Saturday, November 28, 2015

The March by E. L. Doctorow

I’ll admit it. I picked this up because I’ve written a novel on the same subject, and I wanted to see how a published novelist handled the material.

The subject? General Sherman’s infamous march through Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864-65 during the American Civil War.

Like my novel, Doctorow tells the story through the eyes of multiple fictional characters, jumping around much more frequently (and deftly) than I managed to do.

Two of the best are Will and Arly, two unenthusiastic Southern soldiers who disguise themselves as Northerners to say alive and wind up trucking along with Sherman’s columns for a while. Arly is a man, and Will is not much more than a boy, and Arly is always lecturing Will, taking the younger one under his wing, teaching him the ways of the world.

Will watched the setting sun glimmer through the moss hanging off an oak tree. Arly said: If there is any good reason for war, it ain’t to save Unions, and it certainly ain’t to free niggers, it ain’t to do anything but to have you a woman of your own, or even of another’s, in a bed with you at your behest. You are talking the highest kind of survival, young Will, the survival you achieve after you are gone to your God that by the issue of your loins has created them that look like you and sound like you and think like you and are you through the generations of descendants. And you know how He fixed it: so that we turn our swords into plowshares and at the end of a day go into our houses and after a good, hot dinner we take them upstairs, these blessed creatures of God who are given to us, and pull off their dresses and their shifts and their corsets and whatever damn else they use to cover themselves till just the legs and breasts and bellies and behinds of them are in presentation to our wonderment...oh Lord. And when we go inside them, plum into their beings, and they cry out in our ear and we feel there is nothing softer, warmer, or more honeyed up in God’s world than what embraces our stiff tool, and we are made by God to shiver into them the issue of our loins, well, boy, don’t talk to me about what you don’t know. And if the bordello ladies you slander are not half of what I am telling you, please to remember they are as much our glorious Southern womanhood as whatever you been dreaming about that Miz Nurse Thompson, who, I can promise you, would taste no sweeter when put to the test than the uglymost whore in those houses by the waterfront.

And it’s that voice--much more than the specifics of what that voice is saying--that I find myself envying. Wishing that I could have had more of that voice in my own novel.

Because Arly’s voice, like many of the uneducated ones in literature, contains wisdom. And it is wisdom that will go on, much in the way that Arly continues to speak to Will after Will has died. Speaking not because anyone is listening, but speaking because certain things need to be said.

I didn’t tell you before, son Will, but though God has given me his signs, he’s always meant ‘em for the both of us, as we have been together since the morning they put you into the penitentiary across from me. That was God’s doing too, as you must know. And I swear to you I feel the mystery of his ways beginning to come clearer. Any day now, I b’lieve we will hear what God has meant for you and me to do in this sad war and what his reason was to take us out of Milledgeville and set us to traveling with the wrong army. There is a mighty purpose that we are meant to fulfill. And if you think I am being too high and mighty--I mean, I know yo’re inclined to the skeptical--need I remind you that God’s messengers in the Bible tended not to be of the upper classes, and Moses himself had even killed a man. So if God now chooses us poor excuses for soldiers, well that’s his way, maybe he thinks if he can redeem us he can redeem everyone. I mean, even you would agree the human race is something of a disappointment to him, ‘cepting, of course, such angels as your Miz Thompson and perhaps that bucktooth whore you cuddled with in Savannah. But for the most part God had so much expectations for us and we have not turned out right. We are his chief blunder. I mean, bats are his blunder, and ticks and horseflies and leeches and moles, and cottonmouths--they are all his blunders, but the greatest of those is us. So when I tell you that I feel the moment is almost upon us when his intention for us is revealed, I want you to believe me. In fact, I already have some idea of the kind of thing he is thinking. You want to know what it is? Willie? You want to know finally what we may be called upon to do?

The human race as God’s greatest blunder. It’s hard to study the history of the American Civil War and not come to the same conclusion.

One character that appears in both of our novels in General Sherman himself. That’s probably not surprising, given the subject Doctorow and I have chosen. What was surprising was how much I liked my own Sherman better than his.

His troops were everywhere drunk. Some stood in front of burning houses cheering, others lurched along, arms linked, looking to Sherman like a mockery of the soldierly bond. It was all in hideous accord, the urban inferno and the moral dismantlement of his army. These veterans of so many campaigns, who had marched with him hundreds of miles, fought stoutly with nothing less than honor, overcoming every conceivable obstacle that nature and the Rebs could put in their way--they were not soldiers now, they were demons laughing at the sight of entire families standing stunned in the street while their houses burned.

Contrast that to the attitude of my Sherman, exemplified in this excerpt from my novel’s climactic scene, where he interacts with a Catholic nun named Sophia and the novel’s main protagonist, a Union soldier named Theodore Lomax.

“Sister,” Sherman said for a third time, his tone taking on a finality, as if he had reached the limit of some predetermined boundary. “I care a great deal. About your safety but more especially his. Sergeant Lomax is part of my army, he is a soldier under my command, and I care more about the life of one of my soldiers than I do about an entire city of Southerners. Until this war is over, that’s the only accounting that means anything to me.”

Sophia spat at him. “You’re a beast, General Sherman. You and all these men you’re so proud of. Theo is right, they’re all animals and you are the vilest animal of them all. Those crimes I’ve accused you of—destruction, murder, rape and desecration—your men did all those things, but they did them because you allowed them to. You gave the orders that allowed them the liberty to plumb the depths of their own wickedness. I wonder if you would be so arrogant this morning if you had been with us last night and had seen your demons plying their craft. If you had seen the fire in their eyes and the blood on their hands I wonder if you wouldn’t better realize your own culpability in all of this.”

Sherman lifted the latching mechanism of the cemetery gate and took several steps backward as he pulled one side of the iron portal open. “I’ve seen them in action, Sister,” he said after a few moments of breathless silence. “Have no concerns about that. In Atlanta, in Savannah, in Columbia, and in a thousand other places along the way. I have seen atrocities like the ones you describe and some that are even worse. But I have also seen the atrocities committed by our enemy, atrocities that go beyond damage to property and people, atrocities that cut to the core of our hearts and minds, to the very fabric of our nation. And I know the only way for us to win this war is to similarly tear out the heart of the Confederacy. Not its armies, not its politicians, not even its cities. To win we must destroy the idea of the Confederacy itself, the glue that holds it together. That means destroying everything its people hold sacred. We must injure their society and the institutions that sustain it to such a degree that it can never be made whole again.”

For Sherman, I believe, understood better than anyone what his men would do if turned loose, and he saw it as the most bitterest of necessities, in many ways like the brutal mathematical logic his friend and commander Ulysses Grant used to pour Union regiment after Union regiment into the meatgrinder of entrenched Confederate positions. Sister Sophia may call the Union troops on Sherman’s march demons, but General Sherman never would. He understood the enemy he was actually fighting.

My book, by the way, is called Columbia, and can be purchased here, just in case any one is interested.

But since this post is supposed to be about Doctorow’s book, let me get back to that, and conclude with my reaction to its most interesting, and most unfulfilled character--Wrede Sartorius.

In the early hours of the morning, Emily Thompson was called to assist when a black woman was brought in unconscious on a stretcher. The woman’s garments were half torn off and she had bruises on her chest and arms. One eye was swollen shut. Her face was battered. She was lifted to the table and what remained of her clothing was removed. After examination, Wrede decided first to repair a vesico-vaginal fistula, and directed the nurses to position her on her knees with her head and shoulders lowered. ...

Wrede Sartorius is a physician, a German immigrant, tending to the Union and Confederate wounded alike in his moving field hospital. And for much of the novel, we see him primarily through the eyes of a displaced Southern woman turned nurse, Emily Thompson.

… Emily had to both hold up a lantern and pass to Sartorius the instruments he called for. She was made queasy by the awful procedure. Wrede’s hands were bloody, his eyes unblinking in their concentration. She looked for some recognizable emotion from him. Was it to be expressed only in the work of his hands? Must it be deduced? God knows what horrors this girl had endured. Emily could not bear to look. But not even the most private regions of the human body were beyond this doctor’s blunt investigation. …

And this is invariably as Emily sees Wrede. A scientist, fundamentally uninterested in the subjective emotions that make life, to her, so rich. It fascinates Emily, this distance that Wrede maintains, but it also, at times, horrifies her.

… Emily supposed the modern world was fortunate in the progress of science. But she could not help but feel at this moment the impropriety of male invasiveness. She knew he was working to save this poor woman, but in her mind, too, was a sense of Wrede’s science as adding to the abuse committed by his fellow soldiers. He said not a word. It was as if the girl were no more than the surgical challenge she offered.

