Morning Lecture Recaps

Future of energy is nuclear, Dewan says, if modern tech is applied


Instead of a half-life, nuclear energy may get a second one.

“We’re on the cusp of a new generation of nuclear power that I believe can help move the world toward a carbon-free future,” said Leslie Dewan.

Dewan holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she also served as the youngest person ever on the university’s board of trustees, and is CEO of RadiantNano, a radiation technology company. She discussed advancements in alternative energies and the changing perception of nuclear power in her lecture, “Powering the Future,” at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater to continue the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Five theme, “Infrastructure: Building and Maintaining the Physical, Social and Civic Underpinnings of Society.”

Nuclear energy has long captivated the imaginations and fears of Americans. The technology started its life shrouded in secrecy through the Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear weapons.

“I believe the original sin of the nuclear energy industry is isolationism,” Dewan said.

After World War II, many of the scientists who worked on the project were frustrated with the application of the technology for weapons and began searching for civilian applications. Initial concepts included nuclear-powered airplanes and the Ford Nucleon car, but the most successful peacetime use of the energy came from nuclear submarines, she said.

In 1955, the U.S. Navy launched the world’s first submarine powered by a nuclear reactor. After realizing its design could be adapted for power stations, the U.S. government rushed to bring the concept to land in a Cold War effort to best the Soviet Union.

“Instead of spending another decade optimizing a new type of nuclear reactor for use on land, the U.S. took the same submarine reactor design for its first commercial power station,” she said.

With some modifications to collect water for use as a coolant and moderator, the design worked. Americans started to embrace the new technology, and Disney even produced a 1957 television special titled “Our Friend the Atom.” A nuclear future had begun.

But then came the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania; the first-ever large-scale nuclear meltdown at a civilian nuclear power plant. Though the disaster saw no injuries or fatalities, it left a major scar on the face of nuclear power.

“The sense of optimism and blue-sky thinking had largely disappeared,” Dewan said. “The funding disappeared, and the industry hunkered down with what it had and what it knew.”

Just two other large-scale meltdowns have occurred since Three Mile Island: the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011. Both of these accidents had much larger death tolls, worsening the public’s already shaky relationship with nuclear energy.

Because technology remained unchanged since the 1950s, Dewan attributed these accidents to the industry’s failure to innovate. 

A typical nuclear reactor can be thought of as a “fancy way of boiling water,” she said. Nuclear fission — the process in which a nucleus splits spontaneously or upon impact with another particle — heats water in the core of a reactor, which is then pumped into tubes that heat a separate source of water to create steam. That steam then runs through an electric generator, turning it to produce electricity.

This has long been the standard process for nuclear power, but she argued that it is far from the safest. The worst-case scenario is a meltdown, where rods that contain the fuel for fission burn away the water that is necessary for cooling it. If this water is burned away, these rods can begin to melt, creating steam explosions and hydrogen explosions. A nuclear meltdown can result in radioactive contamination and fallout.

But as the world faces an emerging energy crisis, Dewan said now is the time to not only invest in nuclear power, but to explore novel methods of nuclear fission and fusion.

“There’s now a new generation of nuclear engineers who are saying, ‘What if we go back to the early years of the nuclear industry and explore another path? What if we apply modern technology to make things better?’ ” she said.

Applying modern technology does not mean completely giving up on the past. Dewan has a particular focus on molten salt reactors, and she co-founded the startup Transatomic Power that sought to experiment with the 1950s concept.

This class of nuclear fission reactors uses molten salt with a fissionable material as the primary nuclear coolant. The molten salt is cycled through tubes, which externally heats water into steam. This eliminates the potential for nuclear meltdown because the fuel mixture is in a constant molten state, she said.

Molten salt reactors also have passive safety systems known as freeze valves, where salt is frozen by external cooling in the pipe which connects the reactor core and the drain tanks. If electricity is lost in a reactor, the fuel automatically leaves the core and drains through these valves.

This process is also a more sustainable way to replace fossil fuels, she said.

Each time someone uses electricity, power plants react in real time to meet that demand; energy use is highest in the morning, dips in the afternoon and increases again in the evening. When these demands cannot be met, plants must use fossil fuels to fill the gaps. Because molten salt reactors can be regulated and filled in a shorter time than traditional reactors, and produce more energy than wind or solar, they have the capability to meet the ebbs and flows that power grids require, Dewan said.

Though few prototypes have been built due to the extreme heat required and the corrosive nature of the fuel, Dewan is not the only person betting on molten salt reactors. Start-ups in the field have now raised more than $3 billion in funding. Several nations are also starting projects, and China recently completed construction of its first molten salt reactor.

“I’m excited that now, as an industry, we’ve largely come back to our own sense of blue-sky thinking and optimism,” she said. “Only now, we’re able to progress much more rapidly.”

Garbes makes case for care as central to society, calls for action

Angela Garbes, author of Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, sits in conversation with Senior Vice President and Chief Program Officer Deborah Sunya Moore as part of the Week Three Chautauqua Lecture Series theme, “Can the Center Hold? — A Question for Our Moment” Tuesday in the Amphitheater. Garbes discussed the essential role of mothering and reflected on the state of caregiving in America. Brett Phelps/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff writer

Angela Garbes is on a mission to redefine motherhood and domestic work.

“I believe that raising children, caring for the elderly, caring for the disabled – I don’t see those things as individual responsibilities,” she said. “I see them as social responsibilities that we all have a stake in.”

Garbes, author of Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, discussed her views on motherhood and caregiving, and how they are central to society, at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater for the second day of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Three theme, “Can the Center Hold? – A Question for Our Moment.”

Garbes, the child of Filipino immigrants, grew up with an up-close perspective of care; her mother was a hospice nurse and her father was a pathologist. 

She remembered the late nights her mother worked, sometimes taking shifts as long as 14 hours, and the people her mother helped. Her mother still receives cards from her patients’ family members; some have credited her with helping them overcome their fear of death.

“I think it is just holy work, to take care of people in their most vulnerable times, to give dignity and choice to what they’re doing,” she said.

With two parents in healthcare, their home centered around care. When Garbes had a sore throat, her father would spring to get tests done at his work, and both of her parents discussed death regularly at home.

“Their work democratized human bodies,” she said. “I saw that no matter how much money you have, … no one escapes illness; no one escapes death.”

When Garbes became a parent herself, she said she finally understood the sacrifices her parents made to raise her. After she started writing her book, which tells the history of caregiving in the United States, she learned how her family contributed to it.

In 2020, Garbes joined more than 1 million women who left the workforce, according to Fortune, deciding to care for her children as preschools and daycare centers closed across the nation.

“While I believe that was the most important thing I could be doing, keeping them safe and keeping our community safe, I felt this tension,” she said. “It wasn’t enough for me.”

At a time where they were needed the most, it seemed caregivers had become invisible. With her book, Garbes said she wanted to understand the reasons behind this feeling.

While researching, she found that Filipino nurses accounted for more than 25% of COVID-related nursing deaths, despite making up just 4% of the U.S. nursing population. After digging further, she discovered minorities and immigrants often took healthcare positions that white nurses did not want, such as those in critical care units. Each statistic reminded Garbes of the sacrifices her mother made for her family and her career.

But the issues for care workers, a profession largely made up of minorities, did not start with the pandemic; child care and domestic workers in the United States are three times more likely to live in poverty than the rest of the population, Garbes said.

“We devalue care and domestic labor and the women who do that work,” she said. “It’s a direct result of American slavery.”

Domestic care, Garbes argued, is central to a functioning society. But the ending of slavery, and the later rise of feminism, never solved the issue of domestic labor. Instead, she said, it just outsourced the work to people of color for low wages.

With little systemic support or economic initiative, these caregivers are quickly leaving their jobs. There are now 400,000 fewer elderly care workers in the country, 100,000 fewer childcare workers and 12,000 fewer childcare centers since the start of the pandemic.

“Our country hasn’t set us up with the structures to value care work,” Garbes said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t start working on those things.”

Her solution is to create a culture of care where mothering – a term she uses to incorporate all types of caregivers, including sisters, aunties and friends – is a priority.

“Mothering is the work that makes all other work possible,” she said.

She encouraged people to speak openly about who they are caring for and who is caring for them, especially in the workplace. The United States. is the only developed country that does not mandate paid family leave, despite eight out of 10 voters supporting the issue. The country has a caring majority that needs to act, Garbes said.

“Care feels private and individual; it is deeply unifying,” she said. “It’s one of the most unifying things we have as humans.”

 Those who hire domestic workers in their homes can work with organizations, such as Hand and Hand: The Domestic Employers Network, to write contracts that include fair pay and benefits.

People can also show their care within their community, such as babysitting a friend’s baby or being there for advice. Garbes said she loved Chautauqua’s “intentional community” where people slow down, open their porches for conversation and consider ways their actions can improve the community.

“I really think showing up and communicating and having those real connections, that’s it,” she said. “… I have so much more love to give than I thought.”

Kristol, longtime conservative pundit, adviser, sounds alarm over political center

Chautauquans give Bill Kristol a standing ovation after the founding director of Defending Democracy Together and The Weekly Standard, and current editor-at-large of the center-right digital publication The Bulwark delivers his morning lecture Monday in the Amphitheater, opening a week for the Chautauqua Lecture Series and the theme “Can the Center Hold? — A Question for Our Moment.” Brett Phelps/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff writer

While the United States’ political center has not crumbled yet, Bill Kristol warns we cannot ignore the cracks.

Kristol, whose long list of credentials includes former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, founder of The Weekly Standard, and editor-at-large of The Bulwark, opened the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Three theme, “Can the Center Hold? – A Question for Our Moment,” at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater.

The erosion of the United States’ political center is the result of many factors, Kristol said, including fading communities and population spread. However, he considers President Donald Trump to be the driving force behind polarization in the country.

“The assumption has always been that even if you run a somewhat polarizing – I would say demagogic – campaign … the campaign ends and you overcome that rhetoric,” he said. “…Honestly, President Trump didn’t try to even overcome it as president. He doubled down on it.”

Kristol, who left the Republican Party after Trump’s nomination for the presidency in 2016, said the former president’s approach to politics has since trickled down to candidates at every level of government.

Polite discourse on policy has given way to personal attacks and fear mongering on the debate stage, and even in our communities, he said.

“When the whole country becomes gripped by the kind of affective polarization where you believe the worst about your opponents, you call them enemies, not opponents,” Kristol said. “You think of them as enemies; you think of them as more dangerous to the country than actual enemies who are brutally invading other countries abroad – that’s a very hard situation to maintain a kind of healthy civic life, or healthy politics.”

Past presidents, Kristol said, understood that their role as head of state meant they represented the whole of the nation – not 51% of it. He said that Trump’s critics felt vindicated following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and hoped the rest of the Republican Party would finally agree he had become too radical.

Now, with Trump as the frontrunner for the party’s 2024 nomination, Kristol said the country is no less polarized now than it was in the last few weeks of his presidency. Still, there is hope for the center. But Americans need to decide if they want it.

“We want a society with vigorous debate. … We shouldn’t overly romanticize centrism,” he said.

People often reflect on a bygone era of bipartisanship where members of Congress would sit down for a drink and work on policy together, he said. It is not as nostalgic, Kristol argued, when you consider the policies they wrote were often exclusory and not made to benefit most Americans.

Instead, the focus should be on shared ground rules for debate. The true center, he said, is healthy disagreement. It is by the Founding Fathers’ design that “the American political system anticipates conflict.”

“Just to operate decently as a polity, as a political system, as a society – one needs a functioning center,” Kristol said.

He drew on the poem “The Second Coming,” written by William Butler Yeats in the fallout of World War I, from which the week’s theme takes its name: “ ‘Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. … The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ ”

For many in Europe, the poem was a premonition of an approaching second world war. It was a time, Krisol said, when the center had truly collapsed, and Yeats understood the implications of that.

