The Power of Plus

(Note: I delivered the following remarks tonight at the Committee of 100 Dinner at the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer. It was a delight to see old friends and to be invited back to serve as the keynote speaker at this signature event).

It is an honor and a privilege to return to the Chapel + Cultural Center tonight as your keynote speaker for the Committee of 100 Dinner – and I am especially delighted to be here as Rick Hartt is honored as this year’s Sun and Balance Award Winner. Rick and I both served as Directors of the C+CC, and it was always extraordinarily helpful to me to have him just down the road at the Rensselaer Union during my time here. His work has positively touched so many people over the years, all of whom would no doubt applaud his award here. Thank you, Rick, for all you do. It’s important, and it makes a difference.

As those of you who worked with me during my time here may recall, I’m something of a design and font geek. I always found it aesthetically pleasing that the Chapel + Cultural Center’s formal name and mark included neither the word “and” nor an ampersand, but rather a stylized symbol of the Christian Cross. Of course, since working here also required me to deal regularly with the language and symbols of the sciences, I also recognize and appreciate that elegant, additive mark as a plus sign.

Tonight, I would like to talk about the special power of that mathematical plus sign, and how important it is in the history and ongoing life of this amazing campus community, which pulls together so many unique and important ideas, services, stories and people.

First off, of course, the building itself: it is a chapel, plus it is a cultural center. In the early 1960s, as the Second Vatican Council was working to redefine the relationship between the Church and the modern world, our founding Trustees – Martin Davis, William Kerrigan, John Millet, Monsignor William Slavin and Father Tom Phelan – specifically worked to create a space that would satisfy the Council’s most transformative spiritual aspirations in very concrete, worldly ways. The able guidance of building committee chair Steve Wiberley plus the sublime visions of architect Peter Levatich plus the hard work and belief and financial support of so many others all added up to this amazing, versatile building, which still fulfills its core mission in a still ever-changing world.

Myron Bloy’s 1971 book “Community on Campus” provides a fantastic record of the C+CC’s early days, and one chapter in the book focused specifically on another of my favorite additives: the sacred plus the profane. Not the vulgar, mind you, which is what modern parlance often associates with the latter word. In our case, it’s the dictionary definition of “profane” that applies: “relating or devoted to that which is not sacred or Biblical, secular rather than religious.” In short, the C+CC is a place for dialog and engagement between that which is seen, plus that which is not; that which if known, plus that which is believed; that which is in the world, plus that which is not of it.

Another power of the additive sign: town plus gown. We are a campus facility, plus also an important part of the greater community around us. We bring many constituencies together to experience art and culture, to learn and to worship. This additive multiplicity of purposes even manifests itself in our corporate structure: we are the University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice, plus the Rensselaer Newman Foundation, plus the Chaplains Office of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Sometimes that triune organization can be every bit as hard to divine and explicate as the Holy Trinity itself – but it always gets the job done, if you have faith in it.

What about the award we’re giving to Rick tonight? We call it the Sun plus Balance Award – where the Sun represents God, and the Balance represents justice. While some people believe but are unjust, and others are just without believing, it’s the pursuit of fairness anchored in the glow of something greater than ourselves that changes the world for the better, and helps us truly glimpse the divine.

How else does the power of plus work for us here? We look around the room tonight and we are young plus (shall we politely say) not-so-young. That’s the power of plus. The Hebrew plus Roman plus Greek letters on the floor remind us that we engage with a multiplicity of cultures on this great international campus. Again, the power of plus. We provide celebratory public events like this one tonight plus profoundly private moments in the 70 x 7 Room and in the one-on-one counseling that our chaplains offer to those seeking solace in times of need, and guidance in times of doubt. We wear laurels as a nationally recognized historic place plus we campaign for an equally successful and meaningful future.

Now, I could simply conclude my remarks tonight by glibly theorizing that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts when we use the power of plus here at the C+CC – but I know that some of the engineers, mathematicians, architects and other hard science types with us here tonight might challenge me on the mathematical veracity of such a statement.

I’m prepared, however, to take my mathematical statement to a higher power to prove my point. Higher even than multivariable calculus, matrix algebra and differential equations, for those of you currently suffering through such things. What is the cornerstone axiom of this higher power math? Let me refer you to the text that surrounds the Sun and Balance logo on Rick’s award: God is the Measure of All Things.