The operation concluded, one of the sergeants said, Uh-oh. The woman was expiring. Terrible sounds came from her throat. They held her, and she stiffened and slumped in their arms.

Wrede shook his head and, with a gesture indicating that they should remove the body, threw off his apron and, with barely a glance at Emily, left the room. His departure, having given her the clear impression that death was a state that did not interest him, left her openmouthed with shock.

Emily fled to an unoccupied alcove window on the top floor. She sat there to regain her composure. She told herself the man was overburdened, a brilliant doctor working week after week in the field. His nerves were strained--how could they not be? The responsibilities of every day on the march were bound to affect anyone. But another thought occurred to her that she would attribute to her own exhaustion, to the hours of unremitting work and the horror of a city burning. It was that Wrede Sartorius, the man to whom she had given herself, was not a doctor. He was a magus bent on tampering with the created universe.

Indeed. Doctorow often portrays Wrede as a kind of sorcerer--a Timelord, to borrow a phrase, here only to observe until some pre-ordained intervention becomes necessary to keep the inscrutable flow of the universe in its channel.

He smiled and shook his head. We know so little. Our medical service is no less barbarous than the war that requires it. Someday we will have other means. We will have found botanical molds to reverse infection. We will replace lost blood. We will photograph through the body to the bones. And so on.

And when it comes to the spirituality that so infused the age--Wrede Sartorius would have nothing to do with it.

At one camp, Emily asked Wrede to examine Mattie. He did, and discussed the condition afterward. This is dementia, he had said. Yet if you were to see into her brain I am sure you would find no pathology. Some mental diseases, you do the autopsy and diagram the lesions. There are crystallized growths. Suppurating tumors. You see changes of color, soft yellow deposits, narrow canyons of eaten-away matter. But with some diseases there is no sign at all--the brain is in physical health.

Emily said, Then it's not the brain but her mind that's afflicted?

The mind is the work of the brain. It is not something in itself.

Then an affliction of the soul, perhaps.

Wrede had looked at her, regretting her remark. The soul? A poetic fancy, it had no basis in fact, he said, as if he shouldn't have had to tell her.

How disappointing, then (at least to this reader) to see the metaphysical ends to which Doctorow directs this character. Near the end of the novel, Wrede finds himself reassigned to an Army hospital in Washington, where he meets both General Sherman and President Lincoln, and then, is present during Lincoln’s death scene in the Petersen House across the street from Ford’s Theater.

Sartorius pushed his way in somewhat rudely and knelt to examine the wound, a small hole behind the left ear. Mrs. Lincoln sat at the side of the bed, holding the President’s hands and weeping. A hand reached past Sartorius and lifted away a blood clot, not the first, that had formed in the wound. This and the mistaken application of brandy to the President’s lips, causing him almost to choke, and the placing of hot-water bottles at his feet, and the keeping of charts recording his vital signs, were all that these many doctors in attendance were able to do. ...

The best of medical science at the time. But none already attending have the skills and vision of Wrede Sartorius.

… The President’s shirt had been removed. As Wrede knelt there, he observed spasmodic pectoral contractions causing pronation of the forearms, a cessation of breath, and then a forcible expiration immediately after. One pupil was conscised to a pinpoint, the other widely dilated. Wrede stood and was suddenly enraged at the numbers of doctors in the small room. The President’s breathing was becoming more labored. Mrs. Lincoln, hearing the rasp, screamed, Oh Abe, Abe, and she fell across the bed. Wrede said loudly to the hushed assemblage, He is finished, he will not last the hour. Your medicine is useless. You should all get out. Leave him alone--he does not need an audience for his death. And, unhearing of the shocked responses of his colleagues, Wrede pushed his way past them down the hall to the front door, and strode off down the street. He had no idea where he was going. The night air was wet, the gas lamps flaring and dimming in the fog.

Wrede’s colleagues weren’t the only ones shocked by this temper tantrum, so blatantly out of character for this uber-clinician, for whom approaching death is but another variable in his clockwork understanding of the human vessel. Except a clue to this uncharacteristic reaction comes a few pages earlier, as Wrede reflects on his first meeting with the President.

He could not stop thinking of the President. Something of his feeling was turning to awe. In retrospect, Mr. Lincoln’s humility, which Wrede had descried as weakness, now seemed to have been like a favor to his guests, that they would not see the darkling plain where he dwelled. Perhaps his agony was where his public and private beings converged. Wrede lingered on the dock. The moral capacity of the President made it difficult to be in his company. To explain how bad he looked, the public care on his brow, you would have to account for more than an inherited syndrome. A proper diagnosis was not in the realm of science. His affliction might, after all, be the wounds of the war he’d gathered into himself, the amassed miseries of this torn-apart country made incarnate.

Ugh. Far better for Nurse Emily Thompson to be called on to play this role, the sentimentality that Doctorow seems determined to imbue into his narrative far better aligned with her natural Southern predilections and her transforming sympathies for the Northern soldiers she is, at first, forced to minister to. Far better that than to use the materialist Wrede Sartorius as a kind of marionette, leveraging his manufactured transformation to mysticism only, as I see it, to further elevate the power of this mass-appealing Lincoln mythology. Where, I wonder, is Wrede’s clinical eye, and the vision it offers for the future of medical understanding and practice, when faced with this most illustrious, but still most unusual of cases? Lincoln could not be saved, just as the poor woman with the vesico-vaginal fistula could not be saved, but is there still not something to be learned from the bullet in Lincoln’s brain? Something more practical than the metaphor of the dying savior?

I thought so. And so should have Wrede Sartorius.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, November 23, 2015

Yellow Lights Really Do Mean Caution

A couple of weeks ago I was talking about Action Plans, the third of three nested elements that make up our association's Operational Plan.

I said that one of the questions I typically get asked about our Action Plans was:

Who's in charge of these action plans? What happens when they are behind schedule or not progressing at all? Who do you hold accountable?

And I started answering this question. I said:

Every Action Plan--and more precisely the Program Objective to which those Plans are attached--is assigned to what we call an individual Staff Leader. This is the person responsible for making sure the Action Plan is completed and the Program Objective is achieved. Notice that I did not say this Staff Leader is responsible for completing the Action Plan or achieving the Program Objective themselves. The reason I make that distinction is because an Action Plan almost always requires the efforts of more than one person--and sometimes entire teams. This is why we have chosen the term Staff Leader to describe their role. That individual, has to lead other staff in order to make sure the Action Plan is completed and the Program Objective is achieved.

So that's who is in charge of the Action Plans. But that was as far as I went, promising to write further about the other two parts of the question. Today, I'll focus on:

What happens when the Plan is behind schedule or not progressing at all?

We assess progress on Action Plans three times a year, just prior to each of our three annual Board meetings. I described this process in my earlier post, but I didn't go into much detail on how we make those assessments.

Partly because we want a simple but effective way to communicate progress to our Board, we have adopted a set of "traffic light" indicators for these Action Plan assessments. It works like this:

Green lights mean go. If everything is going according to plan, if all the steps of the Action Plan that we expected to have done are done, the Plan gets flagged with a green light.

Yellow lights mean caution. If things aren't going according to plan, if things are behind schedule, if we haven't accomplished all we thought we would by assessment time, the Plan gets flagged with a yellow light.

Red lights mean stop. If it's the end of the year and we have failed to complete the Action Plan, or if it's in the middle of the year and it is necessary to abandon the Plan, the Plan gets flagged with a red light.

Now, as I said, this assessment mechanism provides our Board with a quick snapshot of progress in all areas of association activity. We usually summarize all the action plans in a Powerpoint slide or two, simply with the name of the Program Objective to which they are attached, the initials of the Staff Leader that is responsible for them, and their corresponding traffic light colors. At a glance, the Board can see where things are on track, where things are behind schedule, and where things have stopped completely.

But these traffic lights are even more useful for me and my staff. Everybody likes to see green lights, especially on the Action Plans that we are serving as the Staff Leader for. We know our initials and the indicators are going to be shown to the Board, and so there is a built in incentive to advance these Action Plans as far as is expected, even if it means removing obstacles or going above and beyond. So that's good. The indicators help drive performance.

But we also have to be scrupulously honest about where things are not going according to plan. It has taken some time, but a kind of discipline has now been established around yellow lights, where I remind people that they don't mean failure. Yellow lights really do mean caution.

Caution because something is out a whack and there is still time to correct it. A yellow light means let's take a closer look at this Action Plan. Is it really within our capabilities? Do we need a new resource allocation in order to achieve it? Is there a barrier that needs to be moved out of the way? In my experience, it generally breaks down to one of these three conditions, and the addition of resource allocations and the removal of barriers are usually within our reach and just the things that are needed to get the Action Plan back on track.

