yelling of who did what to whom and when. Neither candidate ran a flawless campaign and neither of the major party candidates were ideal. But only one candidate was patently unqualified for the job he sought, a status he kept reinforcing with appalling regularity week after week.

There are many examples of egregious and undignified conduct from which to choose. Two stand out for me. Most abhorrent and disrespectful are the lies he knowingly fueled and perpetuated for five years regarding President Obama’s birth and citizenship.

The second example, the one I cannot watch on television out of revulsion, is Trump mocking and mimicking the reporter Serge Kovaleski. Any human resource professional will confirm that Trump’s behavior is illegal in a workplace, but he got a pass on this behavior from those who voted for him.

To go from the intoxicating elation of the Cubs’ victory to the unnerving Trump ascendency within six short days was and is nothing short of depressing.

The Trump win will be studied far more than the Cubs’ win. Yes, business cases will be written about how the campaign was run, the unrelenting four-word message, and the savvy media choices. He changed a lot of the rules. But the Cubs’ fascinate because their growth and success took place internally and independently. The fans responded by buying tickets and branded merchandise, but the team’s success was not dependent on the fans. The fans helped a lot, no doubt, but this team had fun and played well all on their own.

In contrast, Trump’s responses are fueled by his crowds and his crowds are encouraged by his bombast. His psychological needs for adoration and attention are immense, regardless of the outcome. There is an interdependency between the one making the outrageous statements and the crowds believing them to be true. The fact that the teller is a proven, documented liar of longstanding does not seem to matter. And that is why this ‘win’ is so sad and the Cubs’ win seems so pure by comparison. Collectively, we chose this outcome.

If you share these sentiments, there are ways to protest and fight back. Get involved. Volunteer to run for office or work for candidates in local elections. Support voter registration and voting. Donate money. Call your U.S. Representatives and Senators often to express your opinion — every call is tracked and can impact which bills and initiatives are supported. Purchase an online news subscription or buy a paper every day: we need objective, thorough, investigative journalism to combat a culture that rewards celebrity for its own sake.

And keep the faith. Pitchers and catchers report on February 13, 2017.

Missing Nora Ephron

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everything is copy

I have been a fan of Nora Ephron’s work ever since reading Crazy Salad. She was funny and sophisticated and very hip, everything I was not as a confused and moody teenager growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. When I still lived in Manhattan, I saw her on the Upper West Side once. She was holding hands with her best husband, Nicholas Pileggi, and they looked really happy; I behaved like a true New Yorker and didn’t fawn or ask for her autograph.

Like so many millions of other people, I was completely caught off guard and very sad when I heard the news of her death in 2012. I loved reading about how she had planned her memorial service down to the last detail, and provided copies of her favorite recipes to be given out to those in attendance. (I use her recipe for egg salad and it is a knockout.)

She was a great writer of books (I Feel Bad About My Neck) and screenplays (Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle), a wonderful director (Julie & Julia), a devoted mother to Jacob and Max, and a maven of the first order. Her first marriage ended before children and her second marriage was the source of her greatest thrill (becoming a mother) and worst hurt (finding out her husband was having a very public affair while she was pregnant with her second child). But she directed her own story, made lemon meringue out of the bitterest lemons, and turned her soon to be ex-husband from a famous journalist into a humiliated punch line.

Success is the best revenge, and she succeeded by any measure. She found marital happiness with Pileggi, her third husband. When asked to write her autobiography in six words, she famously answered, “Secret to life, marry an Italian.” She seemingly had it all, except for–perversely–her health, but of course she hid that from almost everyone she knew. It was the one story whose ending she could not direct.

jacob headshot for the timesOne of her sons, Jacob, must have recognized the yearning her fans had for one more Nora fix, and he at least partially satisfied that desire with a long, heartfelt, and intimate portrait of his mother’s final days and the period leading up to her illness. It is a wonderful piece of writing. I read nearly all the letters in response to it and realized I was not alone, by far, in how much I admired her work and appreciated her son’s essay. He is a gifted writer.

Fortunately, Jacob felt compelled to probe more deeply. He developed and directed a documentary film about his mother entitled, Everything Is Copy. It is currently available on HBO and absolutely worth watching. The movie confirms what was evident to any student of her work: she was smart, ambitious, and witty. She made her own luck even when the world was falling apart around her. She did not give up. She made sure to control her own story. Better to have people laugh at something you wrote (where you can control the joke) than become the joke and have them laugh at you.

Bravo, Jacob. Great movie. Your mom would have loved it.

 

 

Remembering Oliver Sacks

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I’ve been a fan of Oliver Sacks‘ ever since reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. Dr. Sacks was a masterful storyteller; his TED description lists him as a neurological anthropologist. What I loved most about both Sacks’ style and subject matter was how he made science, especially all things medical, both relatable and understandable. The reader did not need to be an expert to empathize with each compelling tale.

His two most recent books, published in the year prior to his death on August 30, 2015, are Gratitude and On the Move, and they couldn’t be more different. Gratitude is a compact reflection of what it means to live a worthwhile life. The four essays that make up this tiny book were previously published in the The New York Times; each essay is powerful and thought-provoking. The writer is at peace and satisfied with the life he has lived.

On the Move is a memoir that expounds upon Sacks’ growth and development into the person he became. Whereas his earlier memoir Uncle Tungsten recounts his childhood, family, and love for the periodic table, On the Move describes adult successes and failures, both professionally and personally, from high school through a year or two before the end of his life.

