Credidero #6: Creativity

When I was in First Grade, our class was introduced to haiku, the classic Japanese form of short poetry structured in three lines, of five, seven and five syllables each. After our teacher explained the concept, read us some examples, and showed how to count syllables (do they still do the thing where you put your hand under your chin while enunciating words?), we were told to take out a sheet of paper (this stuff, remember?) and pen our first haiku. I thought for a few minutes, dutifully jotted one down, counted to make sure the syllables worked out, and handed in my work.

Some time later that day, I was summoned to speak with our teacher, and there were a couple of other grownups behind her desk, though I did not know who they were. Uh oh! Trouble! The teacher asked me where I got the poem I had submitted. I told her I wrote it. She nodded and asked if I wrote it by copying it out of a library book. I said no, I just thought it up and wrote it down. She kept pressing me on other possible sources for the little poem, and I kept telling her that I made it up, following her instructions. She then asked me to define a specific word within the poem, and to explain a specific phrase. I answered her as best I could.

I do not recall or have that entire poem intact anymore, alas, but I do remember that the issues that led my teacher to call in the guidance police and interrogate me on whether I had actually written it or not were my use of the word “ere,” the elegance of my alliterative phrase “gray-green grass,” and the fact that I inadvertently did exactly what a haiku was really supposed to do — juxtaposing images around a seasonal reference — while most of my classmates were writing straight literal odes to their cats or toys or mothers. Clearly, no little country cracker from South Cackalacky should have been able to do that, right?

The thing that finally convinced the teacher and the school-yard Stasi agents that I had not somehow plagiarized the poem was the fact that when I was asked to read it aloud, I pronounced the word “ere” as “err-eh,” (I had only seen it in my favorite poetry book, but had never heard it spoken), so my middle syllable count was actually off by one.  So apparently, I really hadn’t been carrying around a little Bashō masterpiece in my Speed Racer lunchbox just waiting to spring it on someone for my own gain at an opportune moment. I was dismissed and off to recess I went, a bit concerned and confused.

Some time soon thereafter, I was promoted directly from First Grade to Third Grade,  branded smart beyond my limited years, at least in part because of that little poem. I learned three key things from this confluence of events:

  1. Being creative can cause trouble
  2. Being creative can open doors to opportunity
  3. People correlate artistic creativity with full spectrum intelligence

I also picked the Beloved Royals to win the 1978 World Series. Wrong again.

I have never stopped writing since then, for pleasure and for pay. My first real job was as the “Teen Editor” of the Mitchel News when I was 13 years old, per the photo at left. I was supposed to be a beat reporter, doing interviews with new kids and documenting the things in which the young people on the military base where I lived were presumed to be interested. But after a column or two like that, I got bored, and I started doing record reviews of Jethro Tull and Steely Dan albums instead, or handicapping sports seasons (Remember the NASL? I went out on a limb and predicted that my beloved Washington Diplomats would win the 1978 title. I was wrong), or writing creepy poetry about some of the weird old buildings and spaces on the base. I also gave the way-popular movie Grease a thumbs-down, one-star, bomb review, eliciting howls of rage from most every girl I knew on base, and the guys who wanted to impress them. That might have been the bridge too far.

I was fired from the job after about a year, because my creative voice was not the creative voice that the newspaper’s publisher desired me to have, or at least to create, for his readers. So I learned a lesson there, too: creative writing and “technical writing” (for lack of a better term) were not the same thing in the eyes of publishers and readers, and there was a difference in the things that I wrote for myself and the things that I wrote for others. (Well, I also learned, much to my chagrin, that my cushy desk job writing stuff was a whole lot easier than cutting grass, delivering newspapers, clearing brush, or washing dishes, all of which I had to do at one time or another to earn my scratch after I was chucked out at the press room, alas.)

That distinction between creative and “technical” writing is true to this day, of course, although then and now, there’s always been one thing that sort of sticks in my craw when I actively ponder it, and it’s the fact that I do not perceive either form of writing as requiring any more of less creativity than the other, though only gets called “creative.” One type might require research, one type might not. One type might require the creation of characters, one type might require creatively describing real characters. One type might require me to write in dialog or dialect, creating a voice for other people to speak, one type might require me to speak in a voice other than my own to appeal to the whims and tastes of the people or organizations who pay me for my efforts. But they all require creativity.

