Words That Move America

Chicago, a city that has spawned at least its fair share of writers and attracted many more, has spawned a national museum dedicated to people who propagate the written word. The American Writers Museum (AWM) opened May 16 at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, situated amid a dense ecosystem of museums, parks, and other cultural attractions that make living in Chicago such a stimulating experience. Let me just state the basic premise up front: If you live in Chicago, or you are visiting, and you care about or have any curiosity about literature, this is worth a visit. It is not a huge museum, at least not now, and you need not worry that it will take all day. You can spend all day, but you can get a great deal out of it in two or three hours if you wish.

Literature, in the context of AWM, does not only mean fiction or poetry. One point that was immediately obvious to me during a visit last week was that the museum takes a broad view of both “writers” and what constitutes “writing.” Communication comes in many forms, and the museum seeks to explore how those forms change in response to numerous changing conditions in American society. AWM President Carey Cranston reinforced that point with me during a brief walk-through when I arrived, before turning me loose to make my own assessments of the exhibits. Thus, in the various displays one can encounter Charles M. Schulz, the author of the “Peanuts” comic strip, which made points about life, love, and laughter just as surely as Jane Jacobs, discussing the status of urban planning in the 1960s in The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Jean Toomer in Cane, an intriguing mix of fiction techniques that shed life on African-American life in the early 20th century. Creativity is not bounded by genre. It helps define genre.

Hold that thought for a minute while I explore with you the big question that drove me to visit in the first place. It is obvious enough how some other museums dedicated to natural history (Field Museum, e.g.) or technology and science (Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, or the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.) make their subject visual and sometimes even tactile with displays of dinosaur skeletons or space capsules, accompanied by videos that help patrons relive the experience of exploring the moon. How does one take the words of poems, novels, memoirs, and other types of written expression and make them come alive in an institutional setting? After all, any library can create a display of the ten best novelists by simply stacking the books along a display counter to draw attention. As readers, we engage with these works by buying or borrowing the books and, well, reading them. So, what makes an American Writers Museum a vivid encounter with its subject matter?

One answer lies in the timeline that greets you just to the right of the front desk after you enter. Running from 1490 to the present, it is not, as Cranston noted to me, a display of the best writers America has ever seen, but instead provides an emblematic display that allows you to see the relationship of major themes in American history to the writing American authors have produced. The United States of America, an independent nation for only half of that time and a maze of Spanish, French, Dutch, Russian, and British colonies as well as native societies at various times before and since, is rich in historical themes that have inspired literary responses. The vastness of a continent new to Europeans . . . . the interaction of cultures . . . . Civil War and its aftermath . . . . the struggle for civil rights . . . . the fight for dignity and identity for American Indians . . . . immigration and the assimilation of new peoples and cultures . . . . industrialization and its impact on a formerly agrarian nation . . . . America’s emergence on the world stage. One could go on, and one could navigate the endless subthemes and nuances of each topic, which is precisely what American writers, whatever their origins and perspectives, have done for more than five centuries.

Opposite the timeline, and complementing it, is a wall with the names of prominent writers on small boards built in that one can turn for additional information. Many, though not all, feature short videos one can launch with a finger touch that illustrate important points. I played with one for Ray Bradbury, one of my own favorites dating back to high school. The video quotes part of Fahrenheit 451 while showing a pile of books being consumed by fire. Alongside Bradbury’s name is a theme, in his case, Dystopian Literature; this occurs with each writer to help show the range of genre that American literature has produced, how it has responded to both contemporary and larger issues, seeking to excite the visitor’s imagination. Whether intentional or not, it excited mine simply by introducing me to writers previously unfamiliar to me, which is saying a lot. There are American writers of whose work any of us may know little or nothing but who have the potential to stir our thoughts and prod our consciences. That has always been the mission of good writing.