The instant the librarian handed me the book, I did a double take examining the photo on the book jacket. The virile and handsome man on the motorcycle seems light years away from the grandfatherly looking and kind man I thought I knew. How did one become the other?  The journey spanning sixty or so years makes up this brave and honest book. He shares painful subjects: his mother’s hurtful comment when learning that her son had homosexual desires; unrequited loves; drug addiction; professional failures. I never imagined or knew he was painfully shy or that his approach toward treating his patients was considered radical and untraditional.

Sacks’ knowledge base was grounded in philosophy, nineteenth century medical histories, and his fascination with the world around him. He was a geek of the first order. He won a prize while in high school or college and with the money bought a used set of the Oxford English Dictionary…which he then proceeded to read and finish. (A new set today consists of 20 volumes and costs $1,045.)

He was an expert in flora and fauna, animals, geology, words, music, and countless other subjects. He was endlessly curious, but without judgement or fear. He traveled extensively, always documenting his voyages with photographs, notes, and essays. He kept journals religiously from the time he was a young teen, as well as copies of his voluminous correspondence to friends, family, and colleagues all over the world. He loved reading, writing, and learning, and was most comfortable with his own company. He swam nearly every day; water was where he did his best thinking.

Sacks’ brain was big. He revised his work constantly and gave his editors agita because he insisted on adding seemingly countless footnotes. His mind was expansive and his desire to share, to let all of us–his readers, his fans, and acolytes–in on the riches he saw and experienced, at times made the books long or even tedious. Yet reading about his adult life and the experiences that shaped him, I am convinced that his sharing this knowledge was an act of love.

I wish I had had a chance to meet and speak with him. His TED talk on visual hallucinations complements his fascinating books.

 

Saying Goodbye to Honey

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This past Friday I made an appointment to have my 18 month old puppy euthanized. Honey had been diagnosed with a rare form of incurable leukemia only three weeks earlier. I adopted her, along with her brother and litter-mate, Fig, from PAWS this past February. Seven months to the day that I brought her home she was dead.

I am a first-time pet owner, and up until a few years ago didn’t consider myself a dog person, but my brother and sister-in-law have an amazing dog whom I adore, and well, love among pets and those who love them is contagious, I’ve found. I could not wait to adopt a stray myself. I asked other pet owners which breeds they recommended, read up about temperaments and was pretty sure I had a good idea of what I needed to do. I tried to adopt from a local pet store in Evanston, but they turned me down due to the freelance nature of my current work. The clerk at the store was blunt: “You don’t have any prospects.” Ouch.

Last February I had an errand in Lincoln Park and walked to PAWS afterward to “just look” and get an idea about what types of dogs were available. I had tried evaluating those available for adoption online, but you really can’t tell much from a photo and a few lines of generalities; I needed a face-to-face to learn more.

Silly me. I was totally unprepared for how my heart squeezed as I walked along the corridor, glass-plated rooms on either side, canine faces of all sizes, breeds and colors looking at me with pairs of big eyes, all of them seeming to channel ESP codes saying ‘Take me home.’ It was pitiful, only made bearable because PAWS does such an excellent job taking in and taking care of so many strays. They process several hundred adoptions each weekend, so most dogs and cats rescued by PAWS are adopted within a few weeks.

I met one dog that I noticed right away, but we did not connect with one another. She was a sweet dog, but totally uninterested in interacting with me. The volunteer shrugged and took that dog out of the neutral meeting room. Almost as an afterthought I asked to meet Honey and Fig.  Their little room faced the foyer area for maximum viewing with a sign on the window saying joint adoption of both puppies was required. They had been given up by their previous owners and were both traumatized and malnourished when they came to PAWS. The volunteers wanted to make sure I knew that the dogs could not be separated before I would be allowed to meet them. I assured the volunteers I was aware.

Literally within one minute of meeting them I was head-over-heels in love. Every mothering instinct that ever existed within me surfaced and all I wanted to do was take care of and protect them. Sitting on the floor with them, they reciprocated in kind with kisses, licks, yelps, nips and wags in a hurricane of emotion and energy. They crawled on me, over me and on top of me.  I was laughing and crying, drinking it all in, using my arms to embrace them but all of me to envelop them.  If anything ever felt ‘right,’ this did in multiples.

But wait. I had not planned to adopt a dog on that particular day and had certainly not planned to adopt two. I had absolutely nothing ready at home. Two hours earlier I had taken the purple line to Lincoln Park–I didn’t have access to a car and the three people I would have called to help me were all otherwise engaged. How was I going to do this?

Do you ever have “Should I or shouldn’t I?” conversations with yourself? All logic said to wait; the timing was not right for so many reasons.  Funny thing, though. the heart wants what it wants. A small mountain of paperwork later and with purchases from the Petco across the street from PAWS, I took a dog-friendly cab home and we started to settle in.

From the beginning, Honey was the dominant personality of the two even though her frame was smaller and thinner than Fig’s. She bossed Fig around, led him in play, and barked and snapped at other dogs and people protectively when we went out on our walks.  She was fully housebroken before Fig; she adapted better at doggie obedience training. Honey was confident. If I snuggled with Honey, Fig would come running over and squiggle between us so as not to be left out, but Honey never did the same when I snuggled with Fig. She was confident or indifferent enough not to care.

