We Now Resume Our Regularly Scheduled Social Media Blackout

Long-time readers here may recall that I bailed on Facebook in 2012 and Twitter in 2018 after having been quite active on those platforms at various times. In both cases, I found that the time-killing, soul-sucking shrillness, nastiness, deception and profiteering of the sites got to a point where they just made me angry, stupid, slow and tense. And once something that was supposed to fun becomes painful instead, it seems sensible to kick it to the curb. Done and done.

When I registered for the Iceland Writers Retreat earlier this year, they were using a Facebook group to communicate with participants, so I felt obligated to sign up for that, and did. I said “howdy” to a ton of old friends I hadn’t seen for a long time in virtual space once I got there, which was nice, but the ickiness factor of what showed up on my wall quickly made it all feel unpleasant again. So once the Writers Retreat became yet another COVID casualty, it was an easy decision for me to also close out my Facebook account again.

A few days back, a community of fun and creative folks who I regard highly among my digital friends decided to do some live tweet events that were of interest to me, so in the spirit of positive connectivity that feels important now, I activated my Twitter account again to be able to participate in those events. I only followed a few friends, I customized my trends and interests, and I blocked all the words that I loathe seeing online, but my page was still quickly filled with crap every time I looked at it. When I logged on this morning, the “trending now” bar was filled with things like “#PelosiHatesAmerica,” “#DemocratsAreDestroyingAmerica” and other stupid, dangerous, hateful fare. Of both left and right stripes, I will note, to be fair.

So I immediately deactivated my Twitter account again. Life’s just too short and the times are just too tense to be spending time, by choice, getting punched in the face over and over again with the bloodied gloves of hatred and stupidity. I am putting this note here on the blog for those who may have briefly glimpsed me on Facebook and/or Twitter this month and wonder why I am not there anymore. Sorry about that. It wasn’t you, it was me. Well, unless you were posting or propagating that kind of stuff, in which case it was you, and we probably shouldn’t be communicating regularly anyway.

I do appreciate that having a place to commune with distant friends online would be helpful right now, but it can’t be a place where disinformation and destruction are being peddled for profit. Hit me if you know of a good online sandbox that isn’t filled with cat turds. I’ll bring my bucket and shovel.

I’m off to my happy place. Maybe there will be fish.

An Adventure in Creativity

You know how sometimes there’s a bunch of things going on in your life that don’t seem to be connected in any meaningful way — until in a startling moment of clear seeing, you realize that they really are, and quite profoundly so? Well, here’s a little story about that . . .

In the months leading up to the 2018 mid-term elections, I found myself feeling really disgusted and dismayed about the ways that the time-killing shrillness of modern sociopolitical discourse via social media had just gutted my personal productivity, mood and motivation over the prior couple of years. Yes, the political matters at stake were (and remain) truly, deeply important, and I knew (and know) that I needed to stay alert, informed, woke, and engaged, but the unrelenting barrage of noise that surrounded and muffled the signal of interest to me eventually got to be really soul-crushing. The harder and more often I tried to be happier, smarter, quicker and calmer about things by turning to my smart phone or my computer, the angrier, stupider, slower, and more anxious about things I ended up feeling.

After the mid-term elections, when I was working on my annual year in review for my website, two things leapt out at me. First, the number of books that I had read during the prior year was ridiculously, embarrassingly small. Second, I did a little calculation based on the number of tweets I’d posted on Twitter (my main social media outlet; I’d thankfully bailed on Facebook in 2012), and I figured that I had poured four or five novels worth of words into the ether along the way — and had absolutely nothing of value to show for any of them. For a writer, that was a real wake-up call.

I set myself three goals for 2019 in response to that sense of disgust that I was feeling. Two were pretty straightforward: read more books and less social media, and read better political coverage and less often. It took a little active effort to break some of the muscle memory habits that drove me to my phone and computer throughout the day, but bailing on Twitter and a couple of other social media communities certainly helped to hone my focus in more positive, productive ways. It was actually kind of amazing how much open time I found myself with, truth be told, not to mention how many books I devoured over the course of the year. (Here were my favorites, if you need some recommended reads of your own).

On the second political news goal, I limited myself to a few trusted, proven, stable outlets, checking them only once or twice a day. 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. If a website or phone app had a “refresh” button (literal or virtual) on it, then I really didn’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. Enough.

My third goal for 2019 took a little more thought and effort. In short, it read: “Write better stuff, about something different.” I knocked around a bunch of simmering ideas over a couple of months, and eventually framed a year-long project I dubbed “Credidero.” I won’t explain the logic behind the whole thing again today, since a lot of you reading this might have read that too, but here’s the full-length precis, if you’re interested. The gist was that I would research, consider, and write about one core concept each month from a list of twelve topics that I established at the start of the year, to try to develop some sense of belief and focus about each of them, and then, hopefully, to develop something of an actionable mental manifesto when all twelve pieces were done and aggregated.