We may think we know the value of variable A, and we may think we can define the limit of curve B – but our tools for measuring such things are weak and of limited computational value. However, when we hold our viewing lenses up before the light of God’s Sun, and when we weigh things in the pans of His scale, and when we open our minds and our hearts to His math, then the formula that proves the power of plus here is simple: A + B is less than C+CC, Q.E.D.

Ride On: The STIHL Tour des Trees 2015

At 8:00 sharp this morning, I waved off 80-some cyclists and their support team as they headed out for day five of the seven-day STIHL Tour des Trees, the signature fundraising event for the organization I head: The TREE Fund. I’ve spent the past five days with this extraordinary group of individuals, and I’m absolutely blown away by the remarkable experience they’ve shared with me. They’ve got three more days of hard riding ahead of them, while I’ll be flying up to Troy, New York to serve as keynote speaker for the Committee of 100 Dinner at the Chapel + Cultural Center, where my friend Rick Hartt will be awarded the Sun + Balance Award. While I’m looking forward to visiting with old friends in New York, it’s bittersweet to leave the Tour, and I wish all of its participants following winds, smooth pavement, safe rides and fantastic fellowship. They deserve all of that, and more.

I rode about 190 miles with the group, while also participating in a variety of educational and outreach programs in elementary schools, churches, community centers, arboretums, and other points along the route. The sense of camaraderie and care for each and every member of the team was incredible to experience. The STIHL Tour des Trees is truly a rolling community, with each and every member contributing to the best of his or her ability to raise funds for and spread the word about the importance of tree research and education wherever they go. I have worked in the nonprofit sector for a long time, and have planned, directed, implemented and participated in hundreds of fundraising events over the years. This one is, without question, the most impressive one I have experienced, on all fronts. I’m honored and humbled to head the organization that benefits from all of their efforts.

When I ride, I tend to get songs stuck in my head that play over and over again as a way of keeping the pedals turning rhythmically. This ride, the jukebox in my brain often cued up Parliament’s “Ride On,” a classic funky jam from George Clinton’s awesome P-Funk empire, featuring the following lyrics . . .

Put a hump in your back
Shake your sacroiliac
And ride on
Let’s take a ride

It ain’t what you know, it’s what you feel
Don’t worry about being right, just be for real
We’re gonna do it to the max, when we do it
We’re gonna do it, do it good, when we do it

The line in that song that most stuck out for me on the road, and resonates with me now as I reflect on the experience is “just be for real.” The group of folks on the Tour are an exceptionally accomplished lot in their fields of expertise, but they are also some of the most real people I’ve ever worked with: friendly, forthright, passionate, exuberant, committed and cool. There’s no artifice here, and that’s refreshing after working for so long in the worlds of development, public relations and marketing, where everybody has an angle, and everyone’s on the make. It’s awesome to be reminded how fundraising and community building can be accomplished in such a straightforward, straight talking fashion. It’s not just keeping it real, it’s living it real.

The results of those efforts and attitudes speak for themselves: each rider raised at least $3,500 before participating in the Tour, and an awesome slate of sponsors led by STIHL USA ensured that ride expenses were fully defrayed, so that the funds delivered by the volunteers on wheels are deployed only to empower our research, scholarship and educational programs. The total funding secured between corporate and individual donations is over $600,000 as I type, and contributions are still coming in. (Want to add to the take? Go here and do it soon!).

While this funding is obviously important to us, the outreach and educational opportunities afforded by the Tour are equally significant, as our riders and Team will reach millions of people via print, broadcast and social media coverage, and thousands of people “up close and personal” as they roll through towns, plant trees, visit schools, and remind people how important trees are to our lives — and how much hard science, detailed planning and rigorous work goes into keeping them healthy. I am certain that there are numerous future tree care professionals out there who will cite an encounter with the STIHL Tour des Trees as the spark that first ignited their life’s passion.

I could go on an on, but suffice to say that the STIHL Tour des Trees is a transformative experience — which is why so many folks come back and do it year after year after year. (The most experienced rider this year has completed 19 Tours). Next October, we’ll be biking over 500 miles through my native turf in the Carolinas, and I look forward to being with the group for the entire week. Would you care to join us? If you’re reading this, you know where to find me, and I’ll be happy to help you get signed up. I guarantee you’ll have a life-changing experience among a great group of people in support of a great cause — and what better way could anyone ever ask to spend a week than that?