They loved to be with one another. They snuggled together during naps and at bedtime, they sunned themselves side by side, and played regular games of tag or boxed after nearly every meal. Fig also relied on Honey. The first time I attended obedience class with only Fig, he was so panicked about being without her that he trembled nonstop during the entire one-hour class and repeatedly tried to hop back in the carrier. Only after I brought Honey along to subsequent classes did he calm down and attempt the exercises.

Honey was also capable of relaxing. She loved to be petted and cuddled and would close her eyes luxuriously during caresses. (Her brother keeps his eyes wide open except during deep sleep.) She enjoyed long walks, whereas Fig still does not. And that attitude toward exercising showed in their figures: Honey was lean and Fig is…zaftig.  As the vet suggested, he needs a little bit more definition in his midsection.

A month ago at bedtime I noticed Honey’s breathing was labored. We saw Dr. Megan FitzGerald the next day at VCA Misener-Holley Animal Hospital.  The tech drew blood and x-rayed Honey’s lungs and Dr. FitzGerald confirmed a diagnosis of pneumonia.  We were sent home with an antibiotic. The next day she called with the test results from the blood sample and indicated Honey was much sicker than either of us realized. I went to BluePearl (formerly Animal 911 Emergency Care) and saw the doctor on call (VCA had already closed for the weekend). That vet examined Honey and drew more blood. He was concerned enough to strongly recommend we see a specialist on Monday or Tuesday and schedule an ultrasound. One of the two vets recommended, Dr. Susan Yohn, practices out of Blue Pearl and had an appointment available for us on Tuesday morning.

Dr. Yohn spent over an hour with us and confirmed Honey’s spleen was enlarged. There were no masses evident on the ultrasound, but Dr. Yohn still did not have enough information to make a definitive diagnosis. She recommended a needle biopsy of Honey’s spleen and a bone marrow sample, both of which I authorized. Honey tolerated the procedures well and I took my wobbly little one home to recuperate. Two days later, on my birthday, Dr. Yohn told me that all the data on Honey was presenting as cancer; after speaking to a range of veterinarian oncologists, Dr. Yohn confirmed my worst fear. Honey had a rare form of leukemia with a remaining lifespan of weeks; chemotherapy would make her remaining days miserable and was not recommended. The kind of leukemia she had was extremely unusual to see in such a young dog.

The next three weeks were a blur. I let her eat whatever she loved and washed her anti-nausea and antibiotic pills down with ice cream. The changes came quickly–loss of weight, loss of interest in food, lack of energy.  I started to feed her by hand to make sure she was getting nutrition. Dr. Yohn prescribed a probiotic to ease her digestion and steroids to stimulate her appetite. Both helped, if only for a few days.  Honey continued to weaken. She became too tired to walk long distances, then to walk around the block, then to walk at all. Her collar became loose because of all the weight she lost. Fig begged her to play with him, but she snapped at him until he left her alone. He kept sniffing her, either detecting the change in her body odors because of the cancer or the scent of the medicines. The last two days she gagged and coughed when she sipped water. Her eyes, which I had always described as sad, seemed pained to me.

I slept on the sofa with Honey and Fig those last few days. The last night she and Fig snuggled together. On Saturday morning I bundled her in her blanket, my old and threadbare blanket from childhood, as Ricky drove us to the animal hospital. I held her, petted her, and talked to her as we drove, waited in the waiting room and paced in the room where she would die. The end was faster than I could have anticipated. She was eight and a half pounds at the time of her death and had lost 15% of her body weight in just three weeks. The wonderful people at VCA made a plaster mold of Honey’s paw prints, a surprisingly sweet souvenir from such a terrible outcome. We drove home with Honey in a file box. I wanted to bring her home so that Fig could see her one last time.

We left the box in the car and I carried her still warm body into the apartment. Thank goodness I did not run into any neighbors on the way in or out! Fig greeted us at the door and I placed Honey gently in their bed. Fig went over immediately. He sniffed her, poked her with his nose, looked up at me. He cried his pitiful doggy cry and ran away, then came back and slowly attempted to see her again, but the result was still the same. The three of us sat there for a few minutes, then I sat with him alone, reassuring him and holding him. An hour later I buried Honey in my brother and sister-in-law’s yard and planted some beautiful flowering plants on top. The plants are supposed to flower earliest in the spring and last the longest through the fall, a poignant counterpoint to her all-too short life.

Fig and I are getting used to a quieter apartment and life without Honey. He snuggles with her sweater and is even more affectionate than usual with me. He had no appetite immediately before and after Honey’s death, but that has rallied as well. He is even going on longer walks with me, but only because I insist. Friends offered me many kind words of support after Honey’s death, and I was truly comforted by condolences from all the phases of my life and many locations where those friends live. I recognize it is ‘only’ a pet and one I did not have for very long, but the death of a pet is still a significant stressor, and it was helpful to have my loss acknowledged. I wish I could do the same for Fig.

I am fortunate that I was the one who had the chance to take care of Honey, and luckier still that I have a feisty, needy and mischievous Fig at home now. We are slowly coming up with new routines and activities. I plan to get a bicycle basket and mini-helmet for Fig; he has too much personality to sit home! So if you see us on one of our walks about town, don’t be shy–please call out and say hello. He, especially, will love the attention.

