2019: Year in Review

Marcia and I are hitting the road tomorrow for New Mexico (where we’ll see out 2019, having welcomed it in Paris, France), so it seems a good time for my annual recap and summary of stuffs and things here as a final blog post from a big year, on a wide range of fronts for our family, most of them documented within these pages.

ON THE BLOG:

This is the 70th post on the blog this year, up from 41 in 2018, 35 in 2017, and 27 in 2016. A very positive trend (if not as many posts as I used to poop out annually a decade or so ago), and a good indicator that getting off of social media (a goal established in last December’s “Year in Review” post) was a good way to redirect time and energy to pursuits that I consider more rewarding. Traffic was up a solid 40% over the prior year as well, confirming once again that volume drives reads, as long as quality remains acceptable. As satisfying as that is, given my own goals for the year, I doubt that I will hit the same high post mark in 2020, as I plan to work on some projects for potential professional or commercial purposes, and don’t intend to share them until I know there’s not a market for them. But I do have a couple of new ideas for public writing for pleasure knocking around in my brain, so I may surprise myself.

I completed my planned Credidero writing project this week, an act of thinking out loud in public over the past year about a dozen concepts of interest, looking to see what beliefs might emerge from such active reflection and analysis. It was satisfying to click the final “publish” button, seeing that effort to fruition. Of course, I’m lousy at letting things go cleanly, so I do intend to re-read and mull the entire project output, and to write one last summarizing article in January, if I see themes or thoughts that emerge from between the lines for me. If not, then we call it a wrap as is, and on I move.

As I report each year, here are the ten most-read articles among the 70 new posts here in 2019:

And then here are the ten posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2019. It always fascinates me which of the 1,100+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on an early version of this blog, long before any of us knew it was to be called a blog. (I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). Here’s hoping that people realize that the perpetually-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke . . .

ON THE WEB:

I begin my day, every day, reading two utterly brilliant sites: Thoughts On The Dead and Electoral Vote Dot Com. My deeper thoughts on the former are here, and on the latter, suffice to say they’re my main online source for hard political/electoral news and analysis at this point, and have been since the early ’90s. I will admit that it is hard, sometimes, to decide which one of the worlds they describe in glorious detail (the first a semi-fictional universe built around the exploits of a time-traveling Grateful Dead, the second an academically rigorous view of our Nation’s electoral processes) is the most absurd and unbelievable anymore. I definitely would prefer to live in Thoughts On The Dead’s universe some days when I read the reports on Electoral Vote Dot Com and cringe at the idiocy, if not outright evil, of our ruling class. Beyond that, I didn’t add any new crucial web sites to my roster of favorites this year (see the “Regular Reads” block in the right side-bar), which I suppose is another good indicator that I spent less time trawling and more time creating in 2019 than has been the case in recent years. Good on me.

TRAVEL:

As noted above, we greeted 2019 in Paris, France and will see it out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We also celebrated our 30th anniversary in June with a great trip to Greece, and our first retirement trip was a jaunt to Spain. In the middle of all that, we consolidated our household in Des Moines, Iowa, after having split time between there and Chicago for three years. I traveled less for work in 2019 than I had in the four prior years (it’s harder to get anywhere from Des Moines than it is from Chicago), though I still got to enjoy my fifth Tour des Trees, this time in Kentucky and Tennessee. Next year the team will ride in Colorado, with Iowa as the target destination the year after that. I hope that health and schedule allow me to continue rolling with them, minus my management responsibilities. At bottom line, 2020 will be mainly about the travel that Marcia and I choose to do, not that we need to do. That will be refreshing. We have trips to Arizona, Ireland, Spain, Costa Rica and Iceland in the family’s conceptual hopper at this point, and we shall see what else the next year brings. Here’s my 2019 map, as a benchmark (with this week’s trip to New Mexico already penciled in):

RECORDINGS:

I’ve already posted my Most Played Songs of 2019 and Best Albums of 2019 reports, and consider 2019 to have been an outstanding music year. After completing the latter article, I acquired the new self-titled album by The Who, which would have made the list had it been released on its originally announced date, so that I could have given it enough spins to properly evaluate it. But it slipped, so it didn’t. That said, I do think it’s the best thing Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend have done since, oh, I guess I’ll say Quadrophenia (1973), so I heartily recommend it. These old dogs may not have many new tricks, but they’re really, really good at doing the ones they know, even without their classic era rhythm section, RIP.

