Monday, July 27, 2015

Success Indicators Show Movement Towards Your Vision

I'm describing in a series of blog posts the different elements that make up my association's Strategy Agenda--a new term I've introduced in my organization to represent the essential work product of our Board of Directors. It is comprised of four distinct elements, each one nesting in the one that precedes it, and describes what we want to achieve and how we will measure our success in achieving it.

Six weeks ago I focused on the highest of the four elements: the mission. Four weeks ago it was the first step down the outline: strategic priorities. Two weeks ago it was the next step: ends statements. This week, I'm taking the last step down to the fourth and final element: success indicators.

Success indicators show movement towards the vision you've outlined in your ends statements. They are metrics, things that can be measured, whose progression unquestionably means that your are achieving the ends that you've identified for your organization.

Sounds simple? They're not. They are, in fact, the most challenging part of the Strategy Agenda. As the saying goes, they are where the rubber hits the road. The mission, your strategic priorities, your ends statements--everything up to now has been about making promises. What we're here to do. How we'll go about doing it. What difference it will make. Success indicators are the first step in making good on those promises. They are the things you hold up to show you are actually making progress.

And that makes them exceptionally hard to define. They have to be things that are clearly correlated with your success, but they also have to be things that your organization can measure and can affect. And in the world of associations, there is very often a clear and intimidating gap between what we want to achieve and what we are able to achieve.

Take the example I've been using in this series of posts. Our ends statement, our vision, the world we want to create is one in which:

NFPA fosters awareness and involvement of middle and high school students, helping them understand fluid power’s potential as a technology and choose fluid power as a career path.

How will we know we are doing that? The first thing people usually think of are their programs, and, guess what? We do have a program that is designed to connect middle school students to information about our industry and the technology it uses. So it may seem obvious that we should be basing one of our success indicators on the success of this program.

But there is a nuance that should not be lost, and that is making sure that program success is defined in a way that actually correlates with achieving the vision described in the ends statement. In a previous post, in fact, I described how we initially didn't get this right. Our metric of success on this program was the number of students participating in the program. That might be an appropriate metric at the programmatic level, but we eventually realized that just increasing the number of students in this program was not automatically moving us closer the the ends described in our ends statement. To make it a success indicator instead of a program metric, we had to make sure we were measuring the right thing.

And the right thing, in this case, was not just the number of students, but the number of students that, as a result of our program, had increased their understanding of fluid power's potential as a technology.

That's what makes it a success indicator. Something you can measure. Something you can affect. And something that is clearly aligned with progress against the vision you've described. You need to have all three.

+ + +

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

Image Source

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Continental Drift by Russell Banks

Banks is an amazing writer.

Dubois thinks, A man reaches thirty, and he works at a trade for eight years for the same company, even goes to oil burner school nights for a year, and he stays honest, he doesn’t sneak copper tubing or tools into his car at night, he doesn’t put in for time he didn’t work, he doesn’t drink on the job--a man does his work, does it for eight long years, and for that he gets to take home to his wife and two kids a weekly paycheck for one hundred thirty-seven dollars and forty-four cents. Dirt money. Chump change. Money gone before it’s got. No money at all. Bob does not think it, but he knows that soon the man stops smiling so easily, and when he does smile, it’s close to a sneer. And what he once was grateful for, a job, a wife, kids, a house, he comes to regard as a burden, a weight that pulls his chin slowly to his chest, and because he was grateful once, he feels foolish now, cheated somehow by himself.

This is on page 4. We’ve just met the novel’s protagonist, Bob Dubois, and Banks tells us in this one paragraph everything we need to know about him and, if we are perceptive, even his fate. And more than that. This paragraph, like so many others in the text, speaks not only the truth of Bob Dubois, but transcendent truths of the human condition.

Here’s another. Three paragraphs later.