Ghostwriter at Evanston Library

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I prefer reading a book with paper pages than electronic ones.  Scanning someone’s personal library is my own personal Rorschach test for learning about them.  These days, to be more environmentally conscious and budget-savvy, I frequent the Main Branch of the Evanston Public Library.  One of the many things that impresses me about the library is this fabulous artwork, Ghostwriter, by Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter.  In 2014 Ghostwriter will be 20 years old, but it has aged beautifully.

The view from the ground floor looking up is mesmerizing.  I did not realize until I researched its history that all the suspended figures (more than 2,500 of them on 900 cables) together form a head and a face!  On the artists’ websites, they describe it as “a ‘portrait’ of imagination and learning, a metaphor for the creative process.”  The library as “a vessel of knowledge” is the perfect venue for this sculpture.

Recently I spoke to Schechter about the creative process behind Ghostwriter.  He described a period when computers “were at the beginning of consciousness” and the tools to use them were still fresh and often untried.  Schechter’s original career path was as an engineer studying robotics and the design of artificial limbs, an area that allowed for a great deal of creativity and experimentation, but he was interested in merging the technical with the artistic.  He and Helmick began experimenting with abstraction, pointillism, and optical illusions, knowing that “the brain is better than the eye in putting things together.”

The two friends decided to combine their talents on a project.  Working with an Amiga computer, 3D CAD (computer aided design), and a laser scanner with a video output port, they made a tape of the CAD animation to sell the concept of a three-dimensional floating sculpture.  Using a computer, the two men plotted out the design of the head and the face as if the viewer was walking around the sculpture; the other pieces were added by hand and mocked up using pieces of paper tacked to a wall.  Each piece within the sculpture would be individually cast.  This was the birth of Ghostwriter, their first collaboration, purchased for the Evanston Library through the City of Evanston’s Public Art Program.

The Evanston Public Library website offers this bit of insight into the elements of the sculpture: ‘There are three segments to the composition. A head composed of over 1500 cast aluminum letters. The head is both androgynous and a composite of world racial and ethnic types. The second segment is a spiral passing through the center of the piece. It is a metaphor for imagination and creativity. The third segment is the ambient symbols floating throughout the piece. Within the piece there are twenty-five references to world sculpture and twenty-four intentional words. There are several Evanston images, including leaves of trees that grow in this area, the Grosse Pointe Lighthouse, and a map of the community.’

I took photographs of the sculpture starting from the fourth floor and worked my way down to the ground floor.  It was fascinating to look at Ghostwriter from so many angles and vantage points. Seeing people walking on the stairs added an interactive aspect, as if they were ‘getting into the head’ of the overall form and not just spectators watching from the desks beyond. The image reminded me (variously) of an Escher print the way the stairs crisscrossed around the dangling pieces ; a spring rain shower and how it can be fun to play in the warm wetness without any fear of lightening; a swarm of locusts descending in biblical proportion; how it might look to approach a giant spiderweb. I found a row of birds sitting on an imaginary wire, one of several group figures.

Schechter shared some insights about some of the other figures.  There are references to historical events and figures and childhood games like Rock Paper Scissors.  The sculpture in total is a tribute to knowledge, learning, and the development of ideas.  One of the individual pieces is a milk splash, a metaphor for the ‘ah-ha’ moment of discovery, which ties back to the photography and research of a beloved professor from MIT, Harold ‘Doc’ Edgerton, whose work and creativity continues to inspire Schechter today.

One final anecdote: Karen Danczak Lyons, Library Director, shared this story about how the library staff cleaned the sculpture a year ago. “Underneath the sculpture on the first floor, staff suspended a large, plastic tarp and stood ready with a wet vac. Another staff member gently sprinkled the sculpture with a light but steady stream of water so that all areas were washed but the sculpture neither moved nor tangled.  The sculpture then air-dried as the water collected on the first floor was vacuumed up. Each day as I pass by the now sparkling clean sculpture I admire the piece of incredible art.”

Celebrate National Library Week, April 14-20, 2013 by visiting your local library.  The next time you visit the main branch of the Evanston Public Library, I encourage you to look up and take in the view of Ghostwriter.  What do you see when you really look?

Completing the Story — Isabel Alvarez MacLean

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This is a story about art, but it is also a story about love and family.  What unites these stories is the capacity to go beyond ourselves, to take chances, and to fully embrace the experiences of our lives.

I wanted to learn about Isabel Alvarez MacLean, the woman memorialized by her family through the sculpture Conversations: Here and Now.  Recently I spoke to Ms. MacLean’s namesake and daughter, Isabel (‘Chie’) MacLean Curley, who generously shared her recollections and these photographs.  I thought this would be about Mrs. MacLean, but what I found turned out to be larger than just one person.

Isabel Alvarez MacLean was born in Mexico City in 1903 to a family of artists.  According to family lore, as a young girl Isabel (senior) was always creative and visual.  She studied art after high school, but it was completely serendipitous that Mrs. Curley’s parents met one another.  In the 30’s, one of her maternal aunts ran an art gallery in Mexico City and was hosting an artist reception.  The (senior) MacLean family was vacationing in Mexico during that time and were exploring the city when they saw the reception through the gallery doorway or windows.  Although the MacLeans did not speak Spanish, they approached the door and were invited inside.  At the gallery, mingling with the invited guests, they became acquainted with the Alvarez relatives.  More introductions took place and the families exchanged addresses; they visited one another within Mexico, and then later, in the United States.  The two families stayed in touch: every year the eldest MacLean son returned to Mexico to spend time with the Alavarez family, and of course, to visit Isabel.