The first couple of months felt a little tentative and forced to me, but eventually I found myself falling into a good groove and stride, and really flexing some mental muscles that I hadn’t used in a while, in positive, life-affirming ways. On June 19, 2019, I reached the half-way point of the project, when I posted Credidero #6: Creativity. Having re-read and edited all of the Credidero articles after I finished the project, I must say this was certainly one of my favorites in the sequence, as it actually had little textual tentacles that touched on almost every other one of the pieces, and also on the very core matters that I was seeking to address in my own creative life. It was impossible for me to achieve my “write better stuff” goal if I wasn’t being actively creative, at bottom line, and this piece served as a mid-year tent-pole for the project as a whole, even if I didn’t really realize it at the time.

There were two key beliefs and take-outs that emerged for me from that piece, especially in how I viewed creativity in my professional work, and not just in my personal projects. Here’s how I described those two ideas:

Creatio ex nihilo [creation from nothing] 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.

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.

 

Soon after I wrote those words, my family life took a sudden turn after my wife and I were presented with an unexpected (and wonderful) opportunity to embark upon a sabbatical year in 2020. After much reflection, I announced my resignation as President and CEO of TREE Fund, to be effective November 2019, and my wife and I made plans to consolidate our household in Des Moines (where our daughter lives) in early 2020, after having split time between Chicago and Iowa for the prior three years for professional reasons. We planned (and plan) to use the year to travel together, while my wife took on some exciting new opportunities (getting certified as a yoga instructor, landing a teaching engagement at a law school, and taking on some contract legal work that she could do from the comfort of our new home), and I decided to make a pivot back to an earlier phase in my career, anchored in freelance writing, with special effort devoted to bring some long-dormant projects, manuscripts and ideas to fruition, nourished with the gift of time that our sabbatical would afford me.

While this was all still settling into place in July 2019, I happened to click on Messy Nessy Chic, one of the small number of beloved online outlets that I’d kept in my personal, positive portfolio of valuable internet resources. It’s a gem of a site: beautiful, positive, though-provoking, and prolific, a real treasure trove of exciting finds and interesting analysis, beautifully curated and presented. One article in particular grabbed my attention that day: If He Likes The Way You Think, You Can Borrow His Private Island for Free. The “He” in that headline was Fredrik Härén — “The Creativity Explorer” — a widely-celebrated and highly-acclaimed author and global keynote speaker, primarily on the topics of creativity, change and global/human mindset. His World of Creativity blog is (like Messy Nessy Chic) a brilliant resource, challenging its readers to “become more creative by being inspired by creative people from around the world,” and then delivering on that promise.

And the “Private Island” in that Messy Nessy article? That would be Ideas Island Vifärnaholme, a small island with a small home on it, near Stockholm, Sweden, owned by Härén, and offered for a few months each summer as a safe haven for creatives to bring their work to fruition, one week at a time. Here’s how Härén and his team describe Ideas Island’s mission and goals:

Did you ever wish you could just get away and sit alone on a private island and just focus on your best ideas? Well, now you can.

Ideas Island has been been created as a safe haven for creatives. A place made to inspire and motivate people with great ideas to make those ideas happen . . .

We want to help create an environment that helps to bring some great ideas to life. And we know that truly great ideas come when we are in solitude, when we are relaxed, when we are close to nature and when we feel in tune with the universe.

 

As I read that article, I immediately flashed to a long-simmering project that actually has its genesis deep in my childhood. I’d gotten it into close-to-complete book proposal form around 2014, but then our move to Chicago and life in general just pushed it onto the back burner, where it has sat ever since, occasionally bubbling a bit to remind me of its existence. That proposal, and the idea embedded in it, actually had a direct resonance with and relevance to the Ideas Island concept, and how people in tiny places perceive the larger world around them. It also nestled nicely within the greater personal work I’d done in 2019 on creativity with my Credidero project, and how the act of creation can be deeply isolated and personal, locally relevant, and globally resonant, all at the same time, whether in the traditional creative arts (writing, music, painting, etc.), or in the  emergent milieu of world-wide technological, charitable and corporate communities.

I sent my wife and daughter a link to the Messy Nessy article about Ideas Island and said, “Hmmm . . . maybe I should apply for this in 2020.” And, because on some plane it is consistent with the sorts of things that I often do that my family members (lovingly) refer to as “Stupid Eric Tricks,” they both said “Oh, yes, of course, you should do that!”

