Credidero #7: Community

If you were to create a word cloud of every document, article, letter, and email I’ve written during my four years as President and CEO of TREE Fund, I suspect that after the obvious mission-related words — tree, forest, research, endowment, education, arborist, etc. —  the word that would show up most frequently would be “community.” I use it all the time, referring to the Tour des Trees as our primary community engagement event, discussing how our work helps the global tree care community, noting that our work focuses on the importance of urban and community forests, by promoting research designed to benefit whole communities of trees and related organisms (including humans), rather than individual specimens or species.

If you ran that same word cloud for the four years before I arrived at TREE Fund, you most likely would not see “community” ranked so highly in our communications. We used to refer to the Tour des Trees as our primary fundraising event, and we discussed how our work benefited the tree care industry, and how our efforts advanced arboriculture, with much of our research focused on individual plants, rather than their collectives. This change in language was not an organizational shift driven by some strategic planning decision, nor was it a modification to what we do and how we do it directed by our Board or emergent outside forces. It was frankly just me shaping the narrative about the organization I lead, and I how I want it to be perceived.

Calling the Tour des Trees a “fundraising event,” for example, misses the critical component of how we interact with people as we roll on our way throughout the week, providing education and outreach to help people understand our work and how it benefits them. Saying that we work for the “tree care industry” seems somehow crass and antiseptic to me, implying that the businesses are more important than the people who collectively engage in the hands-on work of caring for trees. “Urban forests” can be confusing to folks in its evocation of big city park spaces, even though street trees, yard trees and trees along utility rights of way in suburbs, exurbs, and rural spaces are also part of our mission’s purview. And thinking first of communities of trees, rather than individual plants, helps us better understand and communicate the exciting, emergent science exploring the ways that trees have evolved as communal organisms, sharing information and nutrients through root-based symbiotic networks.

I’d be fibbing if I said that I had purposefully made these and other related linguistic changes as part of an intentional, organized shift in tone. It just happened as I went along, and it honestly didn’t actively occur to me that I had done it in so many ways and places until I started thinking about this month’s Credidero article. But the changes are clearly there, evidence of the fact that it’s somehow deeply important to me, personally and professionally, that TREE Fund acts and is perceived as part of something bigger and more connected than our relatively small physical, financial and personnel structure might otherwise dictate. I do believe that words have power, and if you say something often enough, and loudly enough, that people begin to perceive it as true, and then it actually becomes true, even if nothing has really changed except the word(s) we use to describe ourselves and our activities.

So why is “community” such an important and transformative word in my personal worldview? As I normally do in these articles when thinking about questions like that one, I looked into the word’s etymology: it comes to us English-speakers via the Old French comuneté, which in turn came from the Latin communitas, which ultimately boils down to something “shared in common.” But there’s a deeper layer in the Latin root that’s preserved to this day in cultural anthropology, where communitas refers to (per Wiki) “an unstructured state in which all members of a community are equal allowing them to share a common experience, usually through a rite of passage.”

The interesting corollary here, of course, is that those who do not or cannot participate in that rite of passage may neither partake of nor receive the benefits of communitas. Peter Gabriel’s “Not One Of Us” has long been one of my favorite songs, both musically (Gabriel, Robert Fripp, John Giblin and Jerry Marotta put in some sublime performances here) and lyrically, with one line standing out to me as a key bit of deep wisdom, writ large in its simplicity: “How can we be in, if there is no outside?” That deepest root of the word “community” captures that sense of exclusion: there’s a positive sense of belonging for those who have crossed the threshold for inclusion, while those who haven’t done so are (to again quote Mister Gabriel) “not one of us.”

So are many (most?) communities perhaps defined not so much by who they include, but rather by who they exclude? I suspect that may be the case. When I first arrived at TREE Fund, for example, I had a couple of early encounters and experiences where folks communicated to me, explicitly and implicitly, that they saw TREE Fund not as a cooperative symbiote, but rather as predatory parasite, on the collective body of tree care professionals and their employers. I was also made to feel uncomfortable in a few situations by my lack of hands-on experience in professional tree care, including the fact that I had no certification, training, or credentialing as an arborist or an urban forester. I had not passed through the “rite of passage” that would have allowed me to partake of the tree peoples’ communitas, and so in the eyes of some members of that community I was (and probably still remain) on the outside, not the inside. So my push over the past four years for TREE Fund to be an integral part of a larger professional community may be, if I’m honest and self-reflective, as much about making me feel included as it is about advancing the organization.

When I look bigger and broader beyond TREE Fund, I certainly still see a lot of that “inside/outside” paradigm when it comes to the ways in which we collectively organize ourselves into communities, locally, regionally, nationally, and globally, oftentimes along increasingly “tribal” political lines, e.g. Blue States vs Red States, Republicans vs Democrats, Wealthy vs Poor, Christian vs Muslim vs Jew, Liberal vs Conservative, Citizen vs Immigrant, Brexit vs Remain, etc. Not only do we self-sort online and in our reading and viewing habits, but increasingly more and more people are choosing to live, work, date, marry, and socialize only within circles of self-mirroring “insiders,” ever more deeply affirming our sense that the “others” are not like us, are not part of our communities, and may in some ways be less important, less interesting, less deserving, or even less human than we are.