1. Tomorrow, I will be flying down to Orlando, Florida for the STIHL Tour des Trees, which is the principal fundraising event for my employer, The TREE Fund. 85 riders have raised at least $3,500 a piece to support our research programs, and they will ride over 500 miles in seven days, planting trees, participating in educational and outreach programs, and spreading the word about our important work as they go. I will riding with them for the first four days of the Tour — most likely bringing up the rear of the pack, since my training regimen has been limited this summer due to the move to Chicago, bike being in storage, etc. But that’s okay. It’s about the cause and the fellowship at bottom line, and I am looking forward to meeting the amazing group of volunteer riders, some of whom have been doing this on our behalf for over 20 years.

2. I’m leaving the Tour before it finishes because I have been invited to serve as the Keynote Speaker for the Rensselaer Newman Foundation’s annual Committee of 100 Dinner in Troy, New York, at another place of former employment: The Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer. The community there will be honoring my former colleague and always friend, Rick Hartt, with the Sun + Balance Award, the highest honor given to those who support and serve the Church at Rensselaer. I am looking forward to being back on campus in Troy, and to visiting with many of the folks I worked with during my time there.

3. Closer to home: Marcia and I attended the Jazz Institute of Chicago Gala last night at the lovely Drake Hotel on Michigan Avenue. We have been very impressed by the public programming they offered during our first summer in Chicago, and their educational programs are equally formidable. I had seen one of their up-and-coming student stars, Isaiah Collier, play a couple of times over the summer, and he delighted last night as well during the silent auction and reception to open the evening. Remember his name: I am certain he will be making an increasingly large splash in the years ahead, as he is a truly gifted sax player, with a great career ahead of him. The headliners for the evening were the Rajiv Halim Quintet with special guest Rudresh Mahanthappa, and they offered a great high energy set, including cuts from Manhantappa’s latest album, Bird Calls, which has been earning regular spins in our apartment in recent months. Expect to see it when I do my 24th Annual Best Albums report in December. A fun evening, all around — though it was probably a good thing that I was not attending as a Cubs fan, since things were not going well at Wrigley Field last night during the Gala.


WordPress tells me that this is the 1,000th post on J. Eric Smith Dot Com. Huttah!

I’m guessing that there aren’t a lot of solo blogs out there that hit this mark — though in reality, I’ve actually been far more prolific with my online writing than the post count here would indicate. This version of the blog compiles and consolidates a lot of earlier sites, and I deleted a lot of things along the way that I didn’t want to carry forward, or that I reserved offline after original publication for other purposes.

Here’s the tale of the tape: I have maintained an active online presence since 1993, launched a personal website in 1995, and blogged regularly since September 2000. The website you’re reading now is the fourth incarnation of my blog. The first served as a repository for over 750 reviews and feature articles I wrote in the ’90s for print clients, before most of them even had their own websites. The second version focused on creative writing projects, including a poem a day published in 2004; several articles went viral during this period, helping me to develop a very strong online brand. The third version provided an archive of professional posts written for commercial and academic purposes.

This current, fourth version of my online home consolidates all of these earlier pieces — professional and personal, entertainment and education, left brain and right brain, humorous and serious — dating back to 1995, and serves as my home for new writing of all flavors. It also incorporates pieces that I wrote for other blogs and websites, often under pseudonyms. I’m not telling you which ones they are and where they originally appeared, though. If you recognize them, a gold star for you. But then: Shhhh!

I’ve made some money on some of these items, and used others of them for professional and academic pursuits that had high return on time investment beyond initial compensation, but this website ultimately reflects the fact that writing is my primary hobby. It’s the thing I do to enjoyably fill spare time, some of which might truthfully be better spent doing other things, but such is the nature of creative compulsion. I enjoy scribbling, and I appreciate having a public forum to do it.

That being said, by being such a diligent, sometimes feverish hobbyist over the years, I have definitely made myself a far better and faster writer at work, and my ability to communicate via the written word is now the cornerstone of my marketability to employers and clients alike. So all things considered, I’m at peace with having freely shared a lot of my work online, minus one unfortunate foray into unpaid writing for a venal and unethical commercial website that ended poorly. We live and we learn.

