Credidero #10: Authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

 

Re-Shingled

Astute regular readers here may have noticed that two tabs were recently restored to my front page after a several-year absence: Freelance Writing and Consulting. Why so? Why now?

For most of my years living and working in/around Albany (1993-2011), those were key parts of my professional portfolio, and in many cases were among the most gratifying and enjoyable jobs I did. But when I took over a struggling museum in early 2012 after our move to Iowa, that job had such a crushing 24-hour “on call” aspect that I just didn’t have it in me to maintain existing freelance clients or establish new ones. Then my job at TREE Fund had me on the road around the country about half of the time, plus the complicating factor that Marcia and I were splitting time between Des Moines and Chicago for three years, so that era also didn’t lend itself to doing the types of writing and value-added consulting work that I so enjoy.

But that’s going to change in the months ahead with my pending retirement as President and CEO of TREE Fund. We’ll be announcing my replacement there in a couple of weeks, and my last day of employment with TREE Fund will be November 15. I have one more trip planned from Des Moines to our offices in Naperville for turnover, then Marcia and I will be hitting the road on our own for awhile, within the States and abroad. We have some of those trips laid out already, but are really keeping the schedule fairly soft at this point for much of 2020, enjoying the opportunity to go where we want to go, when we want to do so. I am also looking into some writers’ workshops, fellowships, and conferences in the months ahead to reconnect in that professional circle and have the opportunity to hone and market some of my personal projects that have been back-burnered in recent years.

So those factors all lead me to conclude that it’s a good time to re-hang my professional shingle, with the simple act of adding those tabs as a first-step statement of intent. As averse as I am to getting new technology before my old technology has expired (I have had only four home PCs for all of my computing needs since 1993), Marcia and I both got fresh new laptops to take with us, to allow us to work (or play, or surf aimlessly) wherever we are.  (I’m still keeping my trusty home PC up and running, though. Loyalty to beloved and useful devices counts for karma points, you know). While our modern technological era is certainly fraught with challenges, perils, and annoyances, I think there is great joy to be found in being nimble, agile and portable, and doing what needs to be done where it needs to be done, untethered from the ties of home and office. Have computer, will write!

The two pages linked above lay out the areas of past expertise and future interest that I would like to pursue in the months and years ahead. Check ’em out. Am I missing anything? Are they compelling? Comments, critiques, complements or questions always welcome. I very much look forward to helping colleagues new and old, and I am open to conversations at any time if you think there’s something I do that might be of interest and help to you, your business, your board, your donors, or your clients. I’m also grateful for any referrals that you might direct my way. Networks count, and I know I’ve developed some good ones over the years.

At bottom line, if you’ve enjoyed working with me in the past, then there’s no reason for that to stop, at least from my end. We might even enjoy and leverage our professional relationships more fully in a new paradigm, unlocked from some of the structural constraints of the nonprofit world in which I’ve moved for most of the past 25 years. Only way one to find out, right?

Sticker purchased to decorate my new laptop. Words to live by. Bonus points if you know their source.

Island Song

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the October 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here. You should be listening to this song from the greatest animated series ever as you read this article.

So here it is, my final “Leading Thoughts” column for TREE Press, three weeks before I retire as the organization’s President and CEO. As I type, we are in the final steps of the search process to find my successor, and barring something unexpected, next month’s TREE Press should feature an introduction of the new leader for our enterprise. We have outstanding candidates in the mix, and I am confident that the next President and CEO will be able to build on the successes we have experienced over the past four years. I look forward to cheering him or her on, and to continue supporting TREE Fund as a donor, Tour des Trees rider, and advocate.

I will be pleased and proud to continue my personal and professional associations with the amazing community of arborists, urban foresters, landscape architects and other green industry experts who I’ve come to know and respect during my time at TREE Fund. I’ve noted in earlier TREE Press columns that, after some travel, I intend to return to the freelance writing and consulting work that occupied much of my time and talent when I lived in Upstate New York for the better part of 20 years. If you see an opportunity where I may be able to help you, your business, your ISA Chapter, or your clients, I’d be happy to discuss that further. You can always reach me at my website for professional inquiries, to read whatever I might be writing for my own entertainment, or just to say “howdy.” The connections and friendships I’ve made over the past four years are precious to me, and I am happy to continue them!

In my final remarks at this year’s ISA International Conference in Knoxville, I noted that when I reflect on my time at TREE Fund, the thing that I am most proud of is that I believe I have shifted our organizational focus and messaging away from “What should you do for TREE Fund?” toward “What can TREE Fund do for you?” Your continued support is, of course, crucial, but we only earn it by providing you with useful scientific research and education, and by sharing those mission-based products as widely as we possibly can. I believe we have achieved that with our improved website, newsletter and social media efforts, our wildly popular and successful webinar series, and a shift in emphasis for the Tour des Trees to make the focus on community engagement just as strong as the focus on fundraising. We are also putting our money where our mouths are: this year, we expect to break $400,000 in new grant awards for the first time in our history, pushing our total awards since inception over $4.4 million. With $385,000 raised by this year’s Tour, next year’s number should build on that further. It is satisfying to me to leave that strong base behind for my successor.

And with that, I doff my cap to you all, grateful for our time together. Your work makes a difference, and it moves me. Thank you for the opportunity to have served.

Come along with me, and the butterflies and bees. We can wander through the forest, and do so as we please . . .

Credidero #9: Eternity

As I pondered this month’s Credidero topic over the past thirty days, it occurred to me fairly early on that there’s a “one of these things is not the like the other” facet to this particular concept, in that “Eternity” is the only one of the twelve topics that cannot be tangibly experienced by human beings in any way, because it does not actually exist in the natural world.

I could go take a walk right now and experience complexity, or hostility, or curiosity, or any of the other eight topics I’ve considered and written about before this one, but there’s no way for me to experience an infinite span of time — unless I put my absolute faith in the premise of eternal life after death, snuff myself, and evaluate never-ending time as a tree in Dante’s Forest of Suicides. Or, conversely, if I was unexpectedly squished by a bus, and all was well with my relationship with my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at that moment, in which case I could be granted eternal bliss in the presence of the The LORD and all of His angels, world without end, amen, amen.

I certainly don’t intend to do self-harm in the name of research, and I hope that there’s not a bus grill in my immediate future, so those avenues for exploring the concept of endless time are not on the table at this point. And even if they were, do I believe that my incorporeal soul would tread one of those paths when my incredibly fleeting time as a sentient seawater sack plays out? No, not really. I’ve formally directed that my bodily remains be cremated when that time comes, and they’ll presumably be scattered somewhere (informally, I’ve suggested that they should be put in a fire ant nest at Stoney Creek Cemetery), so the closest thing to eternity that the constituent bits which once were me will likely experience is a slow dispersal of elements which will be reintegrated into other living things (most likely plants, or fungi), which will feed other living things, until such time as life is exterminated from our planet’s face, or the planet itself ceases to be. And even then, some of those bits may travel through interstellar space, landing who knows where, who knows when, until the universe itself collapses, leaving behind . . . something? Maybe?

That will take a long, long time, for sure, but not an eternity, in the normal use of that word. While the earliest moments of the universe are mind-bogglingly complex and confusing, and its final moments will likely mirror that incomprehensible chaos, time as human beings understand it will have started at one point, and ended at another, a finite (though immense) period, short of the infinity required to accurately capture the core concept of eternity. Scientifically and objectively speaking, the story arc of every other human being, and every other living thing, will be exactly the same on a macro basis, and even if we aggregate all of the life spans and all of the experiences of all of things that have ever creeped, crawled and croaked across our planet’s surface, we’d still come up with a time span that approached infinity, but never actually reached it.

Eternity is, therefore, a non-existent physical state in a non-metaphysical universe. And yet, it’s a cornerstone concept of most global faith traditions, where gods always have been and always will be, and human souls are presumed to endure over never-ending time spans, once they are sparked into being. (One of the quirky things about infinity is that a thing that has no beginning and no end exists for the the same amount of time as a thing that has a beginning, but no end). A logical corollary of such belief systems is that the periods of time when our souls are resident in their physical forms are essentially non-existent in the grand scheme of things, as ~80 years of corporeal life divided by an infinite number of life-after-death years equals zero, mathematically speaking. If we go to hell after death, then eternity is suffering, always. If there’s a paradise, then eternity is bliss, always. Everything that we are, and everything that we do, in our physical lives, condenses down to a single, timeless point, a toggle-switch in which the indeterminacy of forever is resolved into one of only two possible eternal states.

While I wouldn’t have understood or stated it quite that way, I can tell you that few concepts were more terrifying to me as a young person than this one, having been raised in an evangelical Christian household. The concept of The Rapture — when all believers, alive and dead, would rise to meet The LORD in glory — made eternity even more terrifying, as it could happen any time, and if it occurred during that one little moment of doubt, or that one little second after temptation had become sin, then I would be left behind to bear the tribulation, the Second Coming and the Last Judgment, after which eternal damnation or eternal salvation awaited. All I knew as a young person was that if I had been bad, I could wake up one morning to find that my parents and all of the “good” people in my life were gone. In theory, that should have helped me to behave. In practice, I sinned with great aplomb, and was just scared all of the time that I wouldn’t be quick or thorough enough in my prayers for forgiveness to dodge that incoming Rapture bullet.

This was real enough in my world that I can remember having deadly earnest conversations with friends in middle school church youth groups about what we would do if didn’t make the cut when the Rapture came: where we would meet, how we would hide, what we would do, when finally faced with the undeniable reality of eternity, to ensure that we made the next cut together, and weren’t cast into eternal darkness and suffering. We saw it as some sort of post-apocalyptic action movie scenario, where we’d live on the run, protecting our little community at all costs from the Beast, and the Whore, and the Antichrist and their minions, faithful in our hidden catacomb headquarters, desperately repentant that we didn’t get it right the first time, determined to make amends if only given one more chance. And we had those conversations, more than once, because we all knew that we were woefully inadequate in our abilities to maintain sin-free, fully faithful lives, 24/7/365, so that the odds were stacked against us that we might all be right, true, and squared up in our faith at the precise moment when the virtuous souls began ascending. None of us pondered eternity with any expectation that it would be a positive experience, at bottom line. At least not without a whole lot of suffering before we got there, anyway.

So that’s what “eternity” meant to me through a good chunk of my formative years, a fraught concept fully anchored in an arcane belief system, and not in any observable reality — but terrifying nonetheless. That fear has abated over the ensuing decades, thankfully, and when I ponder the definition of eternity as “infinite time” now as an adult, I find that I can only perceive it at arm’s length, far more so than I can with any of the other Credidero concepts, as it has no meaningful impact or import in how I live my daily life and interact with other human beings. If I have any adult fears related to the concept, they spring from the knowledge that there are a shockingly large number of death cult zealots in positions of national leadership who are actively fomenting unrest in the Middle East in a misguided effort to hasten Armageddon and bring on the end times described by John the Revelator. I suppose eternity isn’t as frightening to them as it was to my young self, so secure are they in their faithful infallibility in the face of some final judgment. Must be nice.

Interestingly enough, the generally accepted definition of eternity as “infinite time” is (in relative terms) somewhat recent, having emerged only in the late Sixteenth Century. The ancient roots of the word are (possibly) found in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language’s aiw, meaning “vital [life] force.” From there we pass through the Latin aevum (age), aeviternus (great age), and aeternus (enduring). That latter form morphed into eternité in Old French, and thence into eternity in Late Middle English. The concept certainly captured long time spans over the aeons, if not infinite ones. There is also a specific philosophical usage where the word “eternity” means “outside of time,” as opposed to “sempiternity,” which is used to describe objects or concepts that exist now, and will continue to do so forever.

The crux of any discussion of eternity’s nuances, therefore, really hinges on whether the word is being used to describe very, very long time spans (which exist in our material world), or infinite ones (which do not). Which begs a second level question: does anything infinite really exist in the observable world? If there is no infinite time, is there an infinite distance, or an infinite mass, or an infinite number of some particular object(s), or anything else that has no beginning and no end when we attempt to count or measure it? Or even anything else that has no beginning and no end and exists somewhere else in the material world beyond our view or understanding?

I’m probably going to create a vision of myself as a most terribly neurotic child by sharing this, but I have to admit that “infinity” was another concept that kept me up at night as a young person, some years before fear of eternal damnation moved to the forefront of my existential anxieties. As a child of the ’60s, I was deeply fascinated by space exploration, and read voraciously about the topic. Our understanding of the solar system was a bit simpler then, with nine planets, and a readily countable and nameable number of natural satellites, plus some junk in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Beyond Pluto, there was Deep Space, which went on (we presumed) forever. I have specific memories of laying in bed thinking about that: I’d fly my mental space ship to Pluto, and then go further. And then further. And then further. And there would still be further to go. I could make myself woozy if I kept at it long enough, trying to comprehend space with no edge and no end. (Honestly, I could probably make myself woozy today if I thought too long about what’s out there 13.7 billion light years away from the center of the universe, at the very leading edge of the Big Bang’s reach; it’s just as mind-numbing to ponder now as it was then, if less scary).

Despite its questionable existence in the real world of tangible human experience (or our questionable ability to perceive it), infinity is a readily accessible, and useful, concept in higher mathematics, which fascinated me to no end when I was studying advanced calculus and differential equations in college. The key kluge to tangibly dealing with infinity is captured in the concept of mathematical limits, where the value of a function (or sequence) approaches some limit as the input (or index) approaches some other value. So we can say that the limit is zero as an input approaches infinity, or we can say that the limit is infinity as we approach zero, or any number of other possible permutations that can be framed by various formulae and equations. We can’t actually get to infinity, but we can understand what happens as we approach it, in perhaps simpler terms. We can also accept that anything divided by infinity is zero — but not that anything divided by zero is infinity. (I’ve seen various explanations and proofs of that concept over the years, and I accept them, though there’s still some sense of logical incongruity there for the casual mathematician).

My math studies in college were one place where contemplating the infinite, the imaginary, and the irrational — and the ways in which they can modeled — was actually a positive, pleasurable experience. One of the most sublime intellectual moments of my life was seeing the derivation and proof of Euler’s identity:

“π,” as most know, is the ratio of the circumference to its diameter. It is an irrational number (e.g. it cannot be written as a fraction), and to the best of our knowledge, it continues irrationally infinitely; it has currently been calculated out to 31.4 trillion digits, and it never repeats in any predictable or discernible fashion. “e” is Euler’s Number, the base of natural logarithms. It has been calculated out to about 8 trillion digits, as best I can ascertain, also continuing irrationally in perpetuity. “i” is the imaginary number unit, which is the square root of -1. It cannot be calculated as it does not exist in the set of real numbers, but it’s a cornerstone concept in complex number theory. “0” is of course, zero, the opposite of infinity, and 1 is the first non-zero natural number, and the first in the infinite sequence of natural numbers. The fact that these five numbers — discovered and/or calculated and/or understood in different times, different ways, and different places throughout history — are provably related in such an ultimately simple and elegant way still utterly blows my mind with wonder and awe, both at the natural order that produces such relationships, and at the human powers of observation that divined and codified it. 

Those mathematical studies also inspired and spilled over into my creative life at the time. Around 1983, I wrote a song called “Anathematics” (there’s a demo version of it here), which included these lyrics, among others:

There’s a school of thought that is so large, it can’t be learned by one.
Six hundred monks are studying it now, but they have just begun.
The more they think, the less they know. They less they know, they’re not.
The more they’re not, the less I am. There’s more to me, I thought.
The limit is zero as we approach infinity.
The future’s uncertain, as only the past can’t be.
Anathematics explains what cannot be . . .

It’s less elegant than Euler’s Identity, certainly, but it was an attempt to try to capture the awesome confusion of the infinitely big and the infinitely small and the ways in which they overlap, taken from the viewpoint of modeling that which cannot be, rather than that which can. So essentially a poetic (and much shorter) version of what I’m doing here in this article, with a stiff beat that you most certainly cannot dance to.

There’s another way, in my life right here and right now, that I find myself reflecting on the limits of eternal time and eternal distance. My wife, daughter, and I all have the Drake Equation tattooed on our right forearms. Here it is, if you’re unfamiliar with it, along with an explanation of the terms embedded within it:

The Drake Equation was written in 1961 by Dr Frank Drake as a probabilistic argument to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. We know a lot more about some of the variables today than we did when Drake postulated this argument (e.g. rate of star formation, fraction of stars with planets, etc.), but for most of the variables related to life, we’re obviously still operating with an observable set of one species on one planet with the ability to cast electromagnetic signals outward to the stars, and we haven’t been doing it for very long, at all.

“L” in some ways is the most interesting variable to me, since we have no idea how long we’re going to be able to keep broadcasting before we destroy ourselves, or something else destroys us. I suspect in the grand scheme of things, it’s likely going to end up being a relatively small number. Imagine, though, if L for human and other civilizations was vastly large, approaching eternal, meaning that once a planet began broadcasting, it would broadcast forever, or at least until the collapse of the universe. I believe that were that the case, we’d be picking up myriad signals from across the galaxy, since I also believe that we are not the first planetary civilization to develop broadcast capabilities since the Milky Way emerged some 13.5 billion years ago. (Compare that to the current estimated age of the universe at 13.7 billion years . . . our galaxy was born about as early as it was physically possible for it to, if our understanding of those ancient events is accurate. Wow!)

Given the immense distances at play, I’m not sure that we’d ever actually meet any of the other civilizations, but it would be transformative for humans on a planetary basis to know that we’re not alone, rather than simply believing it. It would also be truly revelatory to know that our sentient non-human colleagues in our universe are not metaphysical in nature (e.g angels, demons, gods and goddesses), but exist instead in the knowable, experiential world of real things. I’m not a dewy-eyed optimist about how that knowledge would instantly make everything better on earth (we’d likely still be prone to inhumanity in our dealings with others of our species), but it would certainly answer a lot of big questions, and it would certainly present some big opportunities.

After we got the Drake Equation tattoos, my wife summarized what she thinks when she looks at hers thusly: “It reminds me that we are small, but special.” True that, for sure, for now. Given the fact that a longer “L” for humanity means we would have a higher probability of eventually demonstrating that “N” is greater than 1, I’d be most inclined to adopt and hew to a belief structure and practice that’s anchored in managing our lives, our cultures, our civilizations and our planet in ways that increase the likelihood of extending “L” for as long as humanly possible. It seems to me that a belief in and commitment to the tangible (though as yet indeterminate) time span “L” is of greater utility than being afraid of and/or longing for a metaphysical eternity and what it might (though probably doesn’t) represent and contain.

So is anybody up for starting The Church of Maximum “L,” with a defining core belief that “N” is greater than one, if we can only stick around long enough to establish contact and connect? I’d be a darned good early apostle if you need one.

Two-thirds of the family’s Drake Equation tattoos, freshly inked . . .

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

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Five: “Authority”

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

 

My Top 200 Albums Of All Time (2019 Update)

I’ve been keeping lists of my favorite albums since the very early ’70s, when I was a grade school Steppenwolf fan. My tastes have evolved dramatically over the years (though I still like Steppenwolf), so I review and update this list periodically, dropping things that haven’t aged well, and adding new things that excite me and seem to have staying power. It’s been 18 months since a freshening, so today seemed a good day to update.

For many years, this was a “Top 100 List,” but as I’ve gotten older, I feel entitled to expand the roster beyond the century mark, since I’ve listened to a whole lot more music now than I had when I was younger. I also used to exclude “Greatest Hits” and other compilation or live albums, but I’ve gotten less uptight about that, too, since for some artists, their best work may have appeared on singles that only saw long-form release in the form of “Best Of” collections.

So here’s the update, in alphabetical order by artist name. As soon as I post this list, I will invariably change my mind about something, but that’s the beauty of updates, right? Watch this space in 2020 to see what I got wrong this time!

  1. AC/DC: Back in Black
  2. Allison, Mose: Swingin’ Machine
  3. Bauhaus: The Sky’s Gone Out
  4. Beef: Stink, Stank, Stunk
  5. Beefheart, Captain and the Magic Band: Clear Spot
  6. Beefheart, Captain and the Magic Band: The Spotlight Kid
  7. Birthday Party: Junkyard
  8. Black Flag: Damaged
  9. Bogmen: Life Begins at 40 Million
  10. Bongwater: The Power of Pussy
  11. Bonzo Dog Band: Keynsham
  12. Bonzo Dog Band: The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse
  13. Bowie, David: “Heroes”
  14. Bowie, David: Lodger
  15. Bowie, David: Blackstar
  16. Buggy Jive: The Buggy Jive Mix Tape
  17. Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey
  18. Bush, Kate: Hounds of Love
  19. Bush, Kate: The Dreaming
  20. Butthole Surfers: Hairway to Steven
  21. Butthole Surfers: Locust Abortion Technician
  22. Camberwell Now: All’s Well
  23. Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds: Henry’s Dream
  24. Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds: Tender Prey
  25. Chance The Rapper: Coloring Book
  26. Chap: Mega Breakfast
  27. Christian Death: Catastrophe Ballet
  28. Clash: Combat Rock
  29. Clutch: Book of Bad Decisions
  30. Clutch: Elephant Riders
  31. Clutch: Robot Hive/Exodus
  32. Coil: Backwards
  33. Coil: Horse Rotorvator
  34. Coil: The Ape of Naples
  35. Collider: WCYF
  36. Coup: Sorry to Bother You
  37. Coup: Sorry to Bother You: The Soundtrack
  38. Cramps: Bad Music for Bad People
  39. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: Deja Vu
  40. Dälek: Absence
  41. Dälek: Gutter Tactics
  42. Davis, Jed: Small Sacrifices Must Be Made
  43. Death Grips: Ex-Military
  44. Death Grips: Government Plates
  45. Department of Eagles: The Cold Nose
  46. Devo: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo
  47. Diamond, Neil: Tap Root Manuscript
  48. Dogbowl: Flan
  49. Dolphy, Eric: Iron Man
  50. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment: Surf
  51. Dunnery, Francis: Tall Blonde Helicopter
  52. Eagles: Desperado
  53. Earth, Wind and Fire: All n’ All
  54. Einsturzende Neubauten: Halber Mensch
  55. Einsturzende Neubauten: Haus der Luge
  56. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus
  57. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Trilogy
  58. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Brain Salad Surgery
  59. Eno, Brian: Here Come the Warm Jets
  60. Eno, Brian: Another Green World
  61. Eno, Brian: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
  62. Eno, Brian: Before And After Science
  63. Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking
  64. Fairport Convention: What We Did On Our Holidays
  65. Fall: Hex Enduction Hour
  66. Fall: The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click)
  67. Fall: Imperial Wax Solvent
  68. Fall: New Facts Emerge
  69. Family: Bandstand
  70. Family: Fearless
  71. First Aid Kit: Stay Gold
  72. First Aid Kit: Ruins
  73. Fleetwood Mac: Future Games
  74. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours
  75. Focus: Live At The Rainbow
  76. Funkadelic: Maggotbrain
  77. Gabriel, Peter: Peter Gabriel (III/Melt)
  78. Gang of Four: Entertainment!
  79. Gay Tastee: Songs for the Sodomites
  80. Genesis: Duke
  81. Genesis: Abacab
  82. Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
  83. Genesis: Wind and Wuthering
  84. Good Rats: Birth Comes to Us All
  85. Good Rats: Tasty
  86. Grateful Dead: American Beauty
  87. Grateful Dead: Workingman’s Dead
  88. Hall, Daryl: Sacred Songs
  89. Hanslick Rebellion: The Rebellion is Here
  90. Hawkwind: Doremi Fasol Latido
  91. Hawkwind: Space Ritual
  92. Hitchcock, Robyn and the Egyptians: Element of Light
  93. Hot Tuna: America’s Choice
  94. Hot Tuna: Yellow Fever
  95. Human Sexual Response: Fig. 14
  96. Human Sexual Response: In a Roman Mood
  97. Husker Du: Zen Arcade
  98. Idles: Brutalism
  99. Idles: Joy As An Act of Resistance
  100. Imperial Wax: Gastwerk Saboteurs
  101. Jarre, Jean-Michel: Equinoxe
  102. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon: Jesu/Sun Kil Moon
  103. Jethro Tull: Songs From the Wood
  104. Jethro Tull: The Broadsword and the Beast
  105. Jethro Tull: Heavy Horses
  106. Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick
  107. Jethro Tull: A Passion Play
  108. Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures
  109. Joy Division: Closer
  110. Juluka: Scatterlings
  111. Kamikaze Hearts: Oneida Road
  112. Kaukonen, Jorma: Quah
  113. Keineg, Katell: Jet
  114. Killdozer: Twelve Point Buck
  115. King Crimson: Starless and Bible Black
  116. King Crimson: In The Court of the Crimson King
  117. King Crimson: Lizard
  118. King Crimson: Meltdown: Live in Mexico
  119. Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express
  120. Kraftwerk: Minimum-Maximum
  121. Kurki-Suonio, Sanna: Musta
  122. Lateef, Yusef: Eastern Sounds
  123. Lateef, Yusef: The Complete Yusef Lateef
  124. Malibu Ken: Malibu Ken
  125. Michael Nyman: A Zed and Two Noughts (Original Soundtrack)
  126. Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime
  127. Mitchel, Joni: For the Roses
  128. Mitchell, John Cameron and Stephen Trask: Hedwig And The Angry Inch
  129. Mos Def: The Ecstatic
  130. Napalm Death: Time Waits For No Slave
  131. Napalm Death: Utilitarian
  132. Napalm Death: Apex Predator — Easy Meat
  133. New Order: Movement
  134. New Order: Power, Corruption and Lies
  135. Octopus: Restless Night
  136. Parliament: Chocolate City
  137. Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance
  138. Pere Ubu: Terminal Tower
  139. Phair, Liz: Exile in Guyville
  140. Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon
  141. Pink Floyd: Animals
  142. Pink Floyd: The Wall
  143. Presley, Elvis: Peace In The Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings
  144. Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet
  145. Public Enemy: Apocalypse ’91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black
  146. R.E.M.: Life’s Rich Pageant
  147. Renaldo and the Loaf: Songs for Swinging Larvae
  148. Replacements: Let It Be
  149. Replacements: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash
  150. Robbins, Marty: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
  151. Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St.
  152. Rose, Caroline: Loner
  153. Roxy Music: For Your Pleasure
  154. Rundgren, Todd: Healing
  155. Rush: Signals
  156. Sanders, Pharoah: Karma
  157. Schnell Fenster, The Sound of Trees
  158. Sepultura: Roots
  159. Shriekback: Oil and Gold
  160. Simon and Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence
  161. Smiths: Louder Than Bombs
  162. Snog: Last of the Great Romantics
  163. Soulfly: Ritual
  164. Special A.K.A.: In the Studio
  165. Steely Dan: Aja
  166. Steely Dan: The Royal Scam
  167. Steely Dan: Can’t Buy A Thrill
  168. Steppenwolf: Gold
  169. Stevens, Cat: Buddha And The Chocolate Box
  170. Swans: Filth
  171. Swans: Holy Money
  172. Talking Heads: Fear of Music
  173. Television Personalities: Closer to God
  174. This Heat: Deceit
  175. Tosh, Peter: Mama Africa
  176. Tosh, Peter: Equal Rights
  177. Tragic Mulatto: Italians Fall Down and Look Up Your Dress
  178. Tsukerman, Slava et. al.: Liquid Sky (Original Soundtrack)
  179. Utopia: Utopia
  180. Utopia: Swing to the Right
  181. Wailer, Bunny: Blackheart Man
  182. Wall of Voodoo: Happy Planet
  183. Wall of Voodoo: Seven Days in Sammystown
  184. Wasted: We Are Already in Hell
  185. Weasels: Uranus or Bust
  186. Weasels: AARP Go the Weasels
  187. Weasels: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow
  188. Ween: Quebec
  189. Ween: The Mollusk
  190. Who: Who’s Next
  191. Wings: Band on the Run
  192. Wings: Venus and Mars
  193. Wire: The Ideal Copy
  194. Wire: Send
  195. XTC: Black Sea
  196. XTC: English Settlement
  197. Yes: The Yes Album
  198. Yes: Fragile
  199. Zappa, Frank and the Mothers of Invention: One Size Fits All
  200. Zappa, Frank: Joe’s Garage, Parts I, II and III