And if the Action Plan isn't really within our capabilities? Well, that's usually where there's the highest potential for disagreement between the supervisor and the employee. And it's also the place where true accountability needs to come into play.

More on that in a future post.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, November 16, 2015

All Committees Are Not Created Equal

Got into a friendly argument with a colleague about last week's post, where I revisited an idea that I've discussed before: that program committees should report to an association's Chief Staff Executive, or CEO, and not its Board of Directors.

His take? Absolutely not. Never. Committees must always been created by and report directly to the Board.

Governance committees, yes, I replied. Committees that are needed to assist the Board fulfill its governance responsibilities should only be created by the Board and report to it. But committees that are needed to assist the association execute its programs? That's a different story. If the Chief Staff Executive is to be held responsible for managing the association, then allowing program committees to be created by and report to the Board risks undermining the executive's authority.

I saw that he was listening to me, but I don't think he really absorbed what I was saying.

What if the CEO sets up a committee, reporting to him, to determine his own compensation? Wouldn't that be undermining the Board's authority?

Of course. But executive compensation is a governance function. I never said a committee with that purpose should report to the CEO.

Do your committees currently report to you?

No. As I said in the post, we have four different kinds of committees, two engaged in governance who clearly report to the Board, and two engaged in management who, truth be told, don't currently report to anyone. But when the time comes to disband or create these management committees, that's clearly a function I take ownership of.

When's the last time this happened?

This year. I disbanded one committee whose purpose was too broad and replaced it with three smaller committees, each with a much narrower purpose.

Did your Board approve that?

Not really. I presented it as part of the action plan I had developed for the year, but I didn't ask for a vote on it.

Then you're asking for trouble, my colleague told me. Do you know what it means to be staff-driven?

Of course.

Well, when things become too staff-driven, my experience has been that Boards tend to think it's time to replace the CEO.

I haven't named my colleague here, primarily because I've taken the liberty to paraphrase his argument, rather than quote it directly. I may be misrepresenting what he specifically said and thinks (and, if so, friend, I do apologoze), but I have, I think, described a perspective that is all-too-prevalent in the association world.

And what is that perspective? In its simplest phraseology: Staff-driven = bad; Volunteer-driven = good.

My perspective is different, and that perspective must be understood if my argument about who committees should report to is going to make any sense.

"Staff-driven = bad; Volunteer-driven = good" is a false dichotomy. In fact, both staff-driven and volunteer-driven are both good and bad. You've probably already guessed it, but it breaks down like this.

When it comes to governance, volunteer-driven is good and staff-driven is bad. But when it comes to management, staff-driven is good and volunteer-driven is bad.

If you accept this, then my argument about different committees with different purposes reporting to different entities should make more sense. Not all committees are created equal. And as long as some help with governance and others help with management, you don't want them to be.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

I found this on page 302 of my paperback copy of this remarkable novel.

The Boeing tore off through shawls of cloud, the hurtling moment of risk and death ended with a musical Bing! and we entered the peace and light above. My head lay back on the bib and bosom of the seat and when the Jack Daniel’s came I strained it through my irregular multicolored teeth, curling my forefinger over the top of the glass to hold back the big perforated ice cubes--they always put in too many. The thread of whisky burned pleasantly in the gullet and then my stomach, like the sun outside, began to glow, and the delight of freedom also began to expand within me. … Once in a while, I get shocked into upper wakefulness, I turn a corner, see the ocean, and my heart tips over with happiness--it feels so free! Then I have the idea that, as well as beholding, I can also be beheld from yonder and am not a discrete object but incorporated with the rest, with universal sapphire, purplish blue. For what is this sea, this atmosphere, doing within the eight-inch diameter of your skull? (I say nothing of the sun and the galaxy which are also there.) At the center of the beholder there must be space for the whole, and this nothing-space is not an empty nothing but a nothing reserved for everything. You can feel this nothing-everything capacity with ecstasy and this was what I actually felt in the jet. Sipping whisky, feeling the radiant heat that rose inside, I experienced a bliss that I knew perfectly well was not mad.

And when I read this, I think I finally understood what this novel was, or at least what it was trying to be. The novel is the interior mind of a poet, always flitting around, finding deep meaning in things, offering them up to the reader for his possible enlightenment, and then flitting off to the next thing.

There are poets in the novel. Our narrator is one, a famous author named Charlie Citrine, and his recently deceased mentor, Von Humboldt Fleisher, is another. And they certainly have things to say about what it means to be poet in America.

The Times was much stirred by Humboldt’s death and gave him a double-column spread. The photograph was large. For after all Humboldt did what poets in crass America are supposed to do. He chased ruin and death even harder than he chased women. He blew his talent and his health and reached home, the grave, in a dusty slide. He plowed himself under. Okay. So did Edgar Allan Poe, picked out of the Baltimore gutter. And Hart Crane over the side of a ship. And Jarrell falling in front of a car. And poor John Berryman jumping from a bridge. For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America. The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can’t perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar system. Miracle and power no longer belong to him. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here. They exist to light up to enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, “If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn’t get through this either. Look at these good and tender and soft men, the best of us. They succumbed, poor loonies.” So this, I was meditating, is how successful bitter hard-faced and cannibalistic people exult. Such was the attitude reflected in the picture of Humboldt the Times chose to use.

But as much as America may be proud of its dead poets, it does not, by Bellow’s estimation, value them the way human societies once did.

And poets like drunkards and misfits or psychopaths, like the wretched, poor or rich, sank into weakness--was that it? Having no machines, no transforming knowledge comparable to the knowledge of Boeing or Sperry Rand or IBM or RCA? For could a poem pick you up in Chicago and land you in New York two hours later? Or could it compute a space shot? It had no such powers. And interest was where power was. In ancient times poetry was a force, the poet had real strength in the material world.

And by poet, of course I think we’re talking about poets, novelists, actors, musicians, artists; anyone, it seems, with the sensitivity and desire to call others attention to the roughness of the life most of us shuffle through blindly.

That much is clear. The novel also has a plot--as all novels must. Although, at times, the plot is less clear than the author’s intent to reveal to unique value a poet’s mind once had and should have again. Indeed, focusing on the plot, or even the narrator’s entertaining commentary on it, is entirely the wrong way to read this book. The plot is actually there to distract you, the way the poet’s mind is distracted by the ever pressing concerns of American life.

Bellow even drops clues throughout the book that this is the case. One character, Rinaldo Cantabile, keeps pressing himself into Charlie’s concerns, so much so that even Charlie begins to recognize the role Cantabile plays in the drama.

But of course it was his business, because he was a demon, and agent of distraction. HIs job was to make noise and to deflect and misdirect and send me foundering into bogs.

So if you’re going to understand this novel, if you’re going to find the hidden gems it has waiting for you, then you have to treat the plot as Charlie treats Cantabile--as a distraction that is best to be avoided. And when you do that, when you penetrate through the surface shell of the novel’s plot, you begin to interact with the text in the way I think Bellow intended. There you find the deep metaphor that perpetuates throughout--the metaphor of the poetical mind at grips with a changing an increasingly alien society.

There are, as I said, hidden gems, scattered throughout, well worth picking up and pausing to marvel at they way they sparkle in the contemplative palm of your mind. Charlie drops them almost regularly, like breadcrumbs...

“All I wanted to say in the prospectus was that America didn’t have to fight scarcity and we all felt guilty before people who still had to struggle for bread and freedom in the old way, the old basic questions. We weren’t starving, we weren’t bugged by the police, locked up in madhouses for our ideas, arrested, deported, slave laborers sent to die in concentration camps. We were spared the holocausts and nights of terror. With our advantages we should be formulating the new basic questions of mankind. But instead we sleep. Just sleep and sleep, and eat and play and fuss and sleep again.”


“I found when I made my living by writing people’s personal memoirs that no successful American had ever made a real mistake, no one had sinned or ever had a single thing to hide, there have been no liars. The method practiced is concealment through candor to guarantee duplicity with honor. The writer would be drilled by the man who hired him until he believed it all himself. Read the autobiography of any great American--Lyndon Johnson for instance--and you’ll see how faithfully his brainwashed writers reproduce his Case.”


“That’s just it. There never was such a literary world,” I said. “In the nineteenth century there were several solitaries of the highest genius--a Melville or a Poe had no literary life. It was the customhouse and the barroom for them. In Russia, Lenin and Stalin destroyed the literary world. Russia’s situation now resembles ours--poets, in spite of everything against them, emerge from nowhere. Where did Whitman come from, and where did he get what he had? It was W. Whitman, an irrepressible individual, that had it and that did it.”