Eventually the young couple married and settled in Evanston, where they became parents to two daughters, Isabel and Sabrina.  The family lived in Evanston for over 50 years where art in various forms was always a part of their lives.  In her later years, Mrs. MacLean moved to a building overlooking Raymond Park, where she continued to work in her studio, creating works in mixed media and oils.   Her subjects covered a range of themes, united by her playful and exuberant style.  Mrs. MacLean lived in relatively good health, often enjoying the people and activities in Raymond Park, and continued to make art well into her 90’s.  She died on December 6, 2003 at age 100.

The story does not end at the end of Mrs. MacLean’s life.  Chie MacLean Curley was active in Evanston public arts and had worked for over twenty-five years as a gallery curator for the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.  She followed with interest the Evanston Public Art Committee search to select a piece of art for a public park on Davis Street, to which Indira Johnson submitted Conversations: Here and Now.  (The Committee admired the piece, but they decided it required a different setting than the location on Davis Street.)

Mrs. Curley had never forgotten Indira Johnson’s wonderful design.  Shortly after her mother’s death, Mrs. Curley was driving on Chicago Avenue by Raymond Park, a route she had traveled hundreds of times before.  But on that particular day, a flood of memories overwhelmed her.  She thought about all the times her mother would sit in the park, watching the children at the playground, enjoying the sunshine, and chatting with passersby; she saw the empty space at the northwest corner, a stone’s throw away from the playground; she thought about Ms. Johnson’s beautiful model of Conversations: Here and Now and how much everyone who saw it liked the design.

And then the idea came to her: Raymond Park was the perfect place for Ms. Johnson’s sculpture, and it was a wonderful way to honor Mrs. MacLean.  An artist being honored and memorialized by art.  The sculpture was meant to be participatory, and it would encourage the continuation of what Mrs. MacLean enjoyed all those years: talking and interacting with friends and visitors to the park. People would sit on the sculpted chairs just the way Mrs. MacLean had sat on one of the park benches on pleasant days.

The MacLean family rallied behind the idea and the rest of the story happened quickly; the sculpture was officially dedicated on May 10, 2009.  The family dedicated the sculpture in memory of and to honor their mother and grandmother, Isabel Alvarez MacLean, but also to honor all the mothers and residents of Evanston.

Fittingly, there is a third generation of MacLean women represented within the installation. A granddaughter of Isabel Alvarez MacLean, Molly Curley, composed these words, engraved on two of the corners of the installation:

the most beautiful monarch

migrated from mexico, north

wings open to everything in her midst

stirring the souls of all she touched

leaving a brilliant, painted ribbon

of life in her wake

Chie Curley is certain her mother would have loved the installation.  The spirit of this remarkable woman and her family infuse that corner of Raymond Park.  Conversations: Here and Now is ours to enjoy in all seasons.

Meet the Artist: Indira Johnson

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C201312-COTY-Indira-Johnson-thbThis week I was fortunate to spend some time with Indira Johnson, the talented artist, sculptor and peace educator behind Conversations: Here and Now, a photo of which graces the top of this blogspace.

I met with Indira at her studio to inquire about her creative process.  Indira originally conceived Conversations: Here and Now as an entry for a public art commission sponsored by the City of Evanston and the Public Art Committee for an installation at Fountain Square. Conversations: Here and Now was one of five entries selected from hundreds submitted throughout the United States as well as many countries; Indira was the only artist of the five who lived in Evanston.  Despite one of the five finalists living within three miles from the installation site, the Selection Committee made it clear it would choose the winner of the commission on the basis of merit; it was not to be a popularity contest.

Chairs were always the centerpiece of the design.  Each chair’s unique design represents the diverse cultures of people who call Evanston home and the uniqueness of each individual.  Made of wax and cast in bronze, the chairs surround an open space to inspire conversation–listening as much as speaking–contemplating, and sharing of memories.

Indira’s design was not selected for the Fountain Square site, and of course she was disappointed about not being chosen.  Yet not being chosen turned out to be a good thing: the Curley family loved her design and chose it to honor their mother, Isabel Alvarez Maclean, a long-time resident of Evanston who had passed away a few years earlier. Since the design had already been vetted by the Evanston Public Art Committee, official approval for installation permits took place relatively quickly and the manufacturing process took about a year.

The verbatim quotes on the spiral design of the base and on the chairs are from a series of public meetings held among different community groups in Evanston during the planning stages of the project.  Indira heard what was important to her Evanston neighbors as they described what they loved about their community, shared their memories, and voiced their hopes for the future.

The seven chairs are sturdy and functional, impervious to the weather, interspersed with images from nature and of water.  The base is wheelchair accessible, and there is a spiral of bronze starting at the center of the square, expanding out, etched with more thoughtful words.  The spacing between the chairs is wide enough to allow for meditative thought, yet close enough to encourage genuine conversations.  The words on the chairs and on the base stimulate questions as well as stories and inspire conversations.

Visit the northwest corner of Raymond Park to experience the tranquility and beauty of Conversations: Here and Now.  Even in the depths of winter, it is a lovely spot within Evanston.