If you’re new to my site and writing and want to know more, here are the ten posts that WordPress tells me are the most frequently viewed by my site’s visitors, excluding the front page and general information sections:

On Success, And Who Defines It

The Worst Rock Band Ever

Understanding Organizational Development

March of the Mellotrons: The Greatest Classic Prog Rock Album Ever

Top 20 Albums of 2014

Let’s Take It To The Stage: The Greatest Live Album Ever

How To Write A Record Review

Five Common Misconceptions About Nonprofits

I Like The Bee Gees

You Ain’t Got A Dog In That Fight

That’s an interesting (to me) combination of pieces covering a pretty broad spectrum of my writing subjects and styles, and I get why some of them are popular, though not so much with others. So as a supplement to the voice of the people with regard to my writing, here are ten additional pages that I personally would consider as contenders for the best 1.0% of the work archived here — recognizing that creative people are often the worst judges of their own work, and that if asked to recreate this list a year from now, it might look very different:

The Road to Anywhere

The Analog Kid Speaks

Compassionate Grounds

Rock And Roll Is Not Collective

Moments: Portugal and Spain in Six Tiny Vignettes

James Joyce Vs Breakfast

The Grease Group

Rulebound Rebellion: An Ethnography Of American Hardcore Music

Jefferson Water


So there’s 20 pieces for you to read or re-read, if you’d like to help me celebrate my 1,000 post milestone here by engaging with the back catalog. There’s also a pull-down menu at the right that allows you to trawl back through the archives to 1995, and the search bar is always an effective way to find what you’re looking for — or to surprise yourself by finding what you weren’t. And if you’ve got a favorite that I’ve not mentioned, let me know. I might have forgotten that it existed, and might enjoy re-reading it again!

Regardless of where you surf on from here today, thanks for reading and playing along all these years. It has been — and remains — fun to have a big online sandbox to play in, and I appreciate you all bringing your buckets and shovels over every now and then.

Mysteries of Chicago (Part One)

It has been about three months since Marcia moved to Chicago, with me following behind her a few weeks later. We then moved from temporary housing into our long-term apartment about a month ago, so we’re starting to feel settled in our work and residence, and are beginning to develop the routines and identify the favorites that make a place feel like home. We’re figuring the City out, and enjoying the experience.

That being said: there are still some things about Chicago that remain mysterious to us. Here are some of the early, obvious ones for us — though I am sure there will be many more to follow. Any help or perspective from long-time Chicagoan to get these things figured out, or are they actually mysterious to the natives too?

  1. Why do the streets in the Loop named after Presidents exclude Jefferson and favor John Quincy Adams’ place in the sequence over that of his father?
  2. Why is eating breakfast out such a big deal here, with people patiently waiting in line well over an hour for a pancake?
  3. Does the Purple Line really exist, and if so, why would anybody get on it?
  4. Why the obsession with caramel and cheese popcorn being mixed together, creating an end product that tastes like Captain Crunch with a yeast infection?
  5. Why do street lane lines appear to have been painted by a drunken random number generating robot?
  6. Why are pizzas made out of pie crust, and why are the toppings all out of order?
  7. Why is the City’s most famous, most trafficked downtown Avenue named after the state on the other side of the Lake? And for that matter, why is the Lake named after that place, too?
  8. Why is the per ounce price for meat at  Chicago Steak Houses similar to that of many precious metals?
  9. How did the Chicago political machine produce Chicago, while the Albany political machine produced Albany?
  10. Bicycles on the sidewalks? Really?
That's just wrong, Chicago.

That’s just wrong, Chicago.

Beloved Royals: Is This The Year?

As I’ve written here many times before, I’m a long-suffering  Kansas City Royals fan. After decades of futility, my beloved Royals made it to Game Seven of the World Series last year, falling only at the final moment to one of the greatest post-season pitching performances in Major League history. Nicely done!

After years and years of feeling like anything better than a 100-loss season was a success, I could have happily nursed 2014’s excellent outcome for another 20 years or so, but danged if the Beloveds haven’t finished the regular season this year with the American League’s best record. Huttah! Kansas City heads into the post-season tomorrow against the National League expat Houston Astros, who kindly eliminated the Yankees  from the post-season last night. (For the record, I hate the one-game playoff, except when it allows the Yankees to be quickly dispatched and sent home. So it served its purpose this year).