The reason why the Ulicks of this world (and also the Cantabiles) had such sway over me was that they knew their desires clearly. These desires might be low but they were pursued in full wakefulness. Thoreau saw a woodchuck at Walden, its eyes more fully awake than the eyes of any farmer.

Wonderful thoughts, all. Wonderful and unselfconsciously literary. But don’t take my breadcrumb remark too seriously, because they won’t lead you anywhere. They are gems, but gems that belie a deeper dilemma, a dilemma I came to think of as the Poet’s Dilemma. Charlie (or Bellow?) captures it well shortly after offering the bauble of the woodchuck and the clarity that comes from knowing one’s own desire, when he reflects on how difficult it actually is for him to understand the desires and motivations of the Cantabiles of the world.

And what did I really know of anyone? The only desires I knew were my own and those of nonexistent people like Macbeth or Prospero. These I knew because the insight and language of genius made them clear.

As insightful and as illuminating as the poet’s occasional genius can be--it is won not through the sympathetic observation and deep understanding of non-poets, but rather through flashes of brilliance that transcend poets and non-poets alike. By definition, then, it can’t be bottled and sold to the masses.

But put all that aside. Because the real power of the novel comes when the drama of the plot and characters actually work to serve its extended metaphor. In this amateur’s humble opinion, it’s the novelist’s singular accomplishment, something I’ve most often found--and even then not frequently--in the novels and stories of W. Somerset Maugham. So what a delight it is to find Bellow displaying a similar mastery over his craft. Novelists tell stories about certain people doing certain things, but great novelists use those same devices to tell a deeper story about all people doing all things.

Here, for example, is an exchange between Charlie and Naomi Lutz, a woman he had a love affair with when they were both much younger, and whom he hasn’t seen in many years. Naomi begins…

“You’re a sweet fellow. This visit is a wonderful treat for a poor plain old broad. But would you humor me about one thing?”

“Sure, Naomi, if I can.”

“I was in love with you, but I married a regular kind of Chicago person because I never really knew what you were talking about. However, I was only eighteen. I’ve often asked myself, now that I’m fifty-three, whether you’d make more sense today. Would you talk to me the way you talk to one of your intelligent friends--better yet, the way you talk to yourself? Did you have an important thought yesterday, for instance?”

“I thought about sloth, about how slothful I’ve been.”

“Ridiculous. You’ve worked hard. I know you have, Charlie.”

“There’s no real contradiction. Slothful people work the hardest.”

“Tell me about this. And remember, Charlie, you’re not going to tone this down. You’re going to say it to me as you would to yourself.”

“Some think that sloth, one of the capital sins, means ordinary laziness,” I began. “Sticking in the mud. Sleeping at the switch. But sloth has to cover a great deal of despair. Sloth is really a busy condition, hyperactive. This activity drives off the wonderful rest or balance without which there can be no poetry or art or thought--none of the highest human functions. These slothful sinners are not able to acquiesce in their own being, as some philosophers say. They labor because the rest terrifies them. The old philosophy distinguished between knowledge achieved by effort (ratio) and knowledge received (intellectus) by the listening soul that can hear the essence of things and comes to understand the marvelous. But this calls for unusual strength of soul. The more so since society claims more and more and more of your inner self and infects you with its restlessness. It trains you in distraction, colonizes consciousness as fast as consciousness advances. The true poise, that of contemplation or imagination, sits right on the border of sleep and dreaming. Now, Naomi, as I was lying stretched out in America, determined to resist its material interests and hoping for redemption by art, I fell into a deep snooze that lasted for years and decades. Evidently I didn’t have what it took. What it took was more strength, more courage, more stature. America is an overwhelming phenomenon, of course. But that’s no excuse, really. Luckily, I’m still alive and perhaps there’s even some time still left.”

“Is this really a sample of your mental processes?” asked Naomi.

“Yes,” I said. I didn’t dare mention the Exousiai and the Archai and the Angels to her.

“Oh, Christ, Charlie,” said Naomi, sorry for me. She pitied me, really, and reaching over and breathing kindly into my face she patted my hand. “Of course you’ve probably become even more peculiar with time. I see now it’s lucky for us both that we never got together. We would have had nothing but maladjustment and conflict. You would have had to speak all this high-flown stuff to yourself, and everyday gobbledygook to me. In addition, there may be something about me that provokes you to become incomprehensible.”

This one practically jumps off the page at you. Charlie and Naomi are old lovers with different sensibilities that grew apart from each other. That’s the story on the surface. But they are also poet and America, the life experience of one incomprehensible to the other. That’s the story below the surface.

But it goes even deeper when Charlie engages with his ex-wife Renata and an admirer named Thaxter. The interplay between these characters, when paired with what the subtext is saying about the role and value of the poet in our modern world with its modern sensibilities--I think it approaches the sublime.

“Trying to keep up with your interests,” said Thaxter, “I’ve been reading your man Rudolf Steiner, and he’s fascinating. I expected something like Madame Blavatsky, but he turns out to be a very rational kind of mystic. What’s the angle on Goethe?”

Mystic? Hmmm. I wonder, is that a synonym for poet?

“Don’t start that, Thaxter,” said Renata.

But I needed a serious conversation. I longed for it. “It isn’t mysticism,” I said. “Goethe simply wouldn’t stop at the boundaries drawn by the inductive method. ...

I don’t know, Charlie. Not stopping at the boundaries drawn by induction. That sure sounds like mysticism to me.

… He let his imagination pass over into objects. An artist sometimes tries to see how close he can come to being a river or a star, playing at becoming one or the other--entering into the forms of the phenomena painted or described. Someone has even written of an astronomer keeping droves of stars, the cattle of his mind, in the meadows of space. The imaginative soul works in that way, and why should poetry refuse to be knowledge? For Shelley, Adonais in death became part of the loveliness he had made more lovely. So according to Goethe the blue of the sky was the theory. There was a thought in blue. The blue became blue when human vision received it. …

Yes. The power of the artist, the poet, the mystic, is to see what the rational mind can’t, and then to make the rational mind confront it and, if the artist, poet, mystic is a great one, admit that it’s rationality is neither the complete nor the only way to understand the world. But, of course, not all artists are great. And not all rational minds will acquiesce.

… A wonderful man like my late friend Humboldt was overawed by rational orthodoxy, and because he was a poet this probably cost him his life. Isn’t it enough to be a poor naked forked creature without also being a poor naked forked spirit? Must the imagination be asked to give up its own full and free connection with the universe--the universe as Goethe spoke of it? As the living garment of God? And today I found out the Humboldt really believed that human beings were supernatural beings. He too!”

“There he goes,” said Renata. “What did you want to start him spouting for?”

Renata, of course, is the rational mind, too often dazzled by the kaleidoscopic patterns of thought “spouting” out of her poet ex-husband, and now too inured by their constant transitions to be dazzled by them any longer.

“Thought is a real constituent of being,” I tried to continue.

“Charlie! Not now,” said Renata.

Thaxter who was normally polite to Renata spoke stiffly to her when she barged into these higher conversations. He said, “I take a real interest in the way Charlie’s mind works.” He was smoking his pipe, his mouth drawn wide and dark, under the big Western brim.

“Try living with it,” said Renata. “Charlie’s kinky theorizing puts together combinations nobody else could imagine, like the way the U.S. Congress does its business, with Immanuel Kant, Russian Gulag camps, stamp collecting, famine in India, love and sleep and death and poetry. The less said about the way his mind works, the better. But if you do have to be a guru, Charlie, go the whole distance--wear a silk gown, get a turban, grow a beard. You’d make a hell of a good-looking spiritual leader with a beard and those paisley nostrils of yours. I’d dress up with you, and we’d be a smash. The way you carry on and for free! I sometimes have to pinch myself. I think I’ve taken fifty Valiums and am hearing things.”

Like what Bellow has previously said about America being proud of but having no more use of its poets, Renata has real affection for Charlie, but dismisses him. His theories are entertainments--nothing more.

“People of powerful intellect never are quite sure whether or not it’s all a dream.”

But Charlie, the novel’s embodiment of the poet’s mind, won’t stop making connections.

“Well, people who don’t know whether they’re awake or dreaming don’t necessarily have that powerful intellect,” Renata answered. “My theory is that you’re punishing me with this anthroposophy. You know what I mean. That blonde runt introduced you to her dad, and since then it’s been really spooky.”

And Renata, the rational America, landing planes and putting satellites into orbit, is going to decide what has value and what doesn’t.

“I wish you’d finish what you started to say,” Thaxter turned again to me.