These northern New England milltown bars are like Irish pubs. In a community closed in by weather and geography, where the men work at jobs and the women work at home and raise children and there’s never enough money, the men and the women tend to feel angry towards one another much of the time, especially in the evenings when the work is done and the children are sleeping and nothing seems improved over yesterday. It’s an unhappy solution to the problem, that men and women should take pleasure in the absence of their mates, but here it’s a necessary one, for otherwise they would beat and maim and kill one another even more than they do.

This one is less about Bob specifically, but still of course about him, about him and every one like him. You don’t even have to look closely to see yourself. It’s me, it’s you, it’s everyone who’s even felt cheated by their own dreams of what they could be. It’s Bob Dubois.

But Bob isn’t the only character Banks wants us to know. After introducing Bob, he switches to a second major character, Vanise Dorsinwille, a young, illiterate Haitian mother who will seek refuge from poverty by fleeing to America, whose tale will at first alternate and then eventually intersect with Bob’s.

And when he wants us to meet Vanise, he begins with this.

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. Banks wants us to understand from the very beginning that the movements his characters make through the novel, 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.

That’s why the novel is called Continental Drift. And fundamentally, the difference between its two main characters is that one understands this and the other doesn’t.

Guess which one is clueless.

… like most people, Bob finds it difficult to know right from wrong. He relies on taboos and circumstances to control his behavior, to make him a “good man,” so that on those infrequent occasions when neither taboo nor circumstance prohibits him from satisfying an appetite and he does not satisfy that appetite or even attempt to do so, he does not know what to think of himself. He doesn’t know if he had been a good man or merely a stupid or scared man. Most people, like Bob, unchurched since childhood, now and then reach that point of not knowing whether they’ve been good, stupid or scared, and the anxiety it provokes obliges them to cease wondering as soon as possible and bury the question, as a dog buries a bone, marking it and promising to themselves that they will return to the bone later, when they have the time and energy to gnaw, a promise never kept, of course, or rarely meant to be kept.

Another one of those paragraphs, letting us know that Bob, and people like him, people like us, people whose very lives are formed by these tectonic movements, these people 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.

Paragraphs stressing this point come again and again in the narrative.

Bob knew his own father had loved him and that he had been a kind, gentle, good-humored man, and with his son, Bob would have no choice but to try to be the same man his father had been with him. Any other kind of man, any other kind of father, was unimaginable to him.

They are all the “Continental Drifts” of being human--the great, underlying truths of life that move us from place to place, that both determine our path and provide us the illusion that we are doing the determining.

And, of course, Bob, like us, wants something more. The totems and talismans are unsatisfying in their secret impotence. He’s not always entirely clear what it is that he wants, the strength of the desire itself often overwhelming his ability to discern its target. But in his most quiet and lucid moments, the unrealized ideal comes shining through.

Since childhood, fishing has satisfied his need to be alone and in the natural world at the same time, his deep, extremely conscious need for the presence of his own thoughts coming to him in his own voice, which rarely happens in the presence of other people, his need for order and, perhaps his most tangled need, his need for competence. Hunting for deer, the only hunting he knows about, denies all those; to him, it’s social, chaotic and impossible to feel competent at.

Competence. The sense that one is good at something. A skill. A mastery. The ability to control oneself and one’s actions to a desired effect. It’s the secret need that shines through the illusions of his life and, deluded into thinking that such an object is attainable against the primordial forces of nature, Bob, like Vanise, goes on a quest. But, as the balance of the novel will demonstrate, and essentially why, I think, Banks has chosen to set the stories of these two characters in opposition to one another, Bob’s quest becomes one that fights against the forces of his world, while Vanise’s is one that allows her to ride them like waves.

But that doesn’t mean Vanise wins and Bob loses. Nor even the reverse. Darkly, and perhaps with some smug satisfaction, the author letting the awful truth seep through his compelling narrative, in the end, both Vanise and Bob fail in the quests they’ve begun, both victims to the forces that rumble and roll on a scale that transcends the desires of individual humans.

But, fear not. For even Bob learns a few things along the way.

For years, Bob was one of those people who believe that there are two kinds of people, children and adults, and that they are like two different species. Then, when he himself became an adult and learned that the child in him had not only refused to die or disappear, but in fact seemed to be refusing to let the adult have his way, and when he saw that was true not only of him but of everyone else he knew as well--his wife, his brother, his friends, even his own mother and father--Bob reluctantly, sadly, with increasing loneliness, came to believe that there are no such things as adults after all, only children who try and usually fail to imitate adults. People are more or less adult-like, that’s all.

Useful things.

People who have no power, or believe they have none, also believe that everything that happens is caused by a particular, powerful agent; people who have power, people who can rest easily saying this or that event happened “somehow,” call the others superstitious, irrational and ignorant, even stupid.

Things that we would be wise to observe and learn for ourselves.

Men do that to women, use them to remake themselves, just as women do it to men. Men and women seek the love of the Other so that the old, cracked and shabby self can be left behind, like a sloughed-off snakeskin, and a new self brought forward, clean, shining, glistening wetly with promise and talents the old self never owned. When you seek to acquire the love of someone who resembles you, in gender, temperament, culture or physical type, you do so for love of those aspects of yourself, gender, temperament, culture, etc.; but when you seek the love of someone different from you, you do it to be rid of yourself.

But it isn’t all stoicism and wisdom. It’s a pitched battle, a terrible row with the forces that shape our lives and our society. And when things becoming challenging, as they do almost immediately, when the elements that made his old life so safe and boring clash with the elements of the new life he’s trying to build, Bob reacts not with intelligence, but with the blind and unthinking fury of the very forces he’s locked in combat with.

He raises and slowly extends his fist toward her. He howls. He howls like a trapped beast, and with both hands he clears the counter of bowls, dishes, kitchen implements, clock.

Elaine’s face has gone all to white, her eyes are wide with fear, and she can’t speak. From the rear of the trailer, the cries of her son start up and rise, and suddenly Elaine finds words and says, “Bob, the baby! The baby!”

But it doesn’t matter what she says, for he can no longer hear her or the baby. He lurches around the tiny, cluttered room like a blindfolded deaf man, sweeping tables and shelves clear, knocking over chairs, sending the television set crashing to the floor, the clock-radio and the pole lamp beside the sofa, the floor lamp next to the easy chair, kicking at magazines, jars, ashtrays as they fall.

“Stop! Stop this!” Elaine shrieks at him. “You son of a bitch! You’re wrecking my house!”

For a split second, Bob looks over at his wife, and then, as if what he’s seen has compounded his rage, he turns on the chairs and tables, and grunting, tips onto its stiff, flat back the tattered green sofa. Elaine grabs his sleeve with both hands, and when he swings away from her grasp, her face stiffens, for suddenly she is afraid of him, of his size and force, as if he were of an utterly different species than she and her children, a huge, coarse-bodied beast with a thick hide, like a buffalo or rhinoceros, and berserk, rampaging, maddened, as if by the stings of a thousand bees.

I still marvel at how the whirlwind of Banks’s prose here so perfectly matches Bob’s impotent rage.

The circumstances of Bob’s journey into this darkness are important. They drive the plot of the novel forward. But their real importance comes not in their specificity, but in their universality. And in the end, even Bob comes to understand to futility of it all.

He’s run his life backwards, from what should have been the end to what should have been the beginning. He’s reached the end too soon, at thirty-one, and has nowhere else to go. You could say he shouldn’t have listened to Eddie, he shouldn’t have listened to Avery Boone, he shouldn’t have trusted these men, his brother and his best friend, men whose lives, though slightly more complicated than Bob’s, were no more in control than his, and you’d be right. You wouldn’t get any argument from Bob Dubois, not now, not tonight aboard the Angel Blue in Moray Key. He knows, however, that even if he hadn’t followed his older brother to Oleander Park and hadn’t followed Ave on down to the Keys, if instead he’d struck out for Arizona or California, where he knew no one, a stranger in a new world, he’d still end up one night just as he is now, his life a useless, valueless jumble of broken plans, frustrated ambitions, empty dreams. He’d end up with nothing to trade on.

Why is this? Why was Bob’s quest to improve himself and improve his lot in life doomed to such failure?

It’s not bad luck, Bob knows, life’s not that irrational an arrangement of forces; and though he’s no genius, it’s not plain stupidity, either, for too many stupid people get on in the world. It’s dreams. And especially the dream of a new life, the dream of starting over. The more a man trades off his known life, the one in front of him that came to him by birth and the accidents and happenstance of youth, the more of that he trades for dreams of a new life, the less power he has. Bob Dubois believes this now. But he’s fallen to a dark, cold place where the walls are sheer and slick, and all the exits have been sealed. He’s alone. He’s going to have to live here, if he’s going to live at all. This is how a good man loses his goodness.

It’s because he left the forces that shaped his life, the channels of Continental Drift that determined who he is and what success means for a person in his station. If the novel tells us anything--if the everyman story that is Bob’s means anything at all--it is that we are all better off staying with the forces that have already shaped our lives and seeking contentment within them.

And in some ways it’s amazing that it takes Bob as long as it does to learn this lesson, because he recognizes it immediately when he observes the same compulsion in Vanise.

They risk everything to get away from their island, give up everything, their homes, their families, forsake all they know, and then strike out across open sea for a place they’ve only heard about.

For, as I said, the two main characters of the book do come together in the end. Vanise, in her quest for a better life in America, and Bob, in his quest for a better life being his own boss, find themselves on the same midnight boat ride, Vanise as an illegal passenger among many, seeking refuge, and Bob as the boat’s captain, seeking the kind of score that has eluded him taking rich businessmen out on deep sea excursions.

Why do they do that? he wonders. Why do they throw away everything they know and trust, no matter how bad it is, for something they know nothing about and can never trust? He’s in awe of the will it takes, the stubborn, conscious determination to get to America that each of them, from the eldest to the youngest, must own.

The irony is thick, but all but lost on Bob, who fails to see himself and the desires that drove him to Oleander Park and on down to the Keys in the refugees huddled together on his boat.

But he can’t put that willfulness together with what he sees before him--a quiescent, silent, shy people who seem fatalistic almost, who seem ready and even willing to accept whatever is given them.

It’s this final attribute that befuddles Bob. The Haitian refugees have a secret that Bob ultimately lacks. Rather than opposing the forces of Continental Drift, they ride them like waves, to whatever destination those forces prefer.

It’s a neat package, the way Bob and Vanise come together and juxtapose, and it’s well told. But the final testament to Banks’s skill as a writer comes at the end.

The boat trip ends in tragedy, Bob’s untrustworthy shipmate throws the Haitians and their belongings into the sea when a Coast Guard cutter attempts and fails to apprehend them. Bob later reads in the newspaper that all but one of the Haitians drowned as a result (can you guess which one survived?), and he becomes obsessed in his guilt and his grief to find this lone survivor and make some kind of recompense to her. The money, he fatalistically decides, the money he earned from making the illegal run. It should be hers and not his.

He goes to a bad part of town, a place where Haitian and other refugees are known to live, away from the watchful eyes of the law. He makes inquiries among the pimps and drug dealers that call that place their own. Eventually he finds a group of young Haitian men who claim to know the survivor Bob seeks.

Suddenly Bob’s chest fills as if with a large, hard, metal-skinned balloon, and his breath comes in short, rapid bursts. “ you know where she is?”

“In bad shape, I hear. Very bad shape.”

“Can you take me to her? I’ll...I’ll pay you.”

The man turns to his comrades and murmurs in Creole for a moment, then returns to Bob. “One hundred dollars.” He’s no longer smiling.”

“Fine, that’s fine.”

“You got to pay now, mister.”

“Oh. Oh, sure, okay.” Bob reaches into his pocket, turns away from the group and draws the money out. Carefully, he peels off five twenties, replaces the packet of bills and hands the hundred dollars to the man. “You sure you know where this woman is?”

“No problem, mister. Like I say, this place is a neighborhood, a country village. Her brother is a well-known man here, and my friend is friend to him, too. We hear all about this woman this morning. Everybody who wants to know about her knows about her. If you don’t want to know, you don’t. If you do, you do. Simple, eh? We know where she is right this minute, too. Not far from this spot.” He’s grinning again.

Bob says, “All right, then. Take me to her.”

“You got somet’ing for her, give it to me, eh? I take it to her for you, save you trouble.”

“No. I’ll give it to her. I need to talk to her.”

“She probably don’t speak English.”

“That’s okay. Just take me to her.”

“Suit yourself,” he says.

They start walking, a shapeless group of five men, four black and one white. Shadows in moonlight of palm trees, parked cars, fences, lampposts, fly up like dark flames and lie down behind the men as they stride down Fifty-fourth Street. All the storefronts and shops are blocked and barred by iron gates and shutters; the restaurants and bars are closed, dark, empty. There is no traffic on the streets, Bob suddenly realizes, no cars or buses moving.

And it’s right here, at the bottom of page 360, six pages before the end of the novel, that I realize I have no idea how Banks will end this thing. Will Bob find Vanise and give her the money? If he does, will the act give him the peace that he hopes it will? Or will Vanise reject him, and leave him in torment? Or are the young Haitian men leading him astray? Do they intend to beat and rob him and leave him for dead? Will they, in fact, kill him, and how will Bob receive that final verdict? As just, or as the last in a long line of personal tragedies?

I have no idea.

And the fact that Banks can plausibly take his story in any one or none of these directions, that he has earned my complete trust without telegraphing the statement the closing actions of his novel will make, demonstrates just how great an author he is.

+ + +

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, July 20, 2015

Getting Members Engaged Is Like Running a Maker Lab

Unfortunately, while we’ve been busily building and marketing the programs, products, and services we think our audiences might like, the world has changed. In 2015, customers are looking for more than a transaction; they’re looking for custom solutions that can be constructed only through authentic relationships of the type, duration, and intensity they—not you—want.

I pulled that quote from the introduction of the recently-released white paper, "Leading Engagement from the Outside In: Become an Indispensable Partner in Your Members' Success," by Anna Caraveli and Elizabeth Weaver Engel. If you're interested, you can get a copy here.

The central message of the white paper is one I agree with. Indeed, my association is one of the case studies profiled in the paper, and one of my staff people recently presented with Anna and Elizabeth at the ASAE Membership and Marketing Conference.

If you're having trouble getting your members "engaged" in your association, it might be worth a read, if, for no other reason, than to get your head around what engagement really means. To wit:

What if, instead of viewing members as passive consumers of our benefits and programs, we worked with them as codevelopers of the value our associations provide?

That's the key, and our ability to do that is the primary reason our association was featured.

But here's an additional idea, not mentioned in the white paper. Even though you want your members to come into your workshop and start working with your tools to fashion and build their own value products, remember that they are your tools and that you are in charge of buying, providing and maintaining them.

What do I mean by that?

Imagine that you run a Maker Lab. If you're not familiar with those, they are starting to pop up all over the country. They come in different stripes--some focused on woodworking, some on machining, some on additive manufacturing--but they are all basically public spaces with a set of tools that are available to anyone who wants to come and use them to build something that is important to them.

So imagine you run one of those, and one day someone who has never been to your Lab before comes in and starts to demand all kinds of new and upgraded equipment. Your wrenches are in English units. I need metric! And your clay oven isn't big enough for the project I had in mind. And where's your 3D printer? Don't you even have one?

Remember, you've never seen this person before. And everyone you are familiar with--the people who frequently use your Lab and are happy with it--have never asked for any of these things before.

What do you do? Do you bend over backwards and try to add all the new tools and capabilities that this stranger is demanding? Probably not.

But now imagine a different scenario.

A group of people who have been using your Lab for a year or more approach you and let you know that are are struggling to succeed with the tools you have. We've been using them for a while, and they work well for many of the things we want to make, but they have helped us raise our vision, and now we think we need something better. What can we do to bring some of these new resources into the Lab? How can we help?

Did you hear the difference? In the first situation, the guy kept saying "you." You don't have this and you need to get this. In the second situation, the familiar group kept saying "we." We need this, and we'll help you get it, and it'll help all of us succeed.

That's what co-development with association members has to look and feel like or it won't work. If you run out and buy every new tool that every new person demands (and if you've never co-developed before, trust me, you're going to get a lot of early demands for a lot of new tools), you'll quickly find yourself out of resources and probably out of business. But if you can get a group to work only with the tools you already have, they'll come to understand their value, and will start taking on some personal responsibility when using them and helping you make the tools better.

That's what I call member engagement.

+ + +

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

Image Source

Monday, July 13, 2015

Ends Statements Describe the World You Will Create

I'm describing in a series of blog posts the different elements that make up my association's Strategy Agenda--a new term I've introduced in my organization to represent the essential work product of our Board of Directors. It is comprised of four distinct elements, each one nesting in the one that precedes it, and describes what we want to achieve and how we will measure our success in achieving it.

Four weeks ago I focused on the highest of the four elements: the mission. Two weeks ago it was the first step down the outline: strategic priorities. This week, I'm taking another step down to talk about the third element: ends statements.

End statements are the newest part of our Strategy Agenda, having incorporated them for the first time just one year ago. Before that, we had our mission and our strategic priorities, and then we went directly to the program objectives and action plans that made up our operational plan.

That often presented some challenges, as our strategic priorities, while good, often did not provide enough specificity about what we were trying to achieve to provide clear guidance on which programs made sense and what program objectives should be set. As I've previously described, because the strategic priorities are broad statements of the businesses we were in, almost every idea that everybody had could justifiably find a home within them.

For example, one strategic priority talks about building and connecting our members to an educated workforce. That's one of our core businesses. But how should we achieve that? Should we help middle school students get excited about using our industry's technology? Should we make sure high school engineering, math and science curriculum includes the technology of our industry? Should we be building educational resources relevant to our industry and our industry's needs at 2-year technical colleges and 4-year universities? Should we be sponsoring research into our industry's technical challenges as a way of building new interest and academic infrastructure? Should we be bending over backwards to bring our members in contact with the students, teachers and resources being developed and by all our other activities? Before the advent of ends statements, the answer to all these questions--and all other questions like them--was invariably yes, yes, and yes again. We are, after all in the business of building and connecting our members to an educated workforce, aren't we?

Enter our ends statements. Within each strategic priority, within each of our core business areas, what specifically are we trying to achieve? Yes, we want to build and connect our members to an educated workforce, but how will we know that we have actually done that? To what specific ends should our programs and activities be directed?

In our first attempt we created statements of almost pure vision. What future world will we need to see before we'd be willing to admit we've achieved our vision? A consultant held our feet to the fire and forced us down this road. Forget about whether or not it can be achieved, what idealized world are you trying to create? Worry about getting there later. And as a result, we came up with some very compelling ends statements.

Except there was one problem. It was unclear how we should bring these future states about--or if we even could.

So this past year, actually just a few weeks ago at our annual strategic retreat, we made one important adjustment. We not only described the ends we would like to achieve, we also phrased the statements to be more clear about what our organization would do to achieve it. Sticking with the workforce example I've been describing, here's an example of one of those new ends statements:

NFPA fosters awareness and involvement of middle and high school students, helping them understand fluid power’s potential as a technology and choose fluid power as a career path.

Now there's a statement that both lays out a future vision, but also clearly describes the role our association will play in achieving it, meaning it can be used as a much more effective filter for program ideas and objectives.

I don't know if this specific phraseology will survive, but the larger point is an essential one. Far-reaching visions are important, but if there isn't clarity about what you're going to do to create those realities, you'll wind up with the same laundry lists of program ideas, none of which can reasonably be excluded from your agenda.

+ + +

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

Image Source

Saturday, July 11, 2015

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

I listened to the audiobook version of this book years ago, before I started blogging and was just keeping an old-fashioned journal on the books I was reading and my experiences while reading them. Here are these journal entries that relate to that experience.

