Monday, December 28, 2015

My Top 5 Blog Posts of 2015

As we end another year, here's a look back at the five posts on this blog that received the most page views in 2015.

1. Stop Calling It Strategic Planning
This has been on every year-end list since it was originally posted in January 2012, and keeps getting a ton of traffic, including as the page through which the highest number of people enter my site. It was inspired by the take-down of strategic planning in Humanize, and in it 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.

2. The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling
This one was originally posted in May 2014, and returns for a second placement on these year-end lists. It summarizes my takeaways from the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution. The book's subtitle is “Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals,” and it contains a deceptively simple and oddly compelling system for doing exactly that--with a lot of potential applicability for associations. Among the many practical tools it taught me was the need to create "winnable games" for your team to go after, with regular and visual scorecards showing the team's progress towards each goal. As the authors continually remind the reader, people play differently when they are keeping score. When they can see at a glance whether or not they are winning they become profoundly engaged.

3. The Chairman's Gift
Originally posted in July 2012, this one has now been on three of four possible year-end lists. It tells the 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.

4. Rise of the American Nation by Lewis Paul Todd and Merle Curti
The only newcomer to this year's list, this was originally posted in February 2012, and summarizes the takeaways I gained from reading my high school American history textbook, twenty-six years after graduating from high school. The biggest takeaway of all? That our view of history is tainted by our perceptions and political preferences of the day we look back on it. It’s a little like how the future is always imagined in the context of the present. Just as it is difficult to imagine a future fundamentally foreign from the world we live in, it’s hard to look at the past without filtering it through our modern sensibilities and political framework. And personally, my own sensibilities and political framework have changed quite a bit since I was in high school.

5. No One Knows How to Make a Computer Mouse
This one, first posted in February 2012, has made the Top 5 list for each of the last three years. It contains a link to a TED talk video featuring Matt Ridley, who makes the case that innovation and progress depend on the accelerating exchange of ideas and information, not on the expertise or creativity of any single individual. To make his point, he uses the example of the computer mouse--a piece of technology we all depend on and that has transformed our world, but which contains so many parts and underlying technologies that no single person on the planet could construct one entirely by themselves. In my commentary, I compare this to the association environment, in which I say the role of the association leader is not to come up with the bright ideas, but to bring together and facilitate the exchange of ideas and information so that the bright ideas emerge.

My thanks to everyone who has been reading what I've been putting up here. I hope you plan to stay engaged in 2016.

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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, December 26, 2015

To Appomattox by Burke Davis

Appomattox refers to Appomattox Court House, the small Virginia town where Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all Union forces, rapidly drawing the American Civil War to an end. The book is a detailed history of the nine days in April from the fall of Petersburg to the surrender at Appomattox, told from multiple perspectives, both blue and gray.

Like a lot of Civil War history I’ve read, it is full of minor tragedies that could easily be expanded into full narratives--historical or, even more alluring to my sensibilities, fictional. The saddest of many I have come across deals with the death and funeral of Confederate General Ambrose Powell (A. P.) Hill. Here’s how Davis introduces us to the general, on Saturday, April 1, one day before the fall of Petersburg.

General Ambrose Powell Hill’s sector of the line lay south of Petersburg, near the city, facing the massed strength of the enemy. Danger seemed greater than ever today, and the general was out at daybreak with his staff and a handful of couriers. Though Hill looked frail, and had been called from sick leave, he was in the saddle all day. Men in his ranks seemed to take heart at sight of his long pale face; they could remember his red battle shirt at Sharpsburg, so long ago, when The Light Division had saved the army. General Hill’s decline had matched that of the Confederacy.

This is an interesting parallel--Hill’s notoriously failing health and the final failing of the Confederacy.

A vague illness had plagued him through the winter--perhaps psychosomatic, perhaps only a vestige of a case of malaria from his early manhood. Officers recalled that Hill had often been sickly, sluggish and eaten by anxieties in moments when battle action was pending, as at Gettysburg and The Wilderness. Now, in any event, emergency had called Hill from his wife and two baby girls. It was perhaps was well, even for his health, for in Richmond when citizens asked him if the city might fall, Hill was visibly shaken, and was given to shouting, “I don’t want to survive the fall of the city!”