I enjoy both types of writing, in different ways, and in different times. When I sit down with a blank page or a blank screen before me, and I get up some time later leaving a big blob of words behind, I feel that I have created something. It may be a newsletter column, it may be a poem, it may be a story, or it may be a Credidero article. All equal in my mind in terms of their worth (though I know from experience that in the eyes of those who pay for my blank paper and computer screen, my “technical” writing is of far greater value), all requiring the same basic sets of linguistic skills, all involving creativity. I have to start with an idea, I have to formulate structures around the idea, I have to put the idea into a meaningful context, I have to deploy resources to ensure the idea is valid, I have to find the right words to share the idea with others. When that’s done, I have made something, from nothing. Voila, creation!

Interestingly enough, this concept that humans can be creative and practice creativity is actually a shockingly modern one in Western Culture. In Plato’s Republic, the wise old Greek philosopher is asked “Will we say, of a painter, that he makes something?” and he replies “Certainly not, he merely imitates.” For centuries, the widely-held philosophical belief was that only God could create something from nothing — creatio ex nihilo — while we mere mortals were stuck with imitating, or discovering, or making, or producing, oftentimes guided by inhuman forces, like Muses, or Daemons, but certainly not creators in our own right. Poetry was one of the first arts to be granted license to be seen as an act of creation, with other written texts, and other arts genres following in the 19th Century. It was only in the early 20th Century when Western people begin to speak of “creativity” in the natural sciences and technical fields. So whether they realize it or not, the creative folks today who (somewhat pretentiously, to these ears) call themselves “makers” instead “artists” are actually invoking a 2,000-year old paradigm that (again, to these ears) devalues the fruits of their labors, rather than (as likely intended) anchoring them as somehow more “real” or pragmatic that the stuff that the arsty-fartsy types produce.

I find the long and wide-spread cultural reluctance to embrace and value creativity as a deeply personal, deeply human, deeply individual endeavor or trait to be fascinatingly awry with own beliefs and experiences on this front. When I interview for jobs or freelance assignments, or even in just regular conversations (because I’m like that) and I am asked what I consider to be my greatest skill, I always default to “communications” — I am a story-teller, at bottom line, and I can make people believe in my organizations’ work and mission, by talking to people, and by writing to people. If you hire me, I’ll do the same for your organization!

I create narratives on the job, sometimes from scratch, sometimes from consolidation of extant texts, but there’s a deep creative element to both of those activities. I also tell stories on my own time, fictional ones, poetic ones, accounts of events yet to come, documentation of events gone by. A concert review is a story. A fundraising appeal is a story. A speech is a story. An explanation of a research finding is a story. I am a story-teller. And I would not be a story-teller if I did not possess a finely tuned sense of creativity, and a desire and skill to create something that did not exist until I turned my mind to it. I can’t imagine my mind, in fact, if it was not anchored in that desire to create stories. I have done lots of creative things in various creative fields over the years (a bit more on that later), but my stories and my writing are as intrinsically me, myself and I as anything else I do.

I generally think of this a good thing, though research may indicate otherwise. A study involving more than one millions subjects by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, reported by the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2012, found that, as a group, those in the creative professions were “no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism.” Phew! But wait . . . within that surveyed cohort of creative types, the researchers did find that writers (!) had a “higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves” (!!) and that dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder.

Well, uhhh . . . yeah. That. Kettle, pot. Pot, kettle. We writers are apparently the most damaged creatives, the Vincent van Goghs and Roky Ericksons and Francisco Goyas and Nick Drakes of the world notwithstanding. For the record, if I look back at the my family tree just for a couple of generations, and across a couple of close cousin branches, every single one of those disorders appears, often multiple times. So is the creative drive that I think of as a gift or a blessing actually just a side symptom of a spectrum of mental illnesses passed on to me as part of my innate genetic code?

Maybe. The suffering artist stereotype probably didn’t emerge without evidence, after all, and when I think about the periods in my life when I was most floridly, obsessively creative (not just in writing), they probably do correlate closely with the periods when I felt the most vulnerable or damaged. Being driven can be a good thing. And being driven can be a bad thing. Beautiful stories can emerge from dark spaces, and dark narratives can emerge from a happy place. Keeping busy and being productive can be cheap forms of self-administered therapy, or they can be positive manifestations of a mind well, truly, and happily engaged.

This way madness lies.