So I did. And I’m pleased, honored and awed to report that earlier this week, I heard from Fredrik Härén and his colleague Anna Liza Decierto with a most-generous and most-thrilling invitation to be one of their selected guests for a week on Ideas Island this summer. Come September, I will take a plane, then a train, then a bus, then a taxi, then a rowboat, and I will set foot on Ideas Island with a backpack full of food, and a laptop computer, and a body, soul and mind receptive to the gift given to me, and the time to live, quietly and fully, with the idea I presented to them. I am hopeful that this opportunity will allow me to fully manifest this long-simmering idea, but I’d also be thrilled if this opportunity results in an “ah-ha” moment that takes it elsewhere, with clarity and purpose. I’m open to the experience, let it take me and my idea where it will.

Having a firm date for departure on this most excellent adventure will certainly serve on its own to help me structure and schedule the work I want and need to do this spring and summer to make the time on Ideas Island as valuable as it can possibly be. The timing is also really good in terms of the work I plan to do in Iceland and Iowa City this summer (I am attending the Iceland Writers Retreat in April-May,  and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in June), which could have some applicability to the project I presented to the Ideas Island folks. And who knows what might get thrown into the mental hopper here over the next six months. I’ll have an amazing week to process it all, at bottom line.

One other thing to note before I wrap this up. After I retired from full-time nonprofit work after a cool quarter century, I wrote a piece called Nonprofit Management: Tips of the Trade. One of the ten tips offered read thusly:

4. Develop a thick skin: I often use a sports analogy when I discuss the life of a nonprofit fundraiser, noting that a really good professional baseball player will hit at or above .300 over the course of a season, meaning that 70% of his at-bats result in failure. Well, guess what? A really good fund development or institutional advancement professional has about the same success rate in a given year, and if being told “no” hurts your feelings, then you’re in the wrong business. Some nonprofit executives think they can get around this by having their development directors and/or board members make all of the hard asks, but that’s a recipe for failure over the long haul. Peer-to-peer asks are crucial, and many times you are the right person to make such asks, and many times you will receive a negative reply after you make them. They key to enduring that is to recognize that most “no” answers are actually “not now” answers, and to practice your swings and hone your skills until the next at-bat comes around, with a smile on your face while you do it.

 

As I left the nonprofit sector and returned to freelance writing and consulting work, I knew I would have to be particularly mindful of this, since it can be hard, lonely, and frustrating to send out the project proposals and applications that fuel such work, knowing that many-to-most of them will be met with polite “no thank you” responses, or silence. But I also know from long experience that sometimes it only takes one “yes, please” response to a competitive proposal to really re-energize things and provide the motive force and energy needed to push forward, especially in the ever-more-challenging creative world nested within a 21st Century Gig Economy.

My successful proposal and invitation to Ideas Island came at a really good time for me on that front, for a variety of reasons. I share this personal fact with you in a spirit of creative camaraderie. If I had not applied, I would not have been accepted. Pretty reductive and obvious, but totally true nonetheless. I know that there have been many potentially exciting opportunities over the years where I just couldn’t muster the time and energy to try, since the outcome wasn’t as certain as other easier, but less rewarding paths, might have been. So I’m really glad that I did apply this time. It was the right proposal to the right time to the right person for the right thing, whether I knew that for sure at the time I pushed the “submit” button or not.

I close as I opened: You know how sometimes there’s a bunch of things going on in your life that don’t seem to be connected in any meaningful way — until in a startling moment of clear seeing, you realize that they really are, and quite profoundly so?

Well, tell me a little story like that . . . I can’t wait to read it!

The house on Ideas Island. Creative adventure, here I come!

Writing Songs

My primary goals for our 2020 sabbatical/retirement year (Marcia and I sometimes see it as one type of year, and sometimes as the other, depending on how we feel about taking on new salaried/in-house jobs at some point, sooner or later) are to settle on where we want to live for the long haul, and to get back into the writing routines I maintained in the ’90s and early ’00s, when I regularly created creative work, and sold it when and where I could.

There wasn’t much money there, truth be told, but credits tend to conceive credits, and bylines tend to beget bylines, and having markets and audiences for work makes work feel a bit less work-like, if you know what I mean.  Having put my creative chops (mostly) on the back burner for a lot of years, while focusing instead on the wide range of salaried professional writing for which most readers here probably know me, I’m now ready (and have the time) to do the work I need to do to bring those creative urges and outcomes back to the fore in the years ahead, for fun, for sure, and maybe for profit, fingers crossed.

I know from experience that part of that creative process flows from putting myself into creative situations with creative people, where sparks fly, networks form, inspiration oozes and feedback loops make weak work better, and good work great. I’m keeping eyes open for other opportunities, but at the moment, I’m currently registered to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat in April-May,  and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in June. I look forward to both events, and go into them with open mind and open heart, ready to be motivated and moved.

