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

 

2018: Year in Review

The shortest day of the year approacheth, by God, and that puts me in a reflective mood, meaning it’s time for my annual trawl through “The Year That Was” to capture the “Most This” and “Fave That” and “Best The Other” for those interested in such reckonings. (If that doesn’t include any of you, well, then at least I’ve given myself a nice summary of the year for future reference, and satisfied the list-making monster that gnaws on my brain stem like Níðhöggr as December 31 draws nigh).

ON THE BLOG:

I posted 41 articles on the blog this year, up from 35 last year, and 27 the year before. A positive trend, though still nothing approaching the 77 posts I wrote back in 2015, and more in years prior. I doubt I’ll ever see those levels of productivity here again, for a variety of reasons, but this seems like a good and satisfying “new normal” level for me at this point. I have a 2019 writing project in mind, so will announce that here via a separate post at some point soon.

The ten most-read articles among those 41 new posts here in 2018 were these:

And then here are the ten posts from prior years (this blog archive goes back to 1995, y’know) that received the most reads in 2018. It always fascinates me which of the 1,000+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on. I mean, why does the transcription of my 1999 chat with relatively obscure Son Volt guitarist Dave Boquist perennially appear on this list, while interviews with much more well-known artists never do? And people do realize that the “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” and “Coffee and Crystal Meth” articles are jokes, right? Hmmm . . .

ON THE WEB:

Outside of my own sandbox, I found 2018 to be a mostly dismaying year online as the constant barrage of shrill electoral and political messaging, all of it requiring my attention RIGHT NOW . . . and RIGHT NOW . . . and RIGHT NOW . . . and RIGHT NOW AGAIN . . . RIGHT NOW . . . eventually just overwhelmed me by the time we got to the elections. Once I crashed, literally, on that screaming digital beach-head in November, I just decided to put myself on a social media time-out program, and I intend to stick to it in the year ahead. Enough is enough is enough is enough. And enough is what I’ve had, and enough is all I need. Enough.

I need to keep Twitter for work purposes, but I’ve unfollowed everything on my personal account, including some good friends there. I am sorry about that, and hope that we’ll keep in touch elsewhere in other ways. You can still follow me at Twitter if you want to get tweets alerting you when I post something here on the blog, but I won’t be putting any new content there, and will need to find a new outlet for all of those little wordy bon mots, I guess. Similar situation with LinkedIn: I need it for work, my posts here will get cited there for information when they go live, and then that’s it. Read the blog if you want to keep up with what I’m doing, at bottom line, or email me, or call me. I’m always happy to talk. Seriously. Let’s do lunch. My treat!

Back to Twitter for a minute: I should note that I hit the 10,000-tweet mark (after about eight years) right around the time that I bailed on the platform. If we figure that my average tweet was about 200 characters long (I straddled the 140-character and 280-character epochs), and that the average English word is composed of about five letters, then that’s about 400,000 words, or several novels worth of bullshit spewed into the ether between 2010 and 2018.

Oof!!! That’s an awful lot of writing, just done gone, which probably explains why my blog volume dropped so precipitously in recent years. (To my own credit, I saw this coming). While I can’t get those words back, at this point, I definitely don’t want to add any more volume to that rambling stream of unedited piffle and tripe on one of the very same platforms that Russian trolls and their handlers used to wage cyberwar on us all, with terrible, terrible consequences. No mas. I’m out. See ya ’round. Done, done, and gone.

On a macro basis, I think the whole social media era may be drawing to a close for me. I also think that our descendants and their historians will look at how we collectively acted online over the past decade or so with disgusted bemusement as to how freaking stupid we all were in the nascent days of our lives as a digital species. I’m glad to have been an early adopter of lots of these 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. This here internet thing was supposed to be fun, remember? I want to make it more of that, for me, starting right now, if not yesterday.