Sexual Health Expert’s Advise: Communicate

jeff headshot[This is a reprint of the article I wrote, published in the Evanston RoundTable, 5/3/17.  I cannot rave enough about how wonderful Dr. Albaugh is as a speaker.]

The Linden Room of the Levy Senior Center, 300 Dodge Ave was filled as Dr. Jeffrey Albaugh, Director of Sexual Health at NorthShore University Health System, began his presentation on “Sexual Health and Natural Changes as We Age.” The presentation was the second featured Levy Lecture, a new program sponsored by the Levy Senior Center Foundation, a non-profit organization established to provide enrichment programs and activities for the benefit of seniors 55+ who frequent the Center.

Dr. Albaugh is a board certified Advanced Practice Urology Clinical Nurse Specialist and an internationally recognized speaker on the topics of sexual health and sexual dysfunction. Currently he runs the NorthShore University HealthSystem William D. and Pamela Hutul Ross Clinic for Sexual Health. He treats both men and women and has won numerous awards for excellent patient care. Dr. Albaugh’s research in sexual health has been funded by many sources including the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Albaugh is an expert at explaining complex health information in a way that non-medical professionals can understand. He is also a skilled communicator and comfortable discussing sensitive subjects – like sexuality, intimacy, and sexual problems – that might make others squirm. His open, upbeat personality and use of humor immediately put the audience at ease. Men and women alike sat rapt as he talked with compassion and understanding about one of the most basic drives human beings have, the need for touch and connectedness.

Communication between partners was one of the main themes of Dr. Albaugh’s presentation. He clarified some of the differences between sexuality and intimacy: sexuality is the sense of being male or female, whereas intimacy is the process when two people move toward “complete communication” and connectedness on all levels.

Dr. Albaugh explained how human beings need the feeling of being connected in order to thrive, but those same feelings make us vulnerable. Allowing oneself to feel vulnerable with another person can be very scary, but it is the only path toward love and creativity, according to Dr. Albaugh. Part of that vulnerability is learning how to communicate openly and honestly with your partner about sexual pleasure, which does not come naturally for most people. Practice helps!

Another theme of the presentation was understanding how men and women change as they age and the effects those changes may have on their bodies. It is essential to maintain good health overall as it affects one’s sexual health. Dr. Albaugh emphasized the importance of watching one’s diet, weight control, exercise (at least three hours of cardiovascular exercise per week), and managing medical problems.

Much of Dr. Albaugh’s work with his clinic and private patients focuses on issues of sexual impairment due to hormonal or physical changes to the body, sometimes due to disease or trauma as well as aging. Fortunately, there are many therapies available to address those issues, including counseling and behavioral therapy, pelvic floor physical therapy, hormonal therapy, vacuum devices, prescription medications, surgery, and herbs. Sexual and intimacy issues can be successfully resolved with patience and expert medical care.

As Dr. Albaugh wrapped up his lecture, he was inundated with questions
from the audience, which he patiently answered until he had to leave for his next patient appointment. The overriding message [Dr. Albaugh] communicated was that it is possible to enjoy sex and intimacy throughout one’s entire life. And if there is a “bump” in the road, don’t be shy: expert help is available.

Moonglow, A Fictional Memoir

I loved Michael Chabon’s most recent book, Moonglow. I am also a big fan of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, one of my favorite books. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

I liken his writing to a Wes Anderson movie. Both have their own particular style, but if you like the style, you love the creative output of the author or writer/director.

Moonglow’s storyline is complex and weaves back and forth between the past and the present. The main character’s grandfather, a curmudgeonly, silent type, is dying and in his Dilaudid haze he has become verbose, confessionally talking to his grandson, one Mike Chabon, telling him never-before heard stories about his childhood, his adventures during World War II, and how he met his wife, the author’s grandmother.

The novel is essentially a series of love stories that build upon one another like Russian nesting dolls. Mike Chabon is the novel’s narrator, but he is not Michael Chabon, the book’s author. Mike is the one filling in the gaps left out from his grandfather’s stories, packing a myriad of footnotes, adding the tangents which serve as spicy addenda to the books many pages.

The grandparents are two broken people (but broken in different ways) who find one another and fall head over heels in love with one another. Their marriage is passionate and faithful, but the grandmother suffers from horrible nightmares and mental illness, a remnant from her experience as a hidden refugee in France during the war.

All of the characters have secrets that they hide from one another. The backward and forward lurching of the story builds to the pivotal explanation toward the end of the book, slyly inserted into the narrative almost as an afterthought.

This complex, layered book drew me in and had me spellbound. The phrasing is marvelous, so effervescent some pages sparkle.  I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, yet I didn’t want it to end. If Chabon is your thing, dig into this one soon. Savor it.

 

 

 

More Escapist Fiction

 

Still in despair by our country’s current political environment and horrified by the catastrophes unfolding in Washington, D.C., I am seeking relief (or hiding) in various ways. I tried floating in a epsom salt float tank and loved it…more about that later. I am getting back into yoga and grateful to have so many good studio options in and near Evanston. Most of all, I am reading a lot and taking advantage of my EPL card.