“… And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” the poem concludes.

Anarchy, Kristol said, always leads to something worse. In this case, it brought the rise of fascism and a previously unknown destruction to Europe. But still, the center prevailed, and functioning liberal democracies now govern much of the continent.

“It’s a good reminder that the center may not hold, … but we are eager to reconstruct,” he said.

Kristol said if Americans want to prevent the center from falling, they need to be vigilant. 

He often encourages young people, and especially military veterans, to get involved in politics. He said he hopes the post-Sept. 11 generation can replicate the Greatest Generation, who he credits for holding the center together after World War II. 

In 2019, he founded Democracy Defending Together – an advocacy organization responsible for projects such as Republican Voters Against Trump and Republicans for the Rule of Law.

“This is a very important moment for the future of our country and, I would say, for the world,” Kristol said. “We can’t just assume the system’s going to work it all out.”

Using your brain to play: Crossword editor Shortz shares history of the form

Will Shortz, crossword editor for The New York Times and the only person to hold an academic degree in enigmatology, poses game-like questions to Chautauquans and points for someone to call out the answer during his morning lecture closing the theme of “Games: A Celebration of Our Most Human Pastime” Friday in the Amphitheater. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff Writer

In the 8th grade, when asked to write a paper on what he wanted to do in life, Will Shortz chose professional puzzle-making. And while the career choice puzzled his teachers and classmates, for Shortz, the clues were always there.

“I wrote that it would be a life of ease,” he said. “I would just sit back and make my little puzzles.”

Shortz, who sold his first professional puzzle at 14 years old, is celebrating 30 years as the The New York Times crossword editor this year. He shared his love of crosswords and the history of the puzzles at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater to close the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Two theme, “Games: A Celebration of Our Most Human Pastime.”

Shortz ended up with a B+ on that essay and decided to explore other career options during high school, including disc jockey and mathematician. Despite the lack of degree programs for puzzle-making, every path he took led him back to his childhood dream. 

Luckily, his mother discovered Indiana University’s individualized major program. He developed his own course work consisting of 20th-century American puzzles, crossword construction and the psychology of puzzles. His 100-page thesis was on the history of American word puzzles before 1860.

“This had been my dream … and now I found I could do it,” he said. 

Upon graduation, Shortz became the first, and only, person to hold a college degree in enigmatology, or the study of puzzles.

The history of crosswords is another of Shortz’s obsessions. He owns the largest collection of puzzle paraphernalia in the world, including pieces dating back to 1545. But the modern crossword dates back 110 years.

Arthur Wynne, an editor for the New York World, introduced what he called a “Word-Cross Puzzle” in the Dec. 21, 1913, Sunday “Fun” section.

By the third week, Wynne changed the name to crossword. As they became a weekly fixture of the paper, the puzzles developed a “crank,” or eccentric, following.

In 1924, two Columbia University graduates, Richard Simon and Max Schuster, were looking for books to publish. Following a suggestion from a relative, the two approached the New York World puzzle editors and walked away with 75 unpublished puzzles.

Simon and Schuster published the collection of puzzles in April of that year; the first printing of 3,500 copies sold out. By the end of the year, the publishers’ three crossword books ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 on the national non-fiction bestseller list. 

Shortz now owns the very first copy of that crossword book, which includes an inscription by Simon and Schuster thanking Simon’s father for his investment in their firm. The inscription ends saying they are “ushering in the crossword puzzle era” together.

“Everybody was talking about crosswords in the 1920s,” Shortz said.

As publications started pumping the puzzles out, one big player abstained – The New York Times. The ’20s were full of crazes, Shortz said, and the publication saw crosswords as no more than a fad.

“The Times thought crosswords were beneath them; they didn’t do cartoons,” he said. “They actually ran an editorial decrying the popularity of crosswords, saying they were a childish pastime.”

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an editor for the paper conceded that the puzzle deserved a spot in the paper as a distraction from the hard news of the war. The first crossword in the Times ran on Sunday, Feb. 15, 1942. 

“One of the reasons we do puzzles is to put the world in order,” Shortz said. “Most of life’s problems don’t have solutions; we just muddle through and do the best we can. With a crossword, there is one perfect solution.”

The paper hired Margaret Farrar, who was co-editor of the original Simon and Schuster puzzle books, as editor. From the start, Shortz said, the Times set a new standard of quality for crosswords. 

Making a crossword is simple: The diagram must be symmetrical and every square has to be a cross answer or a down answer. Two-letter words and repeat words are not allowed and the words need to be real.

What makes a good crossword, Shortz said, is having a good vocabulary full of interesting phrases. Lively clues also keep a puzzle fresh and entertaining for readers.

Though some of his favorite crosswords, he admits, are the ones that break the rules. In 1996, the Times ran an election day crossword where the clue was the winner of the election; both candidates’ last names worked as the answer.

President Bill Clinton was an avid crossword player; he told Shortz he played as many as three puzzles per day while on the campaign trail. During a timed session with the editor, in the middle of which Clinton answered a phone call, the former president solved a crossword in just 6 minutes and 54 seconds.

For the past 110 years, people of all ages and backgrounds, even the president, have started their day the exact same way.

“We live in an age now where more people than ever use their brains to make a living,” Shortz said. “… If you’re using your brain all day to work, when you’re done, you want to use your brain to play.”

Alexander talks real-world impact of virtual games

Assistant professor of media production in RTA’s School of Media at Toronto Metropolitan University Kristopher Alexander, also known as the “professor of video games,” continues the lecture series on week two’s theme, Games: A Celebration of Our Most Human Pastime, by speaking about connections between games, the real world, and how their synergy played into developing a game Wednesday morning at 10:45, July 5, 2023, in the Amphitheater. BRETT PHELPS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Alton Northup
Staff Writer

Kristopher Alexander might be the first speaker at Chautauqua Institution to present his lecture slides using a video game controller.

Alexander is a two-time globally ranked player and assistant professor of media production in the RTA School of Media at Toronto Metropolitan University, where he is the director of the Red Bull Gaming Hub. He gave  his lecture, “Impactful Synergy: Video Games and Togetherness,” at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater to continue the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Two theme, “Games: A Celebration of Our Most Human Pastime.”

In 2008, Alexander had his hands full. 

He was teaching stop motion animation – the art of photographing and moving objects in small increments so that they appear to be moving independently when the frames are played back – at the National Film Board of Canada. The work was tedious; it takes 24 photos for just a single second of footage.

“Just like parenting,” he said, “animation takes a lot of patience.”

He was also teaching video game development – the art of creating a story others can interact with – at the University of Toronto, where students ranged from ages 6 to 16 years old. 

His third job, which he continues to this day, was at Toronto Metropolitan University teaching video game design – the art of curriculum development for a gaming story, such as deciding what characters can talk, how they will talk and when they will talk.

“They call me the professor of video games because I teach and reach people by talking about the artistry of the video game industry and how every single discipline, including yours, connects to the video game industry,” he said.

Alexander had planned to make a lot of connections, or impactful synergies as he called it, during his lecture. The first was between video games, personal care and love.

In 2008, Alexander walked into EB Games, a division of GameStop, to purchase a copy of the open world racing game “Burnout Paradise.”

The game takes place in the fictional Paradise City, where players can compete in online matches, drive into oncoming traffic and burst through billboards – “all the things you’d like to do when you’re stuck in gridlock traffic, but can’t do.”

Alexander was also unsuccessfully looking for love in 2008, and when he turned to leave the store with his copy of the game, he heard the cashier calling back to him.

“Hold on a second,” the cashier said. “You just purchased ‘Burnout Paradise’?”

“You were there when I did it,” Alexander confusingly replied.

“I know that, but I’m supposed to give you this,” the cashier, responded, handing him a Gillette Pro razor. 

Without giving much thought to the cashier’s slightly offensive gift, he went home to play the new game. After loading the disc, he quickly learned the razor was not the working of a petty cashier but rather a partnership between Gillette and the game developers; billboards for the company lined the streets of Paradise City and players could even drive a Gillette-branded van.

Alexander admits the razor was the key to finding the woman of his dreams, as his future wife would notice his clean-cut look.

Gillette, he suspects, must have discovered the game had a large enough audience of people who shave that it made sense to market the brand with “Burnout Paradise.”

“They had a community-focused connection,” he said.

The next impactful synergy was video games, mayonnaise and food rescue.

“Animal Crossing” is a popular social simulation video game series developed by Nintendo. The game uses the console’s internal clock to stimulate real passage of time as players log on each day to maintain their islands and hang out with friends.

Each Sunday, players log on to purchase turnips from a character named Daisy-Mae. The turnips aren’t there to be eaten; they’re actually the game’s version of the stock market – the Sow Joan’s Stalk Market. 

The prices fluctuate during the week and because players cannot plant, eat or dispose of the turnips, they eventually rot if a sale is not made before the next Sunday. The game had a virtual food waste problem.

In 2020, Hellmann’s partnered with Nintendo for the creation of Hellmann’s Island. Players could explore the island, purchase digital merchandise and compost their spoiled turnips. For every turnip donated in the game, Hellman’s donated an actual meal to the Second Harvest Food bank. 

“Why on earth did this magnificent collaboration happen?” Alexander rhetorically asked. “Video games, mayonnaise and food rescue. The answer is, this partnership happened in 2020, and I know what I was doing in 2020, but I also know what you were doing in 2020.”

“Animal Crossing” sold 31.18 million copies in 2020 alone and with the pandemic forcing people into their homes, video gameplay was up 75%, according to Verizon. 

Hellmann’s easily reached its goal to provide 25,000 meals.

“That’s an incredible impactful synergy that extends beyond the playing,” Alexander said.

The third impactful synergy was between esports, luxury fashion and learning.

In 2022, Gucci partnered with FACEIT, an esports platform, to launch the Gucci Gaming Academy. The program provides selected esports athletes with full-time coaches, mental health support, gaming hardware and education. 

Esports is the organized, high-level competition between individual video game players or teams. In recent years, it has become a lucrative business.

Competitions for CS:GO, a combat simulator, racked up more than 2.1 million views in 2020; sponsorships totaled more than $15.6 million, Alexander said.

“Why on earth would Gucci make a school?” he asked. “It’s because they could see something.”

The final impactful synergy is a finger-licking good combination of games and fried chicken.

In 2017, KFC released its first video game, a virtual reality training module called “The Hard Way.” Modeled after an escape room, the game’s trailer features the ominous gaze of Colonel Sanders as floating arms work frantically in a dimly lit kitchen.

In 2018, the company started a video-game-themed account on social media and the release of its second game, “I Love You Colonel Sanders: A Finger-Licking Good Dating Simulator,” followed in 2019. In the dating simulator, players attempt to develop a romantic relationship with Colonel Sanders, portrayed as an attractive culinary student. 

In 2020, the company jokingly unveiled its very own KFConsole. The video game console was marketed with the tagline “Power Your Hunger” and a built-in “chicken chamber” to keep meals warm during gameplay.

Reactions to the bit were overwhelmingly positive. A prototype was even created with the help of Cooler Master, a computer supply company; Asus, an electronics manufacturer; and Seagate, a data storage company. 

Alexander approached KFC to volunteer as the first to play the console, a deal he is still working on. As Chautauquans humored his passion for the company’s foray into gaming, they could not help but ask why. 

“KFC has figured out that gamers eat,” he said.

Alexander said he wants to challenge the negative stereotypes of video games. With 3 billion players worldwide, not every game can appeal to everyone. But they can connect people in community-focused ways, such as turning digital turnips into real-world meals.

“We talk about games as a pastime,” he said. “I implore you to think about games as a present time.”