And now we get the foreshadowing of his own death. Davis goes on to cite sources attesting to Hill’s sullenness and gloom during this time--torn, probably by this duty to his country and the love of his family, who remained so painfully close to the hostilities. But when the right of Lee’s line--commanded by Hill--begins to collapse, Hill is spurred into vigorous action.

Hill strode into General Lee’s room without being announced. The generals were talking about the darkening situation when Colonel Charles Venable of Lee’s staff flung open the door. He shouted, “Wagons are flying down the road toward Petersburg and Union skirmishers are behind Hill’s right.”

Hill tore from the house like an excited boy and vaulted into his saddle so recklessly that Lee sent Venable after him to urge caution. When he had been halted, Hill told Venable patiently that his lines were cut into two, and that he must save them. He promised that he would be careful and spurred away, followed by Venable, Tucker and Jenkins.

But Hill is not careful--at least not careful enough--and winds up being shot dead by two Union infantrymen in the process of trying to force their surrender. Here Lee’s famous reaction when he learns the news.

The party met Sergeant Tucker leading General Hill’s gray horse. The artillery courier, Percy Hawes, stood nearby. “I will never forget the expression on General Lee’s face,” he wrote.

Lee asked Tucker for details of the general’s death, and heard them somberly. His voice was almost drowned by gunfire, “Those of us who are left behind are the ones to suffer.”

They were clearly nearing the end of a long, painful fight. And Lee understood that nothing but more death (and probably surrender--more on that later) were in store for those who remained. More poignant, I think, is the much less famous reaction of Hill’s wife.

[Lee] sent Colonel Palmer and Tucker to tell the widow of their loss: “Colonel, break the news to her as gently as you can.”

Palmer and Tucker evaded Federals pouring through the lines and were soon at the Venable house. As they dismounted they heard Mrs. Hill inside, singing loudly at her work. Palmer hesitated, and did not knock on the door. He walked quietly into the hall, but the sound of his boots stopped Mrs. Hill’s singing. Tucker heard her voice from where he stood on the porch:

“The General’s dead. You wouldn’t be here unless he was dead.”

It doesn’t end there. A. P. Hill was killed in the middle of absolute chaos. The Confederate entrenchments that had helped create the seven-month siege of Petersburg had fallen. Now Federals were streaming into the city and Confederates were streaming out of it. To the north in Richmond, the citizens themselves are rioting.

“Hundreds crowded the main government warehouse where whisky was being destroyed. A Richmond Times man watched:

“They contrived to catch most of the liquor in pitchers, bottles and basins. This liquor was not slow in manifesting itself. The crowd became a mob and began to howl. Soon other crowds had collected in front of other warehouses. … So frenzied had the mob become that officers in charge … had to flee for their lives. …

Crowds of men, women and children traversed the streets, rushing from one storehouse to another, loading themselves with all kinds of supplies. … After midnight … straggling soldiers made their appearance on the streets and immediately set about robbing the principal stores on Main Street. … Soldiers roamed from store to store, followed by a reckless crowd, drunk as they.”

And in the midst of this, the family of A. P. Hill seemingly work like mice in a burning church to find peace and dignity for their fallen relative.

Through this melee, at 1 A.M., the hearse of A. P. Hill rolled into town, jouncing uphill at last to Capitol Square. It had been almost all day on the road from the battlefield, and the general’s aide and nephew, Captain Frank Hill, had gone back to the fighting. His brother, Henry Hill, Jr., had guided the body into Richmond, aided by the courier, Jenkins.

The wagon had been delayed for hours near the bridge of the James in the afternoon, and it was only in the early morning darkness that Henry found his cousin, G. Powell Hill, packing papers of the Paymaster General’s office as clerks and Negroes ran in and out with bundles. Henry led Powell to the wagon.

The official stared into the ambulance in bewilderment.

“I thought you’d have a coffin,” he said.

The Hills left the wagon with Jenkins and ran along Twelfth Street through bands of looters into Belvin’s Furniture Store, whose door, like others in the block, had been torn open. They yelled; there were only echoes in the empty building.

They found a coffin and carried it through the streets into an abandoned office, brought the general’s body in from the wagon, and by candlelight washed his face and removed his gloves.

This, I think, is the most affecting moment of all. Brother and cousin, likely by candlelight, in the back of a looted furniture store, washing the dead body, and trying to arrange it respectfully in a stolen coffin.

The fatal shot had blown off the thumb of the left hand and passed through the heart, emerging from his back. They stuffed the body into the coffin, which was a bit small even for the slight figure, and left the city by Fourteenth Street, over Mayo’s Bridge to the south side of the river and upstream toward the farmhouse where G. Powell Hill’s parents were refugees. It was slow going in the stream of vehicles and walking people. They were most of the night on the way.

G. Powell Hill rode ahead and found his mother and father at breakfast, unaware of the general’s death or the collapse of the army.

They debated what was to be done with the body, since it was out of the question to carry it to distant Culpeper, and at last buried the general on the farm, in the graveyard of the Winston family. G. Powell Hill and a Negro butler made a rough case for the coffin while others dug a pit in the clay.

Imagine the scene. Of course, this sorrowful drama, captured in Burke’s historian voice, is only preserved because of who A. P. Hill was--a figure worth studying and understanding in the long line of secondary actors who helped shape events in the American Civil War. But that war, like all wars, is filled with wretched dramas like this, affecting people whose names are never recorded in history books, but whose stories are just as universal and filled with pathos as those few that are preserved for our knowledge and understanding.

That’s one theme I want to pull out of this book. Here’s another.

Just outside the town, pushed by a heavy Federal force, was the 35th Virginia Cavalry Battalion, with Captain Frank Myers commanding the lead squadron. A bluecoat came up with a white flag.

“Letter from General Grant to General Lee,” he said.

“Nothing doing,” Myers said. “I won’t take it unless that line of infantry stops where it is.”

The Federal rider went back, and the troops were halted half a mile away. Myers sent a rider into Farmville with the dispatch.

It was good news for Robert Lee--Custis was a Federal prisoner, alive, unwounded and well.

There are also plenty of stories like this in the American Civil War. In this case, it is General Grant, sending a note to General Lee with news about Lee’s son, but there are many other examples of these courtesies and acts of human compassion amid the untold slaughter of so many others. In part, it is a kind of professionalism, educated soldiers being a kind of caste unto themselves in this and many other societies. But in part, it is also a kind of elitism, an entitlement that allows an otherwise civil society to engage in the savagery of war. Yes, please assure Marse Robert that his son is alive and well in Federal custody. We would hate for unsatiated worry to trouble the General’s mind as he plots the death and dismemberment of so many other people’s sons.

Or is that too harsh?

Fact is, as much of a Civil War buff that I am, I’ve never been one to fall victim to the idol worship that seems to surround so many Civil War generals, north and south, and Robert E. Lee perhaps most of all. I have always been more swayed by the argument (made by someone I’ve lost track of) that it is often the noblest men who do the most evil in the world, cloaking (sometimes, I grant, without their conscious attention) the carnage they create in heartwarming wrappers of honor and fidelity.

But evidence of Lee’s caginess on this issue comes out loud and clear in his actions when negotiating the terms of surrender with General Grant. It begins, as before, with the passing of notes through the lines.

Longstreet’s infantry was moving westward again, when, at about nine thirty, Robert Lee opened the dispatch:

Headquarters Armies of the United States
April 7, 1865 -- 5 P.M.

General R. E. Lee,
Commanding C. S. Army:

General: The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the C. S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U. S. Grant,
Commanding Armies of the United States

Lee read the sheet and passed it to Longstreet without a word. Old Pete looked for a long moment and handed it back.

“Not yet,” he said.

Lee scratched out a reply by candlelight in the cottage:

7th Apl ‘65


I have recd your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of N. Va.--I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, & therefore before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of surrender.

Very respy your obt. Servt
R. E. Lee

Lt. Genl U. S. Grant
Commd Armies of the U States

By 10 P.M. General Seth Williams, waiting in the moonlight, had the reply, and was on his way back to Grant’s headquarters.

It is true that Lee, in this message, did not agree to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia. He did, clearly I think, ask for Grant’s terms of surrender, so that such a decision could be considered. But the next day, before Grant’s next message is received, when a group of subordinate generals, led by General Pendleton, approach Lee with the idea that perhaps he should surrender, Lee said this.

But of surrender Lee told Pendleton firmly, “I trust it has not come to that. We certainly have too many brave men to think of laying down our arms. They still fight with great spirit, whereas the enemy do not. And besides, if I were to intimate to General Grant that I would listen to terms, he would regard it such an evidence of weakness that he would demand unconditional surrender, and sooner than that I am resolved to die. We must all determine to die at our posts.”

And Pendleton’s response?

“We’re perfectly willing for you to decide,” Pendleton said. “Every man will cheerfully die with you.”

Okay. Two things.

First, this could be a fabrication. Recollections of Civil War generals, and this is described as Pendleton’s recollection, are somewhat notorious for retrofitting. When talking to posterity after the fact, they are often more concerned about their reputations than the unvarnished truth. And this, to me, reads suspiciously like a perpetuation of the myth of Robert E. Lee and the moral pinnacle of the Southern Confederacy. The bit about people cheerfully dying for the marble general is like icing on that cake.

And second, even if this is an accurate retelling, Lee could only be doing what many leaders do in times of doubt and strife--putting on a strong face in front of his subordinates.

Because, of course, according to the chronology presented, Lee has already done precisely what he has now told Pendleton he wouldn’t do--ask General Grant for the terms of his surrender. And if it isn’t a fabrication, and if Lee isn’t grandstanding, then perhaps it is a result of Lee’s own confusion, or his duplicity, or his inner turmoil.

I suspect the last. Here’s how the next pair of messages go.

A second message from Grant had come through Mahone’s lines, and Lee opened it in the early night, with Colonel Venable peering over his shoulder by the light of a candle.

April 8, 1865

General R. E. Lee
Commanding C. S. A.

Your note of last evening in reply to mine of same date, asking the condition on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia is received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon, namely: that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you many name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.

U. S. Grant
Lieutenant General

“How would you answer that?” Lee asked.

“I would answer no such letter,” Venable said.

“Ah, but it must be answered.”

Several ways to read that exchange--one being that Venable still believed surrender is out of the question, while Lee believes it must be accomplished, but in a way that preserves the pride and dignity of his officers and men.

The commander dictated a reply:

8th Apl ‘65


I recd at a late hour your note of today. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of N. Va.--but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that and I cannot therefore meet you with a view to surrender the Army of N. Va.--but as far as your proposal may affect the C. S. forces under my command & tend to the restoration of peace, I shall be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. tomorrow on the old stage road to Richmond between the two picket lines of the two armies.

Very respy your Obt. Servt.
R. E. Lee

Lt. Genl U. S. Grant
Commd Armies of the U. S.

I’ve got to admit, when I first read Lee’s reply, I had trouble making any sense of it. I asked for terms, but not because I want to surrender, just to see how serious about peace you are. I’m not near ready to surrender this army, but I’ll meet you anyway, as long as we only talk about peace and not the surrender of my army. What does any of that mean? How is peace going to be established without the surrender of Lee’s army? Does Lee think Grant is going to surrender to him?

As for what Grant thought of the message, here’s how Burke describes the scene at his headquarters when Lee’s message is received.

Rawlins read aloud the note from Lee to Grant, and as he read his voice rose and became angrier. At the end Rawlins cursed:

“He did not propose to surrender!” Rawlins shouted. “Diplomatic, but not true. He did propose, in his heart, to surrender. Now he’s trying to take advantage of a single word by you, to extend such easy terms. He wants to entrap you into making a peace treaty. You said nothing about that. You asked him to surrender.

“He asked your terms. You answered with the terms. Now he wants to arrange a peace--to take in the whole Confederacy. No, sir! You can’t do it. It’s a positive insult. It’s an underhanded way to change the whole correspondence.”

Grant’s quiet voice came down to the listeners:

“It amounts to the same thing, Rawlins. He’s only trying to get let down easy. I can meet him in the morning as he says, and settle the whole business in an hour.”

“No!” Rawlins said. “You can’t presume to teach Lee the use of the English language. He’s arranged this meeting to gain time, and get better terms. He deserves no reply whatever. ‘He don’t think the emergency has arisen!’ Now that’s cool--but a lie. It’s been staring him in the face for forty-eight hours. If he hasn’t seen it yet we’ll soon show it to him. He’ll surrender. He had to surrender. By God, it’ll be surrender and nothing else!”

