Monday, December 31, 2012

My Top 5 Blog Posts of 2012

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As we end another year (without the world coming to an end, fortunately), here's a look back at the five posts on this blog that received the most page views in 2012.

1. Don't Rush to Fill the Silence
A lesson I've learned about what a leader can learn from silence, and how that opportunity will be lost if one rushes to fill it. Remember, it is not the job of the leader to have all the answers, only to identify all the real problems.

2. The Mind of the Community
An exploration of how associations can develop a deeper understanding of their members, and a plea to tear down the wall that many organizations build between their staff and their membership. If you want staff to better anticipate the needs of your members, you need to make them part of your members' community.

3. Stop Calling It Strategic Planning
Inspired by the take-down of strategic planning in Humanize, I pledge to stop using that term to describe the messy, constantly evolving process my association uses to determine our direction and set our objectives. In laying out the guidelines that govern our activities, I realize that only one term makes any sense--association management.

4. The Chairman's Gift
A story about how my association ensures that our outgoing Board Chair receives a gift that recognizes not just his service to the association, but the fact that he is an individual who has made a personal sacrifice to serve in that capacity. The true value is the message it sends to others who might be considering a similar commitment in their futures.

5. Why We Don't Take Risks
A review of the need for greater risk-taking in associations, and the role such risk-taking plays in innovation. It concludes with a challenge to every association professional to step out of their comfort zones and do something different, something unpredictable, something whose value has not yet been determined.

My thanks to everyone who has been reading what I've been putting up here. I hope you plan to stay engaged in 2013.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Myth of Human Races by Alain F. Corcos

If there’s any one paragraph that summarizes the thesis of this book, it is probably this:

Today, efforts to classify humanity have for the most part ceased. Scientists have finally realized that they were no more successful using blood groups, or other genetic markers, than they had been in the past when they were using skulls or skin color. They have finally realized that categorizing human beings into “races” requires such a distortion of the facts that its usefulness as a tool disappears. Simultaneously, the term “race” is disappearing from scientific writing because scientists no longer accept the clear cut division of humanity into white, black, yellow and red that is still present in most college curricula and textbooks. From a biological viewpoint, human races do not exist. This is a conclusion that most anthropologists and geneticists have accepted. Now they understand their task differently: to study human variability without the concept of race. It is also time for the rest of us to abandon this obsolete, destructive and false notion of race.

I don’t know how you’re going to react to this idea. I’m personally sympathetic to the concept. Indeed, I picked up this book because I already thought that races were sociological rather than biological in origin. Now, having read the book, I’m more convinced of it than ever. Biologically speaking, races only exist when populations live in isolation from one another long enough to develop genetically unique expressions, while retaining the ability to procreate with members of the other races of the same species. Despite thousands of years of folklore and pseudoscience to the contrary, this has never been the case for human populations. Our diversity is far greater on an individual basis than it has ever been on a group basis.

But I know some people won’t accept it. They’ll claim it is contrary to their common sense, which ultimately holds sway over us all, and they’ll reject any kind of evidence that goes against it. But if they dig a little more deeply into their understanding of biology and inheritance, they may find that much of their common sense on the subject is built on a bunch of false notions.

Like what? Well, how about the idea that blood plays a role in heredity. It’s a common expression—he’s got Irish blood flowing in his veins, for example—and it leads to the inexact concept that we somehow have the blood of our forebears in our bodies. But it has absolutely no basis in fact. Blood isn’t the mechanism of heredity, genes are. Every person’s body manufacturers its own blood, which is comprised of cells that are more-or-less identical to every other body’s blood cells, and there is no such thing as “Irish blood” or “African blood” or “Chinese blood.”

Unfortunately, this idea about blood being the medium for heredity is more than just word play.

