Credidero #2: Curiosity

The late, great Douglas Adams doesn’t get the same level of credit that some other science fiction writers receive for describing future technologies that actually come to pass (probably because he was too funny to be taken seriously), but there’s no question that his fictional depiction of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is now every bit as a real and transformative as, say, Arthur C. Clarke’s prescient descriptions of communications satellites, or Jules Verne’s submarines, or H.G. Wells’ “land ironclads” (tanks) or John Brunner’s on-demand satellite TV, or Martin Caidin’s cybernetic prostheses, or countless other hard sci-fi speculative predictions.

First revealed to the world via a radio play in 1978, the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide was described as “the standard repository for all knowledge and wisdom,” filled with crowd-sourced content because “most of the actual work got done by any passing stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices of an afternoon and saw something worth doing.” The Guide could be updated in real time via the Sub-Etha, an “interstellar faster-than-light telecommunications network” that was used for any type of data transmission across the galaxy. Physically, the Guide was described as “a small, thin, flexible lap computer” encased in a “sturdy plastic cover,” with the words “Don’t Panic” inscribed on it “in large, friendly letters”. (All quotes from Adams’ books, via Wikipedia).

I’m certainly not the first person to note that a modern human carrying a smart phone with real-time access to Wikipedia is essentially toting The Hitchhiker’s Guide around, whether it has large friendly letters printed on its case or not. And if that’s not enough to mark Adams as a singular visionary, note that he actually started a web-based, crowd-sourced, real-world version of the Guide called h2g2 in 1999, two years before Wikipedia was launched, in the same year when Adams himself passed away at the terribly young age of 49. Had he not shuffled off this mortal coil in such an untimely and unexpected fashion, we might today all be using Adams’ h2g2 for all of our search needs, instead of Jimmy Wales’ titanic digital encyclopedia. That said, you can still access (and contribute to) h2g2 if you’re so inclined, and it does provide a healthily irreverent counterpart to Wikipedia’s sometime stuffy and over-curated content at this point.

It’s worth noting (to me anyway) that we are fast approaching another interesting singularity point between the fictional guide and its primary real-world analog. In So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, the fourth book in the trilogy (yeah), the Guide‘s tally of pages is cited as 5,973,509. As I type this article, the real number of pages on the English version of Wikipedia is posted as 5,817,575. I certainly hope that someone at the Wikimedia Foundation is monitoring this number, and properly celebrates Adams’ estimation of the number of pages that it takes to describe the galaxy and all of the things in it when somebody creates page number 5,973,509. I’m guessing that will happen in 2019. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

For all of Adams prescience, I think there’s one way in which he missed the mark on the ways that sentient beings might deploy the Hitchhiker’s Guide. The book’s protagonists routinely use the Guide to acquire necessary, (mostly) useful information to get them out of, or into, various scrapes and predicaments, but it’s generally consulted in response to such external stimuli, rather than being consulted just for the sake of being consulted. Had Adams written the books today, now knowing what we know about how we know what we know, I suspect there would be lots of scenes where people (human and otherwise) just loll about in their various spacecraft and on their various planets, pointing and asking and clicking and reading and browsing for no other reason than because they can, and because they are innately, inherently, and often flat our insanely curious about all of the things in the universe, all of them.

That’s certainly how I interact with the world of information when I’m sitting at my static desk-top, clicking and clattering away. I can read something, or think of something, and not know some arcane piece of information about said something, and then suddenly find myself in an hours-long slide into data gathering and information processing that typically ends up far from where it began, leaving my head filled with a bunch of new noise, much of which will be forgotten hours after I first apprehend it. And then I’ll do it all again. And again. And again. And I will be happy all the while, even if I’ve not achieved anything meaningful in the process.

The mobility of my information gathering devices means that I do this in the “real world” too, as I encounter non-electronic stimulus: What’s that bird? How tall is that building? Where does this road go?  Who is that park named for? What kind of plane was that? Who wrote that song? What was its lyric again? Who played bass on it? What else did he or she do? Another bird? What was it? We live in a truly glorious age when it comes to assuaging our curiosity in this fashion, as the ability to itch the scratch or scratch the itch of not knowing things is effortless and immediate and (mostly) satisfying, even if much of the information that we pack into our noggins is the intellectual equivalent of a big bag of Cheetos: filling, colorful, possibly addictive, and of no practical, nutritional good whatsoever.

Which begs the question as to whether an active sense of curiosity (much less an over-active one) and the time spent assuaging it, is a good thing or a bad thing. Because sometimes we’re curious about things that we really should not be. You know that after the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide waxed so profoundly about (say) the perils of Vogon poetry, that some sizable number of readers would have immediately sought out some of those noxious texts out to read them, and suffer in the process, just as people visit various pages of horrors on the real-world internet, all the time. I’ve never heard of anybody really having a seizure from a website promising to deliver one, but I know that they exist, and I know that people look at them, just because they can. (Please don’t go find one now). (And do not think about elephants). (Are you thinking about elephants?) (You are, aren’t you). (That’s better than thinking about seizure robots, anyway).

I suspect that many damaging online pornography addictions are fueled by unhealthy curiosities: if a human body can do this, and I can find it online and look at it, then I wonder if a human body can do that, and if so, where can I see it?  The market for Faces of Death-type collections of carnage imagery predates the internet, but once upon a time they were hard to find, whereas now: search, click, look, regret. When people watch cell phone videos of people being gunned down in their cars, or on the streets, or in their homes, or of bombs being detonated in public spaces, or of the beheading or hanging of political captives, they may say they’re doing it as part of some refined sense of social justice, wanting to share and experience such pain with its victims in more meaningful ways, but I can’t help but think that morbid curiosity of that nature is just a digital form of rubber-necking at an auto accident, ultimately nothing more than the insatiable curiosity to see what something terrible looks like, coupled with an inability to resist it. And I’m pretty sure that’s not a good thing.