Simon reflects on power of sports to unite, inspire change

Writer and broadcaster Scott Simon delivers his Fourth of July lecture discussing the capacity of sports to bring people together on Tuesday in the Amphitheater. HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff Writer

As Scott Simon walked onto the Amphitheater stage to a live rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on the Massey Memorial Organ, one might have suspected they were at the Chicago native’s beloved Wrigley Field, and not Chautauqua Institution.

Simon, the host of “Weekend Edition Saturday,” continued the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Two theme, “Games: A Celebration of Our Most Human Pastimes,” with a lecture of the same title at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday – the Fourth of July – in the Amp.

Simon joked that despite his longtime affiliation with NPR, which he suspects may provide more coverage to the Iditarod than the Super Bowl, he still pays attention to mainstream sports; he has written several books on the subject, including My Cubs: A Love Story. Whether he is covering a story in his Midwest hometown or a war zone in the Middle East, sports seem to follow him everywhere.

He recalled sitting in a soccer stadium in Kabul, Afghanistan; a stadium that, during Taliban rule, held executions every Friday. 

“This place of joy and celebration and frustration … became a killing field,” Simon said.

On the day he happened to be sitting in that stadium, the celebrations had returned. The aptly named Kabul United were hosting British paratroopers in a friendly match as the Taliban withdrew from the country.

At one point in the game, a British trooper removed her beret to wave to the crowd. The crowd went wild, Simon said, at the sight of the woman’s hair.

“I still get emotional when I think about it,” he said. “For the rest of the game, there were Afghan women all over the stadium who would stand up one by one and take off their burqas.” 

Kabul would go on to make the first goal of the match and, despite losing 3-1, the score did not matter. The fans were not cheering for a win, Simon said, but for their liberation. 

“The first goal reminded many in the crowd that amazing things are possible,” he said.

Simon, a lifelong and oft-beleaguered Chicago Cubs fan, discussed his familial ties to the club as the origin of his affinity for sports. HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

When Simon returned to file a story about his experience, it never aired – the assassination of Abdul Rahman, then-interim minister for air transport and tourism, crowded the news cycle. But there is not a week that goes by when he does not think of it.

“The story that seems so urgent and critical today may evaporate into what our friend Salman Rushdie so aptly called ‘the annihilating whirlpool of history,’ ” Simon said. “The story that goes unnoticed today may become the inspiration for a work of art, a family story, an investigation into life that endures and inspires and instructs.”

Those unnoticed stories are common in sports: Buffalonians who believe embracing the snow makes them the Bills’ defensive line, Clevelanders who found the key to a championship in their own backyard with LeBron James, women emboldened by the victories of Billie Jean King, or the Kansas City Monarchs’ achievement in the face of segregation.

While covering the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, it was the Chicago Bulls’ Dream Team that inspired Sarajevans. 

Simon described the scene he faced, riding through the city in a French personnel carrier, bullets stinging its sides as it went. When soldiers patted him down at a sandbag-covered checkpoint, he heard a small voice ask him where he was from. Simon answered.

“I love Chicago,” the teenager replied. “Michael Jordan. Chicago Bulls.”

It was an indication to Simon that the meaning of his city was not only changing, but separating from its geographic boundaries. The Bulls, with a team consisting of athletes from rural and suburban United States, Canada, Croatia and Lebanon, were now a symbol of diversity.

“This was a team that reflected the world and a city that reflected the world,” he said. “And I think it said to Sarajevans, ‘Look what a free and diverse group of people can do if you give them the chance.’ ”

Simon sees those same ideals in the French national soccer team. He recalled a trip with his wife, a French expat, to the country’s embassy in D.C. The pair watched the team play in the World Cup, and he recognized that players such as Théo Hernandez, Ibrahima Konaté, Youssouf Fofana and Kylian Mbappé are redefining what it means to be French at a critical point in the nation’s history.

“Names from all over the world, but born in France, (are) in the visible reflection of France’s moral character and citizenry,” he said.

As those gathered sang “La Marseillaise” in unison before the game, “I felt we became La République,” Simon said.

His affinity for sports, especially baseball, started as a child through his familial ties. Jack Brickhouse, the play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs, was his godfather; Charlie Grimm, the manager for the 1945 World Series Chicago Cubs team, was his uncle.

With a family like this, Simon said, Wrigley Field game nights can be very boring for his children as he recalls his own memories. But it also instilled in him a reverence for the Cubs’ legacy.

When it looked as though the team could be in the running for its first World Series championship in 108 years, Simon had to be there for the chase – including tossing the first pitch at the July 31, 2016, game between the Cubs and the Seattle Mariners.

By the third inning, the Cubs were down 0-6. Seven pitchers were cycled in and Simon began to worry the team might be desperate enough to call him in as the eighth. The team, however, managed to make a comeback, and with just one strike left in the 12th inning they needed a miracle. 

That is when pitcher Jon Lester, who by chance was wearing the same number on his jersey as Simon, came off the bench. Lester stepped up to the plate with a .102 batting average and laid a bunt down to cap a wild comeback for the Cubs. 

As fans chanted “Go Cubs, Go!” and the Cubs Win flag unfurled, Simon could only think to himself, “that is so Cubs-like.”

The team would go on to have a 13-game win streak, culminating in a 2016 World Series win against Cleveland.

Simon said he knows sports can be trivial, but pivoted back to his earlier point about their ability to inspire people, movements and even countries.

When Jackie Robinson debuted in 1947 as the first black player in Major League Baseball, the United States was fresh from defeating a racist dictatorship with a segregated army of its own. And while more Black players would join the league months later, Robinson had to enter Ebbets Field alone.

“(Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager,) knew that the drama of a lone man staring down bigots, walking tall and determined in the face of hatred, would not only break barriers in baseball but give human form to bravery,” Simon said.

Despite his belief in the power of sports to inspire, Simon argued there are three major problems currently threatening that power.

Athletes playing full-contact sports, he said, are increasingly at risk of deteriorating health. Football helmets are now head-ramming weapons and knockouts in boxing can turn a once-bouncing Muhammad Ali into a shell of his former self.

As we study the effects of concussions and other injuries, “we now know and we can follow the damage these sports can inflict on participants, and, of course, families,” Simon said.

He questioned how attractive sports would be if what he called “the wreckage” was limited. One thing that does seem to be increasing viewership, however, is legal sports gambling. 

Simon said some argue that opening up salary caps would remove motives for throwing games or that it would be beneath players to jeopardize their careers; his rebuttal is that the most infamous scandals in sports betting involved shaving points.

“I invite you to review history, and not just sports history but finance, politics, industry, monarchy – and you tell me that you’re satisfied (that) people with wealth and means have no motive to steal.”

His final concern is what he called “sports washing” – authoritarian governments using sports to clean up their image.

“It’s using sports to make an oppressive, totalitarian regime seem as if they believe in rules, fair play and the freedom to participate,” Simon said.

It has come to the point, he said, where one has to rhetorically ask if the Sochi Olympics stopped Russia’s annexation of Crimea and expanded invasion of Ukraine, if the Beijing Olympics freed the Uighurs and if the World Cup saved the lives of migrant workers in Qatar. 

“There has been a depressing tendency to locate major sporting events in authoritarian regimes,” he said.

Does that mean sports fans have to do the moral calculations that executives and owners refuse to do? He said fans like him may have to question their own responsibility, and that athletes can no longer avoid the issue.

“Sports can be something different; it can be a source of unity in a divided world,” he said. “When we cheer for a team we love despite setbacks, … we cheer in a chorus of voices that can unite us in a song of celebration.”

Opening week, Macklin defines games as educational, human

As part of her lecture “Gaming the System: What Games Can Teach Us About the World and Ourselves,” PETLab Co-Director Colleen Macklin leads a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors Monday in the Amphitheater, opening the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Two theme of “Games: A Celebration of Our Most Human Pastime.” Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff Writer

Very few Chautauquans consider themselves gamers. 

Colleen Macklin opened her lecture attempting to challenge that belief: After an initial hand count, roughly a dozen people self-identified with the label; but when she asked who started their morning with a round of “Wordle,” many more hands went up.

Still, Macklin, an associate professor of media design at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, had some work to do before persuading the crowd of their inner-gaming abilities.

She presented her lecture, “Gaming the System: What Games Can Teach Us About the World and Ourselves,” at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater to open the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Two theme, “Games: A Celebration of Our Most Human Pastime.” 

Macklin, the co-director of PETLab, which develops games based on social engagement and experimental learning, sees gaming as crucial to human development and understanding. 

Children’s initial interactions with language as a form of play inspired Macklin to develop her game “Dear Reader,” which turns classic literature into word puzzles. When working with the Red Cross, she learned the native games of Ghana and modified them to teach Ghanaians how to stay prepared in climate change-affected areas. 

In 2009, she even developed a new sport – Budgetball – that pits college students against congressional budget officers in a game of fiscal and physical competition. Many of her games could be considered educational tools. For Macklin, learning through play is human nature.

Macklin holds up two prizes – her book, and a game she designed – before giving them to the two winners of Rock, Paper, Scissors during her morning lecture. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

“I truly believe that being playful means thinking more deeply about the world, about each other and about our role in life,” she said.

Of course, she would not be able to make her point without including some gameplay in her lecture. So, she asked Chautauquans to join her in a game of  “Five Fingers.”

The rules are simple: 

Make a group of three to five people

Have each person hold up five fingers

Form a circle and take turns (going counterclockwise) pointing at someone

If you are pointed at, you lose a finger

The last player with a finger – any finger – wins

The game was an instant hit as Chautauquans gathered in groups, forming alliances or secretly conspiring against their family members – there were even accusations of a six-fingered cheater.

When the crowd settled, Macklin said there was more to the game than its entertainment value. There were lessons on society and games that could be learned by playing “Five Fingers.”

“Games make rules fun,” she said. “That’s one of the most interesting things about games; they take things in the world that normally aren’t fun and turn them into fun.”

She said children, starting at age 5, develop an obsession with rules and start to make their own games at recess. This creative outlet gives children a safe environment to learn to follow rules – and what happens when they are broken.

“We don’t fully understand something until we see it fail,” she said. “A game teaches us that lesson.”

People typically avoid risks due to the possibility of failure, but those inhibitions go away in a playful setting. Macklin used an analogy of a kitten: If the real world is a lion, strong of claw and sharp of teeth, then games are cute, fluffy kittens in a bowl of marshmallows.

For thousands of years, she said, games have served as crash courses on society. One of the first games she developed was an Electoral College simulator and it gave her college art students a clearer understanding of the United States’ political system.

Because games shrink society into something tangible, “we can take our world and understand it more deeply through games,” she said.

Through collaboration and competition, games also help us understand each other better, whether it is your Aunt Sally’s need for revenge or how to work on a team.

And, despite popular belief, games teach us that the rules can be changed – just as long as you are not the only one who knows. As a game designer, each game Macklin works on goes through dozens of rule changes before it hits the market. 

“That’s why game designers do something that’s called play testing,” she said. “We have to see how the game is played before we can even understand what it is that we designed in the first place.”

All of us, she said, are game designers who can change the rules that are not working in our lives. 

“I hope that we can all stay game designers, too,” she said. “It’s really important to be consistently asking oneself ‘What are these rules that I’m living by and how do I redesign them to make life more fun or rewarding?’ ”

Because of the responsibility games give to players to follow the set rules, Macklin said games teach us that simple rules can create great complexity, even a game as simple as “Five Fingers.” 

Much like the societies they come from, games are systems; a set of elements interconnected with a purpose. And while “games let us play with little systemic reflections of the world,” she said, the real systems are not designed to be as understandable. Games make system dynamics understandable through play. 

Macklin highlighted free online games, such as “Explorable Explanations” by Nicky Case, that can teach the concepts of new voting systems, how to tune a guitar or the basics of probability and statistics. In David O’Reilly’s “Everything,” players can see from the perspective of an atom, design their own universe or let the game play itself.