However, one of the most disheartening and cruel consequences of the belief that blood was the carrier of heredity was the “one-drop” rule which was used for centuries in determining people’s ancestry. According to the blood theory of inheritance, as I mentioned previously, the blood of the parents was blended together to form the child; therefore, there was always a little of the blood of any ancestor flowing in one’s veins. If the ancestor were considered to be inferior in any respect, it was thought that his or her blood had tainted all of his or her descendants. For example, in Medieval Europe, people considered a person to be a Jew if he or she had a Jewish ancestor as far as six generations back. In the United States, people consider a person to be black, regardless of skin color, if he or she had a single black ancestor, no matter how far back that ancestor may have been. The “one-drop” rule persisted throughout  World War II. It was this rule that the Nazis used to exterminate the Jews. To them, having one Jewish grandparent was enough to classify someone as Jewish and have him or her exterminated. It made no difference what the religions of the other grandparents were or what the religion of the individual was; the Nazis believed the blood of a Jewish ancestor tainted the victim. It was this idea that also led German authorities to prevent blood transfusion from Jews to non-Jews. Jewish physicians were reported to have been sent to concentration camps for having committed such a “crime.” In the mind of the Nazis, the physicians who did this had obviously tainted the blood of “Aryan” people.

That’s just one false idea that has had horrifying consequences. Another is the again false idea that we carry some piece of the genetic heritage of all of our ancestors. In fact, the only guarantee you have is that you carry on the genetic material of your two parents in some randomly selected quantity. You probably have something from your grandparents—but not necessarily—and as for your great-grandparents, the reality is much slimmer than you may imagine.

The reason why this is so is the same as the one which we gave for the fact that we are unique: the process of meiosis that occurs during the formation of sex cells. Though you can be sure you inherited twenty three chromosomes from each of your parents, you cannot know how many chromosomes you indirectly received from your grandparents. As you remember from our previous discussion of meiosis, your father had received from his own father twenty-three chromosomes that we have called paternal chromosomes and from his mother twenty-three chromosomes that we have called maternal chromosomes. However, because his sperm contains only one chromosome of each pair (which one is determined at random), any one of them can contain any combination of paternal and maternal chromosomes; any one of them could have received either fifteen paternal chromosomes and eight maternal chromosomes or thirteen maternal chromosomes and ten paternal chromosomes, to name just a couple of possibilities. It could happen that the sperm of your father which fertilized the egg of your mother that produced you had only one chromosome or no chromosome at all from your paternal grandfather. It is highly improbable, but it is possible. In the same way it could happen that the egg that produced you had one or no chromosome from your maternal grandmother. Nevertheless, we can assume that, on average, we received eleven or twelve chromosomes from each of our grandparents, that an average of fix or six came from our great grandparents, and average of two or three from our great-great-grandparents. With each generation further back, the average number of chromosomes we may have received from any ancestor is diminished by half. Consider now an important fact: Six generations back we have more ancestors than chromosomes (sixty-four versus forty-six). Hence, it is clear that the more remote our ancestor is, the greater the odds become that we did not received even a single one of his or her chromosomes.

It’s a bit complicated, but it all clearly derives from biological mechanisms and mathematics. Once you realize that the genetic material that gives you your biological identity can only be from as many as six generations back, you begin to realize how utterly impossible the idea of human races is outside of anything but a sociological perspective. No one, for example, can be half-white and half-black, because there is no such thing as black genes and white genes, black chromosomes and white chromosomes. It may be culturally important to someone that their great-great grandfather was a Cherokee Indian, but it is extraordinarily unlikely that it is biologically so.

But don’t take me or the book to mean that the concept of human races is culturally insignificant. Indeed, one of the most fascinating chapters of the book deals with the racial classifications determined and perpetuated by the U.S. government. There is no biological underpinning to the concept of race, but that hasn’t stopped humans from discriminating of the basis of skin color for hundreds if not thousands of years. The government’s racial classification system is essentially a tracking mechanism that is meant to give it the ability to respond to and correct instances of institutionalized “racial” discrimination. And that mission lends some credibility to its efforts.

But like all racial classification systems, theirs is equally flawed and subject to the widest interpretations. Plenty of people don’t fit neatly into one of the current five categories (White, Black, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native), and many decisions based on demographic data based on those categories make little objective sense. It may surprise some, but creating a label for something that apparently exists, does not in fact bring that thing into actual existence. As a culture, we’ve understood this for a long time. It was the French naturalist Buffon who observed as early as 1750:

Genera, orders, classes exist only in our imagination … There are only individuals. Nature does not arrange her words in bunches, nor living beings in genera.

It is an observable fact. But, like human races, it runs counter to both common sense and generations of tradition. Few facts can withstand such a withering attack.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Holiday Break: Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

Books are always the best holiday gift for me. The only thing I like better than the anticipation of reading a long sought after title is the fondness that comes with remembering the discovery of an unexpected treasure.

