Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself: A Visit to the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival

The Aspen Ideas Festival is an annual weeklong gathering of scientists, scholars, artists, politicians, historians, educators, activists, writers …

Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself: A Visit to the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival

Image © The Aspen Institute. All rights reserved.

IF YOU’RE ANYTHING like I was six months ago then you’ve probably never heard of the Aspen Ideas Festival. I first got wind of the festival after winning a playwriting award given out by Theater Masters, an organization that develops new plays by mostly emerging playwrights. The idea of the award is that the winners head to the Aspen Ideas Festival, attend various panels and debates, and then write a play which in some way responds to what they’ve seen. Previous winners include Rebecca Gilman (Luna Gale), Kirsten Greenidge (Milk Like Sugar), Kim Rosenstock (Tigers Be Still), and Jordan Harrison, who was recently nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his play Marjorie Prime. If you’re not a theater person, take my word for it when I say this is a good group to be lumped in with.

When people would congratulate me on the award and ask, reasonably, what the festival was all about, I’d generally respond by gesturing vaguely and saying something about the previous recipients. Because the fact of the matter was that even after exploring the festival’s website, I still wasn’t entirely sure what the hell actually went on there. When someone says they’ll be attending a film festival — be it as a filmmaker, a journalist, or an audience member — you know more or less what that means: not simply because film festivals like Cannes and Sundance are widely publicized, star-studded galas, but also because “films” are a specific, concrete, celebrate-able thing, and so a festival devoted to them makes perfect sense. “Ideas” are not like this. The idea of an “Ideas Festival” is so broad that it could mean almost anything and thus, to most people, means absolutely nothing. Will they be celebrating new ideas? Old ideas? Is the festival strictly academic? Policy-oriented? Does it strive to make “ideas” culturally relevant? Will there be award statuettes shaped like light bulbs? And so on.

If I’d been forced beforehand to articulate what I expected to find at an “Ideas Festival,” I might have described a bunch of humanities professors in lecture rooms coming up with clever new interpretations of Chekhov plays while research scientists down the hall got drunk and argued about the ethics of CRISPR and String Theory in impenetrable jargon. And while that picture was not entirely wrong (there was plenty of booze and arguing), it also doesn’t come close to describing everything that the festival encompasses.


The Aspen Ideas Festival, I discovered, is an annual weeklong gathering of scientists, scholars, artists, politicians, historians, educators, activists, writers, and other significant thinkers. Said thinkers spend the week discussing various global and domestic issues in the hope of spreading awareness, generating conversation, and catalyzing attendants into action. They also network with billionaires. This sounds like a cynical jab but it’s not. It’s just a fact about what happens at the festival, and one that’s seemingly encouraged by the organizers.

The Aspen Ideas Festival, in its current form, began in 2005, and takes place at the Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit dedicated to “fostering enlightened leadership, the appreciation of timeless ideas and values, and open-minded dialogue on contemporary issues.” The Institute itself was founded in 1950, after a Chicago-based industrialist named Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth visited Aspen, Colorado (at the time a defunct mining town), on a skiing trip. Walter, the son of a Prussian immigrant, was then working with a group of academics at the University of Chicago to come up with a way of restoring Germany’s cultural image, and getting the world to think of his fatherland without immediately conjuring images of the most unspeakable crimes in human history. What they decided on was a 20-day festival celebrating the 200th birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: a writer and thinker who was decidedly German, but who couldn’t be too harshly blamed for the catastrophes of the Third Reich, having been safely dead for the past 117 years.

Elizabeth, who had fallen in love with the natural beauty of the Colorado landscape, suggested Aspen as a location, concluding, rightly, that if people were willing to travel to such a remote destination it would prove their commitment to the Institute’s mission, since there would be essentially nothing else for them to do there. The Goethe celebration was a huge hit, drawing intellectuals like Thornton Wilder, Albert Schweitzer, Arthur Rubinstein, and José Ortega y Gasset, among roughly 2,000 others. The following year, Paepcke founded the Aspen Institute as a permanent nonprofit organization.


Aspen is a smallish town surrounded on all sides by mountains that seem to both loom and guard, and give the impression that, if one wanted to, one could basically pretend there was nothing more to the world outside its borders. The skies are blue, the trees are green and plentiful, and the residential areas have the distinct feeling of having been curated. The whole place feels almost impossibly majestic. Growing up in northeastern New England, my grandparents used to call Maine “God’s Country.” It’s not. Colorado is.