Near all that is a current, periodically changing exhibit, the Meijer Exhibit Gallery, which demonstrates some of the most potent creativity the museum has on display. Its first exhibit displays the work of poet W.S. Merwin, about whom I confess I knew nothing, but who is now a source of fascination for me. The small room one enters for “Palm: All Awake in the Darkness,” features a haunting 12-minute video with no human presence except for the soft voice-over of narrators reading from Merwin’s work dealing with the complex and problematic relationship of humanity and nature. The video features the view from inside a cabin in the Maui rainforest, redolent with the sounds of birds and insects and the abundance of life beneath the forest canopy. You may stand or sit on a simple bench and contemplate this immersive adventure into the mind of a poet. Merwin, now 89, has produced more than 50 volumes of poetry, according to the brochure that complements the exhibit, which discusses writer Gregory Bateson’s concept of an “ecology of ideas,” the network of impressions and perspectives that form our conscious and subconscious minds. Since the late 1970s, Merwin has lived in Hawaii on an old pineapple plantation he has restored to its natural state.

As a Lutheran, I found one other thing haunting. Merwin is a practicing Buddhist, and the brochure contains a typewritten, hand-edited draft of a poem called “Place.” It begins:

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

Curiously, for years, I have known that Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is upon us, and I know these two men came from very different places to express the same thought. But if a 16th-century religious reformer and a 20tt-century Buddhist poet can reach the same conclusion about the resilience of our commitment to the earth and the stubbornness of faith, perhaps there is hope for us all, after all.

AWM will be sponsoring events in a modest meeting room that features another challenging exhibit, “The Mind of a Writer,” which explores the connections between writer and audience. Professional writers clearly cannot earn a living without an audience, and the practical questions are both how to define and shape that audience and how to reach that audience. The “reach” forces us to explore the role of technology and institutions in facilitating those connections, which clearly have evolved over time. Displays make us think about the evolution of the book shop, starting with the Moravian Book Shop, launched in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1745, largely to import religious publications, but continuing into such modern innovations as Oprah’s Book Club, using the medium of television to connect viewers with writers; bookstore chains such as the now defunct Borders; and Amazon, allowing people to order books through the Internet. Of course, writers have also used periodicals, which in their heyday relied very much on the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service, as well as other media. Playwrights do not expect people to read their writing, but to hear it on stage. Screenwriters reach people through televised performances of their scripts, and so on. All of that got me wondering whether AWM missed a beat by not discussing the Internet not only as a mechanism for selling printed works but as a medium in itself for digital publishing. After all, the very premise of my visit was to review the museum not in print but online, by blogging. Maybe I missed it, but where was the discussion of blogging as one of the most modern innovations in audience creation? Anyone out there? Judging from the list of subscribers on my admin site, it would seem there are thousands. In the aggregate, probably hundreds of millions. It’s a brave new world. But I suspect it may not be long before AWM addresses this phenomenon.

Just beyond this area is a section where you can sit at an old-fashioned typewriter and play. The staff each day places sheets of paper in a tray with the opening lines or fragments of famous quotes. Your job: start pecking away to fill in the blanks with your own thoughts about how the quote should end. For writers like me who are almost preternaturally oriented to the computer screen, it is slightly disconcerting to hit keys that sometimes skip, but the experience is indisputably tactile, though arguably less so than perhaps using a quill pen. In any event, there is a wall with clips. You are invited to hang up your work when you are done. I did not get around to asking what the staff does with these at the end of each day. Maybe you should ask when you visit.

I hope you are more dexterously agile than I appear to be with one other exhibit that allows you to move any of a number of drifting images across a screen for a surprise exploration of an individual writer’s work. One of several lines of inquiry allows you to hear a short oral reading, but I had trouble triggering that feature because my index finger seemed not to hit the precise part of that line that activated the recording, at least not on the first try. I found myself a little frustrated, but a generation that has become adept at using its thumbs to tap out smartphone messages may be more adept in this respect. I was never very skilled with video games, either. We all have our limitations.

There are other features, including one on Jack Kerouac that includes the “scroll manuscript” he pasted together for On the Road, and a room on Chicago writers, since the museum lives here. I am sure there will be more in the future. The museum leaders appear to have built out their infrastructure of sponsors and board members, and if you’d like to know more, you can visit the website. That is not my mission here. As an active American writer, I hope I’m offering you reasons to visit the museum itself.