Grant tried to calm him. “We’ve got to make some allowance for the trying place Lee is in. He’s got to obey orders of his government. It all means exactly the same thing, Rawlins. If I meet Lee, he’ll surrender before I leave.”

“You’ve no right to meet General Lee or anybody else to arrange peace terms,” Rawlins said. “That’s for the President, or the Senate. Your business is to capture or destroy his army.”

There was more of it, but Rawlins at last subsided and went back to bed. Grant stayed up.

Rawlins’s reaction, of course, explains Lee’s behavior perfectly, and helps make everything he has said, both in notes to General Grant and in discussion with General Pendleton and his subordinates, consistent. He will surrender his army, but only under terms that will preserve the pride and dignity of his men. And Grant understands this, reading even more intelligently between the lines that Rawlins is.

Does that make Lee a great leader? Probably. He was clearly skilled at keeping his cards close to his vest when the stakes were highest, knowing, as he surely did, that every hour that he delayed his intended surrender only meant more dead soldiers in blue and gray uniforms. And I probably shouldn’t blame him. After all, after killing so many thousands in the pursuit of Southern independence, should I expect him to be troubled over tens or maybe hundreds more that would be sacrificed for more favorable terms of surrender?

By this time, the scales of actual justice had been so weighted with military power and esprit de corps that I suppose the only outcomes possible where those mediated by the culture of the two professional soldiers that met that April day at Appomattox Court House.

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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, December 21, 2015

A Holiday Break: Continental Drift by Russell Banks

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 2015, the one I'd most like to revisit is Continental Drift by Russell Banks. I blogged about it back in July, and included the following excerpt from one of the book's early chapters:

It’s as if the creatures residing on this planet in these years, the human creatures, millions of them traveling singly and in families, in clans and tribes, traveling sometimes as entire nations, were a subsystem inside the larger system of currents and tides, of winds and weather, of drifting continents and shifting, uplifting, grinding, cracking land masses. It’s as if the poor forked creatures who walk, sail and ride on donkeys and camels, in trucks, buses and trains from one spot on this earth to another were all responding to unseen, natural forces, as if it were gravity and not war, famine or flood that made them move in trickles from hillside villages to gather along the broad, muddy riverbanks lower down and wait for passage on rafts down the river to the sea and over the sea on leaky boats to where they collect in eddies, regather their lost families and few possessions, set down homes, raise children and become fruitful once again. We map and measure jet streams, weather patterns, prevailing winds, tides and deep ocean currents; we track precisely scarps, fractures, trenches and ridges where the plates atop the earth’s mass drive against one another; we name and chart the Southeast and Northeast Trades and the Atlantic Westerlies, the tropical monsoons and the doldrums, the mistrals, the Santa Ana and the Canada High; we know the Humboldt, California and Kuroshio currents--so that, having traced and enumerated them, we can look on our planet and can see that all the way to its very core the sphere inhales and exhales, rises and falls, swirls and whirls in a lovely, disciplined dance in time. It ages and dies and is born again, constantly, through motion, creating and recreating its very self, like a uroborous, the snake that devours its tail.

It’s a tip-off, I said about this excerpt back in July. Banks wants us to understand from the very beginning of his novel that the movements his characters will make, and, of course, by inclusion the movements we all make--movements not just in space but also in time and social position--are as natural, timeless and cataclysmic as the shifting of the Earth’s tectonic plates.

And the drama that follows comes in the juxtaposed trajectories of two characters, one who understands these forces, and a second, a kind of everyman that represents the aimlessness of much of American culture, who does not. Most of us, Banks reminds us through this character, are people whose very lives are formed by these tectonic movements, and who are completely oblivious to their powers and their impact on their lives. We’re like primitives, but primitives disconnected from the forces of nature, clutching the totems and talismans of an orderly, modern life, thinking they are what keep us safe, when they are nothing but shadows, instilled with impotent power by our own misconstrued beliefs.

It’s an amazing novel. As you enjoy your holiday break, I hope you find some time to curl up with a good book like it. I know I will.