In quick succession I enjoyed these three mysteries and a tear-jerker: The Dry by Jane Harper, a first-time novelist; The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware; and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, author of the wonderful and highly acclaimed, Room; and A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

The Dry takes place in a section of Australia that has not seen any rainfall for two years. The land and everything on it is withering..cracking..dying. Crops won’t grow and livestock can’t survive. Financial ruin is everywhere. As the book opens, Aaron Falk, a federal agent, is en route to the funeral of his high school friend Luke. Aaron hasn’t been home in twenty years and is determined to spend as little time as possible in town, counting down the hours until he can leave without seeming rude. It seems Luke snapped due to the impending loss of his farm and shot his wife and young son, sparing only his infant daughter, before killing himself.

Twenty years ago Luke provided an alibi for Aaron when a young woman was reported missing. This mutual friend later turned up dead. Despite Luke’s insistence that Aaron and he were together, town gossip blamed Aaron for the death and effectively chased him and his father out of town. Luke’s father knows the boys lied and asks Aaron to stay in town a few extra days to see if Aaron can help clear Luke’s name. In addition to the unrelenting heat, the gossip and cliques within the community add their own type of oppressiveness, where the past is never really over and everyone seems to know everybody else’s business. The story builds logically bit by bit over the course of a week until its dramatic and combustible conclusion. The Dry is a fun read, perfect for a beach vacation or long flight.

The Woman in Cabin 10  is a psychological mystery. Lo, a travel writer, is under tremendous stress and possible PTSD due to a recent attack during a break-in at her home and later, an argument and possible split with her boyfriend. The timing of both events could not have been worse as she is scheduled to leave in two days on a highly anticipated press junket aboard a luxury yacht trip en route to see the Aurora Borealis. The break-in has left her unable to sleep without alcohol to blot out her nightmares. In her boozy haze the first night out to sea, Lo is convinced she hears and sees a woman being tossed overboard from the cabin next to hers. She notifies the ship’s staff, but the room is unoccupied and no one is unaccounted for among the ship’s staff or guests. The ship’s security officer politely but firmly dismisses her concerns and suspects she is hallucinating, imagining things because of her recent break-in, hung over or a combination of all of the above. To complicate things further, the WiFi on the ship is not working and Lo is unable to receive or to send emails. Is she going crazy? Paranoid? Is there a secret killer on the ship that only she sees? Combine fuzzy memories, a disoriented sense of time and personal space, and ample self-doubt for a toxic mix. Similar in some ways to The Girl on the Train, The Woman in Cabin 10 is a challenging whodunit with a surprise twist ending.

If you liked the tension and insular world of Room, I think you’ll enjoy The Wonder. Emma Donoghue has created another tight, restrictive environment, this time in 1859 Ireland. For the past four months, since her eleventh birthday, Anna has stopped eating save for a few teaspoons of water each day. A deeply religious young girl, Anna’s family and neighbors believe she is a living miracle in their midst. The local priest has doubts and wants to be certain Anna is a true miracle, so a group of townspeople hires two nurses to watch over Anna at all times for two weeks to determine if she is sneaking food or, as Anna maintains, living off of “manna from heaven.” One of the nurses is a young widow, trained by Florence Nightingale, and determined to uncover the scheme. Much to her surprise, Lib is charmed by Anna and believes her to be sincere, if not misguided.

Despite 24-hour surveillance, Lib and other nurse, Sister Michael, are unable to find hidden food or determine how Anna might be getting any sustenance. All outward physical signs show that Anna is slowly dying, yet no one — not her physician, her priest, her parents, her cousin who lives with them, or the other nurse, Sister Michael — is doing anything to actively save Anna from certain death. Why is the child willingly starving herself? And how can Lib save Anna before being run out of town, since Lib’s ‘by the book’ manner and irreligious approach have already provoked the ire of the local priest, the family doctor, and Anna’s parents. The Wonder is a story of love, commitment, and redemption. claustrophobic at times, the intensity builds as Anna deteriorates, but the end is nothing short of miraculous.

I know I’m late to the party about A Man Called Ove as it’s been in print since 2012, but better late than never. Ove is a curmudgeon. He is almost mean and very rigid, and he is determined to commit suicide to end his troubles. Thing is, his plans keep getting waylaid by the people around him…boisterous neighbors, a pushy cat, fainting commuters…there is no end to the interruptions! But little by little, his icy heart starts to thaw. This is his story. I loved this book — I laughed out loud more than once and was charmed to tears as the story of Ove’s life was slowly revealed. If you need a feel-good book to read or give, this is the one.

Happy reading!

Social Disconnect

I first heard about J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, from my Aunt Sue, who had read it as part of the syllabus for a college course she audited last fall. It was November, shortly after the election, and I was still in a fog of disbelief about the results. She recommended it as essential reading and promised it would explain a lot.

A few weeks later I was browsing for a gift in a small book store and asked the owner if she had noticed any differences in her customers’ purchasing habits since the election. She acknowledged that, indeed there were changes. In the days immediately after the election, there was hardly any store traffic. No one was in the mood to shop; people were hunkering down. But after a few days, things got back to normal — whatever that is — and she had two types of requests: non-fiction (explain the election, how did this happen?) or fiction (get me out of here, this can’t be happening).  In the former category, two books were in hot demand, White Trash: The 400-Year Old Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy. 

In Isenberg’s White Trash, “the poor are always with us,” and labeling the underclass of poor whites implies “an imposed inheritance” that almost invariably prevents them from escape and encourages demonization if not blame. For them, the American dream of upward mobility is largely “unobtainable.”