As our world increasingly mirrors the worlds created by games with the advent of artificial intelligence (appropriately, it was at this moment Macklin’s Siri decided to respond to a prompt in her lecture), and apps have replaced traditional methods of grocery shopping, socializing and even dating, games can help us imagine new possibilities.

To end her lecture, Macklin held an old-fashioned game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Though with more than 2,500 people in the Amp, she dubbed it “Massively Multiplayer Rock, Paper, Scissors.”

Colleen Macklin, right, leads Dan Berg, left, and Kathleen Garvey, middle, in the final round of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” where Garvey eventually wins, during the morning lecture. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

After nearly 10 rounds the competition was narrowed down to Chautauquans Dan and Kathleen, who faced off in a best-of-three round for bragging rights and a signed copy of Macklin’s latest card game, “The Metagame.”

The first duel was Dan’s for the taking, but Kathleen got points on the board in the second round as Dan failed to brush off the crowd’s heckling. The tie-breaking third duel resulted in a suspense-building tie. Then, the fourth duel resulted in another tie — which Macklin insisted was not planned.

As the crowd sat on the edge of their seats, Kathleen swooped in for the win.

She earned the well-deserved title of Massively Multiplayer Rock, Paper, Scissors champion.

Astin draws on iconic movie roles to find meaning of friendship

Actor and director Sean Astin sits in conversation with Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill for his Chautauqua Lecture Series presentation Friday in the Amphitheater. Jess Kszos/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff writer

For decades, millions have watched Sean Astin play the best friend on the big screen.

“I’ve done a lot of stuff where I’m kind of a jerk, but nobody remembers those,” he joked.

Astin is most remembered for his roles as Mikey Walsh in “The Goonies,” Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger in “Rudy” and Samwise Gamgee in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. After all these years – or perhaps it was always there – the joyful camaraderie of these characters seems to have rubbed off on him. He shared how friendship has influenced his career, and his life, at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater, closing Week One of the Chautauqua Lecture Series and the theme “On Friendship.”

Astin’s affinity toward friendship began before his acting career when his mother, actress Patty Duke, was raising him on her own. Shortly after his birth, Duke married actor John Astin who, along with bringing three boys of his own into the family, adopted the young Astin.

“There was all this kind of mixture of love, of family, and talent and drama,” he said, “… particularly going from being the one kid my mom had. … It was her and me against the world and then all of the sudden there (were) five boys.”

Growing up with that family dynamic encouraged him to give everything his best effort, whether it was playing baseball with his brothers (which he was never good at, but still wanted to try) or getting a scoop of mashed potatoes at the dinner table.

“I think who you are – who you really are – it comes with you to what you do,” Astin said. “I think that something about that earnestness that I cultivated, and a little bit of a twinkle, a little whimsy, is what Steven Spielberg and Richard Donner saw when they casted me in ‘The Goonies.’ ”

The 1985 comedy follows a group of kids who, while attempting to save their homes from foreclosure, discover a treasure map and go on an adventure to find the long-lost fortune of One-Eyed Willy. The movie – representing friendship, youth and courage – has become iconic in American culture. Astin said its theme of friendship is the most important.

“It’s ultimately a story about these kids not wanting to lose their homes to real estate developers. So, they’re on this quest and they’re trying to save their homes,” he said. “And what sustains them is their friendship.”

This experience of friendship, along with his father instilling in him a philosophy of caring for others, gave him “a lifetime of understanding deeply – in my bones – of what it means to have other people to rely on and what it means to be someone other people can count on.” 

Astin, known for playing what he calls “the best friend” in films like “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Goonies,” shared insights from his life and work with Chautauquans. Jess Kszos/Staff Photographer

Because of this, he entered every role with an “embedded sense of community.” With each movie, that community grew stronger. 

In “Rudy,” it was the support  Dennis “D-Bob” McGowan showed for his titular character that stuck with him.

“At the moment, the crescendo moment, the apex of (Rudy’s) success, (D-Bob) gets to see it,” said Astin. “And it’s pure. He’s not selfish, he’s like, ‘I love that guy! That’s my friend!’ ”

 Astin’s character in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Samwise, is considered by many to be the epitome of friendship. A loyal member of the Fellowship of the Ring, Sam is a steadfast companion and servant to Frodo Baggins along the hobbits’ journey to destroy the One Ring – even going so far as to carry Frodo when he becomes too weak to continue.

At one point, Frodo is deceived by Gollum and orders Sam to return home. He obliges – despite being despondent without his friend. Faced with his commitment to Frodo and his instinct to protect him, he returns after realizing Gollum has imperiled the hobbit. Together, they finish the journey.

Astin had a realization of the two hobbits’ bond while speaking with Sony Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell Director of the Literary Arts, who co-taught a master class with Astin Friday.

In a masterclass offered through Special Studies, Astin speaks with the Michael I. Rudell Director of Literary Arts Sony Ton-Aime Friday afternoon in Smith Wilkes Hall. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

“We realized every journey is lonely; there’s a profound loneliness that comes with anything that we do that’s worthwhile, the sacrifice it takes,” Astin said. “When you come through it, and you reflect back, the pain of that loneliness makes it sweeter.”

As an actor, Astin is no stranger to loneliness; his schedule requires him to spend long periods of time away from family, especially his wife Christine, who he considers his best friend. But, he said, when the two of them come together, even when it feels as if the world is collapsing around them, their bond seems immortal.

“If we get to the end of our life, if we’re blessed to live a long life, and we can look back on the sweep of our life and know that we shared it together, that we experienced it together, … it’ll make dying easier,” Astin said.

Frodo and Sam’s friendship was inspired by author J. R. R. Tolkien’s batmen in the First World War. A batman was a soldier who, along with fighting on the frontline, was tasked with looking after their officer. 

Tolkien wrote in a 1956 letter to H. Cotton Minchin, “My ‘Samwise’ is indeed (as you note) largely a reflexion of the English soldier – grafted on the village-boys of early days, the memory of the privates and my batmen that I knew in the 1914 War, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”

Tolkien turned these experiences into bedtime stories for his son to teach him the importance of friendship; these bedtime stories became the first drafts of The Hobbit.

Astin said since starring in “The Lord of the Rings” he has met soldiers who need the books in their lives. Veterans have come to embrace Tolkien’s stories – ones of service and sacrifice – and some even get tattoos embodying Sam as a protector.

“My favorite thing about ‘The Lord of the Rings’ bar none … is that they became a locus for families and friends to communicate with each other,” he said.

In 2017, Astin starred as Bob Newby in the second season of “Stranger Things,” a show with a young cast he called “stone-cold professionals.” Now, he is no longer the young actor, but instead the seasoned veteran, sharing lessons he’s learned during his career with today’s young actors, filling the same shoes he once did.

His daughter, Ali, recently graduated from Harvard University with a master’s degree in dramatic arts and anthropology. And, while Astin jokes he didn’t provide her with enough nepotism, the two are working together as she starts her own film career. This summer, he will be directing her in a film that she wrote.

“If you go on a set and you work with young performers, there’s an obligation to protect them or offer them guidance,” he said. “We have to, from generation to generation, protect each other.”

In closing the lecture, Astin recited Sam’s speech from “The Two Towers,” which concludes: “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”

Jones explores differences between diplomacy, friendship

Former U.S. Ambassador to Libya and chair of the board of directors for the Hollings Center for International Dialogue Deborah K. Jones answers audience questions after her lecture on friendship and the role plays in diplomacy Thursday in the Amphitheater. Brett Phelps/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff writer

After former Ambassador Deborah K. Jones evacuated her mission in wartorn Tripoli, Libya, without notice to her foreign counterpart, the Libyan Foreign Minister reproached her for caring more about the safety of her staff than solving the country’s conflict; from his perspective, “the USA was large enough to be more generous than that, even to the point of risking its own personnel.”

Diplomats find themselves in a complicated balance of advocating for their state’s goals while understanding the needs of their geopolitical counterparts. As Jones puts it, “diplomacy is finding space in the same words for agreements.” She shared her thoughts on this balance in her lecture, “The Role of Friendship in Diplomacy,” at 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater, for the fourth day of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week One Theme, “On Friendship.”

To prepare for her lecture, Jones asked her former colleagues to share examples of when friendship facilitated diplomatic solutions. The majority of them said it had no place in international relations and that “so-called friendships” can lead to unrealistic expectations that never stand a chance.

She was surprised by their answers; she felt instead of defining what friendship means, she needed to define what diplomacy means.

Jones traces modern diplomacy to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, commonly known as the Peace of Westphalia, that ended the Thirty Years’ War. The treaty established nation-states, not dynasties; and institutions for disagreements, not anarchy. For nearly 400 years, this system has endured, she argued, because of diplomats.

If you have traveled abroad, purchased clothing manufactured in another country or engaged in business with a foreign government, then you have benefited from diplomacy. Diplomats maintain the negotiations, upkeep and oversight that makes international cooperation possible. And it is this maintenance, Jones said, that “is the highest manifestation of civilization.”

Another role of ambassadors, however, is to be a tool of the state.

“‘We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow,’” she said, quoting 19th-century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston.

Throughout their duty, diplomats may be tempted to impress or form bonds with their foreign counterparts, but loyalty to the Constitution and the interests of the United States come first.

“Those who succumb to the siren song, and forget that they are simply an instrument of the American taxpayer,” Jones said, “do so at their own peril.”

The United States does, however, form long-standing relationships with nations. And while the U.S. often forgets the help it has received from other countries, she said, maintaining cordial relationships allows governments to know each other better. 

Within diplomatic cohorts, it becomes easier to understand each other’s red lines while acknowledging the other’s concerns. They can be honest about their needs without offending each other.

“It is being willing to acknowledge the essential dignity of the other person, or party, and sometimes, it is to accept what is perfectly honest, or truthful, if not necessarily completely truthful,” Jones said. “The opposite of conflict is not necessarily complete peace, it is process,”

So is there a role for friendship in diplomacy? Sort of.

Jones certainly has foreign friends, and establishing relationships of trust did aid in negotiations during her career. But the foundation of friendship does not translate well to diplomacy.

“All friendships are characterized by mutual respect, trust, confidence, reciprocal disclosure and loyalty,” she said. “Many of the qualities that go into creating successful diplomacy also go into creating successful friendships, but that loyalty piece is missing unless it is to a government.”

“I do try to conduct myself diplomatically,” she wryly concluded, “except with my very, very close friends.”

Friendship science: Franco offers ways to meaningfully connect

University of Maryland Honors College Assistant Clinical Professor Marisa G. Franco — also the author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends, discusses the science behind friendship during her lecture Wednesday morning in the Amphitheater. Franco offered four common friendship “myths,” and ways to dispell them. HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff writer

Most people might not be eager to share a bed with their friend. But when Marisa G. Franco arrived at Chautauqua this week and experienced a mix-up with her hotel reservation, that’s exactly what she considered doing. 

“I think the ways we see friendship now, as trivial but also so constrained in the types of behaviors we see as appropriate to do with friends, has not been (the case) throughout our history,” said Franco, a research psychologist and the author of the New York Times bestseller Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make – and Keep – Friends.

Based on the lessons she learned from writing her book, and through her career as an assistant clinical professor at the University of Maryland Honors College, Franco presented her lecture, “How to Make and Keep Friends,” at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater for the third day of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week One theme, “On Friendship.”

Franco may be considered a friendship expert now, but she was not always. Admittedly a shy student in her early days of college – wanting to fit in but also to impress others – she found meaningful connections hard to come by. 

After a romantic breakup left her without a primary source of connection, she started a wellness group of fellow college students in hopes it might speed up getting out of the slump she found herself in. Each day, the group did a healing activity together, such as yoga or meditation. It worked, but Franco found the activities, as relaxing as they were, were not the primary motivator behind her happiness; it was the friends she had made. 