 

Jim Schwab

All’s Well at Burwell’s

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Warmth is a concept with many dimensions. In the realm of physics, it is a relative measure of temperature. In reference to weather, perhaps the most common subject of human conversation, it is a measure of the kinetic energy of the atmosphere around us, which is constantly changing. Mark Twain has been erroneously quoted as saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” His friend Charles Dudley Warner sort of said it, but no mind. On Tuesday, February 7, in Charleston, South Carolina, no one around me had any complaints. We were perfectly happy with the kinetic energy of the atmosphere of the day, which brought the city to a very comfortable 75° F. No rain, just a mild breeze. Let it be. (You can accurately take that quote from the Beatles.) Two days later, I would have to return to Chicago, where it was 18° F. when I stepped off the airplane.

Like many other English words, warmth takes on many metaphorical and emotional connotations derived from its physical qualities. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” President Harry Truman used to say, and he was not referring to room temperature in the White House. Conversely, there is the warmth of positive human relationships, just as there is a chill in the air when they are not going well.

That evening, at a downtown Charleston restaurant, Burwell’s, I experienced that warmth at a group dinner organized by some National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) staff for those members of the NOAA Digital Coast Partnership who were attending the Coastal GeoTools Conference. The partnership consists of both NOAA, through its National Ocean Service, and eight national nonprofit organizations, including the American Planning Association, which I represented along with a colleague, Joseph DeAngelis, a research associate for the Hazards Planning Center. The conference was hosted for NOAA by the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM).

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

But enough of the organizational details. Shortly after all our carloads arrived at Burwell’s, and our party of 24 was led upstairs by the wait staff, it became apparent that something special was afoot. Miki Schmidt, Division Chief for Coastal Geospatial Services at NOAA, attempted to get people’s attention by clinking empty glasses. It wasn’t working, so I decided to use my booming voice to say, “Miki wants your attention.” That worked. Then he announced, to my surprise, that they wanted to honor my upcoming retirement with a few gifts, among which were a framed certificate of appreciation from the U.S. Department of Commerce for my service in supporting Digital Coast and a framed photograph of those who had attended the last full meeting of the partnership in Rhode Island in September 2016, signed by many of the attendees. The warmth of the professional and personal relationships built with colleagues since APA joined the partnership in 2010 became readily apparent to me in this unexpected moment.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Then we sat down, and the “roast” began. More than once, as Miki seemed ready to turn the floor over to me for the final word, someone new would pop up to offer stories both fun and serious. Yes, it was true that I had once, wearing a moveable wolf mask, climbed through the open window of a park shelter in Madison, Wisconsin, during an evening reception for a partnership meeting hosted by ASFPM, asking the whereabouts of “them three little pigs.” Undaunted by the momentary confusion my entrance engendered, Allison Hardin, a planner from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, insisted on posing for a photograph with the wolf, who politely obliged. I was known (though not alone) in trying to provide such moments to enliven the more relaxing moments of partnership gatherings. When my “final word” finally came, I shared not only some enhancements of the recollected moments, but my own plans beyond APA, which I discussed in a recent blog post, “The Fine Art of Stepping Down.”

Still, the Digital Coast Partnership was also built through a great deal of hard work, which was also celebrated. The representatives of the groups involved worked hard over the past decade to build the partnership, which is now celebrating its tenth year. Meetings sometimes involved long discussions of how we could better collaborate, and we now often partner on important proposals and projects in which our complementary strengths facilitate important progress in achieving Digital Coast’s mission. NOAA established Digital Coast to advance the use of geospatial technology by coastal communities to improve and enhance coastal planning and resource management. Much of this consists of a substantial and growing of free, online tools and resources for mapping and visualization purposes. The partnership consists of the user communities that can help vet Digital Coast products and assist in their dissemination. But the operative Digital Coast slogan has been “More than just data.” It is the human dimension that matters, and the science and technology have been means to an end, which is enabling the achievement of noble coastal community goals such as environmental protection, hazard mitigation, economic sustainability, and climate resilience.

