I’m still riding the wave after a weekend in New York that included New Yorker Festival panels, talks and interviews, a dance performance, a play, a contemporary art exhibit and some incredible meals. Here in Youngstown we are lucky to live an easy trip away to this artistic playground.
My classes are reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, so I had a compelling reason to attend the panel on “The Old Country” with Foer, Téa Obreht and Gary Shteyngart, moderated by Adam Gopnik. The language of language is in the warp of these novelists’ work. What better place to work out such questions? And what better time for a reminder that immigration has made us who we are.
We lucked out with third row seats to a panel on cities with Aleksandar Hemon, Hisham Matar, Colum McCann, and Orhan Pamuk, moderated by Willing Davidson. The writers had an interesting take on the benefits of structuring the urban novel – cities, they said, are places with a gazillion parallel narratives. It may have been beside the point to ask them to speak to the opposite of cities, or what lies beyond, but no one could name a successful contemporary pastoral (I would throw in The Prodigal Summer, Map of the World, Olive Kitteridge – you?), and their responses about what makes a rural or small town or suburban place different (novel-worthy) were lacking. But their insights were great, and as with all of the panels, I came away vowing to catch up with all they’ve written.
Paul Muldoon interviewed Patti Smith and his questions were generous and her answers genuine and engaging. She is funny – no surprise there. She sang for us and I enjoyed her music very much. She urged us to vote.
So relevant to Youngstown was a discussion on poverty and the language of poverty called Giving Voice: The have-nots, with Abhijit Banerjee, Katherine Boo, Geoffrey Canada, and Jose Antonio Vargas, excellently moderated by George Packer. After hearing Canada, I think I better understand where he’s coming from, and will put Waiting for Superman (he is Superman) back on my Netflix queue. Packer asked him how his program could be duplicated in Youngstown, Ohio, since there is no Geoffrey Canada in Youngstown. My heart sped up! He said different segments of the Harlem Children’s Zone are being tried in other places, but I learned later that his teachers agree to work up to 80 hrs./week with no job security. He’s clear that he will fire them if they don’t perform well, but the measure of performance was not explained. Still, he has a compelling personal story – up from devastating poverty, and offering a hand (or kick!) to kids who might not have any chance. Katherine Boo’s narratives on the poor around the world and Banerjee’s work on the economics of poverty seem to be rocking the world, and I want to read them. You might have, as I did, heard Vargas on Fresh Air – he discovered as a teenager that he was an undocumented immigrant (his family came to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was a small kid), and has been courageous and vocal about the plight of other paper-less immigrants.
Finally, we attended a mesmerizing talk by Atul Gawande about failure and rescue. His argument was that it’s critical to have a plan to overcome disaster (which sounds obvious but is often overlooked). He told the story of a woman in her late 80s who came into the hospital with sudden blindness in one eye. This revealed a blocked carotid artery, and after neck surgery they discovered that some of her internal organs were shifted upwards and strangulated, a complication whose symptoms looked like conventional post-op. They were able to save her because they had a culture of questioning. Gawande walked us through the various successes and failures such as the Hudson River jet landing, the BP spill in the Gulf, and his team’s effort to compel hospitals to implement a shift in procedure that reduces hospital infection deaths to nearly zero (this claims 100,000 lives a year in the U.S.).
Typically, in any month, I spend some of my sleeping time lying awake worrying about the state of things. But the New Yorker Festival gave me the sense that good and brilliant minds are at work looking for solutions to these sticky and tragic situations. And the theaters were packed, so there are lots of people who care, and care to know more. I feel less weighted, like this clear air that’s descended on Youngstown, lighting up the firey trees.