That’s certainly the narrative being spun by our President right now through social media, spoken statements, and policy initiatives, as he seems adamantly opposed to “an unstructured state in which all members of a community are equal.” Which is dismaying, given the allegedly self-evident truths we define and hold in our Nation’s organizational documents, ostensibly designed to bind us as a community under the leadership of a duly-elected Executive, who is supposed to represent us all. That said, of course, we know that the infrastructure of our great national experiment was flawed from its inception in the ways that it branded some people as less than fully human, and some people as not qualified to participate in the democratic process, due to their skin color or their gender. I’d obviously like to think that we’re past those problems, some 250 years on, but the daily headlines we’re bombarded with indicate otherwise. Insiders will always need outsiders . . . and communities may often only feel good about themselves by feeling bad toward those they exclude. I suppose several thousand years of history show that may well be a core part of what we are as human beings (I explored that theme more in the Inhumanity Credidero article), and that maybe aspiring to create positive communities of inclusion may be one of the nobler acts that we can pursue.

I’m stating the obvious in noting that the ways we can and do build community, for better or for worse, have radically changed over the past 25 years or so with the emergence of the world wide web and the transformations made possible by it. If you’d asked me to describe what “community” meant to me before 1993, when I first got online, I’d likely have focused on neighborhoods, or churches, or fraternal organizations or such like. I’d say that within less than a year of my first forays into the internet’s kooky series of tubes, though, I was already thinking of and using the word “community” to refer to folks I romped and stomped with online, most of whom I’d never met, nor ever would meet, “in real life.”

I wasn’t alone, as the word “community”  has became ever-more widely and casually used over the years to describe clusters of physically remote individuals interacting collectively online, via an ever-evolving spectrum of technological applications, from ARPANET to the World Wide Web, from bulletin boards to LISTSERVs, from mailing lists to MMORPGs, from blogs to tweets, and from Cyber-Yugoslavia to Six Degrees to Friendster to Orkut to Xanga to Myspace to LinkedIn to Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to whatever the next killer community-building app might be.  I actually wrote a piece about this topic ten years or so ago for the Chapel + Cultural Center‘s newsletter, and at the time I used the following themes and rubrics to frame what community meant to me:

  • An organized group of individuals;
  • Resident in a specific locality;
  • Interdependent and interacting within a particular environment;
  • Defined by social, religious, occupational, ethnic or other discrete considerations;
  • Sharing common interests;
  • Of common cultural or historical heritage;
  • Sharing governance, laws and values;
  • Perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some way from the larger society in which it exists.

And I think I stand by that today, noting that a “specific locality” or “a particular environment” may be defined by virtual boundaries, rather than physical or geographical ones. But then other elements embedded within those defining traits raise more difficult questions and considerations, including (but not limited to):

  • What, exactly, is an individual in a world where identity is mutable? Is a lurker who never comments a member of a community? Is a sockpuppet a member of a community? Are anonymous posters members of a community? If a person plays in an online role-playing game as three different characters, is he one or three members of the community?
  • How are culture and historical heritage defined in a world where a six-month old post or product is considered ancient? Do technical platforms (e.g. WordPress vs. Twitter vs. Instagram, etc.) define culture? Does history outside of the online community count toward defining said community?
  • What constitutes shared governance online? Who elects or appoints those who govern, however loosely, and does it matter whether they are paid or not for their service to the group? What are their powers? Are those powers fairly and equitably enforced, and what are the ramifications and consequences when they are not? Is a virtual dictatorship a community?

I opined then, and I still believe, that there is a fundamental flaw with online communities in that virtual gatherings cannot fully replicate physical gatherings, as their impacts are limited to but two senses: sight and sound. While these two senses are clearly those most closely associated with “higher” intellectual function, learning and spirituality, the physical act of gathering or meeting in the flesh is much richer, as it combines those cerebral perceptive elements with the deeper, more primal, brain stem responses that we have to taste, touch and smell stimuli. While I’m sure that developers and designers and scientists are working to figure out ways to bring the other three senses into meaningful play in the digital world, a quarter century after I first got online, there’s been no meaningful public progress on that front, and I am not sure that I expect it in the next quarter century either.

Image resolution and visual interactivity get better and better (especially on the virtual reality front), while sound quality actually seems to get worse and worse over time, when we compare ear buds and “loudness war” mixes to the warm analog glory days of tube amps and box speakers — but that’s it, really. And as long as we are existing digitally in only two senses, exchanging messages online removes any ability to experience the physical reality of actually touching another person, be it through a hand-shake, a kiss, a squeeze of the arm or a pat on the back.  The nuances of facial expression and inflection are lost in e-mails and texts, often leading to confusion or alarm where none was required or intended. There is no ability to taste and feel the texture of the food we discuss in a chat room. It still seems to me that the physical act of community building is a visceral one that appeals to, and perhaps requires, all of our senses, not just those that can be compressed into two-dimensions on our computer screens.