As I look back on all the books I've profiled here in 2012, the one I'd most like to revisit is Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather. I blogged about it back in January, but it is still very much with me. It, like all the Cather's work that I've read, is about...

...the spaces that exist between people, and how the fleeting moments of true emotional connection that people experience are pulled tenuously over those spaces, stretching into the thinnest of gossamer filaments of memory, ready to snap with the merest tug, lost forever and forgotten.

As you enjoy your holiday break, I hope you find some time to curl up with a good book. I know I will.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Too Many Surveys

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Are you like me? Inundated with surveys from the associations you belong to? Tell us what you think of our last conference. How was that last resource you downloaded from our online store? Help us set the future direction of your association.

And do you do the same thing to your members? Asking them too many questions too often and taking too little action based on the embarrassing response rates?

Have you ever thought that the solution might be...

More surveys?

Not long ones. Short ones. Really short ones. Like no more than one simple question.

The next time you're uncertain of a direction, send out a poll with one question and a finite number of options. And when the responses come in, do something you've probably never done before.

Post the results. Share them with the entire membership. And even more importantly, let everyone know what you're going to do differently based on the feedback you received. You don't necessarily have to go with the majority opinion, but do make a decision and tell your members what it is.

What might happen? Will those who responded be more motivated to respond the next time? What about those who didn't respond? Might they decide to chime in the next time, since they saw that you took action based on member feedback, and they didn't have a chance to have their voice heard the last time around? Think of how you might react if an association you belonged to did this. Do you think your members would act any differently?

So why don't we do this? I think there's two simple answers to that question.

First, it's hard to come up with the right question with a few simple options. We like to think that what we do is complex. How can we possibly boil it all down to one question?

Second, we're frightened of having to commit ourselves to some course of action. Or worse, of having to go against the wishes of the members. It is their association, after all.

For both of these reasons, I would suggest starting small. Start with things that are easy to peg to majority opinion. What kind of snacks would you like served at the next conference?

It may seem trivial at first. But by asking, sharing and taking action you just might get your members in the habit of responding to more of your surveys.

And isn't that what you want?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Knowing-Doing Gap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton

Two different people I respect recommended this book to me for two different reasons. And it turns out they were both right. It’s a gold mine of useful information about one of the most crippling afflictions facing organizations today—the inability to turn knowledge into action.

As with most business books I read, the lessons I take away are not always the ones the author intends. But in reading them, ideas will often strike me with a clarity they very infrequently have in the mile-a-minute, topsy-turvy world of expectations and performance I seem to find myself in. I’ll list just a sampling of the “a-ha” moments I had while reading this book.

There Are No Wrong Actions

Here’s a handy chart.

How to Drive Fear and Inaction Out of Organizations
1. Praise, pay and promote people who deliver bad news to their bosses.
2. Treat failure to act as the only true failure; punish inaction, not unsuccessful actions.
3. Encourage leaders to talk about their failures, especially what they have learned from them.
4. Encourage open communication.
5. Give people second (and third) chances.
6. Banish people—especially leaders—who humiliate others.
7. Learn from, and even celebrate, mistakes, particularly trying something new.
8. Don’t punish people for trying new things.

Guess which one jumps out at me the most. “Treat failure to act as the only true failure; punish inaction not unsuccessful actions.” If you needed one sentence to summarize a winning formula, I think this would be it. Increasingly, in my line a work at least, I’m beginning to realize that there are no wrong courses of action. Some courses are better than others, but no course of action, taken with forethought and good intentions, is actually bad, because they all help move the project or the conversation forward. If you accept this premise, then the only truly wrong course of action is to take no action at all—to allow opportunity for engagement and learning to slip by.

Measure Performance at the System Level

The model of behavior implicit in the measurement systems used by most firms is that individuals are atomistic and economic, rather than social, creatures. The atomistic view is captured by having measure for each individual. This procedure presumes that (1) individual results are the consequences of individual decisions and actions and that (2) individual outcomes and individual behaviors are under the control and discretion of these individuals, so that results and decisions can be reasonably reliably attributed to individuals.

There’s a lot of wisdom in that short paragraph. It stresses the need for system-based performance measures in any organization that behaves like an interconnected and interdependent network of actors (i.e., just about every organization on Planet Earth).

What you are able to accomplish, and indeed, what you choose to do and how you behave, is not solely under your individual control. Rather, your behavior and performance are influenced by the actions, attitudes, and behaviors of many others in the immediate environment.