Unfortunately, it often seems that the bad outcomes of curiosity anchor a lot of the ways in which we educate and raise our young in modern western cultures. “Curiosity killed the cat” is an adage we learn fairly early on. Later, we might encounter books or television shows about Curious George, a charming simian simpleton whose insatiable curiosity gets him into all sorts of trouble, requiring the Man in the Yellow Hat or other sensible adults to bail him out, so he can curiously investigate the next shiny thing that catches his eye. The classics take similar stances: Pandora’s curiosity about her now-eponymous box unleashed sin, disease and death upon the world, and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden used Eve’s curiosity against her to bring on the Fall of Man.

The Bible even explicitly exhorts us to mind our own business and not ask big questions: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). That feels like the ultimate “because I said so” answer to every “why?” question that every child puts forth, communicating that some things are just not knowable, no matter how much we want to know them. And maybe that quiets a child, or the childish being cooped up within an adult, for some period of time, but it doesn’t assuage the desire for knowledge, it just makes it feel wrong. Which, in turn, itself seems wrong, since curiosity is by all objective measures a key component in the process of learning, and the acquisition of knowledge, if not wisdom.

Education is a key component of cultural inculcation, and it seems that it would be a whole lot easier to harness the innate curiosity of youth rather than censuring it. Perhaps this pervasive conundrum hinges on adults wanting children to learn certain things, in certain times, in certain ways, rather than openly figuring the world out as it presents itself to them, naturally. Education as a form of control, as it were. And if your curiosity persists in carrying you in directions other than those in which we wish to point you, we now have medications to take the edge of that itch, so that you can concentrate on this here algebraic formula, and not that there way cool bug crawling up the wall in the back of the classroom. You won’t be able to balance a checkbook by knowing its name, now will you? And it might sting you, anyway. Pay attention.

Our pets might actually have it better than our children on this front, since we’re generally content to let them sniff and snuff at whatever captures their fancies, so long as they don’t do it on the furniture, or strain too hard against the leash. While I find the entitled over-pampering of American pets to be mostly absurd, I do think that it’s a good thing that we’ve generally come to understand and accept that our non-human companions, and loads of non-domesticated non-human animals, can be just as curious as we are about the worlds in which they find themselves, investigating their surroundings with agency, and individuality, and intellect, and not just as mindless automatons driven by species-encoded patterns and instincts. The searches for food and water and mates and shelter are certainly compelling, but they’re not the end-all and be-all of animal experience, and it’s a joy to watch any being, of any species, happily exploring its world, and eagerly investigating stimuli beyond its normal experience.

It has taken billions and billions of years for hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen to organize themselves in such a way that our species can actively, consciously think about that organization, and how it happened, and what it means, and how it fits in within everything else in the visible and invisible cosmos. Give them another billion years or so, and some of our cetacean, simian, corvid, canine, porcine and feline friends might join us in this pursuit; we’re not likely special in this regard, other than being first to cross the bar of conscious, tool-based scientific inquiry. (On our planet, anyway). Viewed this way, it seems that our innate desire to want to know all the answers, to all the things, might be something of a birthright for our species, and that squandering our little moment in the sun — brief as it’s been in celestial terms, and fleeting as it might be in a solar system filled with planet-killing objects and opportunities — would be a refutation of eons and eons of evolutionary progress, not necessarily with us an end point, but perhaps with us as a conduit to something unknown, but not unknowable.

So I might not be touching the divine when, on a whim, I get online to remind myself who played guitar on the second Toe Fat album from 1971 (Alan Kendall, for the record), but I am actively engaging the part of my brain that’s evolved to crave information and stimulus that has no bearing on my ability to breathe, or sleep, or breed, or eat. Knowing that scrap of information doesn’t make me a better human being by any meaningful measure, but finding it does give me a fleeting chemical pleasure, and that little “ah ha” may trigger other chemical cascades that do make me just a bit sharper than I might have been otherwise, or maybe it will serve as a conversation point years hence that might make other chemicals flow in ways that turn an acquaintance into a friend, or a friend into a follower, or a follower into an explorer. That seems positive, in a little way, and lots of little ways pointed in the same direction can become a big way, to something, again unknown, but knowable.

When I ponder what a personal end of days might look like, I tend to think that losing the desire for these types of inquisitions will be among the key dominoes falling in an ultimately failing physical system, and I’m going to rage, rage against the dying of that light, for as long as I can. For all of the emotional negatively that morbid curiosity might theoretically inflict upon me, were I more prone to explore it, I can’t help but think that the emotional positivity of eager, open, innocent investigation of the world around me will always return a net positive position for the time and energy spent in its pursuit. If I am the sum total of my experiences, then my curiosity, more than anything else, is what makes me me. And your curiosity, more than anything else, is what makes you you. And the glorious variety possible through endless permutations of those equations is what makes so much of life so very enjoyable, in ways that I hope to remain always curious about, until I disperse the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen that composes me, so that other curious entities might form from it.

Curiosity may indeed kill a cat, every now and again, but for each one that goes to the great litter box in the sky as a result of its investigations, thousands of others end up with the ball of yarn, or the catnip mousie, or the comfy, comfy comforter, or the warm pile of laundry, or the tasty gazelle, possibly with a friend who might be another cat, or a duck, or a dog, or a human child, bursting with enthusiasm to know what that cat feels like, and why it’s tail curls that way, and how come it makes biscuits with its paws, and where its kittens came from.