Which leads me to the big question: is this the year that the Royals finally win their second major league title, 30 years after they improbably took advantage of rule changes (they would have lost the American League Championship Series had it not expanded to seven games that year) and horrific umpiring (they survived Game Six of the World Series on a blown running call at first base) to dispatch the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Seven of the 1985 World Series?

There are some similarities between 1985 and 2015 at play. The Royals beat the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS in ’85, and the Jays are conveniently positioned to meet them in the ALCS again this year, assuming they can dispatch the inferior Texas Rangers. The Beloveds beat the Cardinals in the World Series in ’85, and guess who sits atop the National League standings this year, with the clearest path to the final round? (Similarities aside, I’d rather see the Royals play the Mets or the Cubs in the World Series, the former being my favorite National League team, the latter giving me a chance to possibly catch a World Series game locally this year).

There are some differences, of course, too. The ’85 team dominated the American League’s individual awards, with Bret Saberhagen taking the Cy Young Award, George Brett capturing the league Most Valuable Player trophy, and Dan Quisenberry grabbing Relief Man of the Year honors. This year’s squad is more workmanlike, and I’d be surprised if any of its players feature in the top three of any of the major post-season individual awards. The ’85 Royals won the World Series after being disappointed by a Detroit Tiger sweep in the ALCS, while this year, they seek to build on the unexpected nearest of all possible misses on the Big Stage. Expectations matter.

All that being said, there’s one other intangible that I hesitate to mention, but feel compelled to put on the record, despite superstitious misgivings: The Curse of Joaquin Andujar. I’ve written about my theory surrounding this Curse in earlier posts, and I quote myself here:

After a pair of quick postseason eliminations in 1981 and 1984, the Royals finally ascended to baseball’s highest pinnacle in 1985, when they beat the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3 in the American League Championship Series, and then beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-3 in the World Series. Of course, the East Coast Sporting Elites wanted to sully my celebration even then, noting that the Royals were the beneficiaries of a series of ridiculously bad umpiring calls, not to mention Cardinal pitcher Joaquin Andujar‘s monumental on-mound psycho meltdown in Game Seven. But I didn’t (and don’t) care. The Royals were the champs in 1985, and I gloated like a champ, as the only known Royals fan within a 500 mile radius of Annapolis, where I lived at the time.

It’s a good thing I gloated so much then, because the Royals have never returned to the post-season, and I haven’t been able to do so again since. I don’t believe in the Red Sox’ Curse of the Bambino or the Cubs’ Curse of the Goat, but I do believe in the Curse of Joaquin Andujar, who most certainly directed so much antipathy towards the Royals and the Umps who shamed him that the Beloveds have never been able to get out from beneath the lingering cloud of bad karma that he tagged them with in that ominous, portentous seventh game in 1985. They won the biggest battle that year, but clearly the war turned against the Royals and their fans after that day. And I believe that the Curse of Joaquin Andujar is the reason why.

It’s worth noting that 1985 World Series aside, Joaquin Andujar was one of the greatest pitchers of his era, and one of the pioneering members of the Dominican Republic’s emergence as a baseball powerhouse. When Pedro Martinez was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this year, he cited Andujar as one of his major inspirations. Joaquin Andujar was great, no argument about that.

But Joaquin Andujar also sadly passed away earlier this year after a long battle with diabetes — and I’m not sure how this will impact his Curse on the Royals. Will it be more powerful as Joaquin glowers down on the Beloveds from Baseball Heaven? Or will its power be lifted now that the Mighty Andujar has ascended to his great reward? I never like to benefit from others’ misfortunes, or wish ill on people who disagree with me about things, but as a superstitious sports fan, I can’t help but think that Joaquin Andujar’s passing is meaningful in the long-cycle view of the Royals’ fortunes. I hope for a positive outcome, if it’s not churlish to do so.

And that now being said, and put on the permanent record, I’ll leave it with no further comment or analysis — except to hope that I’ve not created the Curse of J. Eric Smith by mentioning it.

Go Beloved Royals! Win!

The 1985 Royals celebrate the franchise's sole World Series Championship. For now.

The 1985 Royals celebrate the franchise’s sole World Series Championship. For now.