I think of big part of managing my own creativity is being self-aware enough, through long experience, to know which of these conditions are in play at any given time, and to create accordingly. In the 1990s, to cite but one time-place-topic example, I wrote a novel, called Eponymous. It was about a dissolute musician-writer named Collie Hay, beset with a variety of substance abuse issues and mental health problems, written in the first person, explaining why and how the writer wrote, and knitting a narrative about how creation and destruction often go hand in hand. The epigraph of the book, the very first words you read when you open it, say “For the Demons . . . Fly away! Be free!” The very last page of the book, in the author’s bio, says “J. Eric Smith is not Collie Hay. Honest.” But, uhhh, y’know. Of course, I’d say that. I’m a writer, and not to be trusted.

One review by a trusted colleague who was also a damaged writer type noted “Eponymous is a hall of mirrors. J. Eric Smith, the author, who’s been an upstate New York rock critic, has written a book about an upstate New York rock critic who is himself writing a book. The book-within-a-book device is hard to pull off, but when it works (see Tristram Shandy and Adaptation) — and it works well here — it’s lots of fun.” And it starkly lays bare the correlations, at least in my case and in my mind, between written creativity and dysfunction, without even really bothering to explain them, since they just seem(ed) to me to go hand in hand, as a given. It also felt good to write, and some demons did, in fact, flitter off as result of having written it. Poof! Therapy!

(Side Note #1: If you want to read Eponymous — and 20+ years on from creating it, I’m not sure I’d really recommend it to you — find a cheap, used print version of it, not the Kindle version. It was adapted as an e-book without my permission or supervision, and a lot of the internal formatting [there’s poems, lyrics, other stuff of that ilk] got messed up and is very difficult to read on an e-book reader. I don’t make a penny from it either way, so it’s your call if you want to score it, but I just don’t want you to have to struggle with a nasty mess of on-screen gobbledygook if you do wade into the thing).

While I’ve focused my personal observations here on writing, I should note that I have been and remain creative in other ways too. I’d claim photography as the visual art form in which I have the greatest interest and skill, and I’ve been a songwriter, singer, musician and lyricist over the years as well, though mainly in my younger days. Until precisely 1993, in fact, I would have cited music as my primary creative skill, and the one which I was most willing, able and likely to achieve success (critical, if not commercial) over the years.

How can I date that end point so accurately? That was the year when we got our first home computer and I got online for the first time. My home recording studio began gathering dust soon thereafter. For a long time after that when people would ask about how my music was going, I’d say “I’m in remission as a musician these days,” so once again, even way back then, I was lightly associating creativity with illness, even if I laughed it off in so doing. But we all know that every joke has a bit of truth behind it.

(Side Note #2: If I could snap my fingers and have any job in the world, hey presto, right now, I would want to be the principal, non-performing lyricist for a commercially and critically successful musical act. The Bernie Taupins, Roberts Hunters, Peter Sinfields, and Keith Reids of the world have got good gigs! I have had the pleasure of having my poems recorded as lyrics by a few musicians, and it’s deeply satisfying, let me tell you. That’s likely to be one of the areas I’m going to focus creative attention on when I retire from my last day job accordingly. Maybe the group or singer that hires me would let me provide the photographs for the album covers and promotional materials too. A fellow can dream, right? Even a broken creative fellow?)

So creativity has touched and shaped my life in a variety of ways that fall under the “artistic” umbrella, but the amount of time I spend on those pursuits pales in comparison to the amount of time I spend at my job. Sure, writing and speaking and story-telling are cornerstones to that, and as noted above, and I feel that those facets of my professional work are every bit as anchored in my core, latent sense of creativity as are my most absurd and fantastic pieces of fiction and poetry. But just as the concept of creativity evolved and was adapted in the early 20th Century to include the sciences and technical endeavors, the latter part of the Century saw the definitions expanding further into organizational, operational, and business dynamics, and the ways that groups use creativity to build and sustain corporate culture.

Look at tech behemoths like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Netflix, just off the cuff. Sure, there were certainly some blindingly creative people within their corporate structures who made the technical products and business services they provide, but they would not be what they are today without other visionaries imagining, designing, and implementing completely new business models and marketing approaches unlike anything seen or experienced before them. The brains behind those new business models were certainly engaged in forms of creativity, making new and valuable things (many of them concepts, not stuff), filling market spaces that nobody knew existed before they dreamed them up and monetized them. If you had told me when I was a teenager that by my 55th birthday I’d be able to listen to any song in the world while watching a movie, doing my banking, typing to a pen pal in Australia, and playing a video game, on my phone, at the beach, all at the same time, I’d have said you were watching way too much Jetsons for your own good. That’s just silly, Astro.