This realization sent her on a journey of studying connection and the science behind it. On that journey, she discovered too many people lack a meaningful connection with friends – close friendships have declined drastically over the past decade, according to data from the Survey Center on American Life – and she has since dubbed this “the friendship famine.”

“I felt like my experience reflected something larger about our culture,” Franco said. “In this society, where so many of us are lonely, how can we afford to throw any form of connection away?”

Her case: We cannot. 

Studying the effects of friendship, or the lack thereof, from a medical perspective, she found the statistics alarming. Not having a strong social network outside of the family negatively affects health and mortality. 

One study she presented showed people with fewer social ties were 4.2 times more likely to contract the common cold virus than those with six or more. In contrast, those who smoked were just three times more likely to contract the virus than those who did not.

Another study, a meta-analysis on social connection, found that while exercise decreases the risk of death by 23% to 30%, having a large social network decreases it by 45%. 

“Loneliness, in our bodies, is a sign that we are in danger,” Franco said.

We are all prone to the three types of loneliness – intimate, relational and collective – yet satisfying these areas is crucial to being happy and healthy.

“When you’re around one person all the time, you’re only having one experience of yourself because different people bring out different sides of ourselves,” she said.

Relying solely on a spouse for emotional needs can be damaging to that relationship, Franco argued. Yet, people are often hesitant to create deeper relationships with friends. She advises against this hesitation, insisting friendships are some of the most meaningful relationships because they “transcend the physical.”

But how can people find friendships in a world that seems hostile to the concept? First, they need to get past the four common myths of connection.

Our initial experience of making friends is in childhood, a time when proximity and repeated unplanned activities and settings that encourage people to confide in one another are common – think of recess back in grade school. However, Franco said, this feeds into the first myth of connection: Friendships should happen organically.

Franco said people who think friendships are organic are more likely to feel lonely than people who do not. This is because many adults, unlike children, do not live in an environment nourishing enough for organic relationships; friendships in adulthood take work. 

“This idea of friendship happening organically can really sabotage us from making friends because we end up being passive,” she said.

But actively trying to make friends brings about another worry: Won’t they reject me?

Franco’s calls this fear “the liking gap,” and her theory behind it is that people underestimate how likable they are.

Underestimating your likability can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, then those who fear rejection can appear cold to the very people they are trying to reel in. The best way around this, Franco said, is to assume you will be accepted, because you most likely will.

According to meta-analytic data she reviewed, people who intimately self-disclosed were more liked than those who did not. Still, people expect the worst from vulnerability, rather than seeing it as a crucial step to building relationships. This is Franco’s second myth of connection: Sharing things about yourself burdens people. 

“We are not really meant to work through our own emotions by ourselves; we are meant to support each other,” she said.

Vulnerability in practice is asking deeper questions and sharing the secrets weighing you down. The person on the receiving end, Franco said, will register the trust you show by confiding in them. However, this does not mean people should go around telling everyone their secrets. It takes time to gauge if a person can be trusted to react with love and respect.

As a college freshman attending club meetings and social events, the third rule of making friends was constantly in the back of Franco’s mind: Either you click, or you don’t. 

Likeability, she argued, is rooted in the exposure effect. One study she presented showed women who attended class more often were liked by their classmates 20% more than women who showed up occasionally. Exposure to people increases our likeability. 

When attempting to increase that exposure, expect to feel uncomfortable at first, but work toward making friends from repeated events and with people you see regularly.

A first-time meeting with a potential friend can also bring about anxiety over how you present yourself. This is Franco’s fourth and final myth of connection: “To make friends, I need to be cool, smart or funny.”

“What we find is that people don’t want to be friends with someone who’s necessarily the funniest or the smartest; they want to be friends with someone who makes them feel loved and valued,” she said.

What people value in friendships, Franco argued, are affirmations and affection. People like those who they think like them, someone who believes in them and who makes them feel like they matter. 

Franco’s hope is that with her advice on initiative, disclosure, exposure and affirmation, people will not just practice a radical new form of friendship, but will “become igniters for friendship.”

Senior shares journey of finding new meaning in friendship

Jennifer Senior, staff writer for The Atlantic, discusses what she’s learned about the care and keeping of friends in her presentation for the Chautauqua Lecture Series Tuesday in the Amphitheater. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff writer

During the pandemic, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jennifer Senior did something most people can relate to – reevaluated her friendships. 

The culmination of this examination was a cover story for The Atlantic that ignited a new perspective on friendship and its importance to our spirit, happiness and health, which she shared at 10:45 a.m. on Tuesday in the Amphitheater for the second installment of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week One theme, “On Friendship.”

Senior’s original plan for her article, “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart,” published in 2022, was to explore midlife friendship. Of course, it would be naive to do such a dive without undergoing a little introspection.

“What that meant, in turn, was to some degree – in fact to a rather painful degree – was looking at the friendships of mine that have either died or were on treacherously thin ice,” Senior said.

One of the friends she reflected on for her piece was central to forming her identity, yet grew distant after he became a father and said he had higher moral obligations than their friendship or her feelings. Senior was honest about the pain this caused her, and said while she now understands his perspective, “there was something so staggeringly hurtful about so crudely and so ruthlessly locating a person in the moral pecking order of your priorities.”

After publishing her article, she received a surprising response from the long-lost friend. Knowing he had egg on his face, he wanted to make things right; he had missed their friendship. 

Senior said rebuilding their relationship was a “miraculous midlife gift,” but navigating the uncharted water of friendship was not easy. While researching her piece, she found scholarly articles on the matter to be few and far between.

“Friendship has sort of always been the red-headed step-child of the social sciences,” she said.

Most studies focused on childhood friendships, or were really “dopey self-help all gussied up in peer review drag.” There was practically nothing on middle-aged friendships.

When the social sciences consider relationships, it is usually the ones generated through strong bonds of blood, law and physical intimacy, Senior said. Yet, friendship is central to our lives, particularly when considering that nearly a quarter of American adults ages 30 to 49 are single.

As fertility rates continue to drop, older generations pass and social capital erodes through the loss of activity centers, meeting halls and worship communities, we lose access to cross-generational interaction and mentorship. With the loss of these vertical structures, we become reliant on looking horizontally toward our peers for cues. Friendship, Senior affirmed, is more important now than ever.

“Modern life conspires against friendship, while at the same time modern life is exactly what makes us need friendship the most,” she said.

Senior won the Pulitzer Prize for her piece “Twenty Years Gone,” which she expanded for her latest book, On Grief. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

The problem is there appears to be a correlation between the importance of friendship and the difficulty of maintaining them. Marriage, parenthood, politics, illness, success, failure, envy, death, divorce and geography are all all-too-common reasons for the dissolution of friendship.

“Most friendships don’t end operatically; they end in a very quiet, slow, gray dissolve. They simply fade,” Senior said. “But the ones with deliberate endings can really torment. At best, they ache and I think, at worst, they sort of feel like failures.”

She compared it to a “modest divorce” but without the counseling and mediation fitting for the deep wound inflicted by loss. 

So, how do we save ourselves from the isolation and disappearance of friends? We must recommit to the friends we already have.

Senior laid out how to do this in six steps she called “The Rules of Friendship”: 

Good friends stand up for each other

Good friends trust and confide in each other

Good friends support each other emotionally

Good friends offer help if it’s required

Good friends try to make each other happy

Good friends keep each other up to date on positive life developments

“It’s effortful, it’s premeditated,” she said. “This is not just a matter of making somebody happy over dinner; it’s thinking beforehand about what you can do.”

The benefits of friendships are bountiful. Spending time with a friend has the same effect on your health as quitting smoking, Senior said, and noted friendships were the highest valued relationships in antiquity.

“‘The person is giving back to you the feelings you wish you could give to yourself, and seeing the person you wish to be in the world,’” she said, quoting Ben Taylor.

Senior closed her lecture remembering common reactions to the passing of Nora Ephron, a beloved American journalist, writer and filmmaker.

“She told no one she was dying of cancer, so when everyone found out they were like, ‘Oh my god, had I known – had I only known – I would have spent more time with her. I would never have just blindly assumed that more dinners were ahead,’” she said. “But this is true for all of us; we are all one day not going to be here. How long, honestly, can we all keep postponing dinner?”

Editors’ note: While we mistakenly omitted Alton Northup’s staff bio in the first edition of the Daily, we are pleased to share it here:

Alton Northup is a rising junior at Kent State University majoring in journalism. This is his first summer at Chautauqua, and he is covering morning lectures. He recently covered the crisis and help beat for KentWired, where he previously worked as a general assignment reporter and senior reporter. A proud Erieite — a resident of Erie, Pennsylvania — he never misses an opportunity to share his city with others. He is excited to continue learning this summer while growing as a reporter.

Courage, good faith, open minds key to friendships, democracy, argue West, George

Cornel West, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair at Union Theological Seminary and Robert P. George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, open the 2023 Chautauqua Lecture Series and the Week One theme “On Friendship” Monday in the Amphitheater, in conversation with Institution President Michael E. Hill. Jess Kzsos / Staff photographer

Alton Northup
Staff writer

The friendship between Robert P. George and Cornel West began early in their tenure at Princeton University, where George noticed West was asking all the right questions.

George, a conservative, noted the progressive West’s questions did not always arrive at the right answers, yet were “questions of meaning and value.” The two discussed how these questions sustain their friendship despite their political divide with Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill at 10:45 a.m. on Monday in the Amphitheater for the season’s first morning lecture and the first lecture of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week One theme, “On Friendship.”

The pair’s origin can be traced back to a campus magazine at Princeton that asked professors to interview a colleague of their choice. To George’s surprise, West — now the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair at Union Theological Seminary and a recently declared third-party candidate for president of the United States — chose him for what should have been a two-hour interview.

“This was not an interview,” said George, Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program. “This was a rocking and rolling discussion and debate on all the issues we’ve been talking about for years.”

There was no pulling the two from their conversation and, as the tape ran out, George said they realized they should get to know each other better. So, they planned for lunch and days later agreed to teach a freshman seminar together. 

“From the moment we started teaching together in the classroom, what some people call the chemistry – but that’s just too weak a word – the magic was there,” George said.

The two continued teaching together until West moved to Harvard University, deciding then to take their conversations on the road and share with audiences what George called one of the greatest joys of his life – not just his friendship, but his admiration for West’s ability to teach by example. A part of what he teaches is acceptance of all, simply because of their humanity.

“We are brothers in the deepest sense. It goes so far beyond political agreement,” West said. “I love him when he’s wrong; I love him when he’s right. I try to correct him; he tries to correct me. We revel in each other’s humanity even though we’re both cracked vessels.”

West said their friendship should not make them an odd couple; he reflected on a time when siblinghood in professionalism was the norm. Now, he said, that piece is missing – substituted instead with conformity, arrogance and condescension toward outsiders.

“What we have here is not because we’re so special. … (If) you don’t agree with members of your family politically, you still love them, you still connect with their humanity,” he said. “We’ve become so polarized it’s hard to be able to make that connection.” 

The two bridge this gap through their shared love of the truth. This does not mean they always arrive at the same conclusion – disagreements are frequent – but they are not opposed to changing their opinions. 

“The danger, and I think what has caused so much harm in our society, is people fall so deeply in love with their opinions. They become so identity-forming for people,” George said. “They wrap their emotions so tightly around their opinions that they love the opinions more than truth.” 

Creating space for your opinions to be challenged, George said, is the only hope for knowing if you are wrong. He shared a lesson the two learned from Plato: The person who causes you to rethink is not your enemy, but your friend. 

West and George discussed how they maintain their friendship through good faith and open minds.

“We’re all fallible,” George said. “We know we can be wrong even about the deep, important questions.” 