I’m with those cats, when all’s said and done. Let’s chase this string and see where it leads us . . .

Which state quarters are you missing?? I have to know!!!

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

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Ten: “Security.”

Credidero #1: Hostility

I went to college six weeks after my 17th birthday, and I learned how to kill people.

That educational process started early on during my time at the United States Naval Academy with one-on-one types of hand-to-hand combat and self-defense techniques, before we moved on to heavier fare, literally and figuratively. I qualified as a marksman with a pistol and as a sharpshooter with a rifle during my freshman year, and then I had the opportunity to operate a variety of portable ordinance devices in later years, including shooting at a (scrap) truck with a tube-launched, optically-sighted, wire-guided anti-tank missile. That was fun! Later on, I trained in airplanes, on submarines (including ballistic missile boats), and on surface warfare ships that were all stacked with formidable people-killing armament. I then went on to a decade-long career managing budgets and contracts for a program that designed and built nuclear propulsion plants for transporting various instruments of mass carnage around the globe, rapidly, stealthily, lethally.

Thankfully, I was never asked to use any of those skills nor any of those tools in any real acts of hostility, simply by virtue of having had my time in the military correspond to an unusually long peaceful streak in our nation’s history. Had I been directed to do so, though, I certainly would have followed my orders. Interestingly, though, I doubt that I would have actually felt any real sense of personal hostility toward any of my targets, but rather would have just been a willing pawn deployed to implement my kingdom’s institutionalized hostilities toward other kingdoms.

Unless, of course, someone was shooting at me or my loved ones first, which would have changed everything, instantly. I can think of few things more likely to trigger towering feelings of hostility than the sheer indignity of having one’s life or family threatened directly, whether by an enemy combatant, or by an armed robber, or by a drunken or road-raging driver, or by any other external assault on my/our well-being.

I learned first-hand by stepping into the boxing ring during my time at the Academy how such an unbidden sense of preservation-based hostility can emerge suddenly and unexpectedly. I fought my own room-mate a couple of times, and while I truly do love him like a brother, he’s a good deal bigger than me (it sucks to weigh in at the bottom of the heavy-weight division), and after he popped me in the face a couple of times and the adrenaline started flowing, I just wanted to hurt him quick before he hurt me again. If I’d have been able to score a knock-out blow, I would have been happy to land it. And then the final bell rang, and then we hugged it out. Hostility resolved. Wow, where did that come from? And where did it go?

In considering the nature of institutional and personal hostility, it seems helpful to sort the ways in which it can emerge or be imposed, as a possible first step in considering how (and if) it can (or should) be mitigated. Perhaps a quadrant model like this, where the X-axis plots how ordered the hostility is, and the Y-axis plots the number of humans sharing in the hostility:

In the organized group hostility quadrant (top right), the types of hostilities experienced are generally those imposed from above or beyond any one individual’s emotions. Below that, hostilities in the organized individual quadrant (bottom right) may be more personally deep-seated, with gang members deeply hating their rivals, xenophobes self-organizing into militias to fight the feared others (whoever they might be), and rival sports teams (or more often their fans) actually hating those who play or root for other teams.

On the chaotic side of the grid, the group quadrant (top left) represents spontaneous or non-governmental hostility against a ruling caste, or a different ethnic group, or a competing economic system. The chaotic individual hostility quadrant (bottom left) seems to be one most prone to and rife with sudden personal violence, and it’s also the space where those transient, emergent senses of rage and aggression and ill-will can quickly emerge, and possibly abate, just as quickly.

While the word “hostility” is certainly one fraught with negative connotations, as I look at this graph, I can hypothetically formulate situations in the upper quadrants where hostility may be a justified, and even noble, emotional state. Oppressed citizens throwing off the yoke of a tyrant (top left), for example, or soldiers fighting a “just war” as the Allies did in Europe against the monsters who conceived of the Holocaust (top right), among myriad other horrors. (More problematic: those who were just “following orders” in implementing those vile dictates). Humans should feel hatred toward loathsome dogma, and if that hatred manifests itself as active, overt, institutional hostility toward those who embrace such dogma, that seems a fair, fitting and reasonable fuel for the actions required to quell and quash such noxious beliefs and the regimes that promulgate them.

The lower half of the quadrant is more difficult to parse: it’s hard to frame a sound argument for justified street crime, or sports hooliganism, or mob hits, or hateful graffiti, or destruction of private and public property as a hostile response to undesirable stimuli. The sense that individualized hostility is always (or nearly always) a negative condition to be avoided or suppressed is borne out in mental health diagnosis and practice, where hostility is actually considered a symptom of many underlying mental or emotional disorders, and where numerous theories have been put forth to explain hostility as a psychological phenomenon.

So unwell people may feel hostility as part of their mental illness, and we would theoretically seek to treat or cure that symptom and its cause — even as every single one of us feels what could be considered clinical hostility toward some of the people we interact with, some of the time, regardless of how we might aspire to avoid such emotional states. We may not act on our hostilities, mind you, but we feel them, on a very deep, organic basis. In some ways, it seems that this type of chemical hostility is simply a manifestation of the disgust reflex: nobody likes feeling repelled or nauseous by filth and decay, but that strong bodily reaction to such stimuli actually protects us from harm by steering us away from toxicity. Are some forms of emotional hostility toward others just manifestations of that disgust reflex?