Aspen’s downtown consists largely of expensive restaurants and clothing and sporting good stores, as well as bars, hotels, artisan candy shops, and the like. There are Rent-A-Bike stands in several locations throughout the town, strategically placed near shopping centers and tourist destinations, which gives one the feeling that everyone who lives here is active, outdoorsy and health-conscious. The residential neighborhoods are similarly expensive and beautiful. The houses look like the tasteful result of some kind of Old-New England/Scandinavian-modernist mash-up, as though L.L. Bean and Ikea joined forces to create the world’s quaintest mountain town.

I arrive in the early afternoon of the first day of the festival, and have just enough time to collect my various tickets and passes and lanyards before being shepherded to the The Opening and Welcome Ceremony, which is held under an enormous yellow tent, tucked away toward the rear of the campus. Some 500 folding chairs have been set up to face a wooden stage that has the Festival’s Logo — a multicolored, semi-cubist oak tree — rendered in large sheets of backlit plexiglass and positioned behind a central podium.

The first thing I notice about the festival’s audience is that, despite the fact that many of the panels revolve around questions that are of concern to poor people of color, like police violence and immigration policy, the vast majority of the people in attendance are elderly white couples who, through their dress and demeanor, project a certain kind of wealth. The men dress in pleated tan khakis with leather belts and expensive sleeveless button-downs that feature pastel stripes or Hawaiian patterns or African imagery. Their hair is gray or gone, and their skin is well tanned, and I find it almost impossible not to imagine them sipping martinis on a yacht off the coast of Saint Martin or Belize or some such place. The women look much the same, only tighter. They wear enormous gold hooped earrings, and bracelets (so many bracelets!), and designer glasses, and summer dresses that are either boldly patterned or covered in sequins.

These are not the people that the panels are about, or even necessarily the people that the panels are for. They are just the people who can afford to be here. Most of the panels at the Aspen Ideas Festival are not open to the public. For the few that are, ticket prices range between $22 and $55. If you want to see the other — and truthfully, far more interesting — panels, then you have to buy an Events Pass which costs $3,100 per session, slightly more than an All-Access pass to the first five days of Sundance. There are people of color at the festival — proportionally about as many as you would expect to see on an Aspen ski slope in February. Among the small handful are some inner-city students who were flown out on scholarships to attend. Meaning, essentially, that, absent a more naturally diverse audience, the Aspen Institute decided to import one.

After a brief introduction from Walter Isaacson, the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, who speaks of the value of curiosity for its own sake and the overemphasis of “utility” in modern American colleges, 12 selected speakers from the festival are invited to take the stage for a few minutes and pitch their topics. Among the speakers are Ron Davis, the CEO and president of the Jordan Davis Foundation (created in memory of his son, a 17-year-old black man who was shot and killed in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2012); Sherry Turkle, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at MIT who studies the relationship between people and technology; Greg Mosher, an award-winning theater director, former head of the Lincoln Center, and professor at Columbia University’s School for the Arts; James Bennet, the president and editor in chief of The Atlantic; Phillipe Cousteau, an Emmy-nominated television host and environmental advocate; and Kathy Sullivan, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who is also an astronaut and the first American woman to walk in space. And the list goes on.

The speakers are uniformly intelligent, articulate, and passionate. They speak earnestly of the various crises confronting our planet (be they racial, environmental, economic, cultural, educational, etc.), and as they take the stage one after another, I find myself unexpectedly sympathizing with politicians who have to consider the multitudes of dire and time-sensitive problems facing society on a daily basis and then decide which of these problems is worth spending their very limited resources on solving in a way that might not even work. As I think this, a middle-aged woman, elegantly dressed in black pantsuit and a silver drape cardigan, takes the stage: “My name is Nancy Gertner,” she says. “And for 17 years I was a judge for the United States district court for the district of Massachusetts. During those 17 years, I sentenced over 500 people to sentences of which 80 percent, I believe, were unfair and disproportionate.” As she speaks, Judge Gertner seems to tear up, as though she’s finally getting something out in the open that’s been bottled up for way too long. The air is suddenly electric. You can feel it. And I begin to wonder whether a kind of reckoning might not be taking place — if those privileged enough to be here (myself included) will be forced to give themselves a good hard look and decide, once and for all, who and what they want to be.