It is through the proper currency of intellectual discourse – reason, evidence and arguments – that one can understand strongly held opinions. Those who circumvent this transaction, George argued, do not act in good faith. But those who do, should not be ignored.

Apprehension toward these transactions, West argued, comes from a lack of trust. Trust, he said, allows people to be vulnerable enough to disagree.

“We’re losing that, and no democracy can survive without it,” he said.

The two are often asked how someone can be both open-minded and a person of conviction. George’s answer is found in the liturgy of Yom Kippur, where congregants atone for sins that include stealing, cheating, lying and being zealots for bad causes.

“You don’t lie by mistake,” he said. “You can say something that’s not true by mistake, but if you believe it’s true, that’s not a lie.”

Simple as it may be, George compares the act of challenging one’s opinions to giving a cashier short change. If it was not done in bad faith, you correct it without issue; it should be the same with the opinions.

 George said it is the total conviction to one’s opinions that leads to dogmatists, ideologues and demagogues. 

On the topic of ideology, George was hesitant to endorse West’s candidacy for president but eager to endorse his integrity, his honesty, his compassion, his love of people, and his selflessness. West was equally hesitant to talk about his candidacy but wants to ensure his values are at the forefront of it.

“I am tied to a cause and a calling,” he said. “And that’s what brings Brother Robert and I together. You see, truth-seeking and justice-seeking is a calling.”

The presidency, he said, is secondary. It is just a vehicle for him to carry out his calling. And the calling he charges Chautauquans with is one of courage.

“Courage is the enabling virtue of all the other virtues. Courage is by example, with the body; you’ve got to put your body in it,” he said. “We in the Black tradition call that being a funk master because a funk master gets beyond the deodorized language and sanitized and sterilized discourse. In the funk is the freedom, and the love, and the pain, and the hurt, and the smile through tears. See, that’s what courage is and the only way you get it is to do something beyond language.”

It was through courage and examination of the self that their friendship began so many decades ago, and George encouraged Chautauquans to make friends with someone who they have serious disagreements with, too.

“Knowing is an activity,” he said. “There’s something noble and ennobling about truth seeking.”

Benjamin Hunter calls on us to lean into our vulnerability, honor our stories


Award-winning multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Hunter, who has founded multiple community-based arts and education organizations, takes an expansive view of what folk means.

“When I think about folk, I don’t just think of music,” Hunter said. “I think about people.”

Hunter closed out the season’s Chautauqua Lecture Series and Week Nine, themed “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.” He gave his lecture, “Metamorphosis: Folk Reclaimed. A Renaissance,” at 10:45 a.m. Friday, Aug. 26 in the Amphitheater.

Before Hunter began speaking, he played an original song on the violin, his first and most-favored instrument.

He wrote the song after reading The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss, a biography of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, father of French author Alexandre Dumas. The elder Dumas was highly educated and trained in combat, and rose through the army ranks during the French Revolution, fighting passionately for the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Dumas fought for the abolition of slavery in America, but once Napoleon rose to power, he cut his abolitionist efforts short.

“What that said to me, like many other moments in our history, there’s this moment where we have the opportunity to take this path that can change the course of human history,” Hunter said. “Time and time again, we decided to bend to the whims of money and capitalism and power.”

Hunter theorized that there are a variety of reasons for those decisions, such as fear of losing power and fear of change. 

“But I wrote that song because I hope that in this moment right now, especially after a pandemic that changed the course of everybody’s life, that we can rise to the moment to embrace change, and tell ourselves that we don’t need to do the same thing as we’ve done before,” Hunter said, “that we can be brave enough to step into a new future and try something new.”

Hunter said that our personal narratives shape our humanity in countless ways. He was born in Lesotho, an South African nation, to a Black Tanzanian father and a white mother at the height of apartheid. While Lesotho served as a kind of sanctuary for revolutionaries in the daylight, by night, the apartheid secret police made people disappear.

Hunter and his family left Lesotho for his mother’s hometown of Phoenix when he was very young. They were sharing a house in Lesotho with another family, a couple and their daughter, who was Hunter’s first friend. A month after they moved out, they heard that the couple had been killed by the secret police; the young daughter was left alone in her crib.

“That story stuck with me my entire life,” Hunter said. “I’m affected by it right now, just telling you.”

Hunter lived a nomadic existence for the first 10 years of his life, traveling with his mother from Seattle to Zimbabwe before settling back in Phoenix. He started playing the violin at 5, and took ballet classes, played in orchestras and acted in plays throughout his youth.

Despite his involvement with the arts, Hunter went to college to become a doctor. The course of his life changed when he visited Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum and discovered variations of bowed string instruments from all over the world. The different cultural iterations of the violin from West Africa, Southeast Asia and South America opened up Hunter’s perceptions of the instrument beyond the Eurocentric classical practice in which he had learned.

“I knew right there that I could study this instrument for the rest of my life and have something to study, have something new and exciting to engage with,” Hunter said.

Hunter moved to Seattle after college, pursued a multitude of musical styles and experiences, and joined up with another musician named Joe Seamons. The musical duo collaborates even now, and explores their identities through American roots music.

“I tell you all of this because all of these things have made my story,” Hunter said. “They’ve made me who I am. They contribute to the person that I am. And each of us have these stories. Often they’re hard, they’re painful or difficult, they’re joyous. They’re beautiful, they’re sad, they’re nostalgic — they cause all these things inside of us.”

In 2011, Hunter founded his first arts organization, Community Arts Create, as a way for people to gather and cultivate community, self-discovery and empathy.

“What was exciting to me was creating a space where people could just come and express their creativity, whatever it was,” Hunter said. “A creative space for people to simply exist. How do we create environments for people to lean into their own vulnerability? What happens to yourself when you lean into that vulnerability?”

CAC, which originally did not have a physical location, hosted art walks, commissioned a mural based on the lived experiences of locals, and created Taste International, a program for sharing food from different cultures. But, Hunter needed a physical space. He partnered with a friend to rent a space and found Hillman City Collaboratory.

“Initially, it was just going to be a place for us to host organizations,” Hunter said. “But then after we kind of talked and met with other people, we turned it into what we call an incubator for social engagement.”

It was a space for interdisciplinary community development projects, to exchange ideas and stories and work towards social change. If someone couldn’t afford to pay to use the space, they could pay by doing chores.

One community member, Joe Howard, worked down the street at a mortuary, and confided the pain he felt when he had to bury a young person. Howard would come by every day, sweep the streets, have a cup of coffee and play the piano. 

The Collaboratory held barbecues, music gatherings, workshops, parties and more. It hosted a food justice organization founded by Hunter’s partner, bringing fresh, locally grown food to the community.

“Again, this is expanding that idea of creating space for people,” Hunter said. “This is reclaiming the words ‘make space’ so that people can just exist, and naming that space in such a way that people feel safe. People feel welcomed. People feel comfortable to live in their vulnerability, to lean into their vulnerability, to be their vulnerability, so that people can see their whole selves.”

When a building opened up across the street from the Collaboratory, Hunter jumped at the chance to realize a lifelong dream: opening a jazz club. He developed a business plan to extend the community work he and his collaborators had been doing.

Hunter named the club the Black & Tan Hall, inspired by Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.” Ellington supposedly wrote the song after visiting “black and tan” clubs all over America, throughout the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, where people of all races gathered to enjoy jazz music.

“We named this place the Black & Tan Hall to resurrect that idea and that concept: a hyperlocal economy that respects and elevates diverse cultures, built by and for people rooted in the community, that feeds the arts and sustains good jobs,” Hunter said.

The club brought Hunter’s pursuits to the next level, building economic development into his existing practices of fostering the arts and community. It was a cooperative that aimed to combat gentrification and displacement, and that many people were able to buy into, whether with their money, their time or their talents.

Hunter noted that Seattle is both one of the richest cities in the country, and the site of one of the most devastating homelessness and affordable housing crises in the country.

“So what does it mean to own space as a community?” Hunter asked. “A space where you can say what the space does, where you have control of how the space is operated? Not the market, not a developer, not a landlord that needs to make money, but where you can actually create a space with anybody combined — young, old, Black, white, whatever. That’s what we were trying to do.”

With their cooperative model, Hunter and his partners were trying to create an alternative economy where people simply contributed what they had. They made the Black & Tan Hall a restaurant, a performance space, a gathering hall, and more.

“How do we become a cultural hub, a hub for celebration, reflection and creation?” Hunter said. “A place where everybody feels welcome? I can’t underscore this enough: We don’t have enough of these places.”

In 2021, Hunter became the artistic director of Northwest Folklife, one of the most significant folk festivals in the nation. He is honored to be part of such an institution that celebrates the multifaceted nature of American folk, but he acknowledged that the stereotypical image of the white folk musician persists.

“The question then becomes, how can we enlighten people to feel that this is for everybody?” Hunter said. “How can we use language, change language, redirect language and reclaim language, redefine language to be inclusive and equitable, collaborative, cooperative?”

One of Hunter’s duties as artistic director was to select the overarching theme of the festival for this year. The festival was returning to in-person after two years of virtual programming, and Hunter was considering the immense changes and challenges brought about by the pandemic. 

This thought process led Hunter to choose metamorphosis as the cultural focus. It encompassed three tenets: a creative ecosystem, a cultural economy and workforce development.

“We honor the legacy of our contributors by ensuring that cultural and creative work is truly sustainable, not simply a product, but rather a foundational asset of healthy and vibrant communities,” Hunter said. “Northwest Folklife wants to continue to use our positionality, our privilege, our enduring legacy as a cultural institution, to push both ourselves and our civic leadership to reimagine policies and resources to uphold a robust support system for artists.”

Hunter’s mission, and the mission of the festival at large, is to emphasize the importance of the arts and reclaim focus on shared values and people-centered progress.

Hunter also said that the virtual programming of the festival during the pandemic expanded its reach and transformed accessibility. In 2020 and 2021, Northwest Folklife’s offerings reached 900 cities, 60 countries and six continents. Whether people lived far away or were sheltering in place, the virtuality of the festival expanded and encouraged the notion of a safe space.

Hunter enjoys looking at the way that physical environments shape cultural environments, naming as an example the textiles in South America that incorporate the pigments naturally available to craftspeople. He also mentioned the psychological impacts of our culture, and acknowledged the burden and emotional weight of navigating race in America.

“While so many of us Black and Indigenous people of color can, and have, and will talk about race and racism, I’m personally tired of talking about it.” Hunter said. “I’m tired of having to teach this stuff. Because whiteness refuses to teach themselves about it.”

Hunter invited the audience to contemplate those words while he played another song.

Hunter said that change and resilience are fundamental parts of human existence, and that authenticity starts with us.

“The tapestry of folk starts with you,” he said. “It starts with identifying all the parts of you that have been, all the parts of you that you engage now and, all the parts that you have yet to actualize. Folk is built on storytelling, and those stories that you were told, the stories that you are a part of and the stories that you tell.”

Hunter believes that self-discovery is an important process of becoming connected to others. 

“The more you know yourself, the more you are comfortable with who you are, the more equipped you are to know somebody else,” Hunter said. 

Hunter paraphrased Yolanda Pierce, Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture speaker, who said that we cannot live from a scarcity mindset. Instead, we must live from a place of abundance. He also said that we need to engage in our strengths and weaknesses alike to nurture and create spaces for dreams and community. 

Although he encouraged the audience to listen to the young people in their lives, Hunter also cautioned against leaving the task of changing the world to them; instead of falling victim to complacency and apathy, we all must work together to build a better future. 

In a time like the pandemic, Hunter said that we are given the opportunity to reshape the trajectory of the world. We must embrace change and resilience, those fundamental tenets of humanity.

