What we learned at the Chicago Humanities Festival | Feature | Chicago Reader

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What we learned at the Chicago Humanities Festival

There was a ton of valuable information, but it was received in advance of a bleak future.

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Speed isn't about hastiness—it's about taking action.

Some spend years writing books, but Grant Faulkner proposed a radical suggestion to an audience at Francis W. Parker: Do it in a month. That's the gist of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo): each November, a growing number of people commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Some succeed, some fail; mostly, it's about taking that first step. The theme of this fall's Chicago Humanities Festival was "speed," but Faulkner advocated speed as a strategy—life is short, and the important thing to do first is to get it done. Maybe the novel will be good. Most likely, it will be pretty bad. But you can't know either way if it only exists in your mind. Tal Rosenberg

Dance is changing fast.

During the "Ballet in Conversation" panel, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon said he's strived to combine "classical ballet with Broadway spectacle" for Joffrey Ballet's modernization of The Nutcracker, which makes its debut this season. He's working with a team of Tony-nominated set designers, costume designers, writers, and even a puppeteer to pull off the unprecedented $4 million production. The result includes a new setting (Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition), a new narrative written by Brian Selznick, and the replacement of the traditional Sugar Plum Fairy—now a representation of the statue of Columbia. On the same day, Dorrance Dance, a New York-based contemporary tap company, explored the future of the art form in ETM Double Down. Instead of relying on backing tracks, the dancers tapped on a series of boards connected to drum machines and synthesizers to create an electronic score. It was a mesmerizing performance that pushed the boundaries of traditional tap into the realms of hip-hop and break dancing while still highlighting what dance is all about: rhythm. Brianna Wellen

The "rules" of sleep apply to different people differently.

So said Benjamin Reiss, a cultural historian and author of Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World, forthcoming in March. The ideal of sleeping on a regular schedule in a private room is one that only emerged in the 19th century and was reserved solely for "civilized" people; slave owners justified depriving their slaves of sleep because, they said, some races required less rest than others. They also believed that the cure for "laziness" brought on by lack of sleep was more work. The abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass recalled that slaves were whipped more for oversleeping than any other reason, and that he himself was so exhausted he spent all his free time dozing mindlessly under a tree. Even now, you can see disparities in sleep privilege: Reiss pointed out how during Hurricane Katrina relatively well-to-do New Orleanians (like himself and his family) were able to escape to hotel rooms, while the less well-off had to snatch whatever sleep they could in basketball arenas and airports. Aimee Levitt

Helmut Jahn's dream project, and the advice he got about working with Donald Trump.

The restoration of the much-maligned Thompson Center, which Jahn designed in the early 1980s, is the current project of desire for the renowned Chicago architect. In the wake of Governor Bruce Rauner's announcement that the building is to be sold and will likely be demolished, Jahn is itching to work with a private developer to restore it to its intended function as a "real" public center. "The building's in a deplorable state," Jahn said. "It hasn't been maintained since almost the beginning." But, he added, "people have been in contact with me about it. They are waiting for the day when they could make of this building something more." Speaking three days before the presidential election, Jahn also recalled his one attempt to work with Donald Trump as a client, and the advice he got about it, before eventually bowing out: "Robert, [Trump's] brother, said, 'You've got to stop that shit and tell Donald what he cannot do.' " Deanna Isaacs

David Bowie and Prince are timeless.

This year's William and Greta Flory concert, "We Can Be Heroes," focused on the careers and artistic output of recently departed rock stars Bowie and Prince. Hosts Rob Lindley and Bethany Thomas guided the audience through a musical journey—featuring flamboyant and powerful performances from JC Brooks, Mark Hood, Evan Tyron Martin, Andrew Mueller, and Malic White—following Bowie and Prince's differing names, personas, and musical styles. Despite the disparities between them, both similarly explored race, sex, gender identity, and celebrity at all stages of their careers in a way that remains relevant today. Maybe it was just the timing (the concert took place the night before the election), but a mash-up of Prince's "Sign o' the Times" and Bowie's "I'm Afraid of Americans" hinted that these otherworldly figures knew exactly what was coming once they left this planet. Brianna Wellen

Things are not going to be OK.

"People are going to die," author and feminist folk heroine Lindy West said the Saturday after the election. "People's lives will change, and it's not preventable." The panel "Loud Women Speak" was intended to be a discussion between West and Jessica Valenti, who attained her own folk-heroine status by becoming the Guardian columnist to have received the most death threats—but neither Valenti nor the moderator, the hilarious and wise essayist Sam Irby, was able to be there. Instead journalist Britt Julious joined West onstage, and the talk turned into a form of group therapy: during the Q&A, many women stood up to speak about how sad and angry and frightened they were. West struggled to identify a few "tiny shreds of OKness": that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, that progressive candidates and causes did well in some local elections, that Chicagoans had the energy to march in protest for four straight days, that the demographic maps indicated the country is moving toward what West called "a future of people of color." Still, she said, "I am struggling with the notion that we have to vote for destruction and bigotry. The solution is not to find a middle ground. That racism is bad is not up for debate." Aimee Levitt  v

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