Comfy Captivating Conversations

Referred by a current member? Enjoy the Frequently Asked Questions’ section below. Helping me assemble a contingent of new, French-speaking membersClick here. Looking for the If Not For’ podcast? Click here.

What is the trees?

It’s a phone conversation club, hand-filled with warmhearted, genuine, thoughtful, intellectually curious people. From around the globe.

Members gather in ever-changing combinations of 4, for 45-minute phone calls, to discuss topics far and wide, from the deadly serious to the absurdly silly.

What are the calls like?

We recorded a slew of calls during the early testing phase for the trees in December of 2016. Below is an 8-minute excerpt from one of them. The topic was this Washington Post article

The participants were Suzanne, a novelist from Atlanta, Emma, a startup founder from Seattle, Kat, a corporate organizational development consultant from Schenectady, NY, and Claire Michelle, a children’s librarian from eastern Pennsylvania.

(Music by Joel Newton)

Do you still record the calls?

We haven’t recorded calls since testing wrapped up in 2017.

However, some members are big podcast fans and they’ve been encouraging me to give each call group the option to record their conversation, so it can be shared publicly.

If we decide to do this, it won’t happen until summer, at the earliest.

How often do members participate in calls?

It depends on what topics they are interested in and how often they like to participate. Some members are on calls every few weeks. Some are on calls multiple times per day.

What does membership cost?

For folks who join during the beta period, membership will be free forever.

For folks who join after the beta period, membership will be $100/​month ($5/​month for anyone with a financial hardship).

When will the beta period end?

We don’t have an estimated date yet.

Where did the idea for the trees come from?

It’s the online, fortuitously pandemic-safe version of the hobby I’ve been obsessed with since 1986 — sending warmhearted, genuine, thoughtful, intellectually curious people out to lunch together.

Laura, a social worker, Renee, a palliative care nurse, Deb, a children’s librarian, and Courtney, a horticulturalist, talking during a lunch I organized for them, last year at Denver’s Saigon Bowl.

I inherited the hobby from my dad.

After graduation from Columbia Journalism School, 1960.

He was a Borscht Belt comedian in the 50’s and aspired to be a television comedy writer. But he came to his senses when he met my mom, and decided to become a television journalist instead. Though my dad was extremely funny, it was a good decision.

One day in 1973, he had a brainstorm about how to combine his two passions of comedy and journalism. The following Wednesday, he invited a bunch of carefully sense-of-humor-matched journalist colleagues from NBC News and The New York Times to have lunch at a Chinese restaurant.

He kept bringing different combinations of sense-of-humor-matched journalists together, always at Chinese restaurants, every Wednesday, like clockwork, for 42 years.

In 1980, when I was 11, if I had a Wednesday off from school, he’d bring me along.

It had an indelibly positive effect on me.

In mid-2016, I came down with a several-months-long case of insomnia. The long stretches of solitary, conversation-free time really bothered me…until the night I suddenly realized that everyone on the other side of the world was wide awake.

It was effectively when this project started.

How do you find reliably warmhearted, genuine, thoughtful, intellectually curious people?

Almost all come through referrals from current members.

Can you tell me more about the effort to build up a contingent of French-speaking members?

Almost all of our members are English-first speakers and hail from the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand.

I’d like to diversify the membership, geographically and cultrurally, and I think a second language is a good frame in which to do so.

Just to clarify, I’m looking for people who are bilingual in English and French. They don’t need to be native French speakers. Nor does French need to be the primary language they use in their daily lives.

Interesting factoid: French is an/​the official language in Belgium, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Haiti, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mali, Monaco, Niger, the Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, the Seychelles, Switzerland, Togo, and Vanuatu.


How does the trees work — logistically?

Multiple times each day, I go through the following process. I —

  1. Pick a topic (from among those suggested by members) in the form of a video, podcast, Tweet, or news article.
  2. Come up with a question to stoke a discussion around it.
  3. Scan the member roster and pick out a small pool of folks I’m confident will be fascinated by the topic, the question, and one another.
  4. Text that pool a start time.