“Folk is people,” Hunter said. “Let’s do and be what we’re built to do, instead of fall victim to what we’re told to do. To be that which we need to be requires us to breathe and live and change and move and sing and build and break.”

Hunter feels as though there is a connection between identity and vulnerability that has to be realized in order to be what we need to be.

“It requires us to discover our identity, as painful as it will inevitably be,” he said. “It requires us to be vulnerable and to lean into that vulnerability and to lend that vulnerability to somebody else. It requires us to create safe spaces that allow us to sit in our discomfort and our pleasure at the same time. It requires us to metamorphosize. Only then can we have the renaissance that we seek.”

‘World Cafe’ host Raina Douris shares hope for show as archive of stories, discovery


We can’t talk about the advent of technology that allows artists to distribute their own music and engage in genre-bending without talking about American rapper Lil Nas X. 

Raina Douris, the host of NPR’s “World Cafe,” a radio program devoted to musical discovery and thoughtful conversation, played a clip of Lil Nas X’s viral smash hit “Old Town Road” during her Week Nine morning lecture. The song appeared on Billboard’s Hot 100, its hip-hop chart and then its country chart. It was subsequently removed from the country chart because it was decided that it did not sufficiently meet the criteria for the country genre.

The image of Lil Nas X’s grinning face under a cowboy hat was projected on the screen and his country-hip-hop tune echoed through the Amphitheater. The song’s defiant chorus reverberated: “Can’t nobody tell me nothing.” 

“Billy Ray Cyrus, who appeared on a remix of ‘Old Town Road,’ noted that the discrimination Lil Nas X faced from the country music industry gave him the honor of joining a long line of country music outcasts,” Douris said.

Douris continued Week Nine’s Chautauqua Lecture Series, themed “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture, and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.” She gave her lecture, titled “Moving Music Forward: ‘World Cafe’ ’s 30 Years of Music, Conversation and Connection” at 10:45 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 25 in the Amp.

“World Cafe,” originally hosted by David Dye, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, and has been dedicated to highlighting the world of folk music, including emerging talents and off-the-beaten-path artists, since its inception.

Douris told a story about folk singer-songwriter Janis Ian, who, in the mid-1960s, was receiving death threats and having items thrown at her head because of a song she wrote. 

The song, “Society’s Child,” which Douris played a clip of, was about an interracial relationship, and was banned from radios. When Ian came out as a lesbian in the 1990s, the powers that be in the entertainment industry tried to blacklist her. 

“I bring up Janis because she’s an example of what storytelling and music, especially folk music, is capable of,” Douris said.

Music can document our times and act as a reflection and an archive of what’s going on in the world, in ways that push back against dominant narratives and reveal truths that challenge the status quo.

“World Cafe” began in a tiny walk-up studio with no sound-proofing in Philadelphia. Its format, which remains largely unchanged, involves longform, deep-dive interviews with artists and a wide range of music, from deep cuts off classic records to fresh, undiscovered singles.

The very first guest on “World Cafe” was Bruce Cockburn, whose song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” charted in 1984.

Dave munch / photo editor Douris speaks about the changing nature of music discovery in her lecture “Moving Music Forward: ‘World Cafe’ ’s 30 Years of Music, Conversation and Connection.”

“I should mention that a ‘hit’ in ‘World Cafe’ terms means it got to 88 on the Billboard Hot 100,” Douris said.

Cockburn’s music blended folk singer-songwriter traditions with various global influences. In a clip from Dye’s interview with him, Cockburn said that the folks who initially made him want to play music were the likes of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, but in the course of his travels, he sought out and absorbed the styles of international cultures.

Other early guests included Tori Amos, Jeff Buckley, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.

Douris said that the technological developments and the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic have changed the musical landscape and how “World Cafe,” still based in Philadelphia, operates. Instead of lamenting the loss of the old ways, she values the opportunities these changes present.

Conducting interviews over Zoom allowed Douris to speak with Grammy winner Jon Batiste while he sat at his own piano at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City. She developed a show-and-tell segment where, from their homes, artists offered a window into their lives. She played a montage of clips — Jason Isbell displaying his Larry David portrait, Margo Price holding her baby, Billy Strings cradling a guitar made by his grandfather in the 1960s.

“We always like to say that radio is intimate, that we’re letting you in on these private conversations and you just happen to drop into them,” Douris said. “But in this context, speaking to them in their homes, from my home, it truly was intimate. Artists were unguarded. Sometimes they were a little bit stir crazy from lockdowns and social distancing. And the dynamic instantly changed.”

During lockdown, Douris got to interview Neil Young — one of her all-time favorite musicians. During the interview, Young received a phone call from his son, and he took it, having a whole conversation with him while on the Zoom session.

“There are not a lot of things that are more intimate and unguarded than seeing a man tell his son that he loves him on the phone,” Douris said.

Douris feels like we are in a rapidly changing world, a space between the familiar past and the unknown future that creates interesting opportunities. The fact that “World Cafe” is public radio also offers opportunities for creative programming unlimited by the demands of advertising.

“When we talk about emerging trends in music, and particularly folk music, that I noticed while hosting ‘World Cafe’ — what I’m really seeing is a shift in what stories we’re hearing and whose stories we are hearing,” Douris said.

As opposed to the highly segmented categories of other radio stations, “World Cafe” works in a format referred to as adult album alternative which covers a little bit of everything — singer-songwriters, indie rock, folk, Americana and more.

Douris pointed out that musical genre categories were constructed by the recording industry, motivated by commercial concerns. Those who wanted to sell music had to label it in order to do so.

Douris traced the dense history of American folk music, which developed from a combination of influences and traditions brought over by enslaved African and European settlers. Despite the divisions between these groups, they engaged in the exchange of culture, music and stories.

“Music let those stories integrate, even when the people weren’t allowed to,” Douris said.

The efforts of the recording industry to designate and segregate categories could not stop the cultural exchange, although they did determine who achieved mainstream success and who did not. 

Douris noted Bob Dylan’s admiration of the Black folk artist Odetta, who inspired him to become a folk singer himself and from whom he borrowed melodies. Odetta released an album in which she covered Dylan’s catalog, but despite their mutual admiration and exchange of influences, one artist shot to superstardom while the other did not.

While the recording industry’s obsession with genre divided along racial lines has persisted, as with Billboard’s treatment of “Old Town Road,” the rise of streaming has shown that genre matters less and less to consumers. 

“It turns out that the people actually listening to music, all of us, maybe never actually needed those genres as much as the music industry believed we did,” Douris said.

Furthermore, the accessibility and relative affordability of producing and distributing one’s own music is also eroding the power of music industry gatekeepers. These shifting trends and “World Cafe” ’s public radio status allows it to highlight new artists who are reinventing and reshaping genres.

“World Cafe” featured the Grammy Award-winning band Alabama Shakes before they had even released an album. The radio show had Sheryl Crow on in the early ‘90s when she only had one single to her name. 

Douris played a clip of Vietnamese-American artist No-No Boy singing “Tell Hanoi I Love Her,” guitar in hand and cowboy hat perched on his head. The artist grew up in Tennessee, while his mother is from South Vietnam, and he incorporates every facet of his background into his music.

“When No-No Boy visited the show, we talked about how writing these folk songs is a way for him to educate, but also a way to establish the history of immigrants as American history,” Douris said. “Each immigrant to America brings their stories, and those stories become part of this rich and diverse American history. Folk music has always been the music of people, not just a specific few people. An artist like No-No Boy gives us a fuller, more complete picture of this country.”

Douris also spoke about the wave of Black artists entering the Americana space in recent years, including Rhiannon Giddens, who lectured at the Amp at 10:45 a.m. on Monday and performed with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday. 

Earlier this year, “World Cafe” featured the Black Opry Revue, a collective of Black, Americana artists who created their own space in response to their ongoing marginalization in other musical spaces. Douris played a clip of their visit to the show, featuring Roberta Lea singing “Ghetto Country Streets.”

While “World Cafe” is not generally known for hip-hop, in June 2020, in the midst of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests responding to the murder of George Floyd, Run The Jewels released a new album. The album, RTJ4, spoke to the modern experiences of being Black in America, and Douris saw the importance of inviting the group to the show. She said that RTJ4 falls under the umbrella of folk music.

“If we think about folk music as the music of the people, the music that tells our stories, the de facto definition of it as acoustic singer-songwriter music can start to feel outdated,” Douris said.

Folk music has always been a record of the time in which it is made, and Douris said that she hopes “World Cafe” serves as an archive of those records, and as a library of our stories. 

Douris recounted a recent interview with British folk rocker and activist Billy Bragg, in which she asked him if he believed music can really change the world. She found his answer striking.

“He said, ‘Music might not change a vote,’ ” Douris said. “ ‘It might not change a piece of legislation. But what music can do is create empathy. Music can build solidarity. Music can help us see each other and truly understand each other. And if we can find that common ground and that connection, then we can change the world.’ ”

Douris concluded her lecture with a return to Janis Ian. Douris recently featured Ian on “World Cafe,” where she played a song called “Resist” from her latest album. The song is a searing critique of the ongoing policing and oppression of women and their bodies. In the year 2022, multiple radio stations told Ian they would not play “Resist” because it was too “suggestive.”

“ ‘World Cafe’ has tried to evolve to include those different voices and archive their experiences — our experiences,” Douris said. “In my opinion, if the story that you’re trying to tell is deemed too dangerous, too controversial or too suggestive by the powers that be, there’s a good chance it’s a story worth telling. That’s what folk music does.”

Scott Avett, with Moore, talks history, inspiration, folk music in wide-ranging conversation for Week 9


Scott Avett is no stranger to the Amphitheater, and for the Wednesday, Aug. 24 morning lecture, the musician and co-founder of The Avett Brothers finally brought the conversations he’s had with Senior Vice President and Chief Executive Program Officer Deborah Sunya Moore over the years front and center. In previous years, they would talk backstage about music and Chautauqua, and since The Avett Brothers are considered a folk rock band, it only made sense to invite one of their lead vocalists as part of Week Nine’s dialogue on “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.”

One of the first conversations the pair had was about the origins of Chautauqua Institution, whose roots were originally in the Methodist Church. Avett, whose grandfather Clegg Avett was a Methodist minister, grew up going to a Methodist camp in North Carolina.

“But the Methodist heritage, tradition and the memories of songs — that spirit certainly lives here, you can feel it … the settled nature of it,” Avett said.

With his grandfather being a minister, he explained how being raised by a preacher’s son was much different than being a preacher’s son. His dad was less stringent about his kids following specific traditions.

“Our experience with worship and the church became one of loosely gripping the most consistent, and I guess important, and only thing there is: that mystery that is God,” he said. “From a preacher’s son, it becomes more like, ‘Take it easy. Don’t take this stuff so serious.’ And that was important for us. That was key.”

Clegg Avett was an important figure in his grandson’s life, and both Avett’s uncle and Avett himself published his sermons. Moore asked what aspect of the sermons led Avett to publish them.

Avett always knew that his grandfather’s congregation loved him, and as Avett reached his mid-30s, he turned to those sermons.

“Around 33 or 35, the reality of ‘life is not forever’ just really had taken its full grip, I think,” he said. “… It had taken its full root, and I was curious, and there was this book with my grandfather’s face on the front of it.”

Clegg Avett’s sermons included discussions of figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as Chinese proverbs, which surprised Avett since his grandfather was a preacher in North Carolina from the 1930s to the 1970s. But, Clegg Avett was not opposed to speaking what he felt to be true, and had received threats from the Ku Klux Klan because of his sermons.

“In reading those, it moved me and just nudged me. … The next book was Gandhi’s autobiography,” Avett said. “And then the next thing was — wait, Gandhi mentioned Tolstoy and how Tolstoy wrote about Christianity.”

Avett fell in love with Tolstoy’s Christian writings, which continue to influence his music and writing.