And so—I suppose it was appropriate that the organizers of the dinner chose to bring us to Burwell’s Stonefire Grill, which generates its own warmth through its comfort menu of steaks and seafood. Though it certainly can be pricey like any steakhouse (most steak entrees are between $30 and $40), the food is outstanding. Personally, I indulged in the lobster bisque for starters. It offered some of the deepest, most flavorful spoonfuls of joy of any bisque I have had in a long time. Alan, our waiter, was not lying at all when he told me it was great. On the subject of warmth, let me add that the wait staff of Alan, Mat, and Will were very patient and careful in tending to this large crowd, as was bartender Jo Jo Chandler. I did not meet the owner, John Thomas, but he is to be commended for both the staff and the cuisine. The Wagyu flat iron steak that I ordered was tender and delicious. I also indulged in a side order of Brussels sprouts, which I love but which require some attentive preparation to succeed. These were great in part because they were prepared in combination with caramelized onions. Others around me

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell's.

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell’s. Photo by Susan Fox.

enjoyed the seafood offerings, including oysters and scallops, and I heard no complaints and considerable praise. I can assure readers that, if you visit Charleston, Burwell’s is worth a visit for one of your evening outings. It also features a warm and casual atmosphere and a good downstairs bar, from which that amber beer in my hand originated, courtesy of Chad Berginnis, the executive director of ASFPM. I wasn’t sure, when we first arrived, why he offered to buy. Now I suspect he was in on the “roast” plan all along. Thanks, I say, to all of my friends at Digital Coast. My actual retirement from APA may have been almost four months away, but they knew this might be the last chance to do it before that day came. I hope they do the same for others when the time comes.

Jim Schwab

 

The Voice of Humility

dscf3255There are times when we lose control of our plans, when we simply surrender to the power of microbes and let things ride. We may have made promises to get things done, and they will not happen. We must ride out the storm instead.

I have posted nothing new in two weeks not for lack of the desire to do so—indeed, I had several books and documents I planned to discuss on this blog—but because I had to surrender to the reality of pneumonia. I am on the rebound now, and I generally have a long history of quick and effective rebounds, but fever, chills, and the hacking cough that are typically prime symptoms of pneumonia had me in their firm grip for a week and a half, starting just a little less than two weeks ago and petering out just three days ago under the impact of antibiotics. As you can imagine, it was no fun.

It was not just a matter of sustaining this blog. I missed six straight days of work at the American Planning Association, and when you count the weekend between those days, you see the overall stretch of futility that ate up my time. I lay on the couch, on the bed, under blankets, alternately sweating and freezing, arranging for a visit with my doctor, then getting a chest x-ray to confirm the diagnosis. It is, of course, impossible to get comfortable, let alone maintain any significant energy level. I also needed to grade papers for a graduate seminar on disaster planning that I teach every fall for the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. The grades are due shortly, yet I had none of the energy or attention span needed that first week to review 15- or 20-page papers that were basically case studies in disaster recovery. I finally got them done in the last few days. Meanwhile, here in Chicago, it was cold outside, not a great outdoor environment for anyone who had elevated temperatures. The fear of experiencing a setback until I was well on the road to recovery kept me from being very adventurous. But by yesterday I was willing and able to shovel snow.

Sometimes it seems that life is piling on. Just as I was descending into illness, without initially knowing it was pneumonia, my 5 ½-year-old laptop suffered the loss of its graphics drive, and the cost of repairs drove me to replace it, but it took me two days after learning this news from the Geek Squad before I could muster the energy to go to Best Buy, which owns Geek Squad, to choose a new computer. Even then, as I stood in the aisle waiting for a sales clerk to complete his business with another customer, I was looking around for a chair for fear I would not be able to stand long enough. But I did, and I chose a new Dell laptop, and then came the business of installing software and transferring my data. I left that to the Geek Squad. But altogether, presuming I would have had much ambition for such things, it meant that I had no functioning computer for almost four days. And then I still had to find the patience to learn how to make certain new features work. But I at least had the ball rolling again.

I will raise my voice again, in this blog and elsewhere, soon enough. But I was reminded that we all have these vulnerabilities. Unlike the Hazards Planning Center at APA, this blog is a one-man show. When that one man is under the weather, it all comes to a halt. But I am back. Happy holidays to all.