If hostility is, in fact, an intrinsic, organic part of what we are — and century upon century upon century of humans hating and harming each other would certainly seem to indicate that this may be the case — then perhaps the only meaningful reflection on individual hostility is to consider how and when we let that inner state of aversion manifest itself externally. Is shouting racial slurs at strangers acceptable, desirable behavior? Of course not. But how about “punching Nazis” (to cite a common current trope), literally or figuratively? Is that hostility justified? And if so, is acting on it acceptable and desirable? Could be.

While we may not be able to choose what feelings of hostility we experience as individuals, we do have more personal agency when it comes to our willingness to accept and act on institutional hostility. As noted above, I know full well that had I been given a legal order to take the lives of others in the field of war, I would have done so, accepting that whatever hostility my Commander-in-Chief dictated on behalf of the Nation’s citizenry was a hostility that I would be willing to act on, whether I actually felt it emotionally or not.

Many others would not and do not, obviously, by either refusing to take up arms, or refusing to accept orders to use them. I tend to think that when a national leader regularly expresses loathsome personal hostilities, then there’s an even greater onus on those who serve the nation to actively, consciously weigh their obligations to embrace institutional hostility, since it’s a slippery slope down the “just doing my job” argument into concentration camps and genocide.

There’s a conundrum in all of this: many (most?) of us are willing to service hostilities that we don’t personally feel, even as we work hard to not act on the hostilities that we actually do experience internally. The social contracts that create this odd dichotomy are easily understood and widely accepted on a macro basis, even as they provide ripe fuel for cognitive dissonance and other psychological turmoil on a micro basis. We may even find ourselves feeling hostile toward the very structures and strictures that define how hostility manifests itself in our lives, both publicly and privately.

The only way to completely step beyond this dichotomy would be to step beyond the company of other human beings altogether — but while the hermits of the world may not wrestle regularly with the conundrums of every day hostilities, they ultimately end up being conceptually hostile to humanity as a whole. Managing our hostilities makes us functionally human, on some plane, and the shared alignment of our expressed hostilities may even serve to create and bind the societies we live in — and thereafter the societies that we hate, individually and institutionally.

Imagine a world where all humans were all hostile toward the same things, in the same ways. A single global hatred would actually result in a more peaceful planet than we’ve ever experienced since we learned how to kill with our hands, and with sticks and rocks, and with blunderbusses and bazookas, and with guided missiles and cluster bombs. It’s the wide breadth of human hostilities that segregates and isolates us, more than the depth of any one hatred. Ironically, as we grow ever more connected on a global basis in this our brave new digital heyday, we also grow ever more aware of just how many specific types of hatred and hostility are available to us all, individually and institutionally, which divides and agitates us ever more precisely on many planes.

So should we aspire to reject and rebuff all the forms of hostility that surround, shape and define us? I’m personally hostile to that idea, and I would oppose a regime that promoted it as a defining organizational dogma, since such a regime would pragmatically represent nothing more than the fever dreams of mad Utopians. A rejection of hostility as a defining characteristic of the human experience is an impossibly inhuman stance, and collectively stripping ourselves of our own humanity, flawed though it may be, would be a precursor of an ultimate collective psychological and sociological implosion.

We’re better served by understanding our hostilities than we are by denying them, segregating the justifiably actionable or expressible ones from the ones that constantly patter around inside us, whether we want them there or not. Some hostilities protect us from harm. Some do not. Some hostilities define who we are. Some do not. Some hostilities shape our communities. Some do not. The art of being successfully human may come from being able to skillfully parse these distinctions, and openly and fairly encouraging others to do the same. In doing so, though, we need to understand that others may view the world through different lenses than we do, and that the hostilities experienced by (say) an older, affluent, white male may be entirely different from those experienced by a woman, or by a person of color, or by a homeless person struggling with the very basics of subsistence.

We can know how to kill without killing. We can know how to hate without hating. We can feel hostile without being hostile. Or we can be hostile without feeling hostile. We have agency in the presence of hostility imposed and hostility expressed, both individually and institutionally, but we must choose to accept that agency. I believe we should do so, and I believe we may all become better humans by occasionally facing the ugliness that sits at the very heart of our species’ collective soul, and also occasionally considering the ugliness that our societies ask us to assume as part of our social contracts, and then consciously, actively shaping our behaviors to manage, accept, or reject that ugliness, as best befits our personal and collective circumstances.

I didn’t generally feel hostile, even when I was training to be an agent of hostility.

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

.

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Eight: “Curiosity.”

Credidero: A Writing Project

I’m not generally a New Years’ Resolution kind of guy, since I’m more than happy to torment myself masochistically with arbitrary self-imposed goals all year long, and not just in January. But as 2018 ground to a close, I did find myself feeling like I needed to make some changes in three key areas in the nascent year before me:

  • Read more books, and less social media.
  • Read better political coverage, and less often.
  • Write better stuff, about something different.

The first two bulleted goals have been pretty readily achievable with a little bit of structural change in how and where I engage in virtual space. I’ve been doing the online thing for a long, long time, so I know how to reboot, reformat, and restart when necessary. I’m glad to have been an early adopter of lots of online communications technologies, and I’m equally glad to kick them to the curb when they have exhausted their utility in my life, or when they make me into a dumber, slower, sadder human being. And America’s educated working classes functioned for decades, if not centuries, with once-a-day newspapers or news shows on radio or television, and we all did just fine all that time. So I can, and will, aspire to something closer to that model. The constant barrage of noise has killed the signal for me. Enough.