Right on. Find ways to measure performance at a system level, and provide incentives for contributing to systemic, not individual, performance.

Measure the Productivity of the Relationship, Not Individual Performance

More good wisdom on the performance appraisal process, this time direct from the vice president of human resources at the software firm SAS Institute:

If there were a good performance appraisal process, everybody would be using it. … I don’t think you can really manage someone’s performance. I think you can observe the results. I think you can give them the tools. I think you can set short and long-term goals. And you can sit back and see if it happens or it doesn’t happen. … Our idea is to have performance management be based on conversation instead of documentation.

Three cheers for that. And from a 1998 Fast Company article:

Too many leaders confuse feedback with paperwork. “Filling out a form is inspection, not feedback,” says Kelly Allan … “History has taught us that relying on inspections is costly, improves nothing for very long, and makes the organization less competitive.”

What does matter, evidently, is a metric that is closely related to your core competitive advantage. For SAS, in the very competitive software industry, that was employee turnover. Managers were evaluated primarily on their ability to attract and retain people, and the company went to great lengths to ensure that it was a great place to work.

In a relationship-oriented business based primarily on intellectual talent, SAS encourages long-term relationship behavior through its measurements and through what it chooses not to measure and make public. In a place in which the attraction and retention of talent is key, turnover and factors related to the building of talent are what the firm measures. The emphasis, even in a geographically dispersed organization of 5,000 people, remains on interpersonal communication—and emphasis consistent with the relationship-oriented business model and philosophy. You have relationships with people, not with reports or numbers.

Lots of good lessons here for the association world—a place where the emphasis on people, talent and relationships is equally important.

Internal Competition Retards Organizational Succeess

The authors spend a lot of time talking about the value of competition in the workplace. They are, in fact, quite dismissive of it, feeling that it retards performance far more frequently than advances it. Here’s an interesting section, reminiscent of many of the lessons in Dan Pink’s Drive, published more than a decade later.

The confusion between what it takes to do well in routine tasks, especially physical tasks, versus novel intellectual tasks is another reason that people develop misguided beliefs about the positive effects of competition on performance. … Hundreds of studies show that intellectual tasks that require learning and inventing new ways of doing things are best performed under drastically different conditions than tasks that have been done over and over again in the past.

The authors argue, persuasively, I think, that…

People are better at learning new things, being creative, and doing intellectual tasks of all kinds when they don’t work under close scrutiny, they don’t feel as if they are constantly being assessed and evaluated, and they aren’t working in the presence of direct competitors.

Learning, creative, intellectual work is far more associated with the modern workplace that raw, repetitive tasks. Furthermore, this kind of work requires something the authors call interdependence—productivity, performance, and innovation that result from joint action, not just individual efforts and behavior. And the problem is that…

When even modest levels of learning are required and some interdependence exists, individual incentives and internal competition discourage needed knowledge sharing, cooperation and mutual assistance.

The Value of Core Assumptions

I’ve been reading and thinking about the value of values, lately. The clarity and focus that can come from a clearly identified and respected set of organizational values. But one firm profiled in this book takes things a set further. Their core values—fun, fairness, integrity and social responsibility—strike me as yet another meaningless list. But they have something in addition to that.

It also has a set of core assumptions about people that it tries to implement in its management approach: that people (1) are creative, thinking individuals, capable of learning; (2) are responsible and can be held accountable; (3) are fallible; (4) desire to make positive contributions to society and like a challenge; and (5) are unique individuals, deserving of respect, not numbers or machines.

Now that is something I can sink my teeth into. Imagine what managing people would be like if every day—especially when we were facing some kind of management difficulty—we reminded ourselves of these five simple facts.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Are Your Members More Tech Savvy Than Your Association?

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WSAE had Mary Byers speak at their year-end event last week. She's the co-author of Race for Relevance, and gave the WSAE members plenty of food for thought. Among the many things she highlighted was the woeful amount of money most associations spend on technology. In one memorable slide, she showed how many associations spend less on technology than they do on printing or on meals at their events.

It reminded me of how critically important it was for associations to at least be at parity with their members when it comes to technology.

Many associations, I think, have justifiably built up an amount of goodwill with their members. They represent their industry or profession, provide valuable services, and are attempting to accomplish things that are larger than what any single member can do on their own. This goodwill gives them some slack when it comes to not being as up-to-date as the rest of the world in the realm of technology. If it takes a day or two to confirm a new profile in the online community, or the e-commerce site goes down from time to time, or the website looks awful on a mobile device--it's tolerated because of this goodwill. They are an association, after all.

But from where I sit, this goodwill is starting to evaporate. The online expectations of members are being shaped by their experiences across the web, and fewer and fewer of them will offer an association the same pass they might have offered before.

In my own world, I see more and more of my member companies adopting, struggling and solving their own technology challenges and building productive online interactions with their employees and their customers. It's happening slowly, but it is accelerating, and it will eventually become the norm in our industry in a way that it hasn't been before. This adeptness will, I think, inevitably lead to a new set of expectations being placed on my association in the area of technology. A broken e-commerce site or a crappy mobile website will no longer be a sign of a non-profit organization that is trying really hard. It will be the sign of an incompetent organization that no longer deserves support.

Every association is experiencing this shift, and some have already suffered from being caught behind the technology expectations of their members. Ours, I think, has a handful of years to make the necessary adjustments, but yours might be in a different situation. It's a complex problem that won't be solved only by allocating more money for technology in next year's budget, but that will undoubtedly be a necessary component.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Measuring What Matters

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My Too Big to Measure post has generated some good comments and plenty of retweets. It even inspired the folks over at SocialFish to repost it in its entirety, emphasizing and re-asking the question that inspired me to write it. Who is doing the hard work of engaging everyone to determine what to measure and how? I'm curious to see who responds and how.

In the interim, I stumbled across this HBR post by Michael J. Mauboussin, where he presents a four-step process for determining what to measure in an environment where the links between cause and effect are not always clear. Some people in his comments section take exception to one of his fundamental assumptions, but there are some things I like about his four steps, especially the second one:

Step 2: Develop a theory of cause and effect to assess presumed drivers of the objective.

This is the best advice in the entire post, and reminiscent of a point made by one of my commenters. The words here are chosen very specifically. Develop a theory of cause and effect to assess presumed drivers of the objective. The point being that you're not going to know coming out of the gate what should be measured--but that you have to start measuring something.

You shouldn't do it blindly. You need to think carefully, and make a logical argument for what should be measured and why. Then measure it and perform the necessary analysis to determine if it is truly linked to an actual driver of performance. If not, develop another theory and pursue that. If nothing else, the discipline required to execute such a strategy would be a valuable addition to your organization's performance.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Friend of the Earth by T. C. Boyle

This one has the juice. Reading A Friend of the Earth immediately after The Inner Circle is like stepping out of a funeral and directly onto a roller coaster.

But the New York Times review of the book panned it. I’m starting to read them after each book I read—curious what experts think after I have formed my own opinions. Oh, the juice is there all right. They agree. But, in the opinion of the reviewer, there is little else. No inner life of any of the characters, who are frequently dispatched with the seemingly wicked glee that Boyle brings to each hyperbolic turn of phrase.

I’m not so sure.

The protagonist is Tyrone Tierwater, an environmental activist, whose story is told in chapters that alternate time periods. Half the time we’re with him in the 1990s, when he is a middle-aged man with his second wife (Andrea), his daughter from his first marriage (Sierra), and an assembly of other “eco-warriors,” protesting and perpetrating acts of “eco-terrorism” against lumber companies in the Pacific Northwest. In one of those early scenes, they have dug a trench across one of the logging roads, filled it with wet cement, and dropped their feet into it. When the morning comes, the cement has hardened, and they have become human traffic barriers to the heavy equipment that was to be moved up the road to continue the deforestation. The lumber men, angry but undeterred, go to work with pick axes and sledge hammers to get them free.

It hurt. It hurt more than Tierwater could ever have imagined when he sank his sneakered feet into that yielding plastic medium, now hard as stone—stone, in fact—but he gritted his teeth and thought of the Mohawk. The hammers dropped again and again, the dull reverberative thump sucked up in the baffle of the trees. A crack would appear, and they’d go after it, beating a wedge loose here, levering up a section there. He tried to remain calm through all of this, tried to choke down the rage rising in his throat—passive resistance, that was the ticket, the strategy that brought the British Empire to its knees, stopped the war in Vietnam, humbled George Wallace and Bull Connor—but when his daughter let out a gasp, the smallest exhalation of pained surprise, the faintest whisper built round the thump of the hammer at her ankle, it went right to him.

This is the first clue that Sierra is something special to Tierwater and, indeed, she becomes a kind of polestar throughout the entire narrative.

The other half of the time, we’re still with Tierwater (oddly in the first person, whereas the chapters in the 1990s are told in the third person), but now it’s the 2020s, he’s a much older man, and much of the environmental apocalypse he feared in the 1990s has come to pass. Humanity trudges on, reduced from new plagues and hanging onto the edge of what was once modern society, and Tierwater is working as a kind of zookeeper for an eccentric pop star who keeps a menagerie of some of the earth’s now rarest creatures. Andrea returns after a long separation, bringing with her a writer who is working on a book about Sierra, who died years ago as a martyr to the environmental cause. We don’t know how that happened until it is revealed late in the book, and much of the chapters in the 2020s are of Tierwater remembering and reminiscing about his daughter and her special place in his movement and his heart.

Three times I went by the road I wanted and three times had to cut U-turns in a soup of mud, rock and streaming water, until finally I found the turnout where we’d parked that afternoon. It had been compacted dirt then, dusty even, but now it was like an automotive tar pit, a glowing head-lighted arena in which to race the engine and spin the tires until they stuck fast. I didn’t care. Sierra was up there on top of the ridge before me, up there in the thrashing wind, scared and lonely and for all I knew dangling from some limb a hundred an eighty feet in the air and fighting for her life. I had five beers in me, I was her father. I was going to save her.

This is from when Sierra decides to camp out on a platform high in a redwood tree, determined to stay there in protest for as long as it takes to stop the logging of those precious trees. She’s up there an unbelievable three years—while the logging goes on all around her—but it is in her airy sojourn, and Tierwater’s desperate quest for her on her first desperate night when a colossal storm hits, that we begin to see the symbolism that lies under Boyle’s high octane melodrama—the symbolism of man eternally longing for something meaningful in an indifferent world.

What was I wearing? Jeans, a sweater, an old pair of hiking boots, some kind of rain gear—I don’t remember. What I do remember is the sound of the wind in the trees, a screech of rending wood, the long crashing fall of shattered branches, the deep-throated roar of the rain as it combed the ridge and made the whole natural world bow down before it. I was ankle-deep in mud, fumbling with the switch of an uncooperative flashlight, inhaling rain and coughing it back up again, thinking of John Muir, the holy fool who was the proximate cause of all this. One foot followed the other and I climbed, not even sure if this was the right turnout or the right ridge—path? what path?—and I remembered Muir riding out a storm one night in the Sierras, thrashing to and fro in the highest branches of a tossing pine, just to see what it was like. He wasn’t trying to save anything or anybody—he just wanted to seize the moment, to experience what no one had experienced, to shout his hosannas to the god of the wind and the rain and the mad whirling rush of the spinning earth. He had joy, he had connection, he had vision and mystical reach. What he didn’t have was Black Cat malt liquor.

Here is the indifferent world in all of its primordial power—oblivious to both fools like John Muir and fools like Tyrone Tierwater.

I spat to clear my throat, hunched my shoulders and hovered over the last can. I was halfway up the ridge at that point, sure that at any moment a dislodged branch would come crashing out of the sky and pin me to the ground like a toad, and when I threw my head back to drink, the rain neat at my clenched eyelids with a steady unceasing pressure. Three long swallows and my last comfort was gone. I crushed the can and stuffed it into the pocket of the rain slicker and went on, feeling my way, the feeble beam of the flashlight all but useless in the hovering black immensity of the night. I must have been out there for hours, reading the bark like Braille, and the sad thing is I never did find Sierra’s tree. Or not that I know of. Three times that night I found myself at the foot of a redwood that might have been hers, the bark red-orange and friable in the glow of the flashlight, a slash of charred cambium that looked vaguely familiar, the base of the thing alone as wide around as the municipal wading pool in Peterskill where Sierra used to frolic with all the other four-year-olds while I sat in a row of benches with a squad of vigilant mothers and tried to read the paper with one eye. This was her tree, I told myself. It had to be.

And against that force Tierwater struggles, desperate to find the thing that will give him meaning.

Sierra!” I shouted, and the rain gave it back it back to me. “Sierra! Are you up there?”

Sadly, for Tierwater, and for the searching souls that he represents, Sierra is gone and can never return.