Also on that web and app front: while I am acutely aware that our Nation’s chief executive is a blithering, blundering, uncultured, unindicted co-conspiring buffoon, and that his enablers in the U.S. Congress, on FAUX News and its ilk, and in State Houses around the country will go down in history as some of the most criminally inept and amoral politicians and media figures ever to serve their citizenry, I do not need to be reminded of what those people are doing more than once or twice a day. Being alerted on a minute-by-minute or hour-by-hour basis about the crooked cabal’s misdeeds and idiocy doesn’t make me any more woke . . . it just makes me more morally exhausted and depressed than I would be otherwise.

So I am finished with doing that to myself, too. If a website or phone app has a “refresh” button (literal or virtual) on it, then I really don’t want to read it anymore, lest I get stuck, pressing “reload” over and over again, waiting for the next hit of inane and sulfurous nothing to flash up on the glowing screen before me, to nobody’s betterment, ever. For the past month or so, I have chosen to get my political news from three good sources, once or twice a day, at most: I read my long-time web favorite Electoral Vote Dot Com every morning on the train, along with a print copy of the Chicago Sun Times, and then I read The Economist when it arrives in my home mailbox each week. America’s educated working classes functioned for decades, if not centuries, with once-a-day newspapers or news shows on radio or televisions, and we did just fine all that time. Better than we’re doing today, actually, by most metrics.

I want to return to that model in my own news-consuming life, reading professionally edited articles by qualified journalists, researchers and reporters, just a couple of times a day. That’s enough. That’s all I need. Please, Jesus, stop shouting at me beyond that, all of you. Thank you. My new writing project will probably touch on some of these themes more in 2019, so that’s all I’m going to say about that, for now. Watch this space.

On a more positive front online, and outside of the agitating news and social media worlds, Thoughts on the Dead remains my clear favorite and most happily read website, with the ever-prolific Mr TotD continuing to build and manage the best semi-fictional universe EVAR!!! Dive in, the water’s warm, though that might be because somebody’s nephew peed in it, and the pool also might be dosed with acid, so keep your mouth closed while you splash about. Also, the Donate Button may be sentient there, so you should befriend it and curry its favor soon, lest your cell phone ring unexpectedly, and Kim Jong-Un be on the other end. Just saying. It happens more often than one might expect.

My favorite new (to me, not to others) website/blog of the year would be Messy Nessy Chic, an utterly fascinating and well-curated deep dive into amazing art, culture, stories, pictures, and stuff, in all of stuff’s glorious stuffishness. Gorgeous, fascinating, and fun — and Nessy’s ongoing “13 Things I Found On the Internet Today” series is the best recurring catalog of its sort that I’ve seen anywhere online in ages and ages. Every edition’s a gem, filled with literal wonders. My other favorite regular reads online in 2018 are listed in the sensibly named “Regular Reads” column in the right sidebar here, so I commend them to all of you, too, once you’ve had enough here.

TRAVEL:

We greeted 2018 in Key West, Florida, and we will see it out in Paris, France, unless the Yellow Vest protesters burn it down first. I did a lot of professional travel this year, atop some fun family trips, and a really strenuous Tour des Trees in Northeastern Ohio, so my travel itinerary for the year remained almost as busy as 2017 and 2016.

With our move to Des Moines in March, I’ll be making a lot more trips between Iowa and Chicago, but I am planning to limit my work travel to one professional trip per month beyond that, with my board’s blessing. It will be nice to see this spaghetti chart get a little bit less tangled in 2019, even as a good chunk of long-haul travel will remain. (We have Greece and St. Kitts already booked on the 2019 itinerary, along with next year’s Tour des Trees in Kentucky and Tennessee, so those are exciting benchmarks upon which to build other adventures).

RECORDINGS:

I’ve already posted my Most Played Songs of 2018 and Best Albums of 2018 Reports, and I updated my Top 200 Favorite Albums list to reflect 2018 listening. After I issued the latter list, The Weasels released their outstanding new album, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, which is certainly a best of the year, and will be getting its own review addendum here at some point soon. You can go buy it now, so you’re prepared.