That third writing bit, though, has taken a bit more thought and deliberation. I am always better at working out my writing muscles when I have a project, so that I’m not just doing the same old things, only with more repetitions. And my projects are usually the most successful when I tell people that I’m going to do them before I start, as I’m well motivated by delivering on the commitments I announce.

I’ve used such publicly-declared web projects in the past (e.g. a poem a day for a year, a short story a month for a year, my Five by Five Books series, the Hidden in Suburbia series, etc.) to apply discipline to my writing, and as much as I have appreciated the outcomes of all of those projects, the real benefits to me came from the processes that produced them. They were good reboots, and in a year that’s already going to be rife with change, it seems this is a good time to re-energize my writing chops, one way or the other, for current audiences and perhaps for new readers or freelance clients.

Having written a novel, and a lot of short stories, and a lot of poems over the past quarter century, none of those idioms or forms are really speaking to me in terms of what I might want to write in 2019. I’ve done tons of music and art criticism and travel writing over the years, too, so those didn’t feel like things that would keep me motivated and moving forward either. (Well, to clarify: travel very much motivates and inspires me, but I find I’m more inclined as I age to enjoy the moments in the moments, rather than writing essays about them after the fact, and that well-crafted photography often evokes what I want to capture better than words do anyway).

So I’ve  slowly crafted a new idea that’s making me vibrate a little, and it’s not as easily described as “Hey, gonna write one poem a day, for one year, let’s do this!” Some years ago, I wrote a piece called How Stories Happen that explained how disparate, disjointed, homeless mental concepts often coalesce and take shape in my head, swirling about for weeks or months before something finally triggers an “ah ha” spark sends me off to my computer to write with some sense of purpose or mission. That’s sort of what happened this month as I was pondering a new writing project, and these bits and bobs were swirling about in my brain, looking for resolution:

  • A friend of mine in high school wrote I poem called “My Creed.” It was in the “higgledy piggledy” double dactyl format, with each verse laying out a litany of woes or troubles, all of which were dispatched with the same, simple phrase at the end of each stanza: “I laugh.” I liked it then, as a poem and philosophy, and it sticks with me to this day.
  • I’m weary of every issue and every news item being immediately parsed politically into left or right, or red or blue, or liberal or conservative, or whatever other polarity you choose to define. I was thinking about how to frame premises or tenets in ways that don’t immediate drop into one of those mutually exclusive buckets, and in so doing, I started racking up a list of abstract nouns formed from adjectives by adding the suffix “-ity.” Such nouns refer to the state, property or quality of conforming to their adjective’s descriptions, and they are typically abstract and uncountable. On a macro time or global geographical scale, the politics that consume us are ultimately local and ephemeral and increasingly numerical as pollsters stand as the dominant alchemists and wizards of our age. Do uncountable abstractions rise above the daily media concerns that consume us? And are there greater truths to consider if we rise above our own place and time?
  • As noted above, I’ve been writing online for a long, long time, and so I do have a readership, of sorts, that responds in some moderately predictable ways, as evidenced by traffic and comment logs. The things that generate the most long-term engagement and response from my readers have often been original think pieces that involve personal opinions, and personal stories, but are not directly reactive to a specific stimuli, like records, or concerts, or travels. Call them philosophical pieces, for lack of a better word; they’re examinations into certain premises or tenets that may have relevance to contemporary issues, but aren’t strictly reactive to them, nor are they anchored in the language of political discourse and debate. They almost always carry some emotional heft, too, along with some personal stories or narratives. Here’s a good example.

Those three threads started twining around each other, often as I walked my usual five to ten miles a day about Chicago, and I found myself focusing on a series where I grappled with one of those abstract and uncountable “-ity” nouns every month or so, letting it carry me where it would, with the thematic restrictions on the pieces being that they should reflect some real personal belief (“My Creed”), that they should eschew political dogma (neither “left” nor “right”), and that the acts of creating them should spark emotional response in some way, ideally something at the joyful end of the spectrum as an escape from the unrelenting sourness of modern media discourse.

So focused, I found a grammar page online that showed all the ways that “-ity” nouns can be created from their adjective forms, and I picked the following twelve single-word themes to consider in the year ahead (Note: completed articles are linked here):

  • Community
  • Possibility
  • Mortality
  • Complexity
  • Authority
  • Hostility
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Absurdity
  • Security
  • Eternity
  • Inhumanity

I tried to find word themes that would challenge me from both a research and a thought process standpoint, where I don’t really have a clear set of preexisting beliefs that I’ve elucidated here or elsewhere, and that collectively would approach aspects of human experience incorporating what seem to be both positive and negative surface perspectives. I have an idea that when the project is done, the totality of the twelve pieces might actually come to represent a personal manifesto of sorts, maybe a road map toward a next stage in my life, where self-definition may be less a function of my paid work and more a function of how I spend unstructuted time.

From a logistics standpoint, I decided that I would use a random number generator to pick one theme, think about it, write about it, and not pick the next theme (also randomly) until I am done. That way, no one theme gets more or less contemplation than any other, as would be the case with a locked and pre-set schedule, where December’s topic would receive much more mental churn than January’s. I think I can get through the list in a year that way, but if it takes longer, so be it.

When I first started sketching this concept out in writing, the “My Creed” poem was running through my head, and so I originally planned to title the series “Credo,” from the first person indicative present conjugation of the Latin verb “credere,” which means (approximately) “to believe.” That conjugated form has long since entered the English language to refer to a statement of beliefs, or a set of convictions and premises, that guide an individual’s actions.