LIVE PERFORMANCES AND ART EXHIBITIONS:

Alas, this is the one section of my annual report that’s ready for retirement, with us having left Chicago. We saw dozens of shows (of both types) each year when we were living just off of The Loop, and we’ve seen, well, close to none, since we moved back to Des Moines. The one concert that stands out was our final one as Chicago residents: King Crimson at Auditorium Theater, where we had front row seats to watch the Seven-Headed Beast work its magic. A wonderful and fitting chapter closer for four great years of concert-going and museum-strolling in a world-class cultural city.

BOOKS:

I set a goal to read more books in 2019. I did read more books in 2019, once again demonstrating the perfidy that Twitter and its ilk impose upon us as time sucks and soul wasters and dumb-down distractions. Here’s the list of my favorite nonfiction works, novels and short story collections of the year. I feel smarter having read them.

FILMS:

We’ve seen a lot of movies this year, many of them quite good. (We’re pretty astute at just not going to see things that we think are not going to appeal to us, so I don’t often get exposed to garbage). Here’s my Top 15 of the year, thus far, in alphabetical order:

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  • Apollo 11
  • The Art of Self Defense
  • Booksmart
  • Brittany Runs A Marathon
  • Dolemite Is My Name
  • The Farewell
  • Ford v Ferrari
  • Good Boys
  • Jojo Rabbit
  • Knives Out
  • Midsommar
  • Parasite
  • Ready Or Not
  • Rocketman
  • Us

I still have some Oscar Bait late-in-the-year or below-the-radar films that I plan to check out: Pain & Glory,  Little Women, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Monos, Hagazussa, and The Lighthouse; I’m iffy on The Irishman, as I have a hard time wanting to sit through anything that long, especially a gangster movie, as much as I like the (most of) the film’s cast and director. So I will amend this to create my final list after I catch the ones I’m going to catch. Once the Academy Awards show rolls around, though, I usually lose interest in catching up, and start looking ahead to next year.

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward to New Mexico and beyond. I assume that I will be back here at my desk (wherever my desk lives at that point) in December 2020 with a similar report (as has become my habit), marveling at that which was, and eagerly anticipating that which is yet to come. See you then?

Credidero #10: Authority

Back in the mid-’90s, when I was writing for an alternative newsweekly, the features team was occasionally given a summer gang project called “How To.” Each of us were tasked with writing a piece explaining, somewhat obviously enough, how to do something at which we were (nominally) experienced and knowledgeable. Being a quirky and contrarian crew, most of us chose to explain how to do things that were of a marginal degree of usefulness to our readers, producing articles that were probably intended to be entertaining (to the authors, anyway, if not the readers) more than they were educational.

Over the course of a few years, I explained How To Write A Record Review, How To Get a Grant, How To Keep a Secret, How To Talk To a Sleeping Rock Star, and How To Be An Expert. The grant-writing one was nominally useful, objectively speaking, if you were a fundraising professional, and the record review one has long been used by a journalism professor in Texas as part of her syllabus, so I suppose that one was legitimately of some value, too. The Sleeping Rock Star one was me making lemonade out of lemons after I was given a “phoner” appointment to interview then-trending singer-songwriter Abra Moore (who was asleep when I called her), and the secrets one was a result of me leading a weird double life where I was a music critic by night and a contracting officer for a highly classified military program by day.

Of those five pieces, How To Be An Expert was the one that hewed most meaningfully to my own real experiences and beliefs, and I have returned to or referenced it regularly over the past 25+ years as a basic operating tenet in my professional life. It stems from some of the best professional advice I was ever given, very early in my post-college career, after a simple conversation with a supervisor/mentor that went like this:

“If you want to succeed here, or in any other job,” he said, “then you have to become an expert.”