“It comes to this, that the individual has no way to prove out what’s in his heart--I mean the love, the hungering for the external world, the swelling excitement over beauty for which these are no acceptable terms of knowledge. True knowledge is supposed to be a monopoly of the scientific world view. But human beings have all sorts of knowledge. They don’t have to apply for the right to love the world. But to see what goes on in this respect, take the career of someone like Von Humboldt Fleisher…”

“Ah, that guy again,” said Renata.

“Is it true that as big-time knowledge advances poetry must drop behind, that the imaginative mode of thought belongs to the childhood of the race? A boy like Humboldt, full of heart and imagination, going to the public library and finding books, leading a charmed life bounded by lovely horizons, reading old masterpieces in which human life has its full value, filling himself with Shakespeare, where there is plenty of significant space around each human being, where words mean what they say, and looks and gestures also are entirely meaningful. Ah, that harmony and sweetness, that art! But there it ends. The significant space dwindles and disappears. The boy enters the world and learns its filthy cutthroat tricks, the enchantment stops. But is it the world that is disenchanted?”

“No,” said Renata. “I know the answer to that one.”

“It’s rather our minds that have allowed themselves to be convinced that there is no imaginative power to connect every individual to the creation independently.”

It occurred to me suddenly that Thaxter in his home-on-the-range outfit might as well have been in church and that I was behaving like his minister. …

Yes. Charlie is preaching a sermon, but so is Bellow behind and through him.

… This was not a Sunday, but I was in my Palm Court pulpit. As for Renata, smiling--her dark eyes, red mouth, white teeth, smooth throat--though she interrupted and heckled during these sermons she got a kick out of the way I delivered them. I knew her theory well. Whatever was said, whatever was done, either increased or diminished erotic satisfaction, and this was her practical test for any idea. Did it produce a bigger bang? …

In appearance and intent, so like the Satan, the adversary, to the religion Charlie is preaching.

… “We could have been at the Scala tonight,” she said, “and part of a brilliant audience hearing Rossini. Instead, do you know what we were doing today, Thaxter? We went out to Coney Island so Charlie could collect his inheritance from his dear dead old pal Humboldt Fleisher. It’s been Humboldt, Humboldt, Humboldt, like ‘Figaro, Figaro.’ Humboldt’s eighty-year-old uncle gave Charlie a bunch of papers, and Charlie read ‘em and wept. Well, for a month now I’ve heard nothing but Humboldt and death and sleep and metaphysics and how the poet is the arbiter of the diverse and Walt Whitman and Emerson and Plato and the World Historical Individual. Charlie is like Lydia the Tattooed Lady, covered with information. You remember that song, ‘You Can Learn a Lot from Lydia’?”

The image of Lydia is perhaps as good a place as any to close--conjuring up, as it does, the parallel between today’s poet and the freaks on yesterday’s carnival sideshow. Charlie, Humboldt, and Bellow himself; they would all similarly like you to value the patterns and pictures tattooed on their skin, rather than dismiss them as impractical and more likely a con.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Committee By Any Other Name

One of the very first posts I wrote for this blog (back in September 2011) was titled, "Should Committees Report to the Board?" and it challenged that very piece of conventional wisdom. In the post, I argued that committees whose function was programmatic (i.e., related to how the association managed its programs, not how it governed itself) should, in fact, report to the chief staff executive.

It was intended as a provocative notion, informed mostly by the frustration I was feeling at this time with committee reports clouding up the agenda of a volunteer Board I was serving on. But I recently had reason to revisit this post and the notion it offered, and I have to say that I feel even more strongly about it today as I did back in 2011.

And that, despite the fact that my very own association hasn't formally adopted this convention.

What we have done, and what I recently discovered the need to communicate more clearly throughout our organization, is to identify four different types of "committees," each with a different core function in our association. In our lexicon, "committee" is more appropriately used as a category, describing a class of volunteer bodies that help the association govern and manage itself. Our four types of committees are:

1. Governance Bodies. These are the committees the Board appoints to help it fulfill its governance responsibilities. Examples that most are familiar with are the Audit Committee and the Nominating Committee. When there is Board work that consistently needs to be done away from the Board table, the Board appoints one of these committees to tackle it. Other associations might call these Standing Committees.

2. Strategic Task Forces. These are also committees appointed by the Board, but with a much more specific purpose. Working with one of the areas of strategic priority identified by the Board, the task force helps define what success "looks like," creating a clear set of ends statements and success indicators, and tracking progress against those metrics over time. Other associations may not have examples of these committees, since they are by-products of the specific strategy defining and execution process that our association uses.

3. Working Committees. These committees provide oversight to association programs, and help engage members in program development and delivery. Every association in my experience has committees like these, with typical examples being the Education Committee, the Marketing Committee, and the Membership Committee. When offering my provocative idea about having committees report to the chief staff executive, it was the Working Committees in our structure that I had in mind.

4. Constituency Councils. These are committees organized around specific constituencies in the industry or profession represented by the association. In our world, some examples are the Distributor Council (comprised of fluid power distributors), the Pneumatics Council (comprised of manufacturers of pneumatic products), and the Future Leaders Network (comprised of individuals identified by our member organizations as young and emerging leaders). Their job is to influence program development and delivery to better serve the individual needs of the constituencies they represent, and to help their members get plugged into the association and its benefits.

Now, part of me can't help but wonder if one of the things that creates confusion is the way I refer to them all as "committees," even though they all, intentionally, have been given distinct names--Governance Bodies, Strategic Task Forces, Working Committees, and Constituency Councils. That was done to underscore the idea that we were dealing with four different things with four different functions in our organization. Except, again, these terms themselves are basically categories, since the items that nest under them are sometimes called Committees (e.g., the Audit Committee is a Governance Body). Maybe it would be better to adopt the same term across the board, and allow the modifier attached to it to denote the difference of purpose and function (i.e., Governance Committees, Strategic Committees, Working Committees, and Constituency Committees).

Hmmm. I'll have to think about that one.

But the larger point is that, however we have described these different kinds of committees, we haven't done much to clarify who they report to--if, in fact, they report to anyone at all. Things are much more straightforward with the Governance Bodies and the Strategic Task Forces, as they regularly report their recommendations for action to the Board. But. if I'm going to be honest, I'd have to admit that our Working Committees and our Constituency Councils reside in a kind of nebulous state. Neither they nor the staff members who try to support them fully understand their role they are supposed to play in our organization.

And that is something I need to start dealing with.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, November 2, 2015

Action Plans Describe The Steps Staff Will Take

I've previously provided an example of an Operational Plan, the new term I've introduced in my association to describe a document owned by me and my staff. Comprised of three distinct elements, each one nesting in the one that precedes it, our Operational Plan describes how the association will go about achieving the success metrics identified by our Board of Directors.

I've already addressed the Goals and the Program Objectives, the first two of those three elements. Now I want to spend a little more time talking about the third element: the Action Plans.

To understand Action Plans you really need to understand the two elements that nest above them. Goals define the distance we want each Success Metric to move. Program Objectives define the things we will achieve in order to traverse that distance. And Action Plans are the steps we will take to achieve those objectives.

Here's an example I previously provided. The Success Metric is increasing donations to our Foundation. The Goal is increasing them from $817K last year to $828K this year. One Program Objective to achieve that Goal is to renew memberships in and grow participation in our giving society (named after Blaise Pascal). And the Action Plan associated with that Program Objective looks like this:

1. After renewal invoices are sent, confirm renewal status of all existing Pascal Society members.
2. Write and produce the 2015 Donor Impact Report.
3. Disseminate 2015 Donor Impact Report at 2015 Industry and Economic Outlook Conference and recognize Pascal Society donors there.
4. Mail 2015 Donor Impact Reports to all renewed Pascal Society members, including personal notes of thanks for specific company employees engaged in specific programs.
5. Send new Pascal Society logos to all members with instructions for use.
6. Identify candidates within the NFPA membership—those who have made large single donations and those with interest/connection to our research goals—and solicit them for Pascal Society membership.
7. Organize Pascal Society recognition and recognition activities at the 2016 Annual Conference, including the special VIP event for Pascal Society Gold members.

Specific, concrete actions that staff will perform over the course of our operational year that, when added together, spell achievement of the Program Objective to which they are aligned.

Typically, when I describe this element of our Operational Plan to others, I inevitably get asked the two questions. First:

When do you set these Action Plans? Is there any room for adjustment? How can you possibly chart a course of action for an entire year?

In fact, we do set the Action Plans at the very beginning of our operational year, but have a cadenced process in place to deal with the unexpected contingencies that often arise.