 

Jim Schwab

Can Data Be Resilient?

photoBefore attending the NOAA Coastal GeoTools Conference in North Charleston, South Carolina (March 30-April 2), I had not spent much time thinking about data resilience. A brilliant scientist now working for ESRI, the leading company in geographic information services, drew my attention to this important question. But first, a note about the delay:

Almost a month ago, I passed along a link to an article in the Post &Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, that reported on two presentations at the conference, one of them mine. I promised more material from that conference, but the following week, illness took hold of me for a day or two, and soon after, I was consumed with preparations for a trip to the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference in Seattle, April 18-21. The next day, I flew on to Denver and attended a two-day Project Advisory Committee meeting for the Kresge Foundation, which is pursuing its own program concerning community resilience. Now that all that is over, and I have a modicum of free time, I want to circle back to report on both conferences.

Let me start with a fascinating presentation by Dawn Wright, for 17 years a professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University before becoming chief scientist for ESRI in 2011. Wright was the main plenary speaker at the conference on its opening day, March 31. (March 30 was devoted to a series of special interest meetings.) Wright launched into her speech by referring to information as the “fourth branch of government” as a means of underscoring its growing importance in the digital era. Like many good speakers these days, Wright was also a fountain of recommendations about great new books, including The Fourth Paradigm, available for free download from Microsoft Research. Wright noted that we are now afloat in data, to the point where she introduced the term zetabytes, which equal one billion terabytes, which not so long ago seemed like massive units of data, but Wright says we are approaching 40 zetabytes in the current digital universe. But what does this mountain of data really mean for users? How useful is it?

Wright said this emphasizes the importance of metadata, that is, data about the data, and that we are facing a huge problem in “dark data,” data that is not tagged or properly analyzed, making its utility more problematic. “Just making data and code available is not good enough,” she stressed. “We need to be more open and transparent about what we do with them. There is a need for interoperability and cross-walking.” She then said that ESRI would practice what it preached, citing its sharing of work flows and use cases at www.esriurl.com/workflows. She also noted that ESRI has joined forces with the U.S. Geological Survey in creating the global ecological land units map.

She then stressed the importance of digital resilience, noting that “human communication skills are still paramount.” She cited a recent Washington Post op-ed article by Fareed Zakaria, “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous.” The acronym refers to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the collective focus of some recent education policies; Zakaria’s point was not that STEM education itself is wrong, but that a parallel focus on the liberal arts helps create students, and eventually adults, who not only have technical or scientific skills but the ability to ask and articulate fundamental questions. This led Wright to state that we need to learn how to “read deeply” in order to ask ourselves the tough questions.

The days when scientists can isolate themselves in ivory towers are over, Wright seemed to be saying, as she stressed the need to “write compellingly” and “think critically to analyze ideas.” For programmers, she stated that, “If you can organize your thoughts, you can organize your code.”

But there was a still larger theme in a world where the job environment is constantly shifting and evolving. Training, she said, “is not just for your first job, but for your sixth job.” Critical thinking is critical for navigating these transitions in life when some job skills are obsolete within a decade. She added that there are still not enough people “squarely in the community” of the emerging field of data science. She questioned why there was still no formal accredited academic degree in coastal or ocean data management, for example, and her own book on the subject, Ocean Solutions, Earth Solutions.

She also underlined the importance of knowing the “design story behind a product,” a subject she took up the next day in a session on “story maps,” a translational tool for users that allows science students to tell their story. In that session, she noted positive change in that “students now want to escape the ivory tower.” She highlighted her central point once again by stating unequivocally that, “If you’re not speaking up as a scientist now, you’re doing a public disservice.”

My personal take on Dawn Wright’s presentations is this: If data is to be worth something, if it is to be resilient, it must be interpreted. And only educated, knowledgeable professionals are in a position to do this. It is no longer enough, if it ever was, just to crank out data and hope it speaks for itself. That is the route to impoverishing public discussion, which, it seems to me, suffers enough already in an era of sound bites and conspiracy theories.

 

Jim Schwab