I still believe that two-dimensional communities are, ultimately, destined to disappoint us sooner or later for precisely that reason. I have certainly spent countless interesting hours within them — but if you plotted a curve over time, my engagement grows smaller by the year. While people often compare the dawn of the Internet era to the dawn of the printing press era, it’s important to note that the earlier cataclysmic shift in the way that information was preserved and presented (from spoken word to widely-available printed material) did not result in the elimination of physical gatherings, upon which all of our innate senses of community have been defined and built for centuries, as has been the case in the Internet era. Communication happens more readily now, for sure, and communities may be built almost instantaneously, but they’re not likely to have all of the lasting resonances that their traditional in-person counterparts might offer.

I note, of course, that my feelings on this topic are no doubt influenced by the fact that my adulthood straddles the pre-Internet and post-Internet divide. I was raised without computers and cell phones and instantaneous access to pretty much anybody I wanted to connect with, anywhere in the world, so my communities couldn’t be accessed or engaged while sitting alone in my bedroom. I don’t know how many people have been born since 1993, but many (most?) of them, having been fully raised in the digital world, may not be wired (no pun intended) to feel that distinction. And when I continue to make that distinction, they likely see me in the ways that I once would have perceived a grouchy old man shaking his fist and shouting “Get off my lawn, you kids!”

Generational issues aside, I do think that some of the uglier aspects of online communities — bullying, hateful echo chambers, exploitation of weaker members, cruelty hidden behind anonymity — are blights on our culture and our souls, and are having direct cause-effect impacts on the nastiness of our modern social and political discourse. If Twitter and Facebook and other social media sites were shutdown tomorrow, a lot of online communities would cease to exist, sure, but the impact of that global loss of connection would not necessarily be a net negative one. But the genie’s out of the bottle on that front, I suppose, as barring a full-scale catastrophic failure of the global communication network, communities (ugly and beautiful alike) will just emerge in new virtual spaces, rather than those billions of people returning en masse to traditional, in-person community building.

But some of them might. And I might be one of them. I’ve written here before about being “longtime online” and often a very early adopter of new platforms and technologies as they’ve emerged. But somewhere in the past decade or so, I stopped making leaps forward in the ways that I communicate with people and engage with communities online. The next thrilling app just sort of stopped being any more thrilling than the one I was already using, so inertia won out. I bailed on Facebook around 2012, and have used Twitter almost exclusively to communicate online (outside of this blog) between then and last month, when I decided to let that go too.

Beyond social media, I have had several online forum-based communities in which I was very active over the years (Xnet2, Upstate Wasted/Ether [defunct], The Collider Board [defunct], The Fall Online Forum, etc.), and those have mostly fallen by the wayside as well. I’ve retained some very meaningful communications with some good friends from those spaces via email and occasional in-person meetings, but it’s one-on-one connection between us for the most part, and not dialog and group play unfolding in public before the rest of the community. And, again, I think I’m finding it easy to walk away from those public communities, for the most part, because the personal depth of the connections I’ve made gets shallower as the years go on, and even some of the long-term connections just sort of run their courses and stagnate, because there’s really no organic way for the relationships to grow or advance in any meaningful way.

Maybe again this is just a me-getting-older issue, but I get more richness of experience within my communities that exist in real space, and real time, than I used to, and I get less from my online connections. A desire to move more toward that probably played some psychological part in how hard I pushed the word “community” in my professional life, trying to build one there, not only through online means, but also through the scores of conferences that I’ve attended over the years, with tree care scientists and practitioners from around the world. That is a good community. I believe that I have improved TREE Fund’s standing within it. And that feels good.

Part of the cost of doing that, though, was really failing to become part of any meaningful real-world community where I actually lived in Chicago, and also being separated from the little community that means the most to me: my family. A big part of my decision to retire this year was the desire to get that priority inequity better aligned, and I think that as we look forward to our next move as a family, whenever and wherever it is, I’ll be more inclined to put the effort in to make new community connections there, rather than just hanging out on the computer chatting about arcane subjects with what Marcia fondly refers to as my “imaginary friends.”

One of my personal goals for the Credidero (reminder: it means “I will have believed”) project was to spend a month or so considering and researching a given topic, and then exploring how I felt about it, not just what I thought about it, to see if there were some new insights or perspectives for me, perhaps as articles of faith, or different lenses through which to view my world going forward. Somewhat ironically, this month’s “community” topic has been the hardest for me to consider and write, almost entirely because I’ve already spent so much time thinking about it and writing about it over the years that I already have a stronger set of well-formed beliefs on the topic that I’ve had on any of the others thus far.

How I act on those beliefs, though, I think is evolving, hopefully in ways that connect me more meaningfully with a more local or in-person communities, rather than spending so much time alone (in real life) while sort of together (in virtual space). I imagine that retirement, with all the newly available time it entails, will be a much richer experience that way. Less thinking and writing about community all by myself, and more experiencing community with others.