LIVE PERFORMANCES:

We experienced a lot of performances in a lot of idioms and venues this year, so rather than list a Favorite Opera, or a Favorite Play, or a Favorite Classic Rock Show, here are the 15 live performance events of all stripes that moved me the most this year, in chronological order, and all in Chicago unless otherwise noted; the most amazing and compelling of the bunch was The Joffrey Ballet’s incredible Midsummer Night’s Dream (no, not that one, Shakespeare was not involved here). Wow!!

  • Turandot, January 13, Lyric Opera
  • Blind Date, January 27, Goodman Theater
  • The Antelope Party, February 23, Theater Wit
  • Uriah Heep, March 11, Arcada Theater (St. Charles, Illinois)
  • Faust, March 18, Lyric Opera
  • Women Laughing Alone With Salad, March 31, Theater Wit
  • The Residents, April 17, Old Town School of Folk Music
  • The Doppelganger: A Farce, April 29, Steppenwolf Theatre
  • Midsummer Nights Dream, May 5, Joffrey Ballet, featuring Anna von Hausswolff at Auditorium Theater
  • Jesus Christ Superstar, May 16, Lyric Opera
  • Todd Rundgren and Utopia, May 22, Chicago Theater
  • George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars, July 15, Petrillo Stage, Taste of Chicago
  • First Aid Kit, October 2, Queen Elizabeth Theater (Vancouver, British Columbia)
  • Tom Hanks: “Uncommon Type,” November 2, Harris Theater, Chicago Humanities Festival
  • Familiar, December 16, Steppenwolf Theatre

ART EXHIBITIONS:

I saw every exhibition that opened at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Cultural Center and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago this year, probably amassing more gallery time in 2018 than in any other year when I didn’t actually work in a museum. I think the Art Institute had a curatorial banner year in 2018, though probably not for the big, splashy, media-friendly exhibitions that most folks would cite. (I was very underwhelmed by their John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age show, for example, having seen a much more compelling collection and interpretation of Sargent’s works at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown many years ago; this one felt very forced and “second city” to both Marcia and I). MCA mostly underwhelmed me this year, I am sad to say, and while the Cultural Center had some great shows in their smaller spaces, programming in their larger galleries also did not live up to the some of the creative thrills they’ve offered me in recent years. With that as macro preamble, then, here are the ten exhibitions that rocked my world the most this year at those three venerable venues. The Art Institute’s Hairy Who? 1966-1969 was unquestionably the best art event I saw this year: I have visited it about a dozen times at this point, and it reveals new wonders each time I walk through its generous galleries. Bravo!

  • Hairy Who? 1966–1969, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Volta Photo: Starring Sanlé Sory and the People of Bobo-Dioulasso in the Small but Musically Mighty Country of Burkina Faso, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Charles White: A Retrospective, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, Chicago Cultural Center
  • Bronzeville Echoes: Faces and Places of Chicago’s African American Music, Chicago Cultural Center
  • de-skinned: duk ju l kim recent work, Chicago Cultural Center
  • Tomma Abts, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
  • Flesh: Ivan Albright, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection, Art Institute of Chicago

BOOKS:

I am embarrassed by how few new books I read in 2018, which is another one of the reasons behind me saying enough when it comes to social media soul-sucking time: tons and tons of words passed through my eyes and into my brain this year, yes, but very few of them added wisdom or produced pleasure. Yucko, I am done with that, and I need to read more books in 2019! Let’s do this!

The best books I read this year were actually released between 2015 and 2017. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy — The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky — marked the finest example of timely and timeless world-building that I think I’ve enjoyed since the original Dune books. These are the right books in the right time when it comes to the ways in which we write about and read the fantastic, and how the fantastic mirrors and reflects real issues in our real world, and the series absolutely deserves the trio of Hugo Awards bestowed upon it, among many other honors. Very enjoyable reading, and I was very happy to have gotten lost for a couple of months in Jemisin’s sublime The Stillness.