It works like this. Our Board meets three times a year. At the June meeting (near the July 1 start of our fiscal year), they determine the Success Indicators for the year. Shortly thereafter, I work with staff to set Goals, identify Program Objectives, and describe Action Plans for the year. Then we quickly get to work on them. Just prior to the next Board meeting in October, we assess the status of the Action Plans, and report progress against their Program Objectives, and their impact on our Goals at the Board meeting. Following that meeting, I meet with each staff person to discuss and possibly update the Action Plans for the rest of the year. Sometimes the action steps are behind schedule, sometimes they're ahead of schedule, and sometimes they have stopped completely due to some unforeseen circumstance. These October meetings allow us to recalibrate if needed, making sure Action Plans will help us achieve Program Objectives, and making sure Program Objectives will have a positive effect on our Goals.

Then we get back to work on the plans. Except we do the whole review process a second time--assess, report, discuss and update--at the time of our Board's third meeting in March.

It sounds like a lot of work, I know. And it is, both for me and my staff. But I think it's important, because it accomplishes three very important things.

(1) It keeps staff activity focused on concrete things--things we can actually do;

(2) It gives me as CEO an opportunity to test whether Action Plans are really adding up to Program Objective success and, if not, to make adjustments; and

(3) By connecting these activities to measured success against the Goals, it gives our Board an opportunity to address resource limitations in the organization without micromanaging staff activity.

This last point is especially critical. Even though I spend a lot of time working on Action Plans with the staff, the Board does not see them. If our actions are moving us towards our Goals, the Board will see that in the Success Indicators that we include on the agenda of each of their meetings. If they are not, that lack of progress will also be seen in those Success Indicators, and discussion at the Board table remains on what we need to be doing to achieve success, not what we need to do to complete action plans.

And the second question:

Who's in charge of these action plans? What happens when they are behind schedule or not progressing at all? Who do you hold accountable?

Every Action Plan--and more precisely the Program Objective to which those Plans are attached--is assigned to what we call an individual Staff Leader. This is the person responsible for making sure the Action Plan is completed and the Program Objective is achieved. Notice that I did not say this Staff Leader is responsible for completing the Action Plan or achieving the Program Objective themselves. The reason I make that distinction is because an Action Plan almost always requires the efforts of more than one person--and sometimes entire teams. This is why we have chosen the term Staff Leader to describe their role. That individual, has to lead other staff in order to make sure the Action Plan is completed and the Program Objective is achieved.

What happens when the Plan is behind schedule or not progressing at all? And how do I hold the Staff Leader accountable? Well, stay tuned. That's fodder for a lengthy blog post of its own.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku

Okay. I’m going to geek out on this one. Fair warning.

And I’ll say right up front that I’m sure the author, Michio Kaku, knows a lot more about the subjects he’s writing about than I do. He’s an honest-to-goodness physicist, with academic appointments, published articles, and textbooks on these subjects to his credit. Me? I dropped out of my baccalaureate astrophysics program because the math got too hard.

But with that caveat up front, I have to say that, for me, reading Parallel Worlds was an experience that went downhill fast. Kaku is admittedly trying to write about theoretical quantum and cosmological mechanics in a way that is understandable to an audience without advanced degrees in mathematics and physics. But unlike some science educators, who write in a way that avoids the most difficult questions, Kaku’s prose seemed only to prompt more and more unanswered questions in my half-educated mind.

Looking Back Into Expanded Space

The biggest of these unanswered questions has to do with the expansion of the universe, both during its theoretical inflationary period and generally. Let me try to unpack it.

When addressing our expanding universe, Kaku starts as many science educators do, explaining the observational effects of a finite speed of light.

Because light travels at a finite speed, the stars we see at night are seen as they once were, not as they are today. It takes a little over a second for light from the Moon to reach Earth, so when we gaze at the Moon we actually see it as it was a second earlier. It takes about eight minutes for light to travel from the Sun to Earth. Likewise, many of the familiar stars we see in the heavens are so distant that it takes from 10 to 100 years for their light to reach our eyes. (In other words, they lie 10 to 100 light-years from Earth. A light-year is roughly 6 trillion miles, or the distance light travels in a year.) Light from the distant galaxies may be hundreds of millions to billions of light-years away. As a result, they represent “fossil” light, some emitted even before the rise of the dinosaurs. Some of the farthest objects we can see with our telescopes are called quasars, huge galactic engines generating unbelievable amounts of power near the edge of the visible universe, which can lie up to 12 to 13 billion light-years from Earth.

Get it? Because it takes time for light to reach you, the farther out you look the farther back in time you’re looking. Theoretically, you could even look far enough back in time to see the very beginning of the universe.

Okay? That’s point one. Next, Kaku reminds us what Einstein discovered about the speed of light.

Einstein found something that Maxwell himself had missed: Maxwell’s equations showed that light traveled at a constant velocity, no matter how fast you tried to catch up to it. The speed of light … was the same in all inertial frames (that is, frames traveling at a constant velocity). Whether you were standing still, riding on a train, or sitting on a speeding comet, you would see a light beam racing ahead of you at the same speed. No matter how fast you moved, you could never outrace light.

Sounds like a paradox, but it’s the truth. And it’s not so much that the light ahead of you is speeding up so you can’t catch it, it’s more that, as you speed up to try and catch it, your mass makes time slow down so that you’re moving through less space than you were before.

It’s a headscratcher, but it’s point two, so accept it for the time being. Because here comes point three, which Kaku describes in a short section he calls the Doppler Effect and the Expanding Universe.

If a star, for example, is moving towards you, the light waves it emits are squeezed like an accordion. As a result, its wavelength gets shorter. A yellow star will appear slightly bluish (because the color blue has a shorter wavelength than yellow). Similarly, if a star is moving away from you, its light waves are stretched, giving it a longer wavelength, so that a yellow star appears slightly reddish. The greater the distortion, the greater the velocity of the star. Thus, if we know the shift in frequency of starlight, we can determine the star’s speed.

[Using this technique,] In 1912, astronomer Vesto Slipher had found that the galaxies were moving away from Earth at great velocity. Not only was the universe much larger than previously expected, it was also expanding and at great speed. Outside of small fluctuations, he found that the galaxies exhibited a redshift, caused by galaxies moving away from us, rather than a blue one.

With me so far? The doppler effect changes the wavelengths of light being emitted by moving objects, making them appear bluer or redder, the same way the doppler effect changes the wavelengths of sound being emitted by moving objects, making then sound higher or lower in pitch.

Finally, Kaku introduces us to Edwin Hubble, an astronomer famous for his vast collection of data on the doppler-shifted wavelengths of galaxies in the universe.

In 1928, Hubble made a fateful trip to Holland to meet with Willem de Sitter. What intrigued Hubble was de Sitter’s prediction [, based on Slipher’s discovery,] that the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it should be moving. Think of an expanding balloon with galaxies marked on its surface. As the balloon expands, the galaxies that are close to each other move apart relatively slowly. The closer they are to each other, the slower they move apart. But galaxies that are farther apart on the balloon move apart much faster.

De Sitter urged Hubble to look for this effect in his data, which could be verified by analyzing the redshift of the galaxies. The greater the redshift of a galaxy, the faster it was moving away, and hence the farther it should be. (According to Einstein’s theory, the redshift of a galaxy was not, technically speaking, caused by the galaxy speeding away from Earth; instead, it was cause by the expansion of space itself between the galaxy and Earth. The origin of the redshift is that light emanating from a distant galaxy is stretched or lengthened by the expansion of space, and hence it appears reddened.)

And it was that last sentence that made a lightbulb go off in my head. Kaku wants to move on to all kinds of mathematical predictions about this expanding universe--because, of course, Hubble’s data did show that not only were all the galaxies moving away from each other, it also showed that the farther apart they were, the faster they were fleeing from each other. But I didn’t want to follow, because now I had my own conjecture.

What if, instead of the universe continuing to expand at greater and greater speeds, we are, in fact, looking at the past expansion of the universe as we look out at farther and farther distances, much in the same way (as discussed in point one, above) we’re looking farther and farther back in time because of the time it takes for the visible light from that part of the universe to reach us? Instead of a universe that begins with a “big bang” and then expands at an ever-increasing rate for eternity, we have a universe that begins with a “big bang,” expanding rapidly at first, but at slower and slower speeds as time goes on. But creatures within this second universe (i.e., us), looking deep into the universe’s past, see not just its early structures but its early rapid expansion.

I honestly don’t know if it’s an idea that is ridiculous or worthy on an honorary PhD from the City College of New York. I suspect Kaku could help me decide. But whichever, once the idea possessed me, I began scouring Kaku’s text for clues that might help me settle the score. Have people thought of this before? Is there any observational evidence that may support it? Is it even theoretically possible?