And on that note, I think I’m going to go sit out by the pool and see if there’s anybody to talk to . . .

A community of tree people and cyclists. More fun in person than online!

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this seventh article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Four: “Complexity”

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Detweeted

Just a short note to let folks who care about such things know that I deactivated my Twitter account last night after about a decade on the micro-blogging site. I won’t go into the details of why, as they’re probably pretty obvious, pretty common, and pretty boring accordingly. No big blow up, no big meltdown, just . . . it had worn out its utility in my life, and I’m cutting back on time-wasting pursuits of limited value to clear the decks for some possible new projects and adventures (watch this space!) in the months ahead. If you need to update any bookmarks or lists or suchlike to find me here, instead of there, now’s the time to do it, with thanks. You can find my professional stuff (for now) at my LinkedIn Profile. I’ll keep that active for now, since I’ve got like 2,500+ connections there, even though I’ve never really figured out why. I’ll keep promoting my blog posts there. It may go at some point too, but it doesn’t actively annoy me or waste much of my time right now, so that’s about all I ask.

Before I destroyed my Twitter account, I downloaded all of the images that I had posted there over the years. Here are 10 randomly selected from my first year or so on Twitter, with no context or explanation, just to make the point that . . . well, it’s really kinda stupid there, when’s all said and done, isn’t it? You can make up your own stories about them if you like. I’ll even let you use more than 280 characters . . .

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Keeping Charity Charitable

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the September 2018 edition of TREE Press. You can read the whole edition here, including our quarterly Research Report insert, which focuses on TREE Fund research conducted by Dr. Brian Kane, the Massachusetts Arborists Association Professor of Commercial Arboriculture at UMass Amherst.

As the leaves begin to color and drop here in Northern Illinois over the next few weeks, we will be rolling out our individual year-end fundraising appeal, as hard as it is to believe that the end of the fiscal year is already drawing near. We’re on track for another great year in 2018, but the unrestricted operating funds earned via the year-end appeal are crucial to our ongoing success, so my thanks to all in advance for considering us in your charitable plans in the weeks ahead.

The “charitable” component of that sentiment is more important than usual this year, as many of you are no doubt evaluating how changes in the Federal tax code could impact the deductibility of your gifts to TREE Fund and other nonprofits. While TREE Fund is not in the business of providing financial advice, we do know that many of you may find it financially beneficial this year to use the increased standard deduction in lieu of itemizing your deductions (including charitable giving), which will reduce the strictly financial tax return benefit you receive from each dollar of your charitable giving in 2018.

I respectfully hope, though, that you do not change your giving plans for that reason, since the charitable good you do for TREE Fund is actually independent of any quid pro quo tax benefit you receive as a result of your philanthropy. Charity is, by its very definition, the voluntary giving of help, typically via money, to those in need — and TREE Fund does indeed need your continued support if we are to build on and expand our research and education programs going forward, especially as Federal funding for urban forestry research and education may decline in parallel with lower revenues from Federal taxes.

TREE Fund is a charity, at bottom line, worthy of support for the good work we do, and for the benefits that our research and education results deliver to communities around the world. It is only through your charitable support that we are fully able to be a force for good in the world, funding vital, beneficial work that few others do. I’ve spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector, and I know that when push comes to shove, that sense of doing something righteous, and making a difference through your gifts, is the truly fundamental motivator for donors, one that resonates deeply in ways that simple monetary benefit from tax deductibility cannot.

Here’s hoping you share that sentiment with me, and that we can continue to count on you to do good for a good cause this year when you receive a letter from me asking for your support in the weeks ahead, or even if you’re inspired to give right here, right now. You may or may not receive a meaningful tax benefit from giving to us this year, but the moral and ethical benefit of sharing your resources openly and without restriction on behalf of TREE Fund or other charities you respect is profound and lasting. At the end of the day, it’s simply a good thing to do — and I remain personally committed to ensuring that we leverage your support widely, and serve as responsible stewards for funds entrusted to our care.

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present . . .” (Albert Camus)

Post?

I should probably do a blog post. It’s been a while. Not that there’s any pressing need for one, of course, but, you know . . . I should probably do one. Give the traffic a little bump. Put a couple tweets up on Twitter. Maybe a link on LinkedIn. Draw some eyeballs. April was a good month, even though I didn’t write much. That’s nice to see, I guess. Maybe May would be good, too, even if I didn’t do a blog post. But I should probably do a blog post. It’s been a while.

Let’s see. What should I write about? Well, not should, exactly, since no one is making me write about anything in particular, so it’s not like there’s an external driver, or a need, per se, that has to be satisfied and written about, to satisfy some obligation or another. It’s more, like, what could I write about? Which should be an easy question to answer, in a world of infinite creative possibilities. But really when you ask that question, or when I ask that question, it’s more like sitting in the easy chair by yourself (myself) and turning on Cable TV and scrolling through all 3,000 channels and not being able to find a single goddamned thing that you want to watch. How can that be???