The best new fiction releases I read in 2018 were The Cloven (the final book in B.K. Catling’s sprawling Vorhh Trilogy), Suah Bae’s exquisitely surreal Recitation and Sarah Perry’s engaging Gothic Noir Melmoth. I have Richard Powers’ The Overstory queued up next, and I expect to start and enjoy that before the year is up. On the nonfiction front, I liked Jorma Kaukonen’s autobiography Been So Long: My Life and Music, and Joel Selvin’s expose on the post-Jerry days of the Dead, Fare Thee Well because I’m interested in the subjects — but I would not cite either of them as a particularly great example of contemporary rock literature.

And that’s pretty much it for me in terms of books released in 2018. Did I mention that I am embarrassed by this? Well, I am. Goddamn you, Twitter!! Curse you to hell, Russian Trolls!!

FILMS:

We have two good movie theaters within easy walking distance of our condo, not to mention Amazon Prime and Netflix, so we watch a lot of movies every year. At the time of this writing, here are my Top Fifteen Films of 2018, though I note that I have some Oscar Bait movies that I want to see between now and early January (e.g. If Beale Street Could Talk, Can You Ever Forgive Me, Creed II, Vice, Leave No Trace, etc.), plus some sub-Oscar contenders in genres I like (e.g. Suspiria, The Sisters Brothers, etc.) so I’ll be updating this list a bit in the weeks ahead before the dust finally settles on 2018:

  • Annihilation
  • The Death of Stalin
  • Isle of Dogs
  • Sorry to Bother You
  • First Man
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  • Never Goin’ Back
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Thoroughbreds
  • A Simple Favor
  • First Reformed
  • Hereditary
  • Green Book
  • The Favourite
  • Roma

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . that’s it, I think. I’ll disclose my planned 2019 writing project here at some point soon, and then Marcia, Katelin and I will spend Christmas together in Chicago, and then Marcia and I will jet off for London and Paris, and then the proverbial wheel will click through one more annual revolution, and instead of looking back at the rut it has left behind us, we will look forward at the path over which it’s going to carry us in the months ahead. Which will go quickly, as they always do once one reaches a certain age (ahem), so vultures willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be back here in December 2019, marveling at that which was, and that which is yet to come. See you then?

Mine beloved and I returned to Vancouver this year after a 28-year hiatus. We’ll be celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary in June 2019 in Greece, so there’s one adventure I know you’ll read about here 12 months hence, if not sooner!

Most Played Songs of 2018

Last night I reset the play counts on all of  our family iPods after a year of continual music spinning, as I’ve been doing every twelve months or so since we got our first iPods in 2007. I used to wait until December 31 to reset the lists, but I’ve found that we usually want fresh mixes and tunes through the hectic holiday and year-end work seasons, so now I just reprogram everything soon after I complete my Best Albums report each year, and then push the magic button that resets play counts on all 15,000+ songs stored on my hard drive. Kaboom!! New musical year for all of the Smiths!!

We still have a lot of iPods in use at this point, and I’ve been scavenging online to build  a little treasure trove of replacements for models I like (old Shuffles and Nanos, mainly) to keep my current listening paradigm going as long as it can. But, as has been a recurring theme for me over a lifetime of listening, I do recognize that while I am fiddling with these little gadgets, I’m once again fighting a rear guard battle to keep using what most folks already see as antiquated devices, while playback technology makes another of its seismic shifts from a purchased (or stolen) media file model to streaming services, delivered over our phones or other smart devices, and designed so that we never actually own anything musical anymore, but just rent it. I won’t reiterate all the reasons why I hate this (they’re in the referenced article above, if you want to read them), but I do, and it sucks, and I’m going to keep raging against the dying of this particular light as long as I can, because that’s what I do. Harrumph.

ipods

As I note every year, since we synch all of our many fiddly widgets to one computer and one master iTunes account, the “Most Played Songs” list on that account represents the aggregated play counts from my daily train commutes, my business travel (two iPods, so I never run out of juice on a long flight), our shared car, Marcia’s gym, Marcia’s apartment in Des Moines, and the collaborative family iPod that stays in our Chicago apartment stereo dock and is played by whoever is home at the time.