Moore was curious about some of Avett’s other influences, specifically from his family.

Avett likens his home to as “Little House on the Prairie” as the 1980s could get. His family lived at the end of a half-mile red clay road, which the school bus would never drive down.

“My dad built the house on his own. It was untreated, pine siding,” he said. “We couldn’t get cable out there. There was never cable in our life.”

His mom was an intelligent, worldly woman, well-traveled because of her father’s position as a one-star general; and his dad was a welder, who came home every night in burned denim.

His father played drawing games with Avett and his siblings, and while having a blue-collar job was the main way to make a living in their corner of North Carolina, drawing and the music his father played showed Avett how creativity was still possible. He admitted that he understands how idyllic life in the country sounds, but that truly was his experience. 

“It was literally the broom grass where the deer had laid down, it was a good place to sit and just see how the sun hurts when I stare at it for a little while. And later, that was where you smoked the cigarettes you got from your dad,” he said. “It was deep, rich and I’m so grateful for this soulful existence.”

Since Avett’s childhood gave him a chance to be bored and thus have time to create, Moore asked if there were other values instilled in him from his childhood in North Carolina.

Avett admitted that he does not know if he could claim his values as particularly North Carolinian, but he appreciated how North Carolina is geographically diverse and gave him a chance to play in different areas, whether it was the rural area where he grew up or a nearby city.

“I was very grateful for my art school. I went to the East Carolina University Art School,” he said. “And the town is so small … you can really make a lot of mistakes there without causing too much damage.”

Moore pointed out how there seems to be an overall theme of goodness in Avett’s life.

“Zooming out to our experience when the band comes, when The Avett Brothers come, there’s a distinctly indefinable quality to your fan base,  and yet there’s also a very recognizable quality where there’s this — I’m going to say goodness — about your fan base,” she said.

One time The Avett Brothers came to perform at Chautauqua, Moore remembers a mass of fans approaching the Amp with beers in hand. Since only water is allowed in the Amp, she worried about having to tell everyone they could not bring their beers inside. When told this, all of the fans were gracious and did not hesitate to comply with the rules — whether it meant dumping their drinks out or quickly finishing them. To Moore, this exemplifies a quality of goodness that she’s experienced in many of the band’s fans.

“We weren’t designers of the good things that the people do or how they carry themselves,” Avett said. “And we’re probably not the designers of our own goodness.”

The only thing Avett could point to is that he and the other band members prioritize being true to themselves and being sincere. He admitted that some days he does not feel his best, he even finds himself ugly, but showing up as you are, at work or at concerts, is what matters.

“So I’m curious,” Moore said. “There must have been a time when you started to make it (big), where you were more in danger of that shifting and becoming less yourself. How did you and Seth and the band stick to that original authenticity and not become something that, I assume, people were trying to prescribe for you?”

For Avett, authenticity is just there. It isn’t something you have to search for, but it’s something you can ruin. He compared it to his Methodist faith and God’s love.

“It’s just there. You don’t have to earn it,” he said.

Dave Munch / photo editor Avett, who has performed with his band at Chautauqua in 2016 and 2018 — and again the night of his lecture — talked with Moore about his upbringing, faith, and the connective qualities of folk music.

The Avett Brothers had a 10-year rise to fame. Whereas other musicians sometimes seemingly catapult into the spotlight, they had a slower ascent. That gradual gain in popularity, versus becoming famous very quickly, helped keep The Avett Brothers grounded.

Avett had repeatedly mentioned his faith in answering several of Moore’s questions, so she asked him to talk about how, while his faith is important to him, The Avett Brothers is not considered a Christian band.

Not every member of the band shares his faith, and while Scripture influences Avett, he said he has numerous other influences, too, such as the poetry of Rumi.

All of these go into songwriting, which Avett does with Seth Avett, his brother and fellow bandmate.

“We have a brotherly agreement and human agreement that we write about what we experience and we write about what we feel and we put it out there,” he said. “And we’re not special. We are all feeling our version of these things.”

In this way, Avett feels concerts can draw people together better than churches can.

“We’ve witnessed fans that we knew personally, hard right and hard left, having a beer together,” he said. “And that’s the point.”

Before Avett and Moore paused their conversation (for now), she read a passage from Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk whom Avett often quotes.

“Literature, contemplation, solitude, Latin America, Asia, Zen, Islam, etc. All these things combine in my life,” she read. “It would be madness to make a ‘monasticism’ by simply excluding them. I would be less a monk. Others have their own way, I have mine.”

When asked to reflect on this quote, Avett said that studying many different texts and traveling to new places allows him to be a folk musician.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a North Carolinian. It’s OK,” he said. “But I’m allowed to be that way more when I’ve been around.”

Engaging with the world around him lets him be the best folk musician he can be, because, ultimately, Avett sees folk music not as a genre but as creating something from your heritage and what is around you.

When Moore and Avett first discussed him coming for a 10:45 a.m. lecture, Avett said he journaled through his perceptions and definitions of folk music.

“Folk music is likely much less a genre conversation and more a conversation about commonality, leading to inevitable oneness,” he said. “This is not to say that folk music or music alone, for that matter, has been given the task or even the ability to unify all people. But it is to say music, especially music for all people, does a great job at pointing out commonality.”

Thile, mandolin in hand, explores sacred, secular in music


As a two-time Grammy Award-winning musician, it only made sense for Chris Thile to step onto the stage of the Amphitheater for his lecture with mandolin in hand.

In a lecture that was a mixture of music and conversation, Thile performed four songs interspersed with dialogue between he and Senior Vice President and Chief Program Officer Deborah Sunya Moore Tuesday morning as part of Week Nine’s Chautauqua Lecture Series “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.”

Thile and Moore discussed the sacred and the secular and how Thile dances between the two.

He opened the lecture with “Laysong,” from his album of the same name, which served as an introduction. The song plays with the idea of coming to rest for a moment, and recognizing that life all around that moment is difficult.

“O but then what shall we sing now? / Tell us / Now as we gather together / With a hard week going / And a hard week coming / To take our breath,” Thile sang.

The song ends with a plea: “Laysong / Be our breather / Bring us together / Help us remember / Those with no breath left to sing.”

Thile grew up in organized religion, and he often explores that background through his music. “Laysong” stems from the idea of lay people in the church.

While Thile is no longer an active member of a particular denomination, he misses the community aspect of coming together with others. This, he said, is something at which Chautauqua excels.

“You have a summer-long communion here, which is just — I envy it,” he said. “And that’s not a thing I’m supposed to do.”

Moore noted how “Laysong” provided an introduction in the communion of the lecture, and asked Thile what the song means to him.

For Thile’s podcast, “Live from Here,” he would write a new song to follow the theme song every week.

“The deeper I got into my tenure as a radio host, the crazier the world got,” he said. “I had this sense when I was writing (‘Laysong’) of a profound need for communion that my current belief system maybe doesn’t plunge me into the middle of the way that my former belief systems did.”

Thile described himself as drifting from the shores of religion, and during his drifting, he cut off many aspects of religion that he now regrets a bit.

“How many babies have we all thrown out with the bathwater?” he said. “And communion — communion is one of those cherished babies that I think I threw out with the bathwater, and since been courting in every live performance that I ever give or receive.”

Thile needed a song about drawing together, which was something he desperately missed, leading him to write “Laysong.” He sees this as a pattern in his songwriting, that the songs he needs most often do not currently exist.

“So then I need to make it,” he said. “There becomes a very specific song-shaped void that I start hearing in my head.”

While he misses being a part of a congregation, Thile couldn’t help but remember his time at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and its organ, its choir and the pastor who reminded Thile of Gandalf, in both appearance and speech.

“I was thinking of how it felt to walk through those doors and smell that good Episcopal incense and (to be) transported away from me, from self, to anywhere else,” he said. “Even as I was starting to feel like the more I traveled, the more the religion of my youth felt overly dogmatic, I still yearned for that invitation away from self into something else.”

Missing this reminded him of laymen, he said, who are “in the Church, but not of it.”

“There’s often a rather large wall built between the secular and the sacred,” Thile said.

But music knocks down that wall. For Thile, music — specifically folk music — lets him explore the mixing and the in-between of what is traditionally secular or sacred.

Moore then asked about his song “Ecclesiastes,” also from the album Laysongs. “Ecclesiastes” is instrumental and a direct nod to Ecclesiastes 2:4. In the New International Version of the Bible, it reads: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.”

The fact that the song is instrumental led Moore to ask what it means when the listener does not get lyrics.

To Thile, instrumental music gets to be abstract in a way that vocals cannot, even though vocals are not always perfectly transparent either.

Dave munch / photo editor Thile sings to open his conversation with Moore. The conversation was part of the Week Nine Chautauqua Lecture Series theme focused on “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture, and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.”

“If clarity and specificity was the goal, then we should just talk about it,” he said. “Music puts this beautiful veil between you and the specific meaning.”

He compares the arts to building with blocks that have very loose instructions. When someone has a Lego kit with very specific instructions, putting something together is not as gratifying as when one creates something with no instructions, Thile feels.

“I feel like that’s what art is for, as opposed to an aesthetic or a lecture,” he said. “What we’re trying to do as artists … (is say) ‘Here are some blocks to build whatever it is you need to build right now.’ ”

The blocks, in the case of “Ecclesiastes,” are only instrumental, so people are left to build and imagine with what Thile provides.

“Instrumental music is glorious and abstract,” he said.

When Thile did his soundcheck before the lecture, he played one of Bach’s preludes. Bach once said that “the aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

Thile disagrees. Composers can make music with no intention of doing it for the glory of God — but people can still interpret it that way. That is the beauty of instrumental music.

With that, he played “Ecclesiastes” on his mandolin, using his feet as a bass that reverberated through the Amp.

After “Ecclesiastes” and the applause that followed, Moore asked about Thile’s move from “a more fundamental background … to being more agnostic.”

Thile made sure to clarify he is a noncommittal agnostic. To him, agnostics believe that the existence of God could either be proven or disproven, but Thile is not sure either way.

Moore acknowledged that his experience, in many ways, fits into Chautauqua’s experience.

“Having just left the stage was a (worship) service. So we try to be very intentional in this living room and space about welcoming people of all and no faith,” she said.

For “Ecclesiastes” in particular, Thile pored over the Biblical text because he appreciates the candor of the narrator throughout.

“I really enjoy the honesty and sincerity that is pouring out of every word in that book of the Bible,” he said. “I find the lack of answers so inspiring.”

He remembered that while chapters in Ecclesiastes explore how everything is meaningless or full of vanity, there are “pockets of joy” throughout the text.

“There are little moments where the author finds meaning and satisfaction,” he said.

Thile knows his Scripture, but Moore also pointed out that, through his songwriting, Thile has interacted with British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis, specifically the novel The Screwtape Letters, which consists of letters between the demons Screwtape and Wormwood. Lewis “intercepted” and presented these letters in his novel. Screwtape gives Wormwood advice on how to cause the most corruption and how to best lead people astray.

Thile reflected those ideas in parts one, two, and three of his songs “Salt (in the Wounds) of the Earth.” The trio is Thile’s exploration of what those demons might be up to now.

Thile segued from the three parts of his song to his idea of three corruptions: dogmatic religion, demonizing of religion and agnosticism.

“(At the end) we don’t really get to tighten things up in a neat, tight little package,” he said.

The cycle of the three parts begins and ends with the laughter of the demons and the question: “And we savor your damnation with our Lord below / Whatcha gonna do?”

Straying from the traditional lecture format of closing with questions, the Q-and-A portion came before Thile’s final song, “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me.”

For this song, he dabbles in the realm of the sacred and a church he remembers.

“Sing those hymns we sang together / In that plain little church with the benches all worn,” he sang. “How dear to my heart how precious the moments / We stood shaking hands and singing a song.”

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