I thought I was onto a clue when Kaku started explaining eight phases of the universe’s expansion, from the “big bang” to the present day. In the first phase, according to Kaku, which ended at 10 to the negative 43 seconds after the “big bang”, the entire universe was a small bubble of space about the size of something called the “Planck length,” which is 10 to the negative 33 centimeters. (Sorry, the formatting function on this blog software won't let me do exponents, as far as I can tell.)

Let’s try to put those numbers into perspective.

10 to the negative 43 seconds is a shorthand way of saying 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds and 10 to the negative 33 centimeters is a shorthand way of saying 0.000000000000000000000000000000001 centimeters. These are unfathomably small units of time and distance, but they are what the advanced mathematics used by Kaku and his colleagues tell us. More on that later.

Because the point I’m trying to make is that if we accept the math, the universe grew in size from 0 to 10 to the negative 33 centimeters in 10 to the negative 43 seconds. My own much simpler math tells me that this is an expansion rate of 10 to the positive 10 centimeters per second. Had the universe continued to expand at this rate for one full second, it would have grown to 10,000,000,000 centimeters (about 62,000 miles). But, remember, the universe stopped expanding at this rate after 10 to the negative 43 seconds.

I thought I was on to something. If I could calculate the expansion rates of the universe in each of Kaku’s eight phases, I could at least see if the universe had actually expanded more quickly in the past than it was now. So I desperately wanted to go on with these calculations, but Kaku is frustratingly unclear about the spatial dimensions of the universe at the beginning and end of each subsequent phase. He likely thought they were details that would largely be lost on his lay audience, and I probably shouldn’t blame him for that. Indeed, I’m sure I scared a fair number of my own readers off as soon as I started talking about 10 to the negative anything.

He does say at one point that the universe was about the “size of our solar system” at the “end of inflation,” but the way he’s describes it, I can’t tell if that was when the universe was 10 to the negative 34 seconds or 3 minutes old. And by the “size of our solar system” he could mean the diameter of Neptune’s orbit (roughly 60 astronomical units or 5.5 billion miles) or the diameter of the Oort cloud (roughly 100,000 astronomical units or 9.3 trillion miles) or something else entirely.

So I had to give up, and relegate the idea to the future PhD dissertations I can spend my retirement working on.

Big Bangs and Black Holes

You’ll notice that I’ve been putting “big bang” in quotation marks throughout this discussion. I do that because of the unfortunate and all-too-common phenomenon of astrophysicists adopting the worst possible names for their theories--proven or otherwise.

“Big Bang” is one, because the event that theoretically started our universe was not an explosion, as the word “bang” connotes to the interested layperson, but, as I began to describe above, an expansion.

But the grandaddy of all these mistakes, in my opinion, is “black hole.” Why? Because black holes just aren’t holes. Even though that’s what everyone thinks.

Here’s how Kaku’s own glossary defines “black hole.”

black hole          An object whose escape velocity equals the speed of light. Because the speed of light is the ultimate velocity in the universe, this means that nothing can escape a black hole, once an object has crossed the event horizon. Black holes can be of various sizes. Galactic black holes, lurking in the center of galaxies and quasars, can weigh millions to billions of solar masses. Stellar black holes are the remnant of a dying star, perhaps originally up to forty times the mass of our Sun.

Did you catch that? “Black holes” are objects, that can weigh up to billions of solar masses. They are not holes that you or anything else can “fall into.” Fall onto, maybe, but not fall into. And yet, so much of our popular understanding and imagination about “black holes” is coupled to the idea that they are wormholes of some kind or another, portals to other places in our universe or to other universes.

Kaku himself uses some of the popular graphical representations of “black holes” in his book. A sample is provided to the left, and you can begin to see some of my scribbles below the diagrams and Kaku’s caption.

Why, I ask, is he using two dimensions to represent a three (or an eleven, according to Kaku) dimensional phenomenon? Even in the plots shown here, no one would “fall into” the “holes” and travel through the “throats” that connect to other places or planes. If the image is to make any sense at all, “you” would exist as a point on the plane, and you wouldn’t ever be able to leave the plane, because it is the plane, not the three-dimensional space above it, that is trying to represent the curvature of spacetime. Put yourself on the plane and trace your possible trajectories. The top diagram still sort of conveys the idea it is intended to, but the analogy falls apart in the bottom diagram. Put yourself on one side of the plane or the other and you’ll see that there are some places you simply cannot get to.

So how did this “hole” concept come about in the first place? That’s the next big, ultimately unanswered question I had when reading Parallel Worlds.

But when Kaku first starts describing the theoretical history of the phenomenon, I have some hope that I may actually get the answer I’m looking for.

In 1783, British astronomer John Michell was the first to wonder what would happen if a star became so large that light itself could not escape. Any object, he knew, had an “escape velocity,” the velocity required to leave its gravitational pull. … Michell wondered what might happen if a star became so massive that its escape velocity was equal to the speed of light. Its gravity would be so immense that nothing could escape it, not even light itself, and hence the object would appear black to the outside world. Finding such an object in space would in some sense be impossible, since it would be invisible.

Michell evidently called these theoretical objects “dark stars,” not “black holes.” Kaku then goes on the describe the rest of the theoretical history, which includes a crescendoing set of mathematical calculations by famous people like Albert Einstein and less-famous people like Karl Schwarzschild, Johannes Droste, Georges Lemaitre, and H. P. Robertson. Along the way we’re introduced to a new term, “magic sphere,” which the scientists eventually come to understand as the thing now called an event horizon, the point of no return, the place where once light passes, it can no longer escape the gravity well of the “dark star.”

But when does the term “black hole” come into vogue? And, more importantly, why? Kaku is never very clear. In his description of the phenomenon’s theoretical history, he just abruptly switches terms, suddenly using “black hole” instead of “dark star” or “magic sphere” without any explanation and, apparently, without any awareness. Forty-some pages later, in a discussion on quantum theory and the role of physicist John Wheeler in its development, he makes a passing reference that it was Wheeler who coined the term “black hole” at a conference in 1967.

So, another mystery, but probably not one worthy of my future dissertations list. Hopefully, all I would need is a few minutes on Google and Wikipedia.

Objects in Space?

My third big question goes a whole lot deeper.

Let me pose it this way. Are objects things that hang in otherwise empty space? Or are objects and empty space made of the same stuff, with objects simply more concentrated forms of the stuff that makes up space? It may sound like an almost nonsensical question because so much of our physics and so much of what we have been taught is based on the first of these premises--that space is empty unless there is stuff in it.

But the more I read Kaku trying to define and describe “dark energy” and “dark matter,” the more this nonsensical question began to demand my attention.

What are “dark energy” and “dark matter?” Well, I put them in quotes because I suspect astrophysicists have again chosen the worst possible names for these discoveries (because that’s what they do), but no one’s going to know that until we figure out what they actually are. For current definitions, let’s go back to Kaku’s handy glossary.

dark energy          The energy of empty space. First introduced by Einstein in 1917 and then discarded, this energy of nothing is now known to be the dominant form of matter/energy in the universe. Its origin is unknown, but it may eventually drive the universe into a big freeze. The amount of dark energy is proportional to the volume of the universe. The latest data shows that 73 percent of the matter/energy of the universe is in the form of dark energy.

dark matter          Invisible matter, which has weight but does not interact with light. Dark matter is usually found in a huge halo around galaxies. It outweighs ordinary matter by a factor of 10. Dark matter can be indirectly measured because it bends starlight due to its gravity, somewhat similar to the way glass bends light. Dark matter, according to the latest data, makes up 23 percent of the total matter/energy content of the universe.

The energy of empty space? Invisible matter? Stuff that makes up 96 percent of the matter/energy in the universe? Clearly no one knows what this stuff is, but I can’t help but wonder if our struggle with it can’t be partly attributed to the idea that we’re looking at it with the wrong frame of mind. We call it empty and invisible because it’s not supposed to be there. Empty space is empty, inert, and it’s only when “real” matter (i.e., the stuff made up of protons and electrons) is placed within it that interesting things start happening.

But what if that’s wrong? What if space has a “viscosity”--it’s never truly empty but thicker in some places and thinner in others--and things like dark energy and dark matter are markers of the thin spots and things like stars and "black holes" are markers of the thick parts?

That changes everything. Take this fairly innocuous statement from Kaku’s text.

Einstein’s equations are notoriously difficult because, to calculate the curvature of space at any point, you have to know the location of all objects in the universe, each of which contributes to the bending of space.