Sometimes, though, there’s a show or a game or something that you know about in advance, and you’re excited about, so it’s easy to sit down and watch that. On the TV, I mean. Going to the computer to write a blog post can be like that, too, if there’s an idea that just begs to be written about, or some event that needs to be recorded. Well, not needs, really, since no one’s out there waiting for my hot take on whatever hot take item inspires me to write, especially since what I think is a hot take item is usually 180 degrees out of alignment with what normal people think is a hot take item, so whatever need there is, there, is really my own need, to get something off my mind or out of my head.

But when I should (understanding, per above, this is a self-imposed prerogative) do a blog post because it’s been a while, it’s cool when there’s one of those “gotta get it out” ideas that I want to write about, and it bubbles up at the same time, so the need (my need) (perceived) to write something aligns with a specific something (whether it’s a hot take item or not) that excites me to sit down and write, because then the work (self-imposed) part of the project (if you can call a blog a project; don’t projects have beginnings, middles, and ends, and specific outcomes objectives?) lines up with the enjoyment (self-delivered) part of the project, and there’s satisfaction in sitting down to write, and satisfaction in writing, and satisfaction in having written.

Have I ever said “hot take” before? I don’t think I have. Where did that come from?

I have a tree-related idea that might make for a good blog post, but I should probably save that for the TREE Fund newsletter, then I can post it here afterwards. Support the professional team better that way. Plus I have word-count limits for the TREE Fund newsletter, so if I write it here first, then I have to cut it back later. Better to write the short version first for work, then I can add to it here. Or not, if it seems good enought in short form. (Could write about the whole “is shorter better” or “is it harder to write a short thing than a long thing” concept as a blog post, I guess, but it’s a tired trope, I think). (Is there some new spin on that?)(Hot take?)(No). (Probably not). (No).

Do any of the recurring thingies I do on my blog need (understood, self-imposed) to recur? I did my Top 200 Albums List update in April, so that’s good for awhile. Although I’ve already updated it a couple of times since then. And will do so again, but I don’t make that a new blog post, just an edit of an old one. I wonder if anybody notices when I do that? Like “Oh, hey, check this site out, this dude thinks our album is one of the 200 best records ever, way cool . . . oh, wait . . . sorry, I guess he didn’t, my bad.” I could do another “Ten cool Chicago pictures are worth 10,000 words” post, but I don’t think I have ten cool Chicago pictures since the last one of those posts, and it doesn’t really make sense to do one that’s not part of that series (does it?) or that’s just a random collection of pictures without some theme because then it’s not like a blog post, really, it’s just like a photo album.

I should probably get on Instagram, speaking of photos, and albums. That’s where things are happening these days, right? I think? I dunno. Maybe? Not quite sure. Nor am I sure how it all works over there. But I do know that when I send people to look at pictures in my Flickr albums, it kinda sorta feels like having a hotmail email address in 2018, or a MySpace page. Do others see it that way? Do I care? I dunno. Still,  I should probably get on Instagram. I think. And by should I mean all things I’ve mentioned about should elsewhere. Could? Could. Will? Probably not. But . . . . should.

If I take a picture of the airplane wing when I am flying to Chicago, does it go in the airplane album, the Chicago album, or the travel album? Or should I make a wing album?

Speaking of photos, still, I really liked that Volta Photo exhibition at the Art Institute. I could write about that, maybe. The pictures were great, the story was cool, and there was music that I liked. I could write about hearing Volta Jazz there, and going home and grabbing some of that music, and liking it at home too, in a different context. But then I’d sort of just be repeating the Art Institute’s exhibition summary page, since I’m not really in the mood to do a full on critical exhibition review. Sometimes it’s just nice to see something and like it and not feel obligated (well, not obligated, since no one’s making me do it) to write about it, but just have it for myself, or take someone else to go see it. I kind of feel that way about a lot of stuff, actually. I wonder if when you are a critic (movie, music, art, life) for a long time if you reach a point where you just run out of words or energy to criticize anything anymore. And by you, I mean I. I really liked that Volta Photo exhibition at the Art Institute. Isn’t that enough?

How about books? I could bring back the Five by Five Books series. I only did eight of those, and that seems like a weird number. Should have been ten. I liked Bae Suah’s Recitation, and it’s the kind of weird or unusual book that seems (to me) like it would fit in that series, but then once I’ve stopped a series for three years, does it make sense to bring it back? Should I just write a regular book review about the new book and not try to make it part of something bigger, reminding people in the process that the bigger thing got dropped for three years, and now has nine entries, which is just as weird a number as eight entries, requiring me to think of another book to get it up the proper ten, which is where I should (could) stop it and feel a sense of completion? I could do that (wait, what “that” am I talking about about here; hmmm . . . oh, there it is, that), but then if it’s just a standalone critical review, then (see above) that triggers the whole “tired of criticizing, just enjoy it, don’t need (self-imposed) to share” loop again.