The transformative nature of the tech sector means that much of the recent and current research into and writing about creativity in the workplace focuses on organizations and individuals within the Silicon Valley sphere of companies, because the cause-effect-impact relationships there are easy to identify, evaluate and explain. But the work that many of us do in non-technical sectors can involve just as much creativity, and can have just as transformative an impact within our organizations, or within the smaller external spheres in which we operate. I’m confident that 100 years from now, the types of activities that are granted “creative” status by default will expand to include countless more fields and activities, many of which are unknowable or inconceivable today, even in the creative minds of the most brilliant futurists.

But maybe we shouldn’t wait 100 years to afford “creative” status to certain endeavors that aren’t seen as “earning” it today. We’re all creative, each in our own ways, every time we produce something that wasn’t there before we cast our hands above the waters and said (to ourselves) “Let there be a thing,” whether anybody else knew we did it or not, whether it had any use or value at all to anybody, whether it could be experienced in the world of the senses, or only within the spheres of our minds. We may create alone or with others. We may create to heal ourselves or hurt ourselves, others likewise. It may feel good, or it may feel bad. We may intend to create, or we may create by happy accident. It’s all the same: “Let there be a thing,” and there will be, and sometimes it might even be really, really good.

Creatio ex nihilo was long the sole province of God, or the Gods, or Muses, or Daemons, or other inhuman forces swirling in the vapors around us. I believe that by claiming creativity as our own human right, in all the things we do, and celebrating its fruits, we don’t denigrate the God(s) that inspire us, but instead become ever more like them.

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

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number One: “Community”

Deftly using every single one of my creative skills here in coherently explaining the recorded canon of the great UK band Wire. It made sense at the time . . .

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue

 

 

Moving On

Note: You should play this song while reading this post.

Last night, I went back up to our condo at 340 East Randolph in Chicago for one last peek at the amazing views that have been such an integral part of our daily experience since 2015. It was nice to see a little bit of green in the palette, after a particularly brutal winter . . .

Farewell, Glass Box in the Sky!! We will miss you!

Marcia and I pretty much decided that “view” is not going to be a primary determinant in choosing housing from this point forward, since nothing is ever going to live up to what we’ve experienced here on that front. That said, our new home in Des Moines does have a very pleasant vista of the heart of the city, so we’re thankful for and glad about that . . .

The arched bridge at the right-hand side of that photo provides us quick access on foot to the human habitrail that links the entirety of Des Moines’ downtown, so we can easily get anywhere in the heart of the city without a car, regardless of the season. Our neighborhood, the East Village, is also the hopping/happening part of town these days, so there are a lot more credible restaurants and retail outlets there now than there were when we last lived here. We’re not intending to get another car, and I’m going to be a foot, bike, public transit and ride share guy for the foreseeable future, so that density of destinations is helpful. Katelin and John (daughter and boyfriend) live across the street from us, so that’s a wonderful benefit. The Bumble also lives there, so I’ve been getting what passes for regular quality time (three pets, then a bop, hiss, and scratch) with her. Just like old times.

We took custody of our new place on February 1st, and I have been back and forth from Chicago to there numerous times since then, usually bringing a full load of household goods with me. This week, I’m staying in Chicago in a hotel, under my new work paradigm, where I spent one week each month at our office in Naperville, and work remotely from my home office the other three weeks. When I get back to Des Moines next weekend, we have one more small furniture delivery to receive, and one last room in which to hang art and decorate, and then the new nest will be pretty much complete and ready to serve as home for however many years this chapter in our story is going to last. That will feel really, really good after three years of maintaining two residences, and enduring regular long-term separations.

There are some things in life that get easier as you get older and wiser, but moving is not one of them. When I was a kid, we moved regularly with my Dad’s Marine Corps careers. In the early years of our time together, Marcia and I moved twice in Northern Virginia, twice in Idaho Falls, and twice in New York, before settling in for a nice 12-year stint at Cord Drive in Latham — the longest I have ever lived in one place. I used to be really good at moving, both in terms of the physical aspects (Young Strong Man Can Lift All Furniture, Huttah!), and the psychological ones, which in some ways were eased by living most of the time in either military or academic cultures, where everybody was a n00b every year, and nobody was immediately obvious as the “one of these things is not like the other” cast member.