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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, December 14, 2015

Tracking Metrics Isn't Easy or Free

One thing that's apparent to most people when they become serious about actually achieving their vision is that identifying the right metrics is paramount. If you aren't measuring the thing that actually translates to progress, then you have no way of knowing if your vision is being achieved.

What is sometimes less apparent is how difficult and time consuming it can sometimes be to actually track those metrics. Collecting data, organizing it, sharing it with others, thinking about what it means--these tasks all require time and effort. Too often, in my experience, these tasks are just assumed. The time it takes to perform them is never included in the calculations associated with staff time and focus. As a result, sometimes an unmanageable number of metrics are put on the organization's plate, preventing it from accomplishing the success it might otherwise have.

In my own organization I've tried to protect against this by concretely assigning the task of tracking each of our metrics to an individual staff member. In the language I've introduced before, tracking and reporting on the metric is a Program Objective in and of itself. It is included and given equal weight in the list of things a staff person is held accountable for.

Yes, we want you to lead a team in organizing our Fall Conference, but we also want you to track the number and types of members registering for it, compare those numbers to the pace of registrations in previous years, report the latest data at each of our weekly staff meetings, and lead your team in discussions about new actions to take that can help drive those numbers towards our goals.

That's a lot of work--important work--that deserves to be recognized with an intentional allocation of a staff person's most limited resource: time.

And some metrics are more difficult to track than others. Weekly tracking of conference registrations is fairly easy. But what if the metric requires data that isn't readily available to the association? Metrics like the number of members who are learning something new at the conference and applying it in their professional lives? You can't run a weekly report out of your registration database to get to the bottom of that one. Someone, somewhere is going to need to design and implement a discrete data collection mechanism. Something, in this example, that may require pre- and post surveys, phone interviews and education audits. Who in their right mind would think that is something they can just tack onto someone's plate without any ramifications to their overall output?

And yet, that is what often happens. By all means, choose your metrics carefully to make sure you're tracking the right things. But don't forget to allocate the appropriate time to track them. They won't tell you want you want to know unless you do.

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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, December 12, 2015

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

This is the second book in a trilogy, the first being the more widely-known The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights), and the third being The Amber Spyglass.

As I’ve blogged before, I first picked up The Golden Compass because of the negative publicity that began swirling around when the movie based on that book was about to come out--negative publicity from the point of view of the religious folks who felt the book (and the overall series) was a kind of atheist’s take on The Chronicles of Narnia, with the Christian-like characters taking on the role of villains rather than heroes.

I personally didn’t find The Golden Compass egregious on that level--although it was clear seeds were being planted. And The Subtle Knife, as anticipated, really ups the ante.

“Sisters,” she began, “let me tell you what is happening, and who it is we must fight. For there is a war coming. I don’t know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history--and that’s not long by our lives, but it’s many, many of theirs--it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out. Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvangar. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only such practice. Sisters, you know only the north; I have traveled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did--not in the same way, but just as horribly. They cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls; they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if a war comes, and the Church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.”

This is a speech given by a witch queen, trying to convince her sister witches that they should fight in a war against the Magisterium, who is secretly cutting daemons (animals magically paired with people in this fantasy world, and acting as something between their familiars and their souls) away from children so they can be more easily controlled. That’s the surface plot, but it’s not difficult to see the analogy to our world and some of the churches that dominate it riding barely under that surface.

And there are two heroes in this trilogy--characters who knowingly and unknowingly lead the fight against the oppression of the Church. As I discussed more thoroughly with my post on The Golden Compass, there is Lyra Belacqua, still refreshingly a petulant and awkward child, and not, as so often in young adult literature, a protagonist with adult sensibilities dressed up in the guise of an adolescent.

Here’s the best example yet:

“You don’t even know what it is you stole,” Lyra stormed. “You seen me using it and you thought you’d steal it, and you did. But you--you--you’re worse than my mother. At least she knows it’s important! You’re just going to put it in a case and do nothing with it! You ought to die! If I can, I’ll make someone kill you. You’re not worth leaving alive. You’re--”

She couldn’t speak. All she could do was spit full in his face, so she did, with all her might.

Will sat still, watching, looking around, memorizing where everything was.

Sir Charles calmly shook out a silk handkerchief and mopped himself.