 

Tour des Trees 2019, Tennessee and Kentucky: Biked!

With a breakfast ceremony this past Saturday, the 2019 Tour des Trees to Benefit TREE Fund came to a close, with the top fundraising team (ISA Southern Chapter) presenting the “big check” for over $371,000 to our Community Engagement Manager, Maggie Harthoorn, who served as staff lead for the event this year.

This year’s Tour was a resounding success, and I can’t praise the work that Maggie, Tour Director Paul Wood, and the rest of our planning committee and support team did to make it so. First and foremost, our ~80 riders and ~20 support team members all made it to the finish line with no accidents, injuries, or incidents of note, barring one over-aggressive truck forcing a rider off the road onto a (fortunately) grassy shoulder, and a few cases of drivers feeling the need to yell at cyclists sharing the roads that we’re wholly entitled to share. The fundraising tally is the highest of the five years that I have served as TREE Fund’s CEO, and it’s still creeping up; as I type, it stands at $376,473. (We will still be accepting Tour donations here through September 30, if you want to make an after-the-fact contribution in honor of this year’s team). Our education ambassador, Professor Pricklethorn, offered 11 school programs for ~500 elementary school children, and we met with a variety of municipal leaders, businesses, and community groups along the way to spread the good word about professional urban forestry and arboriculture, and the scientific research that underpins those practices.

Those successes were all the more remarkable given the conditions under which we rode: ~450 miles over five days, in sweltering heat wave conditions with absolute temperatures in the 90s and heat indices pushing 110 degrees. I had ridden further and done more hill work this summer than I had in any of my prior Tour training seasons (moving to Iowa helped a lot in that regard), but despite that prep, I struggled physically on this Tour more than I had in any other, with the heat just sucking the energy out of me as the days went on, and with recurring cramping problems slowing me down throughout the week. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling that way, and I know that my gratitude for our support team couldn’t be higher, as they pressed along with us, offering encouragement, hydration, nutrition and care to a line of riders that could be stretched out over ~25 miles by the time the day was done. Just amazing, and inspiring.

As I’ve written before, this will be my last Tour des Trees as President and CEO of TREE Fund. The whole team was incredibly kind, understanding and generous toward me this year as I prepare for that personal and professional transition. I am grateful to them in so many ways.  I do intend to stay actively involved with TREE Fund and its mission — as a Tour rider, as a donor, as a volunteer, or however else I can be useful — in the years ahead, and I encourage you to do the same. It’s an important organization doing vital work, and the Tour des Trees is the strong beating heart that powers it.

As is often the case, it’s hard for words to capture the Tour experience well, so I’m going to let pictures give you a sense of my week in Tennessee and Kentucky instead. We have an incredible photographer, Coleman Camp, who rides and shoots with us, often at the same time; I’d be cranking up a hill sometimes and hear a “whoosh” go by me, looking over to see Coleman carrying two large cameras on his back, and still out-climbing most of us to get to the summit for the snaps he wanted. He’s an amazing human being and an inspirational artist: check out his professional work here, and his gallery of this year’s Tour (he’s still adding to it as I type) here. Ride On!

This year’s Tour featured a great variety of riding environments, from shady woodlands with punchy hills to wide open Iowa-esque agricultural regions.

It’s amazing how helpful it is to be cheered on from the roadside as one summits a nasty hill.

Words of encouragement from Paul Wood, our most outstanding Tour Director.

An icy cold towel from the support van hits the spot too.

Our friend Sam from Vermeer organized a trivia event at dinner one night. The winners received Kentucky and Tennessee appropriate cycling jerseys.

Having a route map on our sleeves makes it easy to explain our travels to visiting dignitaries.

We ended the week with an amazing event at Hull-Jackson Montessori Magnet School in Nashville. It was amazing to have a couple of hundred kids running out to greet the riders as they rolled in.

The full team in Clarksville, Tennessee. Where’s J. Waldo? (Hint: Throw the horns!)

Closing remarks on Saturday morning. Quite emotional!

The Big Check!!

The team gave me a TREE Fund jersey autographed by this year’s riders and support crew. I wore it while Coleman used me as an art shot model, with the Nashville skyline behind me.

And thanks once again to Paul Wood and Maggie Harthoorn for their tireless work in coordinating this year’s Tour. TREE Fund’s next CEO will be incredibly fortunate to have them on the team, as I have been.