So the “Most Played Songs” of the year are often unexpected, since they represent the heart of a musical Venn Diagram where our family’s tastes most closely overlap, even though each of us individually may like very different things. I listened to a ton of Napalm Death, HOGG and The Body in 2018, for example, but none of them show up on the “Most Played Songs” list because Marcia and Katelin immediately veto, skip or over-rule them anytime they happen to play in their presence. Not everybody in our household likes the grind, y’know?

So . . . here are the Smith Family Top 40 Most Played Songs for the past 12 months, with exhortations to explore any and all of them, since I can guarantee that all of us like them enough to play them regularly, and we’ve got good taste, by golly. Happy listening, and bring on the new music, now!

1. “Lost” by Vulkano

2. “500 Miles” by Peter, Paul and Mary

3. “God If I Saw Her Now” by Anthony Phillips

4. “Dust” by Fleetwood Mac

5. “Morning Fog” by Kate Bush

6. “See How We Are” by X

7. “Time Will Show The Wiser” by Fairport Convention

8. “The Silent Sun” by Genesis

9. “Kenny” by TC&I

10. “Sunday Candy” by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment

11. “There Is A Mountain” by Donovan

12. “Life Goes On” by The Damned

13. “Eshet Eshet” by Ethio Stars (featuring Mulatu Astatke)

14. “The Belldog” by Eno, Moebius and Roedelius

15. “Portfolio” by Fairport Convention

16. “It’s a Shame” by First Aid Kit

17. “Nothing Has To Be True” by First Aid Kit

18. “Float On” by The Floaters

19. “Busy Doin’ Nothin'” by Jed Davis

20. “A Dream of Winter” by Sun Kil Moon & Jesu

21. “Old Marcus Garvey” by Burning Spear

22. “Sunny Side of Heaven” by Fleetwood Mac

23. “Lovely Anita” by The Gods

24. “Born Together” by Plush

25. “Hounds of Love” by Kate Bush

26. “Deliver Your Children” by Paul McCartney and Wings

27. “Be Thankful for What You Got” by William DeVaughn

28. “Afterglow” by Genesis

29. “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” by Fairport Convention

30. “Whither Goest the Waitress” by The Weasels

31. “three waves (xii, xiii, ix)” by Caroline McKenzie

32. “Hale-Bopp” by The Weasels

33. “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me” by Jethro Tull

34. “Night of a Thousand Hours” by Judy Dyble and Andy Lewis

35. “We Are The Battery Human” by Stornoway

36. “The Wherefores and the Whys” by Toe Fat

37. “C’est Bon” by Vulkano

38. “I.O.I.O” by The Bee Gees

39. “One Day” by Genesis

40. “This Summer’s Been Good From The Start” by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci

A Lifetime of Listening

A friend over at the Fall Online Forum (FOF) recently started a discussion called “Music Formats and You.” There had been a little sparring among members about digital vs analog formats in various threads, so to pull the conversations into one place (and possibly to reduce bile levels elsewhere), he framed a new discussion with a simple statement and question:

All of us on here, I’m presuming, started out with music in an age where vinyl/cassettes were the norm. But music purchasing/listening has undergone a radical transformation over the last thirty years or so — so what has your experience been?

I responded to the question there in the community thread, and my answer turned out to be longer and more complex than I would have thought. So I decided to bring it over here and flesh it out a little in a couple of places, to see if stimulates any of your own reflections about how you’ve chosen to tickle your ear buds, then and now, and maybe tomorrow.

Here ’tis . . .

Being a child of the middle ’60s, my parents had a record player, and so I played records. (Nobody called records “vinyl” back then. I wonder when that affectation started?) From my earliest sentient years, I can remember having my own little record player, I think inherited from older neighbor kids. It was a little portable job, with red and white checkered paperboard casing and a white plastic handle, perfect for playing 7-inch singles like “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsmen, over, and over, and over again. It had 16, 33, 45, and 78 rpm settings, which added to the amusement factor when those singles were played at the wrong speeds.