“Have you any control over yourself?” he said. “Go and sit down, you filthy brat.”

Lyra felt tears shaken out of her eyes by the trembling of her body, and threw herself onto the sofa. Pantalaimon, his thick cat’s tail erect, stood on her lap with his blazing eyes fixed on the old man.

Have you any control over yourself, indeed. It keeps the reader more engaged, because there just isn’t the fatalistic certainty that Lyra will succeed in whatever she sets out to do.

But Lyra is not the only hero. There is also her father Lord Asriel, not actually appearing in The Subtle Knife, but clearly being set up for the final confrontation in The Amber Spyglass. Here’s a conversation about him between another witch (Serafina Pekkala) and a man who was once Asriel’s manservant (Thorold).

“Well, Lord Asriel has never found hisself at ease with the doctrines of the Church, so to speak. I’ve seen a spasm of disgust cross his face when they talk of the sacraments, and atonement, and redemption, and suchlike. It’s death among our people, Serafina Pekkala, to challenge the Church, but Lord Asriel’s been nursing a rebellion in his heart for as long as I’ve served him, that’s one thing I do know.”

“A rebellion against the Church?”

“Partly, aye. There was a time when he thought of making it an issue of force, but he turned away from that.”

“Why? Was the Church too strong?”

“No,” said the old servant, “that wouldn’t stop my master. Now this might sound strange to you, Serafina Pekkala, but I know the man better than any wife could know him, better than a mother. He’s been my master and my study for nigh on forty years. I can’t follow him to the height of his thought any more than I can fly, but I can see where he’s a-heading even if I can’t go after him. No, it’s my belief he turned away from a rebellion against the Church not because the Church was too strong, but because it was too weak to be worth fighting.”

“So...what is he doing?”

“”I think he’s a-waging a higher war than that. I think he’s aiming a rebellion against the highest power of all. He’s gone a-searching for the dwelling place of the Authority Himself, and he’s a-going to destroy Him. That’s what I think. It shakes my heart to voice it, ma’am. I hardly dare think of it. But I can’t put together any other story that makes sense of what he’s doing.”

Serafina sat quiet for a few moments, absorbing what Thorold had said.

Before she could speak, he went on:

“Course, anyone setting out to do a grand thing like that would be the target of the Church’s anger. Goes without saying. It’d be the most gigantic blasphemy, that’s what they’d say. They’d have him before the Consistorial Court and sentenced to death before you could blink. I’ve never spoke of it before and I shan’t again; I’d be afraid to speak it aloud to you if you weren’t a witch and beyond the power of the Church; but that makes sense, and nothing else does. He’s a-going to find the Authority and kill Him.”

“Is that possible?” said Serafina.

“Lord Asriel’s life has been filled with things that were impossible. I wouldn’t like to say there was anything he couldn’t do. But on the face of it, Serafina Pekkala, yes, he’s stark mad. If angels couldn’t do it, how can a man dare to think about it?”

“Angels? What are angels?”

“Beings of pure spirit, the Church says. The Church teaches that some of the angels rebelled before the world was created, and got flung out of heaven and into hell. They failed, you see, that’s the point. They couldn’t do it. And they had the power of angels. Lord Asriel is just a man, with human power, no more than that. But his ambition is limitless. He dares to do what men and women don’t even dare to think. And look what he’s done already: he’s torn open the sky, he’s opened the way to another world. Who else has ever done that? Who else could think of it? So with one part of me, Serafina Pekkala, I say he’s mad, wicked, deranged. Yet with another part I think, he’s Lord Asriel, he’s not like other men. Maybe...if it was ever going to be possible, it’d be done by him and by no one else.”

Yes, Asriel is clearly the Satan in Pullman’s dark tale, only much more powerful because he is a human Satan and not an angelic one. God, after all, gave humans free will, a blessing he did not bestow on his angelic host, and, in killing God--the Authority--it looks like Asriel will be making Pullman’s ultimate statement on the power of human science over myth and legend.

Should be quite a climax. After all, as Pullman has another one of his characters say late in the book:

“There are two great powers,” the man said, “and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.”

Care to guess which side wins in The Amber Spyglass?