The audiobook I’m listening to now is All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. I’m enjoying it. The plot is fairly tight, with a fairly small story that is well told. I’m waiting for some secret to be revealed, and that’s helping me to move through some of the scenes, but I’m not sure if the secret is even there. John Grady’s relationship with his father is strained, that much is clear, but if the reason why was revealed early in the book I must have missed it. I keep expecting it to get mentioned, but it never does and only seldom gets referred to in a non-revealing way. It’ll be funny if this turns out to be all in my head because it’s really what I’m enjoying the most.

McCarthy is really good at moving characters through the mechanics of a scene and more impressively through the mechanics between scenes, and it all keeps the reader’s attention off the hidden secret and on the mechanical action. He’s very matter-of-fact about it. John Grady waited at the train station for thirty minutes then went back to the hotel and ordered some room service. He tipped the waiter three pesos. In my fiction, that transition would have taken another chapter. He gets it done in two sentences that have just enough detail to feel real and keep you connected to the story, but not so much detail as to devolve into John Grady’s thoughts, where the secret lays hidden. Even if I’ve read this wrong and there is no secret at the end, I think I’ve learned something I can use in my own fiction.

+ + +

John Grady didn’t get the girl. She chose her family over him just as her great aunt had said she would, although she slept with him one more time as John Grady thought she would. Now he’s risking his life in some desperate attempt to get his horse back. He’s been shot, he’s taken some hostile prisoners and now a posse is starting to approach. There was some glimpse into John Grady’s inner thoughts when he knew he had lost her, but everything else has been strictly mechanical. It got a little tedious during the shootout over the horse, but otherwise has been very well done. It’s almost as if the absence of comment on emotion and the focus on mechanical action stresses the emotional toll John Grady has paid. It’s very masculine in its style. Acting irrationally without dwelling on his feelings.

+ + +

It wasn’t a posse tracking John Grady. It was a group of men who lived in the wilderness and they helped him escape. He parted ways from the Mexican captain and made his way back to Texas where he eventually told his whole story to a judge in order to keep the rights to Blevins’ horse, which he also found at the place that was keeping his horse. Now he’s picked up a lead on a Reverend Jimmy Blevins, and is taking the horse back there. There was a powerful exchange between John Grady and the judge when John Grady said he didn’t want to be thought of as anything special because he had killed that guy in the Mexican prison. That guy was a bastard, and John Grady only did it to protect his own life, but he still couldn’t stop thinking about him and wondered if he had been destined to be killed or if John Grady had upset some delicate balance in the universe by killing him. There has been talk about fate and God scattered throughout the book, mostly between John Grady and Rawlins, but in other places, too. Makes me think that it’s one of those hidden themes.

+ + +

The Reverend is not related to the Jimmy Blevins John Grady knew. There’s an interesting exchange between John Grady and the Reverend’s wife, talking about how the Reverend’s voice goes out over the radio to everywhere, even to Mars, and how he heals people who put their hands on the radio when he’s talking because his voice is there, and that’s all that’s needed. Then John Grady returns Rawlins’ horse to Rawlins, attends the funeral of his Mexican wet nurse, and the book ends with John Grady riding off across the country, into what is to come. There is no big secret revealed at the end as I suspected there wouldn’t be, but I enjoyed the book on a lot of other levels. I think I’ll read it for real someday.

Now it's years later and I have read the book "for real." Reviewing the relevant entries in my journal, I’m amazed how many things I picked up on while just listening to it. They're all things that I picked up on again while reading the hard copy with pen in hand.

Things like McCarthy’s skill at moving characters through a scene without bogging it down. I jealously noted dozens of good examples in the text, and they generally fell into two categories. Scenes with lots of meaning and emotion for the characters, packed down to their barest essences, but still powerful and deeply moving.