First known as “waste people,” and later “white trash,” marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children–the sense of uplift on which the American dream is predicated. The American solution to poverty and social backwardness was not what we might expect. Well into the twentieth century, expulsion and sterilization sounded rational to those who wished to reduce the burden of “loser” people on the larger economy. (p. xv, White Trash)

The book is long, dense, and at times, tedious. Isenberg weaves the history of how the poor in this country have been treated and viewed as expendable fodder as far back as the 1500s when the land was a colonial outpost of Great Britain and a dumping ground for undesirables. There are three main themes: the importance of our country’s rural past; the pervasive role class hierarchy plays in the United States; and how land ownership and class are connected, in that “the worst classes were seen as extrusions of the worst land: scrubby, barren, and swampy wasteland.” By the time these themes reach the likes of Honey Boo Boo and the current economic struggles of the lower rungs of the 99%, I was pretty discouraged although much better informed.

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of an unusual childhood. J.D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt of Ohio with deep family ties in the hills of eastern Kentucky. He was raised by his grandparents; his mother had substance abuse problems throughout his early years and he nearly failed out of high school…except he didn’t, because of the love and support of a few people and a fair amount of luck. He graduated high school, joined the Marines, served in Iraq, graduated from Ohio State in two years, and graduated from Yale Law School. He made it out and he made it big.

The majesty of  Vance’s story is learning why, amidst such a chaotic start, he did not give up on himself and why he did not give in to the despair, pessimism, and cynicism all around him. He describes growing up in deep poverty with familial violence as a norm. Years later he learns that the yelling, fighting, and abuse he and his sister experienced had a name–“adverse childhood experiences”–and that children with multiple ACEs are statistically more likely to experience adverse health and behavioral issues. He is unabashedly loyal to his family and loves them unconditionally, but he is clear about the bad choices his family and neighbors have made and the impact those choices have had on their lives and on the lives of the children in their care.

Vance despairs about the rampant drug addictions tearing through his hometown, and how unprepared its residernts are to confront a knowledge-based economy. He assigns both fault and credit to certain aspects of government programs, family decisions, and cultural norms. Vance doesn’t pretend to speak for all of his kin or neighbors, but he does present a portrait unfamiliar to many Americans and one that is helpful to understand. He writes with objective emotion and sensitivity; he is not bitter or vengeful, and surprisingly forgiving, accepting, and understanding of his mother. He recognizes he is lucky to have had loving grandparents who instilled him with good values and self-confidence and good mentors who believed in him and taught him about things he was never exposed to at home.

Neither White Trash nor Hillbilly Elegy are the definitive answer about how and why our country elected this president, but they are important parts of the conversation. I recommend them.

 

 

 

 

 

Best of Evanston

ew_suptspotlight_video2015Dr. Eric Witherspoon gets my vote for Person of the Year. He is an inspiring speaker and educational leader. He cares deeply about the students at Evanston Township High School. But the pitch perfect message he delivered over the loudspeaker the morning after the election resonated in the school’s classrooms, across the houses and apartments of Evanston, and soon went viral across the country. This short epistle is only 275 words, but together they are more riveting than all the Tweets, speeches, and position papers leading up to the election and more comforting than all the ones that followed. Read it again to be re-inspired; save it for future reference in the coming months. I suspect we are going to need it.

northwestern-universityNorthwestern University is a great corporate citizen within Evanston. It is the city’s top employer and an essential contributor and participant within the social fabric of Evanston. It offers a beautiful lakefront campus and a calendar filled with lectures and first-class musical, theatrical, athletic, and cinematic entertainment, much of it open to the public. It is the home of groundbreaking research and Sir Fraser Stoddart, one of 2016’s Nobel Prize recipients. I am a fan of the Jazz Small Ensembles and National Theatre Live at the Wirtz. Come join me.

lake-michigan

 

The beautiful lakefront of Lake Michigan serves as my backyard. I love the bike path that winds around its edge and the serenity I feel whenever I pass by. The view from Northwestern looking south toward Chicago never fails to inspire me…as well as remind me of Oz, the Emerald City.

 

aylas

Evanston fosters a wonderful environment for small businesses and creative, artistic stores. One of my favorites is Ayla’s Originals, a shop that inspires, encourages, and provides supplies and lessons to beaders (those who bead) all over the North Shore. I originally visited Ayla’s for some assistance with jewelry repairs, but was drawn in by the friendly atmosphere and wonderful sense of community. Ayla’s offers a fantastic selection of beads from all over the world — including rare, collectible, and antique ones — as well as an array of individualized classes on techniques of jewelry-making. Take a class and see if this craft is for you. Treat yourself: do something creative every day.

We love to read in Evanston and there are many great bookstores catering to bibliophiles as well as a fantastic public library system. My favorite bookstore is Bookends & Beginnings for its fantastic selection, personalized service, great recommendations, and cozy atmosphere.  But there are others. Try Chicago Rare Book Center, tucked away on Washington Street; they specialize in children’s books, modern literature, jazz and blues, art, Chicago, the Midwest, and Americana. Comix Revolution specializes in comics and graphic novels. And if those specialties are not niche enough for your tastes, try Montagnana Books. They focus on books and collectibles about the violin family.

Happy reading, biking, and beading. As Dr. Witherspoon advises, “Let’s protect and take care of each other. Everything is going to be okay.”