At some point, I moved into fiddling with my parents’ record player. It was a bit more complicated, and I wasn’t sure why the discs on their platter were bigger than mine were, with smaller holes in the middle. But I persevered, and started trawling through their albums, with some unexpected consequences, in one notable case.

When I was living with or near my grandparents intermittently during the late ’60s and early ’70s during my dad’s military tours overseas, my aunt (who was just a few years older than me) had one of those groovy space ball 8-track tape players, so I used to play her 8-tracks a lot when I was there. Steppenwolf Gold is still a fave album from having overplayed it for years on 8-track, but I still expect to the hear the distinctive ker-CHUNK sound in the middle of some cuts that were split for time sequencing reasons.

My Dad was in the Marines and liked tech, so when he came back from Japan some time in the early ’70s, he had a cassette tape console for the home stereo. I had friends who were using little reel to reel recorders to tape songs off the radio, so I had a leg up on them in being able to make better mix tapes from radio and records, and to listen to the mix tapes that my Dad made. I am pretty sure we were ahead of the curve as a family on this format, since I do not remember other kids having cassettes so early.

I got my own little “all in one” stereo for my bedroom in 7th grade. It had radio, record player and 8-track, but no cassette. (We were still ahead of the curve on that front, apparently). I started earning my own money around this time with various small jobs and most it went to buying records. I mostly stopped making mix tapes since I had to be down at the family stereo to do that, and I preferred being up in my bedroom alone. As one does.

I got a knockoff replica of a SONY Walkman in 11th grade, and since I was not making many tapes in my bedroom at the time, I started buying pre-recorded ones so I had stuff to listen to while walking about, and later driving. When I went to the Naval Academy, we were not allowed to have any stereos or other music playing devices throughout the entire plebe year, but I carried this Walkman and a dozen favorite tapes in with me to Annapolis, and listened to them late at night under the covers. Plebe Year offered many challenges, and for a music junkie, being starved of tunes might have been among the most formidable of them, psychologically speaking.

Sophomore year at Navy, I got both my own modular stereo (now radio, records, dual cassette recorder) and a TEAC Tascam 4-track recorder. I bought tons of albums through college, and I made tons of mix tapes, along with recording my own music.

Compact Discs emerged during the latter part of my time at Navy. The first one I heard was Pink Floyd’s The Wall at high volume in an audiophile friend’s room and it was awesome. But by this time I had a collection of about 2,000 records and big carrying cases full of cassette tapes, and I really did not want to re-purchase everything in a new format. I knew that once I switched to CDs and embraced their (seeming) convenience, sound quality and durability, it was going to render my record collection obsolete, so I resisted CD’s charms for a long time.

My wife Marcia brought that era to an end one Christmas when she got me a CD player. I think the first CD I bought was Hawkwind’s Masters of the Universe compilation. As predicted and expected, over the next 15 years or so my CD collection grew, often as a result of trading off my records for store credit which I immediately used to buy shiny silver discs. I still made a lot of mix tapes from CDs to cassettes in this era, mainly for listening in the car (early automotive CD players were terrible), or to send to friends.

I got online in 1993 and quickly found a group of music nerds to hang out with in various communities, one of which had a mix tape trading group called TATU (“Tapes Across The Universe”). Sometime in the late ’90s the core of the TATU team (now mostly moved over to a little online Tree House called Xnet2) switched to trading CDs, so I acquired the ability to play and burn CDs on my computer instead of just via the home stereo.

I will note here, though, that I was among a probably small number of people who actually acquired the needed adapters and plugs to record between CDs and tapes and back on the computer, rather than on the stereo. That was a short and pointless technological cul-de-sac, and it was just a world of little shiny discs for a long time afterwards, until file sharing emerged.

With some probably unwarranted sense of pride, I note that I saw Napster as an ethical monstrosity and I never had an account for that or any other platform for stealing music that I had not purchased. Artists united, represent!! As a result of that particular paradigm shift, though, I did watch all the brick and mortar record and CD stores in my town bite the dust in rapid succession as the world moved away from physical ownership of music and into a world of bits and bytes alone. That was a great tragedy in this story arc, I think, and one from which we’ve never really recovered.

And so enter the iPod and iTunes era. As had been the case with my records when CDs emerged, I resisted this brave new world, because I knew, once again, that when I jumped to another entirely new platform, I would buying the very same things for a third or fourth time, and my CD collection would be shed like a husk at some point.

As was the case with my records, it was Marcia who eventually pushed me into the new paradigm, when she asked for an iPod as a Mother’s Day gift in 2011. I had to get it for her, of course, and I had to acquire an iTunes account so I could put music on it, though in the beginning I still just converted stuff from CDs to digital files, rather than buying songs from iTunes.

Being somewhat averse to Apple products (I still do not like Mac computers), when I finally decided to find a way to buy music online, I chose eMusic, which was more heavily weighted toward indie and underground music while iTunes just had the hits early on. I liked eMusic’s subscription model too: you paid a certain amount each month, and could download a certain number of songs from any album or single during that month. The download rights did not carry over from month to month, so I actually explored and acquired a lot of stuff that I would not have otherwise this way.

But over the years the variance between their model and iTunes’ model closed and it just became easier to have the single account within the Apple Empire. I got my own iPod at some point, and then we got one for the new iPod compatible family stereo, which was a relatively tiny box with relatively tiny speakers, so the old Bose Speakers and CD player and amp and all the other things that had defined the Hi Fi experience went out the door when we moved from New York to Iowa.

That remains the status quo as of autumn 2018: I have an iTunes account on my computer with about 14,000 songs available to me, all backed up on an external 1.0 terabyte hard drive. I manage six iPods for myself and my wife, making new mixes as new things come in for all of the various players. Apple recently ended their own “gadget era” (e.g. no more standalone music players, since you supposed to get music on your phone or tablet), so these great little players are on their way out, and I have acquired a stockpile of Nanos and Shuffles to rage against the dying of this paradigm as long as I can. Yeah, I could play stuff on my phone, but I don’t like carrying it around, since I have a big phone, while a Shuffle fits nicely in my pants pocket.

I still purchase all of my music online, album by album and song by song, though more often than not I actually pay for it with points that I can get from my credit cards (rather than getting airplane miles or whatever). I have not yet made the leap to Spotify or any of the other similar subscription streaming music services as I still like “owning” and not “renting” my music — even though the physical embodiment of my ownership is just a bunch of data in a little little six-inch by six-inch by two-inch black box, not the glorious milk crates of musty smelling cardboard and plastic of yesteryear.

At some point, yeah, I know I will have to jump forward again, and Marcia will probably deploy the cattle prod to make it happen at some point. But for now, I’m fighting it, knowing that I will ultimately lose this battle, as I always do.

I guess it’s the struggle that inspires me. Along with the tunes.

It sounded like crap, but no playback device ever looked as cool as the Weltron 2001 Space Ball 8-Track Player

Skycrane!!

We live on the 27th and 28th floors of a building with a view of Chicago’s busy heart, so we’re accustomed to seeing and hearing helicopters at or below our balcony level, doing police work, traffic reports, or stunts for movies and the gazillion stupid TV shows filmed in our neighborhood.

Today, though, soon after I brought Marcia her morning coffee, the helicopter noise was a bit more prominent than usual. I walked outside and had a GAWP! moment as a huge Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane buzzed right by me, and then settled slowly to hover above the corner of Randolph and Columbus, half a block away. Wow!

The Skycrane made two round trips from that corner up to the top of AON Tower — two buildings over with a rooftop just a smidge over 1,000 feet tall — carrying new transformers up and ferrying old ones down. Over the course of an hour or so I snapped and snapped and snapped, whee!

Here are some of the better shots from this morning’s entertainment, for the aviation dorks. Click for bigger versions, if you’d like, though I might have to apologize for my camera’s graininess if you do.

#smhedia

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

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

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

Let’s break it down . . .

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s do this!

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