(God, I’ve only got six months until I have to do my annual Best Albums Report! Ugh! That one’s hard. But I can’t stop doing it. Because it’s a series, 57th annual, whatever! I really should keep it up). (Should?) (Should). (Need)? (????)?

This review aversion thing is weird, right? (Who are you talking to?) (And by you I mean I?) (Or do I?) I used to bang out reviews all the time on all sorts of things, bang bang bang, check’s in the mail (six to twelve months later). Now I find reviews hard, and there’s usually some angle or outside influence that actually motivates me to do them, e.g. supporting an artist I know, etc. Is that nepotism? I don’t write about family members, so I think it’s cool if I write about my friends’ work in fond terms. I mean, if I don’t like something that a friend does, I just don’t write about it. It actually has to be good for me to do a blog post about, or include it in a list, or whatever. No foul there. (Is there a blog post there?)(Maybe, but it’s boring one). (For me).

But anyway, hypothetically speaking, if I was going to do a blog post about something musical, what would I write about, right now, right here, go! First synapse closed says: I really like HOGG (a band) and they have a new album coming out, but I have only heard one song so far, and it’s great, but if I wrote about them now, it would be like a preview piece, and I’d really end up writing about their last album (also great), and then what’s the point, really, unless I have something unique to say about it. Which, I guess on some plane I do, because a big part of what I like about HOGG is their use of techniques that I also used in my own music, e.g. processing things the “wrong” way, using oddly linked pedals, skeletal electronic beats, background hums and buzzes, re-purposing rudimentary technology to get unexpected results, etc. etc. etc. And how many people can say that? It’s probably a fresh take, if not a hot one.

That’s a great album cover there. I wish I’d had an album cover like that.

That would kind of be kind of an obnoxious review if I wrote it that way, though, wouldn’t it? “I like HOGG because they sound like me. Signed, Me.” But I wouldn’t mean it that way. It wouldn’t be back-patting, because it’s not like they heard my stuff and emulated it in any way. It’s more a convergent evolution thing, with unrelated organisms coming up with similar solutions in different places and times. Plus, I think HOGG  do what they do better than I did what I did, and they’ve certainly gotten more press exposure with it than I ever did, so seeing similaritie wouldn’t be a self-congratulatory comparison thing, it would just be, like “Ooo! I see and hear something in there that I recognize! That’s so cool!”

But, still, that would probably scan like a self-indulgent “me me me” review, no matter how I intended it. Especially since HOGG are women and are much younger than me, so people might fairly read any words I wrote about them in comparison to my own Old White Guy musical experiences as though I were (was? were? am?) saying “Oh, look, these young women discovered a cool sound and I like it. But actually, I discovered it before they did. Here, let me mansplain it to you and them, and praise their originality. But actually, let’s praise my originality. Bro. Dude. Brah. (Manspread). (Brunch). (Cubbies).”

No. I guess I really shouldn’t do that. Not the kind of thing one should even say aloud, really. And by one I mean me. And by should I mean should. And by really I mean, well not right now, anyway. Maybe I’ll think about how to do this in a non-jerky way and come back to it after HOGG’s new album is out and I have had a chance to listen to the whole thing. Of course, by then, I will probably forget that I was thinking about doing this the next time I feel like I really should (normal caveats) write a blog post. I guess I could write this idea down on a white board to remember it. I used to have a white board by my desk. It was good for capturing passing ideas until they ripened. I should probably get a white board again. I should probably try to remember that I want to get a white board again. If I had a white board, I would down on the white board that I want to get a white board. It’s white boards all the way down.

Jeezum Krow, is it 9:00 already??? I really should get to work on other stuff now, shouldn’t I? (That’s a different kind of should there, isn’t it? External, not internal). Ugh. I sure hope the next time I should (back to earlier meaning) write a blog post that I have one of those “exciting hot take” ideas (Hot take? Why? I don’t have hot takes. Who has hot takes? Stop that!) that emerges at the same time, because otherwise, God, I would probably end up doing one of those self-indulgent “blogging about blogging” posts, and nothing is lamer than than those.

And by nothing, I mean nothing.

 

#smhedia

My friend Kenny (who once made the observation “Centipedes are the spiders of the bathtub” in a perfectly contextual fashion) posed a question on Twitter this morning:

Is there a word for when something or someone stupid gets an outsized amount of news coverage and is getting spread way further than it should have? Could be used to describe Raw Water, Flat Earthers, James Damore, etc.

I pondered Kenny’s question for a while today. My answer? Yes, Kenny, there is such a word, and it is . . .

Let’s break it down . . .

The source of the “media” part of the portmanteau word should be obvious: them what propagate such idiocy widely, for fun and/or profit.

“SMH” is textspeak for “Shaking My Head,” and Urban Dictionary tells us it is “usually used when someone finds something so stupid, no words can do it justice.”

I then take it one level deeper than that. Because it is often written “smh” in posts, my brain actually reads that as a pronounceable word when I see it onscreen — “s’meh” — which I perceive as shorthand for “it’s meh.” And quoting Urban Dictionary again, “meh” means “indifference; used when one simply does not care.”