But as I started to think about it more, I realized that I don’t actually have a statement of beliefs, or a set of convictions, related to those 12 tenets and words right now — though I should in the future, once I really consider them. Hence a new title: “Credidero.” That’s the first person future perfect conjugation of “credere.” This verb form is used to describe an event that is expected to happen before a specific time of reference in the future. So if “Credo” translates to “I believe [now],” then “Credidero” translates to “I will have believed [by the end of the year].”

It’s a weird usage, and a weird conjugation, for sure, so I put it into Google to see if, where, and how it was used elsewhere historically, and one quote kept coming up over and over and over again:

“Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam. Nam et hoc credo, quia, nisi credidero, non intelligam.”

That was written by St Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), who is considered to be the originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God, and of the satisfaction theory of atonement. Here’s what the quote means:

“Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”

I have read and parsed those two sentences dozens of times since I discovered them, and they still fall somewhere in the sweet spot between subtly sensible and completely confusing. But that seems fitting as I seek to tackle a writing project about beliefs before I can actually state what I believe. I see it as affirmation of this project, a signpost from days long past, pointing down a fuzzy trail in the woods, perhaps with a sharp turn early on the journey, obscuring everything that’s to follow.

I believe it will go somewhere. I hope to enjoy the journey. Maybe St Anselm will appear again along the trail. And maybe you’d like to come along?

Let’s do this, St Anselm . . .

Epilogue: I used a random dice generator the day after I posted this article and I rolled a pair of threes . . . so my first theme explored will be number six: Hostility. Well. Let’s get deep right from the git-go, shall we? Watch this space!

Number Six: Hostility.

Regular English Speaking Tree Nerd On Holiday

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the January 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here. Also, if you don’t get the reference in the title of this post, then you must go play this video while or after reading the article.

It’s always an extra treat to travel when you’re a tree nerd, since you get to play “canopy compare and contrast” between your home turf and your destination(s) while you are abroad. Marcia and I greeted 2019 with a trip to London and Paris, and my FitBit tells me that we walked 160,000 steps (about 80 miles) over the course of the week, much of that time spent with me ooo-ing and ahh-ing at special street trees or historic park trees or “what the heck is that?” trees we passed as we ambled about.

I love London Planes (Platanus × acerifolia) anywhere I spot them, and it was particularly delightful to see so many mighty specimens at the heart of their namesake city, their dappled trunks striking in sun or shade, and their distinctive seed balls providing “winter interest” as you surveyed the streetscape. In Paris we strolled the Bois de Boulogne with its native and curated forests, and we admired the Tilias that abound throughout the city, and which lay people call lindens, or basswoods, or limes, depending on where they make their homes.

We spent a lot of time in airplanes getting to and from Europe, and also had a nice EuroStar train trip via the “Chunnel” between London and Paris. This gave me a hefty amount of quiet time to read (more than I normally have, anyway), and the tree nerd in me was happy with that prospect, too, as I read a most remarkable book about trees, and people, and people and trees called The Overstory by Richard Powers.

I have to assume that if you’re reading this article in the TREE Fund newsletter that you’re at least a little bit of a tree nerd yourself, too, and so I most heartily recommend this book to you. It’s a transcendent novel that twines the tales of a half dozen wildly dissimilar humans into a single, solid, towering, powerful creative monument, with every step of the story given shape and substance by trees. The New York Times perhaps captured this concept best in their review of the book, where they noted “humans are merely underbrush; the real protagonists are trees.”

While The Overstory can resonate with those who don’t necessarily love or know their trees (e.g. it was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, awarded to the best novel in the English language issued each year), it was positively electrifying to me given my professional avocation. It’s not every day that mycorrhizal networks pop up and play key roles in a work of fiction, after all, but they’re quiet superstars here.

Like all great novels, The Overstory leaves the reader with a lot to consider when it has run its course, and while not everyone may agree with all of Powers’ implied or explicit lessons and morals, I can guarantee that his words, his stories, the magic of his prose, and most of all his trees will resonate with you all.

Happy reading, and let me know what you think!

Street trees had a big role in the experience of New Year’s Eve on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

For Your Consideration: TREE Fund’s Year-End Appeal

Dear Friends of TREE Fund:

It’s a simple fact: people need trees as an essential component of their healthy, sustainable communities. But like anything worth having, the trees we live with require special care. Trees did not evolve to coexist with people, buildings, roads, and modern community infrastructure, so if they are to thrive in our urban forests, they need the best care possible, provided by professional arborists, drawing on fact-based, replicable research. That’s where TREE Fund comes in — but only with continued support from faithful donors and believers like you.

TREE Fund has been a leading source for tree science funding since 2002, with hundreds of projects awarded and countless valuable results shared across the global tree care community. To cite but one example, Dr. Brian Kane is a long-time TREE Fund Researcher who has contributed profoundly to the global tree care knowledge base over the years; I have attached an article from our September Research Report about Brian’s work to give you a sense of his progress.

This month, I asked Brian to co-sign a “new friends” appeal with me to about 5,000 prospective donors, asking them to join us in supporting the ever-expanding body of research and science necessary to keep our urban forests healthy, sustainable and beautiful. In that new donor letter, we noted that many practices in arboriculture and urban forestry will change in the years ahead as urban environments evolve, just as they’ve evolved since you first became a TREE Fund supporter. With your help, we have been one of the few organizations funding applied research to help today’s tree care professionals anticipate tomorrow’s burning questions before they detrimentally impact our trees — and the communities that benefit from them.

