Carol’s Corner: Dispatch from Chautauqua

Smith Memorial Library Chautauqua, New York.
Smith Memorial Library Chautauqua, New York.

I write this on one of the state-of-the art computers in the Smith Memorial Library in – you guessed it – Chautauqua, New York. The library has just celebrated its 84th birthday. Long before that, in 1902, a library had been established, but with no permanent abode for several years, books were housed in a variety of locations before finding its true home at the eastern end of Bestor Plaza. Although connected to the Internet since 1993 and with WiFi available inside and out on the front porch, the Smith Library looks exactly like a turn-of-the century library should look – solid brick, two white Doric columns on the wide, welcoming porch, (but with an accessible ramp outside and an elevator inside). These days libraries are housed in a variety of venues – and they should be – in shopping malls, community centres, wherever space can be found. Still, there is something special about walking into a building that looks like it has come straight off a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.

On the second floor a bust of Abraham Lincoln presented to the Library on July 4, 1960 by the sculptor, Frances Savage, looks benignly down at readers as they sit on solid wooden chairs sitting at solid oak desks and tables, enjoying the breeze from the lake as it wafts through the leaves of the even older trees and finds its way in through the open back door.

However, there is a problem – common to all visitors to Chautauqua, no matter how long they stay during the nine-week summer program, that is attending and taking part in all experiences available. How can you possibly attend all the abundance of activities available, and how can you still make time to enjoy a lazy walk along the lake, or wander the quiet streets admiring the flowers and the houses, many of them built in the late 1800’s? Then there are dozens of courses available, young music and ballet students livening up the grounds, kids’ camp, concerts, theatre, opera, religious services of all kinds, a health a fitness centre and eight absolutely super tennis courts.

Highlighting the entire program are the weekly morning lectures at 10:45, which are based on the theme of the week.

My first week here the focus was on “Irrationality” – probably a good fit for me, according to my friends.   Among the questions we pondered: why do we (okay, some of us) act in ways that defy our long term interests? We know we shouldn’t have that extra piece of chocolate cake……. but…….! Interestingly, research shows that although the first piece of cake is delicious, as we keep eating, our enthusiasm wanes.

Featured speaker Michael Norton, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard, declared that the phrase “Money Can’t Buy Happiness”, should be retired, and that context is everything. For example, to someone earning $20,000 a year, an extra $10,000 can make a huge difference, but for someone making $100,000 it means little. Illustrating his point on a graph, he showed that increased wealth stops having a dramatic effect on well-being at around $75,000. Extra money would be nice, but – except in unusual circumstances such as sudden health issues or other unexpected costs, it doesn’t make a substantial difference to actual happiness. Norton did offer a few “tricks” to use financial resources to better effect – whatever the amount – such as investing in “experience”, “buying time” for the things we enjoy, rather than “stuff”, which becomes obsolete or falls apart too soon.

Art and Politics was the theme of my second week. Among the featured speakers was Ava De Vernay, the director of the film Selma, which tells the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, during the three-month campaign in 1965, to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition in Alabama. Surely this was a perfect example of the connection between Art and Politics, and given even more importance with police shootings of unarmed black men in Alabama and other southern states. Tom Toles, editorial cartoonist with the Washington Post, was another ideal speaker, who arrived with his choice selection of the thousands of clever, biting cartoons he has produced over the years. A favourite of his is one about climate change deniers; a penguin stands on a piece of Antarctic ice, and a polar bear on the last chunk of Arctic ice, as they meet for the first time. His response to the Charlie Hebdo killings, he commented, changed from his initial response – an outright defence of freedom of speech, to a more nuanced question of “what is appropriate to say”, culminating in a cartoon which is a play on the saying, “the pen is mightier than the sword”; it illustrates an assault next to a pen, with the caption, “The pen will endure”.

“Almost everything that ever existed no longer does”, says the description of my last week in Chautauqua, entitled “Vanishing”. As Professor David Harrison of Swarthmore College explained, there are over 7,000 languages in the world, and about half of them are in danger of disappearing. He emphasized the importance of their preservation before it’s too late, because without them, whole cultures and histories are lost. The next day we were challenged with another cause of concern. Vint Cerf, Vice president of Google Inc. and one of the inventors of the Internet, reminded us about all the huge and rapid changes in technology that have occurred since its invention in 1973. Remember 5-inch discs? Floppies? Even CDRoms are going the way of the dinosaur. His main concern is that in 50 or 100 years, will the ever-advancing technology be able to “read” the huge amount of material now being stored in “cloud” and other cyberspace venues? Fortunately, half a dozen organizations are working on creating a way to store the material and make it accessible for future generations.

Switching our minds back to 1915 on another morning, author Erik Larson talked about his book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.  On May 7 of that year, the Lusitania, carrying 1,960 passengers and crew, was sunk by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland. 767 people survived, but four later died. Not only did the ship disappear in 18 minutes after the torpedo hit, but what also disappeared was the concept that civilians were to be protected, if at all possible, in time of war. We have seen the consequence of that during the last 100 years, as increasingly civilians have become targets during wars and uprisings.

Now I’m back home, immersed in “real life”, but I’m already contemplating next year in Chautauqua. The overall theme is “What Does it Mean to be Human”? No easy questions – or answers – here. During my chosen three weeks, we will discuss “Our Search for Another Earth”, followed by “People and Environment” and finally, “The Future of Cities”.

Now those are challenging enough to keep me warm all winter.