I asked the obvious question: “An expert in what, sir?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just make yourself an expert in something, and when you’ve done that, you’ll be indispensable.”

 

I used the word “expert” in that article, because that’s what my boss said, but I just as easily could have used the word “authority,” because that’s the gist of what he was communicating to me: if people perceive you as an authority on any particular subject, then you are useful to them, and you’ll always have a place in the organization, so long as you maintain your position as the organization’s authority of record on that particular topic, or maybe on a variety of topics, if you’re really good at exploiting this concept.

When I first started contemplating this month’s Credidero article, this “be an expert” narrative sat the center of my reflections on “authority.” I’ve spent most of my professional career in positions where I’ve been held up as an (or even the) authority on an evolving and branching stream of topics, as my work has taken me through a somewhat dizzying array of professional disciplines. I am self-aware enough, though, to know that in each and every case where I’ve been accepted as an authority on a particular topic, it was very much an act of me claiming that role, more than it was an act of others bestowing it on me — because if you say something long enough, often enough, and confidently enough, then it becomes reality, or at least is perceived as reality, and there’s really no difference between those outcomes.

My skills at self-marketing have always played into this paradigm, on top of the cultural cues and biases that benefit me by virtue of who I am and what I look like: a tall, white, older male with a degree from a “big name” college, who’s a glib speaker and solid writer, and with the ability to quickly process, retain and regurgitate a dazzling stream of facts and opinions. As such, most people are culturally conditioned to accept whatever I write, say, or do, if I offer my words of expertise confidently and with, yes, authority. There have been many times in my career when I have not been the most-trained, or most-knowledgeable, or most-experienced person in a given room or sphere on a specific topic, but people have still turned to me as “the authority,” simply because I’ve carried and presented myself as such more effectively than those around me, using the cultural privileges that are bestowed upon people like me as part and parcel of our society.

Is that fair? No, not really. But I have used it to my advantage anyway, and (more importantly, I think) to the advantage of my employers and their causes. I do not believe that I have ever used perceptions of my own authority for negative or negligent purposes, or to advance a crooked or conflicted agenda, or to denigrate, demean or disempower others who might, in fact, have more expertise than I do. I’m good at sharing credit when it’s due and when I can. That ability to advance the causes of my organizations in an authoritative way that makes people feel like they are invested in and connected to those causes is high among the traits that I believe have most contributed to my professional success over the years.

While I may claim to be an authority or an expert earlier and more forcefully than others might under similar circumstances, I also believe that I have managed those positions in ways where most people are willing to accept and reflect that authority back at me, confident that I will use it wisely, even if it is still nascent. And I say “most people” most purposefully, because I know that there are certainly a subset of my work colleagues over the years who just thought that I was a really good bullshit artist. That’s okay, I guess. I probably was. And probably still am. It’s hard to tell the difference between being a doctor and playing the role of a doctor on television sometimes, as long as you’re not performing brain surgery. I know my limits.

The word “authority” has several subtle definitional aspects to it, and I’ve only been focusing thus far on one of them: “the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something.” This form involves being an authority (where I am the subject noun) on a given subject, which is somewhat different from having authority, where the subject noun is a standalone external right, and not me personally. That form of authority is defined as: “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” When it comes to that form, there’s no “be an expert” bullshit or cultural bias at play, because you either have it, or you do not, typically as a result of your position within an organization.

As the CEO of a variety of nonprofits over the years, I’ve had all sorts of authority when it comes to this second definition of the term. I have had the ability to negotiate and sign contracts, take out loans, pay bills, sign checks, hire people, fire people, award grants, buy things, sell things, and a myriad of other rights that are integral and essential to the positions I’ve held. In the nonprofit sector, the ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the corporation resides in the board of directors, who are also tasked with governance and with hiring and supervising their chief executive. After that, it falls on the chief executive to manage the organization within the mission and vision established by the board of directors and ideally embodied in a strategic plan. That means I’ve had a lot of latitude to do what I thought was the right thing to do for each of my organizations, and I had the authority to implement whatever ethical and legal tactics I deemed best to getting the job done effectively and efficiently.