Our generous supporters allowed us to fund over two dozen research projects in the past year, including Brian’s crucial ongoing work. Can we count on your help again as we work to sustain our urban forests and empower the skilled professionals who care for them? You may make a contribution to support our work by clicking here.

Your gift will truly make a difference, now and for years to come.

Click The Donate Tree to support TREE Fund’s Annual Year-End Appeal

C + CC = 50

The C+CC main entrance, October 2018.

Of my salaried nonprofit jobs since leaving Federal service in 1996, the one I held the longest was the position of Director of the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer (C+CC), working for the Rensselaer Newman Foundation (RNF) on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). (That’s a lot of Rensselaers, more on them later!). For the past two years, I have served on the Board of Trustees of the RNF, so I have had the distinct pleasure of returning to Troy, New York twice a year for Board meetings and for the wonderful Committee of 100 Dinner, where our supporters gather each October (including last weekend) to celebrate the prior year’s accomplishments, and to bestow the prestigious Sun and Balance Award upon a prominent and deserving member of the community.

2018 is a very special year in the C+CC’s history as we celebrate the amazing building’s 50th anniversary. We mark this observance from a unique position of pride, having recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places, the youngest building in the country to currently be so designated. I could wax at length here about how the C+CC is special and deserving of this honor, but I’ll defer to two (more) tightly edited sources on this front — here and here — to put this year’s gathering in context. At bottom summary line, the C+CC has been cited by numerous experts over the years as the quintessential example of how churches in America best responded to the opportunities arising in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. It’s a cool place, and cool things happen there, for the campus, for the community, and for the church.

In 2015, I was the keynote speaker at the Committee of 100 Dinner, and I posted my remarks here — The Power of Plus — for posterity’s sake.  Riffing on our stylistic use of the plus sign in the name of the C+CC, I discussed several of the key additive factors that make the facility and its home communities so special to me: it’s a chapel + it’s a cultural center, it marks a place where the sacred + the profane can enter into dialog, it is a home base for town + gown in Troy, its highest annual award is the Sun + Balance medal, and its blended campus and parish community allows old + young to gather together on a nearly daily basis.

This year’s keynote speaker, David Haviland, is a retired RPI administrator, a 40-year trustee of RNF, a great personal friend, and a member of the committee that hired me all those years ago when I first came to the C+CC. He delivered an exceptional talk that was anchored in the hymn “What Is This Place?,” with lyrics published in 1967 (while the C+CC was nearing completion) by Huub Oosterhuis, atop an old Dutch melody called “Komt Nu Met Zang,” originally published in 1626 in a hymnal called Nederlandtsche Gedenck-clanck by Adrianus Valerius. This hymn was sung in the mass immediately preceding the Committee of 100 Dinner, per the liturgical calendar of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Dave’s talk explored the ways in which the song’s lyrics tied to the amazing senses of place, word and sacrament embodied by the C+CC for so many who have entered it over the years, while also placing its old Dutch melody in the context of the van Rensselaer family and their history; they were the Patroons of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck, from which RPI takes its name, and from which the modern Capitol Region of New York State emerged with its quirky Dutch-English culture. Dave also touched upon the fascinating life of Huub Oosterhuis, a former Jesuit whose commitments to social justice and equity often put him at odds with the Catholic Church; more on his story here.

At the end of his remarks, Dave turned the lectern over to our fellow Trustee, Nathan Walsh. When I arrived at the C+CC to serve as its Director, Nate was a resident student in Slavin House, the connected rectory that stands as an integral part of the C+CC campus. We spent a lot of time together over the next couple of years, managing the C+CC and all of its operations in a very hands-on fashion together. You cannot direct at the C+CC if you are not also willing to do. At our Trustees’ meeting before the dinner, Board members were asked to approve an expenditure for a new snowblower for the C+CC; Nate and I smirked together about the ancient smoke-belching orange beast we used to push around the property on snow days, which still sits in the Slavin House garage, both of us believing we are entitled to go grab some knobs or bolts from it to carry as sacred relics in its memory.

It has been a delight to see Nate graduate from RPI, enter the working world, get married, have children, and grow into a poised professional in his new home in Baltimore, while still remaining a key leader in the C+CC community; he was actually the Chair of the Nominating Committee that brought me back to Troy as an RNF Trustee. Nate’s job at the Committee of 100 Dinner was to introduce this year’s recipient of the Sun and Balance Award, Father Edward Kacerguis, known to most around the RPI Campus as “Fred” (Fr. + Ed = Fred). Father Ed has been at RPI in one capacity or another since 1989, and he has lived at Slavin House for the lion’s share of that time. Nate drew a great laugh when he noted how hard his job was that evening, introducing a man who needed no introductions, in his own house . . . Sorry, God.

I was deeply touched to see Father Ed receive the Sun and Balance Award. I count him among my dearest friends, and I marvel on a regular basis at the impact he has had on the parish and campus communities around the C+CC through the past three decades. We first met when I was working at a notable independent school in Albany, for which he served as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany’s representative. My time there ended awfully, as I was essentially railroaded out for missing a development committee meeting while burying my father. (Yes, seriously . . . insert anecdotes about corporate sociopaths here with regard to my employers at the time). Father Ed helped me land smoothly after that tragedy, introducing me to the C+CC community and shepherding my candidacy through the hiring process. I am a deeply grateful to him for that, among many other things over the years.

At our Trustees’ meeting, Father Ed announced that under canon law, he will be retiring as Pastor of the University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice and Resident Roman Catholic Chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as of June 30, 2019. That will mark the end of a profoundly significant era in some ways for the C+CC, though the unique organizational structure of the RNF means that he may still be involved in some other ways in the life of the campus, the parish, and our Foundation. I certainly hope that’s the case, in any event, though we will not know for sure until we work through a variety of strategic planning efforts in early 2019.