So . . . we’ve got the media issuing stories so stupid that no words can do them justice, to which most people are indifferent, and simply do not care.

That’s smhedia. Or better yet, let’s hashtag it: #smhedia. Does that work? Can we make it propagate, tagging #smhedia to such things and then moving on quickly when confronted with such idiocy? It probably won’t change anything . . . but it will be fun.

Let’s do this!

(P.S. Note: I post this little piece here about #smhedia today because I coined another word long ago, and didn’t realize how widely it had propagated until it started showing up on albums and in interviews years later. The ground zero for that word was lost in the ancient archives of early ’90s CompuServe, so this time, I figure I’ll put this origin story here, now, and if someone turns it into some #smhedia-worthy profit-engine down the line, I’ll show up for my handout with a date-stamped copy of this blog post).

 

2017: Year In Review

We are closing in on the shortest day of the year, and that always puts me in a reflective mood, so how’s about a trawl through 2017 to summarize the year that was, for those interested in such matters. (And if that doesn’t include any of you, well, then at least I’ve given myself a nice summary for future reference. Excelsior!)

ON THE WEB:

I posted 35 thingies (some fiendish) on the blog this year. The number actually surprised me; I would have guessed less. Last year I posted 27 times, though I was working on the short story project, so at least I was producing more long-form stuff than I did this year. In 2015, I posted 77 times. I guess either this blog’s swirling along a slow spiral to oblivion (like most blogs), or this is just the new normal. We’ll see what 2018 brings us. The ten most read new posts here in 2017 were:

The ten old posts that got the most traffic in 2017 were as follows. It’s always fascinating to me which of the 1,000-ish posts that I keep on the blog interest people (or search engines, anyway) the most all these years on . . .

I gave up on Facebook years ago, but I remain active on Twitter. I have learned after a very long time online that accepting or seeking connections just for the sake of doing so is a tool for madness, so I generally ascribe to Dunbar’s Number and try to keep my follows and followers around the 150 level. I am a little high on both fronts right now, so there might be some purging to be done by year’s end. On a political front (while I try not to write about that much here), Tiny Blue Isle is my go-to aggregator for Chicago-oriented progressive stuff. Bonus points for them using my poem as inspiration for their handle. I should also note that a photograph I took during the Chicago Marathon went wildly viral, for all of the wrong/right reasons (depending on whose views you take).

Where I used to regularly read one or more newspapers each morning to get my day started, my train commuting routine now involves three websites, which are almost always refreshed on a daily basis, and which fill the time in a very satisfying fashion as I rumble down the rails from Chicago to Naperville. In the order that I read them each day:

  • The Fall Online Forum: I’ve been a reader here for about 15 years, and an active poster for over a decade. You don’t have to be a fan of legendary English band The Fall to have fun in this forum: it’s high volume, with threads on pretty much everything under the sun, and some things from elsewhere, if you’re willing and able to trawl around a bit. It’s an old school message board, so there’s a nice nostalgia factor in play there, too. (Edit: Literally days after I posted this, the hosting site unilaterally updated the FOF, so now it looks like a typical modern web forum. Phooey!) Recommended, if you need a place to romp and stomp and waste time on the man’s dime. Smart people, passionate and knowledgeable about all sorts of arcana and oddities, and a great place (for me) to get an outside-the-US perspective on what the hell’s going on in the world these days. Plus the time difference between the UK and Chicago means that in the early morning here, I’ve got hours of new posts there to peruse.
  • Thoughts On The Dead: My favorite purveyor of semi-fictionality (have you heard of the concept?) has produced two novels’ worth of utterly stupendous world-building in his ongoing Little Aleppo Chronicles, along with a surrealistic treasure trove of character-based stories, timely satire, and the best writing about everybody’s favorite semi-defunct choogly band to be found in this universe and time stream. And if you nab the time sheath, you might find that it’s the best such writing in any universe or time stream. Try not to commit any felonies if you do that, though, please and thanks. Oh, and Thoughts On The Dead is being considered for an Oscar this year too! Be sure to check out his Christmas List if you visit, and do the right thing, namsain? You don’t want Donate Button to come looking for you.
  • Electoral-Vote Dot Com: I’ve been depending upon (and writing about) this website for my election season news aggregation since 2004, long before some of their more-highly-visible imitators started pilfering their data-driven approach. Normally, after the final counts were tallied in late 2016/early 2017, they would have shut down for a couple of years — but things this year are just so freakin’ weird that they’ve decided to keep rolling with the daily posts, for which I am thankful. There’s lots of political news aggregators out there on the web, and I consider these guys to be the pinnacle of the form. Good data, good sources, no bullshit, solid interpretation. Highly recommended.

TRAVEL

Marcia and I began the year in Reykjavik, watching the citizens of Iceland lose their collective minds in an orgy of fireworks and bonfires. We are going to end 2017 in Key West, with Katelin in tow this time. We were there for New Year’s Eve 2009/2010 as well, and it was a hoot. Here’s hoping that the city is well recovered from its hurricane damage, and that we have a nice warm night for the drag queen drop to marshall us into 2018.

I had tried to travel less for work this year, but it didn’t really quite work out that way, as my annual travel map (including planned holiday travel) indicates:

There were loads of adventures and lots of good work done over the the course of the year, but the particular highlights (beyond Iceland) of 2017 travel included: a family trip to the Netherlands and Belgium (where Katelin got to meet her spirit animal); getting to experience the solar eclipse in the mountains of North Carolina with the extended Smith-Duft families (minus Katelin, alas); a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where I go to see (ZOMFG) The Mothership; and riding the Tour des Trees in and around my old stomping grounds of Washington, DC and Annapolis, where I got to dedicate a Liberty Tree on the grounds of the State Capitol.

Leaving a nicer legacy in Annapolis than I did 30+ years ago. (Me in yellow NAVY cap).

RECORDINGS:

I already published my Best Albums of 2017 (26 years and counting!) and my Most Played Songs of 2017 reports, so probably don’t need to say much more on that front.

FILMS:

We have two good movie theaters within easy walking distance of our apartment, not to mention Amazon Prime and Netflix, so we watched a lot of movies this year. At the time of this writing, here are my Top Ten Films of the Year . . . though I note that I have some Oscar Bait movies to see between now and early January, so this list could change a little bit before the dust settles on the year.

  • Get Out
  • Trainspotting 2
  • mother!
  • The Big Sick
  • A Ghost Story
  • Dunkirk
  • The Disaster Artist
  • The Florida Project
  • Lady Bird
  • The Darkest Hour

Special mention to two epic television experiences that held us bound in front of the screen this year: Amir Bar-Lev’s outstanding Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, and David Lynch/Mark Frost’s thrilling and maddening Twin Peaks: The Return. I’m not sure which story was weirder . . .

BOOKS:

Years ago, I summarized my  general book reading habits thusly: 10% Fiction, 40% Natural Science and History, 40% Music Biography, and 10% Tales of Human Suffering. Nothing too far afield in the mix of this year’s Top Ten Books, even if the percentages change, so I remain adamantly predictable in my tastes. (Note that a few of these books came out toward the end of 2016, but I didn’t read them until this year, so I’m recognizing them now):

  • Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
  • Borne (and The Strange Bird) by Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones
  • Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger
  • Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
  • The Erstwhile by Brian Catling
  • The Show That Never Ends: The Rise And Fall of Prog Rock by David Weigel
  • The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis (December 2016)
  • Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith (December 2016)
  • The Gradual by Christopher Priest (December 2016)

I should note that this list is based on traditional print media output, but if we expand the definition of “book” to include serialized fiction online, then we must also add A Book With No Title by Thoughts On The Dead (see above) to the list.

PERFORMANCES:

We also went to a ton of live performances this year, in a variety of genres and idioms. Rather than break them up into different bits, I list my 15 favorites below, chronologically:

  • Too Hot to Handel, Auditorium Theater, January 15
  • Carmen, Lyric Opera, March 3
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Oriental Theater, March 11
  • Adrian Belew Power Trio, Old Town School, April 1
  • Destiny of Desire, Goodman Theater, April 8
  • Jean-Michel Jarre, Auditorium Theater, May 22
  • U2 and The Lumineers, Soldier Field, June 4
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Auditorium Theater, June 16
  • Paradise Blue, TimeLine Theater, July 15
  • Wire and Noveller, Metro, September 16
  • Rigoletto, Lyric Opera, October 14
  • Giselle, Joffrey Ballet/Auditorium Theater, October 29
  • Pere Ubu and Minibeast, Beat Kitchen, November 18
  • King Crimson, Riverside Theater (Milwaukee), November 26
  • In The Next Room, TimeLine Theater/Stage 773, December 9

ART:

As with so many other things, we’re blessed with a plethora of riches right here in our neighborhood: The Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center are both within 10 minute walks of our apartment, so I visit each of them every few weeks, just because they’re my fave indoor places to go, solo or with friends. Here are the ten art happenings in Chicago that most moved me in 2017 (in no particular order), and those two venues feature most heavily, just because I’ve seen everything they offered in both permanent and temporary exhibitions over the past twelve months.

  • Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsia! Soviet Art Put To The Test, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, Museum of Contemporary Art
  • Along The Lines: Selected Drawings by Saul Steinberg, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Chicago Architecture Biennial, Chicago Cultural Center
  • Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Ben Shahn: If Not Now, When? Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership
  • Provoke: Photography in Japan between Protest and Performance, 1960–1975, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Jack Kerouac’s On the Road Scroll, American Writer’s Museum
  • Eugene Eda’s Doors for Malcolm X College, Chicago Cultural Center
  • India Modern: The Painting of M.F. Husain, Art Institute of Chicago

And . . . I guess that’s it! Unless something moves me profoundly to write here in the next couple of weeks, it’ll probably be 2018 when I next check in at the blog. ‘ta ’til then from all of us in The Adventure Family . . .