My understanding and living of this form of authority is also highly influenced by some of my early professional training, in this case while still at the Naval Academy, where we learned the differences and distinctions between authority, responsibility, and accountability as part of the Leadership and Management Education and Training (LMET) curriculum. At the simplest level, authority is the ability to make a decision, responsibility is the  job we are tasked to do, and accountability is the way in which we answer for the work we’ve done. The balance between these three factors has an immense impact on how effectively one can function in the work environment.

For example, if an employee has a high level of responsibility, but little authority, then he or she will likely be heavily frustrated by having to seek continual approvals elsewhere while trying to achieve necessary tasks. If an employee has both high authority and high responsibility, but no accountability, then it becomes easy for him or her to just coast, knowing that there are no likely repercussions for not fulfilling expectations, and the organization will suffer as a result. On the flip side, if the accountability function is ratcheted up too high, then it becomes difficult for an employee to achieve his or her responsibilities, even with clear authority, because of the constant micro-managing attention to activities that should be free from continual oversight and evaluation. I’ve always used my LMET training in evaluating potential work situations, and then once engaged, I’ve done my best to create the proper balance between those three facets of management, for myself and for those entrusted to my supervision.

I’ve been fortunate in most of my professional roles to have identified or developed nonprofit boards that allowed me to build and maintain appropriate balance between professional authority, responsibility and accountability. But with my pending retirement from the salaried work world in a few weeks, this will change for me, as I will no longer possess authority (nor responsibility, nor accountability) as a function of the position that I hold within an organization, for the first time in well over 35 years. In most typical freelance or consulting roles, I’ll likely have defined responsibilities and accountability, sure, but not much positional authority. Which means that I will have to fall back more heavily on that first form of authority, which I can claim for myself as a function of what I know, what I can do, and how well I can communicate it. I’m okay with that, I think. I’ve proven over the years that I’m pretty good at positioning myself as an expert, and I’m also fairly adept at being accountable to myself when I need to be. (Pro tip: I’ve found that it’s helpful to publicly state intentions on this front, e.g. telling all of my readers here that I was going to write a 12-part series called “Credidero” last January made me more likely to actually do it this year. Ten down, two to go!)

A few other facets of meaning and belief emerged for me as I considered the concept of authority over the past month. The first came when I did my usual research into the etymology and history of the word to be studied for the month. “Authority” has its roots in the Latin auctor, meaning “originator” or “promoter,” and that root also produced the modern English word “author.” I like the concept that developing and claiming authority is an act undertaken by an author, in that we write our own narratives, and then (using another element of the ancient word), we must promote those narratives in order to bring them to meaningful fruition. I do this continually, in so many places and so many ways, here on this website and in my “real world” personal and professional lives. All we are is all we’ve been, so in theory, I should get ever better at this as I age, so long as I don’t ever lose the rampant curiosity that’s often the motive force and lubricant of my learning and communicating processes. We’ll see how that goes.

There was another interesting intermediate evolutionary meaning in the etymological history of this month’s Credidero word. In 13th/14th Century Old French, between the Latin auctor and the English authority, we find autorite, which was an “authoritative passage or statement, book or quotation that settles an argument, passage from Scripture; authoritative book; authoritative doctrine.” In this usage, authority wasn’t a particular person, nor a power held by said person, but rather an inhuman physical artifact that was deemed to embody decisive decision-making power. This reminds me of the most beautiful of the Gospels, which John the Evangelist opened by simply explaining that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” While we read this metaphorically, obviously, the idea that written and spoken words may carry the purest essence of the divine within them has always been highly appealing to me.

A self-professed and self-proclaimed right of authority has more heft if the very words that anchor it are right, and true, and inspired as outward manifestations of inner truths, or local observations of universal realities. In this sense, standing as a personal authority, even without positional authority, may be a path along which or a vehicle through which legitimate and pure societal good may be promulgated and promoted. Words have immense power to foster change, if you use them wisely. I like to think this is what I’ve done in my work over the past three-plus decades, and I am hopeful that I will be able to continue to do so in the years that remain ahead of me.