Regardless of how all that pans out, this year’s Committee of 100 Dinner was Father Ed’s last in his current roles, so once again, what a profound delight it was to see him honored with long and heart-felt ovations by his parishioners, colleagues, friends, students, alumni and board members. Over the years, I have seen him preside over weddings of students and alumni, baptisms of countless babies, funerals for the elderly and the young alike (the C+CC is a place of sanctuary and respite at times of crisis on the RPI campus, and few crises hurt as much as the death of a student there), more masses than I can count, dinners for all of the varsity sports teams at RPI (his Canadian Thanksgiving Dinners for the hockey team were particularly epic), fundraising activities for charities domestic and international, and any number of cultural, educational, spiritual, or social events at the C+CC and around Troy. He makes a difference, and he does it with a smile.

Those of you who know me best may observe that there’s a lot of references to the Catholic Church above, and that I am not Catholic myself. That’s neither a worry nor an obstacle when it comes to life at the C+CC. One of the most beautiful elements of the space and its University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice is the motto “All Are Welcome.” I stumbled in there at a difficult time in my own life, and I was welcome. Countless others have done the same over the years, and they were welcome. It is the C+CC’s operating policy to keep its doors open for all who care to visit, 365 days a year, and in his remarks, Father Ed shared a story of how he found a young woman who he’d never seen before weeping at the altar one Christmas afternoon; she told him that her life was falling apart in a variety of ways, and that she had driven around the Capital Region for hours looking for an open church where she could pray for solace, and they were all closed to her — except for the C+CC. She was welcome too.

It’s a profound joy to have played a small part in the life of the C+CC over the years, and to have shared in fellowship with so many important people in its history. Beyond Father Ed, Dave Haviland and Nate Walsh (all mentioned above), there are far more names and stories worthy of mention than I can cite in a short article like this, but I will close with two anecdotes about two very special people in the life of this unique community, and the small ways in which my life intersected with each of theirs.

First, Stephen Wiberley: For the better part of two years, I helped Steve write, edit, design and illustrate his autobiography. It was a deeply interesting project, and one that remains of historical value to RPI, the C+CC and the City of Troy. There were a lot of famous folks, mostly scientists, passing through the pages of his life’s story (Fermi, Heisenberg, Van Allen, Kuiper, Teller, Pauling), plus guest appearances by the likes of Bette Davis, astronaut Jack Swigert, NASA deputy administrator George Low and the 1985 NCAA Hockey Champion RPI Engineers. The final manuscript ran to about 320 pages and had about 240 illustrations, photos or figures, all of which I scanned, treated or restored to the best of my abilities, then nested into the book. When Steve dropped off the finished, bound product, we admired it together, with a little bit of wistfulness, since I think on some plane he felt like his life’s work was done with that project completed. I told him at the time that my fee for helping him was that I expected him to give me an update and addenda ten years later, and that he had to do some exciting stuff to make it worth my while. Steve laughed at that and agreed to my terms, but I never got to collect that debt, since he passed away a couple of years later. I wrote a poem about the experience of working with Steve called “They All Shine On,” based largely on how he would often say to me “Oh, I wish you could have met my wife, Betty, she was such a wonderful lady!” as we toiled over the book project together. Father Ed actually read that poem at Steve’s funeral service, which was very moving for me, needless to say.

Second, Father Tom Phelan: Father Tom was the founder of the C+CC and the RNF, and his epic life’s journey and accomplishments cannot readily be distilled into manageable form, though here is a brief summary. He was a vital, vigorous, charismatic man by all accounts, though by the time I arrived at the C+CC, he was in failing health with Parkinson’s, a frail gentleman loved by all, but no longer able to stand as the community’s vibrant central figure. Father Tom’s final illness followed a fall at the C+CC that happened when I was there, and in my role as the facility’s Director, I supported Father Ed in managing all of the countless logistics associated with the visitation and funeral mass that were held onsite after his passing. The line to pay respects to Father Tom wound far around the block all day long on that last day before his burial, which was to be held early on the morning after, in a private family ceremony. At the end of that long day — after all of the visitors had gone their various ways, after our work study students had departed, and after Father Ed had gone home to Slavin House — Father Tom’s mortal remains lay in state in the sanctuary at the C+CC. I was the last person left to turn the lights out and lock the doors on him, on his last night in the profound place he built, through force of will, faith and personality. It was a sublime and sacred moment in my life, as I sat on the step below the C+CC’s altar and reflected for quite some time, alone before Father Tom’s casket, marveling at the amazing differences one man can make in the world around him — and also at the humbling commonality that all of us will face when our mortal times in this world draw to a close, our vibrancy quieted at last, only to live on here in remembrances.

There have been many such remembrances this year as the C+CC celebrates its 50th Anniversary — but there have also been many commitments made to carrying its work forward for another half century or more. The space was built to last, fully adaptable to an ever-changing world, and its governance structure was developed with skill and acuity to also survive and thrive even when and if key partner organizations are no longer able or willing to carry their share of the mission. What a gift it is to have been a part of the C+CC’s history, and to play an ongoing role as a Trustee in its dynamic present and exciting future.

You need to visit this incredible space if you’re ever in Troy, New York. Go there by daylight, any day of the year, and I can guarantee that it will be open to you.

All are welcome. Always.

David Haviland at lectern, Father Ed Kacerguis on the big screen.