Innocuous, but it has a point of view. Objects are things in space. I’m saying that objects might be space. I don’t have any idea of that makes any kind of difference to Kaku’s math, but I’d sure like to explore the idea with him.

Which brings me to my next point.

The Math Makes It True

I don’t know if I’ve ever written this down before, but it’s something I’ve thought for a long time. Math doesn’t make things true. Math is a description of how things appear to work. Sometimes, when the math is a really good description, it can be used to predict other things, and when those things are observed to occur, it becomes a testament for how good the math in question actually is.

We know that for centuries Newton’s “laws” of motion reigned supreme. But the use of the word “law” is just as misleading as “big bang” and “black holes,” because Newton’s “laws” are no more laws than “black holes” are holes. F = ma is a really good description of how objects in motion behave, and it can be used to make astonishingly accurate predictions about how things not yet observed are likely to act. But it is not a law. Einstein proved that.

Math does not make things true. Don't believe me? Let's take a concrete example from Kaku’s text.

As Newton observed, the gravitational force surrounding a point particle becomes infinite as we approach it. (In Newton’s famous inverse square law, the force of gravity grows as 1/r squared, so that it soars to infinity as we approach the point particle--that is, as r goes to zero, the gravitational force grows as 1/0, which is infinite.)

Got that? Gravitational force becomes infinite (whatever “infinite force” means) when the distance from a point particle goes to zero. Now, let's do what I do when I read a sentence like that. Let's ask, does it really become infinite, or is that just what the mathematical expression brilliant people wrote to describe a vast body of phenomena predicts will happen if such a circumstance ever actually occurred?

I say the latter, something, I expect even Kaku would agree with, since a few pages later we find this admission:

Newton’s law of gravity works fine over astronomical distances, but it has never been tested down to the size of a millimeter. Experimentalists are now rushing to test for tiny deviations from Newton’s inverse square law.

So, in other words, G, the gravitational force, may not equal 1/r squared if the distances involved are a millimeter or less.

Not convinced? Well, here’s another way to tackle the question and decide if it the math is determining or just trying to describe reality. Exactly what is a point particle? Sadly, it’s not in Kaku’s glossary, but let’s assume it is what he implies it to be. A single piece of matter that takes up no space. As nonsensical as that sounds (something that is nothing), that’s what it has to be if you are going to get zero distance away from it and drive that gravitational force all the way up to infinity because of that damned inverse square “law.” After all, if you’re going to get zero distance away from something’s center of mass (the point from which all of Newton’s calculations achieve something close to their inviolable reputation), that thing better not be taking up any space at all.

Except that’s not possible. Kaku himself constantly refers to something called the Planck length. That one is in his glossary. It’s 10 to the negative 33 centimeters, and it is basically the smallest possible length anything can be.

How small is that? Well, according to Kaku, the distance separating protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom is 10 to the negative 13 centimeters, and that’s a hundred quintillion times bigger that the Planck length.

Distance between a proton and a neutron = 0.0000000000001 centimeters
Planck length = 0.000000000000000000000000000000001 centimeters

In other words: Really. Freaking. Small.

But not zero. And if it’s not zero, then zero can never be in the denominator of the inverse square “law” and G can never be infinite. Assuming, of course, that the inverse square “law” even describes reality at distances less than a millimeter.

I think what I find most amazing is that science has a long and storied history of its mathematical formulas being shown to be descriptions of observable phenomena, not “laws” that dictate the behavior of objects in the universe. Just as Einstein refined Newton's "laws,", theoretical physicists like Kaku himself are trying to refine Einstein's "laws," knowing that there are situations in which even his remarkable formulas no longer describe reality. And yet, knowing this, they still insist on building entire fanciful edifices on the assumption that they these formulas are inviolable laws.

The Quantum Religion

Another annoyance I had with Parallel Worlds is that I much prefer my science education unmediated by religious metaphor. Kaku clearly doesn’t agree. For example, in his discussion about the multiverse, he says:

Theoretical evidence is mounting to support the existence of the multiverse, in which entire universes continually sprout or “bud” off other universes. If true, it would unify two of the great religious mythologies, Genesis and Nirvana. Genesis would take place continually within the fabric of timeless Nirvana.

Great. Is that our objective, then? Unifying religious mythologies?

But worse, not only does he have a penchant for religious metaphor, he poses challenges born of religious conjecture as if they were the gravest concerns scientists have to face. Here’s another piece of Kaku’s discussion of the multiverse, where every quantum fluctuation of every elementary particle theoretically results in two diverging universes, one, for example, where that single quark has top spin and another where it doesn’t.

When we imagine the quantum multiverse, we are faced … with the possibility that, although our parallel selves living in different quantum universes may have precisely the same genetic code, at crucial junctures of life, our opportunities, our mentors, and our dreams may lead us down different paths, leading to different life histories and different destinies.

Sigh. Yes, Kaku, like too many science popularizers, loves to theoretically extrapolate quantum phenomena into the arena of human actions (a patently absurd liberty, if you ask me). Because we say a quantum fluctuation can bud off two separate universes then, obviously, the same thing happens when I decide to wear my red versus blue tie to the physics symposium. How does even the math get them to this conclusion? Here, I can’t resist a quick diversion into what may be the most whopping extrapolation of this sort I’ve ever heard.

Electrons, in fact, regularly dematerialize and find themselves rematerialized on the other side of walls inside the components of your PC and CD. Modern civilization would collapse, in fact, if electrons were not allowed to be in two places at the same time. … But if electrons can exist in parallel states hovering between existence and nonexistence, then why can’t the universe?

Ummm...because the universe is not an electron?

It’s okay, though, because, you know, science is so much more interesting when you get to make these leaps and pretend they’re real. But I digress. Let’s get back to the previous quotation on the quantum multiverse, because Kaku is just getting to the part I want to highlight.

One form of this dilemma is actually almost upon us. It’s only a matter of time, perhaps a few decades, before the genetic cloning of humans becomes an ordinary fact of life. Although cloning a human being is extremely difficult (in fact, no one has yet cloned a primate, let alone a human) and the ethical questions are profoundly disturbing, it is inevitable that at some point it will happen. And when it does, the question arises: do our clones have a soul? Are we responsible for our clone’s actions? In a quantum universe, we would have an infinite number of quantum clones. Since some of our quantum clones might perform acts of evil, are we then responsible for them? Does our soul suffer for the transgressions of our quantum clones?

Okay. This one actually makes my head hurt. Someone please explain to me why it would even occur to someone to hold me responsible for the actions of a person with “precisely the same genetic code” as me--let alone someone who lives in another quantum universe. Am I responsible for the actions of my identical twin? You’re in big trouble, buddy. We know what your infinite (infinite!) number of quantum clones have been doing in the quantum multiverse. You’re going to have to come downtown and answer some questions.

Come Again?

And then, sadly, there is just the sloppy writing.

But instead of finding an elegant and simple framework, it was distressing to find that there were hundreds of subatomic particles streaming from our accelerators, with strange names like neutrinos, quarks, mesons, leptons, hadrons, gluons, W-bosons, and so forth.

I’m assuming Kaku knows that those subatomic particles didn’t come streaming out of our accelerators with those strange names already attached to them. Hello! I am the neutrino! It’s nice to meet you! Of course, it was people like Kaku who gave those particles those names. So why, I wonder, does he call those names strange?

All intelligent life in the universe will eventually freeze in an agonizing death, as the temperature of deep space plunges toward absolute zero, where the molecules themselves can hardly move.

Agonizing? Agonizing to who? People with billion-year life spans who will be able to experience the universe both when it is hot and when it is cold? Put another sweater on, Billy, the density of mass in the universe has dropped another order of magnitude.

I wish these were they only two examples I found. They are not.

Silly String

Finally, before you get the wrong impression, let me stress again that I’m sure Michio Kaku is a brilliant man. His specific area of expertise is something called String Theory, something I’ve managed to avoid talking about up to now. I’ve done this primarily because I know I don’t understand it, knowing only that it has something to do with all the smallest elementary particles in the universe not being particles but itty-bitty pieces of vibrating “string.” But as smart of Kaku is, so help me I can’t make any sense out of the metaphors he chooses to explain his brilliance.

The beauty of string theory is that it can be likened to music. Music provides the metaphor by which we can understand the nature of the universe, both at the subatomic level and at the cosmic level. As the celebrated violinist Yehudi Menuhin once wrote, “Music creates order out of chaos; for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent; melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed; and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous.”

Einstein would write that his search for a unified field theory would ultimately allow him to “read the Mind of God.” If string theory is correct, we now see that the Mind of God represents cosmic music resonating through ten-dimensional hyperspace.

Got that?

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at