But the dark flip side of this paradigm is embodied by another modern English word that derives from the Latin auctor: Authoritarian. It’s tragic and troubling to consider how relevant this word has become again in modern political practice and parlance, as weak and insecure national leaders at home and abroad expect unquestioned obedience, and act tyrannically when they do not receive it. I read an interesting interpretation of the etymology of this word, which likened it less to “authority” and more to “author,” as authoritarian leaders seek to be the masters of the fictional worlds that they create. Unfortunately, almost all of them also have positional authority, which allows them to leverage vast monetary, legislative and military machines toward their own nefarious ends. That way evil lies. And madness.

This tendency toward authoritarianism becomes all the more dismaying and tragic when leaders are propped up by corporate propaganda machines and other weak and insecure legislators who use their own positional authority to propagate their leaders’ hateful messages and paper over their childish and/or criminal behaviors, lest they rock the status quo that’s elevated them, Peter Principle style, to positions well above their apparent capabilities and capacities. I think most folks my age in the United States grew up perceiving authoritarianism as a dead or dying political system. I doubt that many of us would have imagined that we’d be close to living in it as we eyeballed our retirement years, and that the centuries-old system of checks and balances designed to protect us from it would fail for nakedly partisan political reasons. Here’s hoping that enough of us wake up and exercise the authority constitutionally bestowed upon us as voters in 2020 to turn this tide, before it sweeps us away into the type of future that dystopian science fiction writers favor.

While there’s no question that authoritarianism is a bad thing, and must be resisted by sane citizens of any state, I find it interesting how often people look through that same lens when considering any form of authority. If you go search Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or any other similar online quote banks for the word “authority,” the vast majority of the quotes that search returns will be focused on questioning, disobeying, challenging, or dismantling authority. Now, this may be a function of the fact that the types of writers and thinkers whose quotes end up in Bartlett’s are more apt to be anti-establishment types than the average citizen, or it may just be that these sorts of “Fight the Power” epigrams are more memorable and inspirational than the “He loved Big Brother” ones are, hence their appearances in such anthologies and encyclopedias.

But I have mixed feelings about blindly conflating authoritarianism with authority, as I loathe the former, but am more than willing to accept the latter, if it’s properly earned or bestowed. To some extent, that may be a function of the fact that I’ve counted on my own authority time and time again in my professional life as a key tool to achieve the things I want to achieve, and I don’t feel that every act and every decision I’ve taken with the authority vested in, or claimed by, me should be subject to scrutiny, question or rebuttal. I give other authorities the same benefit of the doubt that I expect from other people in considering my own actions and activities. I hope that as I move into a phase of my life where my authority stems from who I am and what I do, rather than from what position I hold, that I’ll be able to still leverage such authority to achieve my desired ends. Which, hopefully, will not be authoritarian in tone or tactics.

As I read back over what I’ve written this month, I note that there are more subtle semantic dances than usual, as I seek to shoehorn “authority” into the “what I will have believed” rubric behind this Credidero series of articles. But I think that was a necessary approach to wrestling with a concept that has so many significant variables operating within closely-aligned, but not exact, definitional distinctions. When I look at the authorities around me, I value those who bring earned or acquired expertise more than I value those who are granted authority by their positions, but I still value those positional authorities, so long as they don’t become authoritarian. There’s a need for vigilance, surely, as we evaluate the various authorities that govern and shape our lives, but when all is said and done, there’s also a need for those authorities themselves, and I hope that I am able to continue authoring my own life story in a fashion that encourages others to look my way and say “Now there’s an expert. Let’s see where he’s going to take us . . . ”

When an eagle explains stuff to you, you listen . . .

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 tenth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Three: “Mortality.” Since there’s only one topic left after that, I also know that December will be dedicated to Topic Number Two: “Possibility.” I guess those are two heady concepts with which to wrap the project! 

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

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

 

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

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

 

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.