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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, December 7, 2015

Innovating the Lean Startup Way

Elizabeth Weaver Engel of Spark Consulting has another white paper out. It's the third or fourth one I've read from her shop, and it's another good one. This one was co-authored with Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, and it's titled "Innovate the Lean Way: Applying Lean Startup Methodology in the Association Environment."

I won't go into all the details. You should read the white paper if you're interested. But here's one of the underlying concepts that really connected with me.

Associations, generally, are "resource-poor environments." In my own phraseology, our goals are often bigger than our resources. We're non-profits, we're trying to change the world, and our resources are, frankly, often not up to the task. We don't have the dollars we wished we did. And, although we have, among our members, a source of human capital many for-profits would envy, we are frequently inefficient in aligning those resources with the objectives we've set for ourselves.

But here's the shocker. When it comes to applying lean startup methodology to our product and program development processes, all the liabilities I just described are not liabilities at all. They turn into advantages because, as the white paper says, the lean startup method "favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over tradition 'big design up front' development. As such, it's ideally suited for resource-poor environments."

Wondering how to start? The white paper has plenty of ideas. One of the things I like best about this series is that Elizabeth and the co-authors she recruits "get" the audience their speaking to. That audience is associations, and even with something like lean startups, something more naturally suited to our environment, there are things that won't easily translate to our world. In this paper, she and Guillermo first lay out the theory, then talk about how associations can apply it, and then provide several examples of associations doing exactly that. It's great.

Here's my own contribution. Something "lean startup-ish" that we've started doing at my own association. When developing a new product or program, we first conduct what I'm starting to refer to as a "call for interest." Before putting any time or money into development we simply lay out the idea in 300 words or less and send it out to the membership. Here's something we're thinking about and the value we think it will provide. Do you agree? Let us know if you'd like to see us develop this further and would like to be part of the team that works on it.

We've had surprising results with this approach--helping us to move forward with some ideas and, importantly, helping us to decide not to move forward with others. Although the white paper mentions associations that may be worried about the brand reputation and the "risk" associated with releasing intentionally half-baked ideas to the membership, I'm finding that mindset increasingly marginalized in my community.

The reverse, I believe, is increasingly true. Letting your members know that you are open to experimentation, that you value their perspective, and that you will only invest in ideas that they help you validate adds rather than detracts from your brand reputation.

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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 30, 2015

The Importance of Being Direct

I got some great advice from a colleague a few days ago.

"You need to be more direct," she said. "People don't know what you want them to do unless you tell them."

In theory, it seems obvious. If you expect a certain action or behavior out of someone who reports to you, you need to tell them what it is. How else are they going to know what your expectations are? Will they read your mind?

In practice, however, I've found that it can be a little more complicated. If I'm your supervisor, then there are clearly things that I want you to do and clearly things that I don't want you to do. Communicating those expectations is fairly straightforward. But there are also ways I want you to act and ways I don't want you to act. And decisions I would want you to make in certain circumstances and decisions I wouldn't want you to make in other circumstances. In each of these latter two examples, I've sometimes found myself avoiding direct communications out of a concern that I would be micromanaging a set of tasks or reneging on the delegation that is required for staff empowerment.

In other words, I don't want employees who only do what I say. I prefer employees who know what to do without me having to tell them.

My error has been in thinking that being direct in these latter two cases is necessarily different than being direct in the first case. When I want you to report to work every morning at 8:00 AM, after all, it is fairly easy to be direct. But when I want you to act with a thirst for knowledge about the industry we represent, or when I want you to decide the best use of the resources delegated to you in furtherance of your program objective, it has always seemed more difficult to be direct. Because in these two cases being direct feels too much like having to tell you how to demonstrate that thirst for knowledge and which resource decisions to make.

But that's not what being direct means.

Being direct means telling you that I expect you to demonstrate a thirst for knowledge for the industry we represent, and that I expect you to go out of your way to let me and others in the organization know everything that you are learning.

Being direct means telling you that you must make the resource decisions for your own programs, and that your success will be measured on your ability to meet the program goals without going over budget.

What I've come to understand is that being direct about what to do and being direct about how to act and what decisions to make are only different in the sense that means are different from ends. Always be direct about means when the means are important. But only be direct about ends when the means are not important or they are better kept out of your direct control.

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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 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