    The first 4 members from the pool to respond with an I’m in’ are the ones who participate in the call.

    Why is this project called ​the trees?

    It’s an allusion to my favorite film, The Man Who Planted Trees.

    If you love uplifting stories, Academy Award winners (it received the 1988 Oscar for best animated short film), or Christopher Plummer (he played the father in The Sound of Music), you’re in for a very enjoyable 30 minutes.

    Does the trees have any text discussion groups? Slack channels?

    No. In between calls, it’s quiet.

    Why the phone and not Zoom/​video?

    Sticking to the phone opens things up.

    Folks don’t have to worry about how they look. They can participate while running, walking, sitting, standing, or lounging. And they can connect from places with spotty cell coverage.

    When there isn’t a pandemic raging, do you only gather folks through lunches or do you gather them in other ways, too?

    When it’s safe, and I want to gather a group of people out in the real world, I do it primarily by sending them out to lunch together. But, when time allows, I’ll organize more involved gatherings.

    I especially love big gatherings in beautiful locations. Below is a video about Meddle, a mini-conference I held in 2013 at a 15th century manor estate in the English Cotswolds.

    Set designer, Katie Tharp, and comedian, Eugene Mirman.

    Is your dad still with us?

    Only in spirit.

    Dad and me in the Grunewald, near his and mom’s place in Berlin, 1969. Dad was a journalist with NBC News and we were living there so he could cover the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

    He died in 2015. Pancreatic cancer.

    Dad, in the official garb of the jet-setting journalist, an expedition vest, during Thanksgiving weekend, 2001.

    He’s looking at one of the endless, makeshift 9⁄11 memorials surrounding Ground Zero.

    From the time I graduated college until his death in 2015, dad and I would regularly walk from 86th Street and Columbus Avenue, where he lived, to Battery Park, and back, a 12-mile round trip, talking the whole way.

    What do you do for a living?

    I’m retired.

    Most recently I made my living introducing a very particular strain of tech CEOs to the subject matter experts, creative contractors, and advisors who could help them and their companies solve difficult problems. There’s more info in my bio.

    Can you tell me more about the If Not For podcast?

    It’s not directly related to the trees, but people frequently come to this website looking for information about it.

    In each episode, I interview someone in the public eye about the people who helped make them who they are. Since I do all the interviews in person, we’re on hiatus until the pandemic is squashed. But below is an episode you can listen to.

    It’s with photographer and author Arlene Alda. (If you love audio books, I particularly recommend the audio version of her book Just Kids From the Bronx. It’s narrated by her, her husband Alan, and, among others, Robert Klein and Regis Philbin.)

    Arlene after our interview.

    The two other episodes in the can are with David Plotz, host of the Slate Political Gabfest, recorded at his house in Washington, DC, and with Christoph Niemann, New Yorker cover illustrator, recorded at his studio in Berlin.

    When the pandemic finally gets squashed, I’m slated to interview Jeff Swampy” Marsh, co-creator of the animated television show, Phineas & Ferb, in Los Angeles.

    This project is dedicated to my late, adopted aunt, Deena Stutman, or — as my sister and I knew her when we were growing up — Aunt Silly Billy’.

    Deena, holding my cousin Gary’s daughter, Carli (who’s now working on her doctorate in Applied Behavior Analysis), 1993. Photo by Gayle Shomer.

    My mom met Deena for the first time, in coach, on a transatlantic flight between New York and Berlin, in 1969.

    Mom was returning home to Berlin, solo, with me in tow, after a trip to introduce the only-a-few-months-old me to family back in the States. Deena was starting a solo European vacation.

    I was apparently crying my head off. Deena, in the row behind us, peeped over the seat, introduced herself, and offered to rock me to sleep. My mom took her up on the offer and, as legend has it, I slept.

    Deena, holding me in my parents’ Berlin apartment, only hours after meeting my mom for the first time, 1969. Photo by my dad.