But then Judge Gertner’s three minutes are up and she leaves the stage, and a new crisis steps up to take her place.


Immediately following the Opening and Welcome Ceremony I am directed to follow the stream of people to the dinner and banquet at the Doerr-Hosier Center, one of the two main buildings where panels are held, on the far end of campus. To get there I have to pass a number of outdoor art exhibits, including some black-and-white close-up photographs of eyes that have been blown up to roughly 4x10’ and placed in nearby fields so that it feels like the mountains are watching you. Just off the center path are plywood triskele structures (a kind of vertical three-armed pinwheel) with black-and-white portraits of the attendants smiling, or stubbornly refusing to smile, in front of a single polka-dotted backdrop. I pass beneath several towering cottonwood trees and am struck by the fairy-tale beauty of what looks like feathers or cattail stuffing drifting en masse on the breeze and backlit among the interspersed Aspen birch. A string quartet plays Haydn’s “Emperor” a short distance away.

The Doerr-Hosier Center is a three-story steel and glass structure that stands on the edge of a ravine overlooking a dense forest. Positioned across from the back balcony is a mountain range which is notably ski-slope free and peppered with mansions, elegant and huge and yet rendered proportionally tiny by the sheer scale of their natural surroundings, like miniature houses on a particularly extravagant model train track landscape.

Once inside I move from room to room, visiting the various eating stations, which are loosely themed and spaced out on separate patios. Well-dressed caterers move around the space with trays of drinks or small porcelain spoons holding single-bite hors d’oeuvres. On the upstairs front patio they are serving gluten-free spiced maple leaf duck with Tokyo turnips and Korean shiso, as well as smoked ricotta gnudi with English peas and gremolata. On the back patio are Alaskan crab claws, oysters on the half-shell, and a sushi bar. Downstairs, front: A crostini bar with lavash, pita, crispy poppadums, red pepper hummus with chickpea scallions, eggplant caponata, and artichoke spinach tapenade with truffle oil. Downstairs, back: the dessert station, where several tables are stacked with rotating chrome serving trays, each one positively packed with perfectly proportioned pastries and dessert cups.

Later that evening, as I bike back to my room, I begin to regret the massive amounts of crab and duck and small pastries I ate at the reception banquet. My stomach feels gassy and gurgle-y and generally just very unpleasant, as though my insides have been replaced with some primordial bubbling swamp where tentacled creatures dwell. I feel certain that all the rich food is to blame, but the second day, by which time I ought to have digested and passed the offending foods, when my body is still shamefully gassy, I realize it has to be something else. I mention this over the phone to my girlfriend, who listens politely (bless her heart) and then says, “Oh yeah, that’s Mountain Gas.”

“That’s a thing?”

It is. Mountain Gas, a.k.a. high-altitude flatus expulsion (HAFE), is most definitely a thing. Once thought to be a simple case of Boyle’s Law, which states that “the absolute pressure exerted by a given mass of an ideal gas is inversely proportional to the volume it occupies if the temperature and amount of gas remain unchanged within a closed system,” HAFE is now understood to be the result of dissolved carbon dioxide in the bloodstream responding to the reduced atmospheric pressure by coming out of the liquid and expanding within the bowels, thus causing one to fart, and fart often. In one study, researchers reported their case subjects as “having expulsions,” on average, 14 times in an 18-hour period. And so I end up spending the rest of the week popping chewable Gas-X and rushing off to the restroom every hour and lying to my fellow scholars about needing to pee but being pretty sure I’m not fooling anyone.


And then there are the panels. Over the course of the three and a half days I spend in Aspen, I attend a total of 13, which range from a nuanced debate on the Second Amendment and contemporary gun laws to a fairly pat lecture on the intersection between religion and violence. There’s a profoundly beautiful interview with the memoirist Charles Blow, who expounds on the nature of trauma and personal identity, as well as an almost unendurably solipsistic interview with Cameron Carpenter, the world’s most popular mohawked organist.

The best panels, like “The Law and Campus Rape,” featuring Caitlin Flanagan and the aforementioned Judge Nancy Gertner, tackle tough questions about intensely difficult subjects, thoroughly exploring them from as many angles as time will allow. What made this particular panel especially rewarding were the instances when Gertner wrestled with some of the less clear-cut aspects of her subject, moments when it was less her providing answers and insight to the crowd and more her allowing herself to publicly wrestle with troubling ideas in the hopes that something useful might possibly be gained. Take, for instance, the moment when Flanagan describes a hypothetical girl preparing to head off to college for the first time: “She is a young woman … she’s powerful and she’s gotten messages from home that she can dress however she wants when she’s at college. She can have sex just for fun … And she can drink. What are you going to tell her [to help her stay safe]?”

For a moment, Gertner shakes her head, clearly disturbed by the question. “Here’s what comes to mind,” she finally says.

Last summer I was on a panel with Sherrilyn Ifill, who is the head of the NAACP, and other black scholars, and they were given a hypothetical: “What are you going to tell your African-American son about dealing with the police and how he should dress, et cetera?” And each person said, you know, pull up your pants, be respectful … In other words, all of the things that they shouldn’t have to do, if we were freely able to choose who we are and [how we] interact in this world. Unfortunately, that is what I would wind up telling this young woman … It’s not empowering advice. But if you’re talking about advice as a parent or a professor or a judge, that is the advice that I would give.

These are not the kind of questions you hear very often at the Aspen Ideas Festival: truly difficult questions, which force the audience and panelists to concede the limits of their efforts and good intentions. Why? Because the Aspen Ideas Festival is an annual event that strives to attract the biggest, hotshot thinkers, and, simply put, if they went after said guests with serious, hardball questions they might be less inclined to show up again. When truly difficult questions do pop up and the panelists sense that they are being moved into dark and murky waters, they generally don’t allow themselves to stay there long. An example of this is the moment at the end of “The Middle East, Art, and Overcoming Division” when the interviewer says, to the three artists on stage:

We’re talking about a place that diplomats and politicians and important people from major universities have spent generations trying to figure out in political terms. Isn’t there a naïveté about the work you do? How would you respond to the charge that in a sense you’re doing yoga while the big boys are out there hunting, and you’re not actually engaging in the real matters, the political matters, the practical matters that are in this place?

The responses are mixed, and range from (paraphrasing here): “I’m only one part of a larger solution” to “The diplomats have failed; we’re making a difference on the ground” to “I only ever aspired to affect my very small community and I am doing that.” And while none of these are bad answers per se, they all avoid what makes the question not only compelling but important, ultimately reaffirming their work and their choices and leaving virtually no room for doubt.

One panel that gets just about everything right is “Police and Violence in America,” which lasts for 90 minutes and features seven guests and two moderators. The goal is to provide an overview of its thorny subject by bringing together politicians, black men who have faced systemic aggression, activists working within the system, academic researchers, and journalists. The panel is both intellectually rigorous and emotionally harrowing. When the student activist Clifton Kinnie recounts his experiences in Ferguson — when he talks about watching Michael Brown’s corpse laying face down on the pavement for hours on end while cops flooded the streets, when he talks about being tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets, and when finally at the end of it all he declares that nothing has changed in America since 1965 — one can’t help but feel that, yes, our country is pretty royally fucked at the moment. And while that’s not untrue, the thing that makes this panel particularly special is where it goes from there.

When the lawyer and civil rights activist Connie Rice takes the stage in her purple Indian jacquard with gold-and-leather belt, she comes on with all the subtlety of a hurricane, but the kind that makes you want to go outside and splash around in it because, let’s be honest, there’s something thrilling and transformative about being in a hurricane. And when she introduces herself by telling us that there’s nothing she loves more than suing the LAPD, I think to myself, “Right on.” But then Rice tells a story which kind of complicates things. (This is, obviously, a highly abridged version.) It begins with her antagonizing the LAPD with lawsuit after lawsuit, “because that was the only way you could get their attention.” And then one day she is met by a high-ranking black LAPD officer who is retiring and wants her to work with the police department to help reform the organization from the inside. He knows there are problems and he wants them fixed. There are good cops on the force, he says, but they’re frequently outranked and outnumbered by the not-so-good cops on the force. So Rice is brought over to the other side. Over an 18-month period she interviews roughly 900 cops. The interviews are intimate and frequently disturbing, with basically every officer (regardless of skin color) saying that the LAPD is at war with certain black communities. Why are they at war? The answer is, of course, multifaceted, and would take pages more than what I’ve been allotted here to really go into (even if I were qualified to go into it, which I’m not), but the common theme Rice garners from the interviews is: Fear. A lot of these cops are just plain fucking scared. When they walk into certain neighborhoods that are rife with gang violence, they are fully expecting to get shot. It’s an idea that I honestly can’t wrap my mind around in any literal, meaningful way. I’ve never fired anything more powerful than a BB gun, and the only occupational hazard I’ve ever had to deal with are bad reviews and difficult students. If you are a cop in a major American city, your reality is a fundamentally different one than just about anyone else in the country. These are people who have accepted the fact that they might not be going home to their families that night (or ever again), and so their response is to treat absolutely everyone they encounter in that community as a potential threat.

Recognizing the cops’ fear, Rice says, ultimately led to a heretofore unprecedented reform in the policing of certain Los Angeles neighborhoods. Officers were no longer promoted or rewarded on the basis of number of arrests, but rather when they were able to clearly demonstrate instances where they were able to avoid making an arrest. They were tasked not with punishing the community, but with making meaningful connections with them. In effect, their first priority became familiarizing themselves with the people they policed and working with them as opposed to against them. The crime rate in said neighborhoods subsequently dropped, public opinion of the LAPD rose, and, in a small but palpable way, the world became a slightly better place.

At the lesser end of the spectrum, there are panels that are like extended sales pitches for some company or organization. “The Golden Age of Television,” for example, features Katie Couric lobbing soft questions at Ted Sarandos, the man who helped transform Netflix from a mere streaming service into an original content producer and, in so doing, has helped “revolutionize” the way we think of film and television (i.e., “TV” isn’t just on TV anymore). The panel deals almost-not-at-all with the quality or substance of Netflix’s content, but rather chooses to focus on the various pioneering business strategies that make Netflix a competitive enterprise in the current world of entertainment. Is this interesting? Up to a point. But when Sarandos imitates a stockholder who recently cashed in by throwing up his arms and saying “Woo-hoo!,” I begin to wonder who the intended audience for this discussion is, and what they are expected to take away from it.


Later that evening I feel mentally stuffed, like I’ve just finished a daylong Thanksgiving gorge. This thought overload leaves me feeling sluggish and woozy and satisfied, and I know that I could head back to my room right now and pass out. Instead, I walk. An hour later I find myself in the foothills of the snowless Aspen ski slopes, working my way past the lifts which stand still and silent like sleeping giants. I stop midway between the base and the peak, on a landing overlooking the town below. From here the town looks like something out of a Grandma Moses painting or a Richard Scarry picture book, beautiful in its smallness and simplicity.

“It’s something, isn’t it?” The voice comes from behind me and I spin around, startled, because I thought (no, I was fucking positive) that I was the only one on the slope. Some 10 feet away is a man in his late 30s or early 40s dressed in black snow pants and an army green parka, with thick mittens, a winter hat, and small leather ski goggles that look decades out of fashion. There’s a patch stitched to the front of his parka that reads “Lift Operator.” And for a second I just stand there staring at him dumbly because although the sun is dropping, it’s still 80+ degrees and I can’t imagine why he’s out here dressed like he is, since there’s no snow and thus no ski lift currently in operation. The Ski Lift Operator scratches his woolly red beard then gestures out toward the town. “The view, I mean. It’s stunning.”

I nod, snapping out of it. “Yeah, no … it’s pretty beautiful.”

And for a moment we stand in silence, he staring at the town, me pretending to stare at the town but really watching the Ski Lift Operator out of the corner of my eye and wondering why his skin is so pale and translucent, and why his voice is so strangely thin and distant, as though he were calling to me from across the mountain ranges, even though he’s literally standing right here beside me.

“You from Aspen?” I ask.

“Naw, moved here back in ’65,” he says removing a cigarette from his breast pocket and lighting it with an antique zippo. He takes a drag and blows the smoke into the air.

I cock my head and nod, trying not to look like I’m doing the math, which of course I am — and none of it makes sense. There’s no way this guy was even alive in 1965. The trees bend with the breeze then right themselves.

“For the skiing,” he adds. “Best in the country. You get that great powdery snow … there’s nothing like it.”

“You must have seen a lot of changes, then,” I say, gesturing down to the town.

The Ski Lift Operator suddenly gets quiet, as though remembering something unpleasant and looks away. “Yeah, I guess I have,” he says. The sun passes behind some clouds and the sky darkens. “Millionaires moved in and now there’s no room for the working man.”

“Tell me about it,” I say, trying to sound sympathetic. “You remember when a million dollars was a lot of money?”

The Ski Lift Operator just stares at me, perplexed. “It isn’t?”

I start to say something else — to explain the joke maybe? — then stop, and suddenly realize I have no idea how to communicate with this man on any level. I feel an undeniable connection to him, but there’s also a sense of distance that I can’t explain. Then the clouds pass and the sun comes out again, briefly, and the sky is momentarily lit in wild shades of pink and burgundy and gold — like something off a postcard.

“They’re not bad people, these millionaires,” he says, taking another drag off his cigarette. “I’ve met some. Know some. I think they’re scared more than anything.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Oh, you know. Don’t want to be taken advantage of — which makes sense. I wish I could say I don’t look at ’em and think about how to get at a piece of their pie, but …” the Ski Lift Operator shrugs. “I met this oil man from Kansas once. He was out here on a ski trip with his wife, both in their 60s. I asked how he got here and he told me about this book he read that tells you what to do with your life when you already have everything you could ever want or need. The book said he should take up skiing, so here he was. And when he told me that, I remember thinking, how sad. What’s left of life when want and need are gone.”

Then the Ski Lift Operator stops and furrows his brow again, eyes hard and focused and directed down, like he’s trying to peer straight through to the center of the earth. “Accidents happen,” he says. “Intentions. That’s what counts.”

I have no idea what this means, so I look away. And suddenly the discomfort I feel standing there is overwhelming and profound, and I find myself wanting to ask what he’s talking about (and suspecting, for reasons I can’t totally explain, that he’s talking about me) but also scared of setting him off. I look back toward the town, pretending to appreciate the majestic view again. I know I want to ask him something, I’m just not sure what. And as the Ski Lift Operator takes another drag from his cigarette it suddenly occurs to me: the thing I want to know, more than anything else. It’s a tough question, less because it’s personal and more because in any other context it just wouldn’t make any sense. But right now it makes perfect sense, and so I turn back to him to ask.

And when I do, he’s gone, with not a footprint or even the smell of his cigarette smoke left behind.


(Note: Nothing described in the preceding section actually happened.)


The last event I attend at the festival is the “Afternoon of Conversation”: a three-hour-long series of lectures and discussions, featuring 10 speakers and four interviewers, in an attempt to encapsulate the overall grandeur and sweep of the AIF. It’s held in the Benedict Music Tent, far and away the largest space at the Institute, and there are thousands of people in attendance. The brilliant physicist Brian Greene performs a one-man song and dance about Einstein and the theory of relativity. Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s senior advisor, talks about the murders in Charleston. Paul Ryan nods and smiles and smirks his way through an affable one-sided discussion about What He Would Do Were He In Charge. General David Petraeus gives us the lowdown on current US relations with the Middle East, how we got where we are and what we might have done differently. Cameron Carpenter remains mercifully tight-lipped and plays the organ. And on and on it goes.

The “Afternoon of Conversation” is a marathon within a marathon, and I sit there feeling all three hours of it, less because it’s dull and more because it’s deeply depressing. It’s the paradox that one simply has to embrace when attending the Aspen Institute, because the presentations are undeniably invigorating, but they’re developed in response to a world riddled with infections. And while I am ultimately grateful for this knowledge, the effect of listening to so many interesting speakers on so many important subjects in such a short amount of time is that you start to feel, to quote Bilbo Baggins, “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” The speakers continue to be intelligent and insightful, and the audience seems engaged, and it generally feels like something good is happening — something important and meaningful, even. Serious problems being worked through, collectively, and with the best of intentions. And yet at some point during the “Afternoon of Conversation” — I can’t remember when, exactly, but early on — my eyes drift up to the massive domed ceiling and I see a blackbird circling amongst the rafters and ceiling fans. It’s flying from one end of the dome to the other, clearly looking for a way out. And as the speakers continue to wrestle with problems as old as society and ideas as old as time, I find myself periodically looking back up to check on the bird, which is still circling, hours later, increasingly panicked because there doesn’t seem to be any way out. The dome is huge and it seems impossible that there can’t be an exit somewhere up there, and yet there isn’t, and so the bird circles around once again. And then again. And again. And again.


Ian MacAllister-McDonald is a playwright, filmmaker, and educator from Portland, Maine. He recently completed work on his first feature film, Some Freaks.

LARB Contributor

Ian MacAllister-McDonald is a playwright, filmmaker, and educator from Portland, Maine. He teaches at Loyola Marymount University and has recently completed work on his first feature film, Some Freaks.


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