But somewhere along the line, likely after that long spell in Latham, I turned into a grouchy set-in-my-ways old man with a body that feels the effects of every heavy box that I lift for days after I schlep it. Get of my lawn, you kids!! And where are my back pills?!

By virtue of the way that we’ve had our lives set up over the past three years (one apartment and one storage unit in Des Moines, one condo with a storage cage in Chicago), it has taken multiple little moves between those destinations over a two-month period to get us to the point of almost being settled in our new place, so that’s even harder than the usual rip-the-Bandaid approach of quickly hauling a single household to a new place in one fell swoop. So I’m ready to sit. I’m ready to settle. Bring me some tea and my slippers and point me to my comfy chair. I’m good.

Over the next few months, Marcia and I have trips to Florida, the Carolinas and Greece (30th Anniversary!) lined up, and I’m very much looking forward to traveling that does not involve hauling heavy loads, and that has us leaving from and returning to a single destination: Home. I know that this is not our final one of those (we’ll be going somewhere warmer when retirement time rolls around, guaranteed), so that also means that we’ll need to move on at least one more time, and I’ll be older, grouchier, and stiffer when we do it . . . but once it’s done, we’ll have a new base of operations for new adventures, just as we do now, and that’s a comfort and a blessing, all things considered.

The Trees That Move Us

Those of us who count ourselves as “tree people” generally don’t leave our interest in trees at our work sites but are also awed and moved by them in our personal lives as well. We look for and admire great trees in the cities, fields and forests where we work, live and travel, and then we also seek out opportunities to celebrate trees in books, art, music, and in all of the other myriad of creative arts.

On one of our recent snow days, I bundled up and walked over to the Art Institute of Chicago – my favorite place in my favorite city, hands down – and wandered around the various galleries there as I often do. In the 19th Century European Art collection, I saw a wonderful painting that I’d not noticed before by Albert Bierstadt, depicting a glorious stand of birches around a rocky waterfall.

And then I decided to have a full tree day at the museum, walking through every gallery, seeking out great trees in the collection. It was a wonderful way to re-experience galleries that I’ve seen more times than I can count, looking through a different lens at paintings, decorative arts, sculptures, and more. I found abstract trees, photographic trees, and impressionist trees. I was awed by the ways that artists were inspired by trees over centuries and around the world. I shared my findings on social media, and they were widely liked, commented on, and retweeted.

A couple of weeks later, I was home again and the song “The Trees” by the BritPop band Pulp came up on my stereo. Once again, thinking about trees, I decided to have a tree music day, going through the 14,000+ songs that I have on my computer, looking for great ones about trees, woods, forests, and more. I posted my 25 favorite tree songs on my personal website and once again got loads of comments, feedback, and response from others about their favorite tree songs. People just love tree art, in all of its forms.

I recommend you have your own museum tree day, or make a tree song playlist, or look at some other creative idiom through tree lenses. It’s truly rewarding to actively consider how the trees we care for professionally enhance our lives beyond their scientific and landscape value.

The Albert Bierstadt painting that inspired my Tree Day at the Art Institute.

St. Kitts

Updated February 16, 2019: We got home last night at around 1 AM after a long day on planes and in airports. I completed our photo album from the trip this morning. You can click on the beach horse (Marcia’s photo) below to be taken to the full gallery:

Marcia and I are in the Caribbean island nation of St Kitts and Nevis this week. We had a fantastic island tour from Barry Wyatt, who met us at the airport and then spent four hours a couple of days later showing us his home nation, with knowledge, perspective, wisdom and pride. We have also had two brilliant dinners at Tiranga, an excellent Indian restaurant right across the street from the Marriott Resort where we are staying. If you visit St Kitts, I heartily recommend you give Tiranga a shot for one of your remaining meals, and then call Barry for a great tour, too. You will not be disappointed! As always, I’m constantly snapping photos, and will do my usual Flickr album when I get home, but here are a sampling of the sights we’ve seen so far (obviously if I’m them, then those are Marcia’s snaps), with a few days yet to go before we return to the frozen north. Enjoying it while we can, life is good!

Regular English Speaking Tree Nerd On Holiday

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.

If you’re ever a little bit of a tree nerd yourself, then 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.

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.