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Olson: Don’t give up on a better tomorrow

Sycamore resident Bart Woodstrup stands with India's first lady, Suvra Mukherjee, in a screening room at India's presidential palace in New Delhi, India. Woodstrup presented a multimedia presentation he created called "Under Saraswati River" to the first lady and others during a trip to India in December.
Sycamore resident Bart Woodstrup stands with India's first lady, Suvra Mukherjee, in a screening room at India's presidential palace in New Delhi, India. Woodstrup presented a multimedia presentation he created called "Under Saraswati River" to the first lady and others during a trip to India in December.

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’m not afraid to have a different opinion than everyone else in the room.

I found myself the outlier again Thursday in the auditorium at the DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Center for Agriculture.

We were listening to William Strauss, the senior economist and economic advisor with the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank, deliver the keynote speech at the DeKalb County Economic Development Corp.’s Economic Outlook Luncheon.

Strauss spoke eloquently about financial and economic matters. He outlined in simple terms why economists think the rebound from the Great Recession will continue to be moribund – essentially, the markets still are out of balance, credit still is tight and businesses aren’t expanding.

Near the end of his speech, Strauss segued into a look at the federal government’s burgeoning debt, the upcoming debt ceiling fight and as the financial morass into which the state of Illinois has fallen.

If the bill came due tomorrow, every American would owe about $53,000 to settle the federal government’s tab. Tack on about $10,000 more from every Illinoisan to settle our state’s obligations.

During his speech, Strauss asked a simple question: “How many of you think the next generation’s standard of living will be better than the one before?”

This was an auditorium room full of educators, politicians, professionals and business owners.

I was the only person to raise a hand. I was tempted to put two up, if only so I wouldn’t be alone – and because I believe it.

I get that everybody’s a little bummed out because nobody’s devised a magic bullet solution to kick our economy into high gear and solve our state and federal budget problems.

I understand many people have lost jobs and homes in the past several years.

But if we as a group, as Americans, Illinoisans and DeKalb County residents, cease to believe that life can continue to get better, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Historically, at the local, state and national level, our ancestors have worked within our system to make things better for themselves and the next generation.

Sure, there are serious issues we must confront today, but that has always been true. The years since 9/11 haven’t been a picnic, but they’ve still been better than the Civil War, the Great Depression or World War II, just to name the easy ones.

People complain that we’re more polarized than ever before. They’re wrong.

People have been polarized since our country was founded. Eleven states seceded in 1860-61. How’s that for polarized?

We fought a terrible war to put our country back together. We moved forward. Life got better.

My children are grade-school-aged. Their school includes people of many races who share a community. They can be vaccinated against polio, chicken pox, the flu and human papilloma virus. They live without fear of a Soviet nuclear attack.

They can have video teleconferences with their cousins in Nebraska and Singapore; the wealth of the world’s information is available to them in their home with a few keystrokes.

The next generation of children in DeKalb County will be better educated, healthier and accustomed to a life we couldn’t have imagined 25 years ago. There are bright, talented people working every day to make that happen.

The problems facing us at every level, from our hometowns to the highest reaches of the federal government, are entirely within our power to solve.

Pessimism only will stand in our way. After all, if you don’t believe life can continue to get better, why try?

Believe we can make tomorrow better. Raise your hand with me.

• • •

Voyage to India: In 2006, Bart Woodstrup was living in upstate New York when he was invited to write a composition for a planetarium in Troy, N.Y.

Woodstrup was studying at the time with an electronic musician named Curtis Bahn, who was learning the sitar, the traditional Indian instrument made famous in the west by the late Ravi Shankar. The music and images he created for the planetarium would eventually take him to the Indian presidential palace.

“In the planetarium, normally when you sit in the planetarium you’re looking up at the stars in the dome,” Woodstrup said. “I did a piece where you would look up into the water, so you were almost under the water, so it was ‘Under Saraswati River.’ ”

Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of learning, science and the arts, and is considered a river goddess.

The piece is like a sitar-driven jazz composition. The sitar has a mystical kind of quality. As the music plays, visuals meant to invoke the water of a river are projected on a screen, and images of Saraswati and other shapes float by.

It’s very relaxing, great background music if you’re, say, writing a newspaper column.

You can hear a rendition done at NIU by Bahn and retired NIU percussion professor Robert Chappell in October online at

Woodstrup, a Sycamore native who graduated from Sycamore High in 1991, has a master’s degree in music. His studies led him to classical Indian music, and his thesis was creating a computer program that converted the classical rules of Hindustani music into a computer algorithm.

It’s complicated, but the results are masterful.

The first lady of India, Suvra Mukherjee, thought so, too, when Woodstrup presented his multimedia composition for her at the Indian presidential palace.

Woodstrup’s wife, Jayeeta Chowdhury, who also sings on “Saraswati,” is Indian and has family in New Delhi, and they visited family in India together over winter break.

Not long after his 20-hour flight from Chicago landed in New Delhi on Dec. 21, Woodstrup found himself at the palace, where he had an informal visit with Mukherjee.

“… After hearing about the piece, she invited me to do a proper, official screening of the work,” Woodstrup said. “So the next day we came back to the presidential palace and they had a full red-carpet affair where I was invited to come in and share my work with her and have tea and crumpets afterward.”

India’s President, Pranab Mukherjee, was busy that day – he was meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Woodstrup said the palace, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, was amazing, a huge building with statues of elephants and cobras, fountains at the top and Mughal gardens – named for the Muslim group that once ruled India – in the back that were incredible.

Woodstrup showed a version of “Under Saraswati River,” a video documenting the work and a series of images generated by his computer algorithm to Mukherjee.

Did she like it?

“She didn’t say anything. I don’t think that it was proper protocol [for her] to comment on the work,” Woodstrup said. “… I really compare the situation to something you would experience with the British monarchy, where it would really be impolite for her to comment or make a criticism of anything.”

Others in the room did have a reaction, Woodstrup said.

“The Secret Service people that were there, the staff, they loved it,” he said. “I gave them many of the prints that I had brought. They had lots of questions, and they were definitely excited to have parts of the piece that they could take home with them.“

An hour and 10 minutes after they were escorted into the presidential palace, Woodstrup and his family members left.

“Everything happened so fast,” Woodstrup said. “Like many experiences like this, you wish you could do them again because everything happens so fast that it’s really hard to take it in.”

India’s reputation in the west is as a somewhat mystical land. There’s the Taj Mahal, the Ganges River and centuries of culture.

But what is it really like? Who should visit?

“India’s not so much a vacation as an adventure,” Woodstrup said. “If you’re an adventurous person I can’t think of many places I’d recommend more than India.

“It really is an amazing place, especially if you want to get away from your own culture and experience someone else’s culture. And Indians are exceptionally warm and accepting people.

“But if you’re not really adventurous when it comes to food and sleeping situations and cleanliness and things like that, then India’s not the place for you.”

Maybe I’ll get there before I’m too old to be adventuresome.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 257, or email

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