In advance of those programs, I’m going back through a lot of work from the past decade or so (mostly short stories, some poetry, some essays, some plays-in-one-act) that I created, but that I never marketed. Some of it objectively deserves to stay hidden, but with the distance of years, some of it reads pretty darn good to me now, and I’m excited to roll it out. I am also formulating some plans for new material, perhaps even another novel, now that Eponymous is pushing 20 years old. Never say never again, I guess.

All of that comes by way of introduction to what this post is really about, if the title seems confusing. Bear with me. You know I like to ramble, but I always get where I’m going.

So! A few weeks ago, when I was thinking about writing and going through old files, one of the top discs on my Best Albums of 2019 list — Bulat Blues by Daniel Kahn — was spinning. Kahn is an expat American in Germany, working primarily with The Painted Bird, a “Klezmer Yiddish Punk Cabaret” ensemble. Bulat Blues is an album of chansons by Soviet-era composer Bulat Okudzhava, translated into English by Kahn, who performs them accompanied by Russian guitarist Vanya Zhuk. I’d never heard of any of them a year ago. Now they’re indispensable listening. That’s good stuff, that is.

One song in particular from that great album wormed its way into my consciousness as I sat at the computer: “Historical Novel.” You can read the full lyrics and hear the song here. They’re brilliant, and they perfectly capture the “writers gotta write” thing that drives me to churn out gazillions of words here and elsewhere, just because I might bust something if I don’t. The chorus sums up that drive thusly:

So, we write it
How we hear it
How we hear is
How we breathe it
How we breathe it
So we write it
Never trying to appease
That’s the way that nature made us
Don’t ask why
It’s no one’s business
Who’s to argue or to judge?

I spun the song a few times consecutively, letting it marinate and resonate with me, and that got me to thinking about other similar songs about writers and writing that move me, and might make a nice playlist for me and other creative scribblers to consider. It seemed like such an obvious topic that I expected it to be a simple exercise. Like, say, my Tree Songs post. Have idea, search the 15,000ish songs on my computer, bang out fun post. Done!

As it turns out, though, I was actually surprised by how few songs I had in my collection about the act of writing books, stories, articles, poems, prose, journalism or other print work (and the writers who write them) — as opposed to how many songs I own about writing songs, and songwriters. There are loads of those, but when I discounted that latter category as not quite what I had in mind, I found the pickings to be quite on the slim side. Hmmm.

Still, once a challenge sets itself before me, it gnaws at me until I complete it, so tonight I roll out a baker’s dozen great songs about writing and writers for your delectation (beginning with “Historical Novel”), and I welcome your suggestions for others to add to this playlist. Some of the songs are about the act of writing, some are about specific writers, some about particular works. Some of them are clearly, pointedly on-topic, while some just glance at the core concept, but in ways that work for and resonate with me.

I write best with a soundtrack, and it would be good to have more inspirational fare at my disposal as I bang away at my keyboard in the year(s) ahead . . . so hit me with your suggestions! I needs ’em! (And I will do a “part two” of this post, once another dozen or so pop up on my radar screen).

#1. “Historical Novel” by Daniel Kahn (feat. Vanya Zhuk)

#2. “Screenwriters’ Blues” by Soul Coughing

#3. “Let’s Write A Book” by Field Music

#4. “Anne Frank Story” by Human Sexual Response

#5. “The Painter Paints (And The Writer Writes)” by Shriekback

#6. “Poetry Man” by Phoebe Snow

#7. “Paperback Writer” by The Beatles

#8. “Rewrite” by Paul Simon

#9. “Autobiography” by Sloan

#10. “Writer In The Sun” by Donovan

#11. “The Engine Driver” by The Decemberists

#12. “We Call Upon the Author” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

#13. “The Writer” by Ian Dury

2019: Year in Review

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

ON THE BLOG:

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

I completed my planned Credidero writing project this week, an act of thinking out loud in public over the past year about a dozen concepts of interest, looking to see what beliefs might emerge from such active reflection and analysis. It was satisfying to click the final “publish” button, seeing that effort to fruition. Of course, I’m lousy at letting things go cleanly, so I will re-read and mull the entire project output soon, and write one last summarizing article in January, to assess themes or thoughts that emerge from between the lines for me.

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

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

ON THE WEB:

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

TRAVEL:

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

RECORDINGS:

I’ve already posted my Most Played Songs of 2019 and Best Albums of 2019 reports, and consider 2019 to have been an outstanding music year.

LIVE PERFORMANCES AND ART EXHIBITIONS:

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

BOOKS:

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

FILMS:

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

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

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

AND  THEN . . . .

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

Credidero #10: Authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue

 

Credidero #7: Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue