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Akst: If you carve it, they will smile

Like all great revenge, my comeuppance was well played.

Thirty-two years ago, a girl I liked in high school dated one of my best friends. A couple years after we graduated, he and I became roommates at a party school, where I corrupted him.

His girlfriend was understandably angry about my bad influence (there are several such instances in my past), but my friend wised up, the years went by, they married and seemingly lived happily ever after. I also wised up (sort of), married the love of my life, have a great kid and am OK.

Then came Oct. 15.

I asked Facebook friends for column ideas, preferably something that would interest local readers. The woman I mentioned from high school, who presumably had forgiven me for my past, chose that moment to strike.

She posted, and I quote, “Something positive that deserves a shout out!”


What am I supposed to do with that? As a journalist, I have advanced training in seeing the worst in people and things. As a cynic with self-esteem issues, negativity comes naturally even without advanced training.

My inclination was to ignore the post, but then others started offering suggestions, and one close friend even left a voice mail.

The common denominator was that nearly all the suggestions were for something positive. I realized their ideas weren’t taunts.

The fact that history (“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,” Aristotle wrote in about 350 B.C.) is full of advice on happiness proves its elusiveness. Depending on which statistics one reads, about 6 to 10 percent of American adults experience periodic depression.

It’s clear that happiness is crucial to living well. Some of the most interesting material is about “positive psychology,” an inquiry into “what makes people thrive,” writes Shawn Achor, author of “The Happiness Advantage” and well-known researcher on human potential.

“Research in the field has found a strong connection between an individual’s mindset, social support system and well-being,” Achor writes.

Finding something local, positive and deserving of praise was the easy part. I’m referring to the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival, which runs through Sunday.

Locals know the story well. In 1956, the late Wally Thurow (“Mr. Pumpkin”) put some decorated pumpkins on his front lawn. Six years later, through his efforts and the Sycamore Lions Club, the festival became an official celebration.

The festival provides an aegis for DeKalb County nonprofits to raise awareness and funds. Downtown trick-or-treating, carnival rides, craft shows, a parade, a 10K race and a feast of festival food provide something for everyone.

The festival also is an economic blessing, helping to fill hotel rooms, restaurants and liquor store aisles. By some estimates, it competes in size with the Taste of Chicago.

But the centerpiece of “Pumpkin Fest” (a better name … just sayin’) is the pumpkin carving contest, the results of which cover the DeKalb County Courthouse lawn.

My wife and I have seen entrants for many years, smiling and laughing all the while. Now that we have a child, we’re entering the contest. Whenever I see distant relatives, I tell them they’re welcome to visit any time but the best time is during Pumpkin Fest week.

The experience is simply joyful, and happiness awaits you at the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival.

How do I know? This year’s theme is “Happiness is ... a perfect pumpkin.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at

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