When he came back down through the dark to the barn the five horses were standing under the pecan trees at the far side of the house. They hadnt been unsaddled and in the morning they were gone. The following night she came to his bed and she came every night for nine nights running, pushing the door shut and latching it and turning in the slatted light at God knew what hour and stepping out of her clothes and sliding cool and naked against him in the narrow bunk all softness and perfume and the lushness of her black hair falling over him and no caution to her at all. Saying I dont care I dont care. Drawing blood with her teeth where he held the heel of his hand against her mouth that she not cry out. Sleeping against his chest where he could not sleep at all and rising when the east was already gray with dawn and going to the kitchen to get her breakfast as if she were only up early.

And scenes where characters move through the mechanics of some action, not spelling out every detail. but providing just enough to put you there and get you cleanly to the next scene.

Their breakfast was a thin pozole and nothing more and afterward they were simply turned out into the yard to fend for themselves. They spent the whole of the first day fighting and when they were finally shut up in their cell at night they were bloody and exhausted and Rawlins’ nose was broken and badly swollen.

I read things like that and find myself wondering how many pages I would have spent trying to convey the same amount of information. Note to self—sometimes you need to go into a lot of detail, but most times you don’t.

Another thing that I heard in the audiobook which came through even stronger in the text was the periodic talk about fate and God—not enough to be heavy-handed, but just enough to be eerie and prescient.

You think God looks out for people? said Rawlins.

Yeah. I guess He does. You?

Yeah. I do. Way the world is. Somebody can wake up and sneeze somewhere in Arkansas or some damn place and before you’re done there’s wars and ruination and all hell. You dont know what’s goin to happen. I’d say He’s just about got to. I dont believe we’d make it a day otherwise.

I wrote in the margin on that one: “Will God watch out for Rawlins?” And, like a lot of folks who believe in God watching out for people, you’d have to say that Rawlins was damned lucky to survive the ordeal he and John Grady eventually go through in that Mexican prison. But if God was looking out for Rawlins, why’d He let him go to that prison in the first place?

But there were other things that I needed the book in my hands in order to pick up on. Like the way John Grady only really understood the world through his relationship with horses. Here’s a scene from early in the book when he goes into town to see his mother, recently estranged from his father, perform in a stage play.

He thanked her and went in and tendered his ticket to an usher who led him over to the red carpeted stairs and handed him the ticket back. He went up and found his seat and sat waiting with his hat in his lap. The theatre was half empty. When the lights dimmed some of the people in the balcony about him got up and moved forward to seats in front. Then the curtain rose and his mother came through a door onstage and began talking to a woman in a chair.

At the intermission he rose and put on his hat and went down to the lobby and stood in a gilded alcove and rolled a cigarette and stood smoking it with one boot hacked back against the wall behind him. He was not unaware of the glances that drifted his way from the theatergoers. He’d turned up one leg of his jeans into a small cuff and from time to time he leaned and tipped into this receptacle the soft white ash of his cigarette. He saw a few men in boots and hats and he nodded gravely to them, they to him. After a while the lights in the lobby dimmed again.

He sat leaning forward in the seat with his elbows on the empty seatback in front of him and his chin on his forearms and he watched the play with great intensity. He’d the notion that there would be something in the story itself to tell him about the way the world was or was becoming but there was not. There was nothing in it at all. When the lights came up there was applause and his mother came forward several times and all the cast assembled across the stage and held hands and bowed and then the curtain closed for good and the audience rose and made their way up the aisles. He sat for a long time in the empty theatre and then stood and put on his hat and went out into the cold.

This is not John Grady’s world. He is a stranger here, alone in a crowd of people, unable to see any truth of existence. And yet two pages later, John Grady is described as he rides a horse:

The boy who rode on slightly before him sat a horse not only as if he’d been born to it which he was but as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway. Would have known that there was something missing for the world to be right or he right in it and would have set forth to wander wherever it was needed for as long as it took until he came upon one and he would have known that that was what he sought and it would have been.

This is his truth, the only truth he will ever truly know and be able to rely upon. John Grady’s knowledge and way with horses is sensuous and other-worldly—as if their spirits rise from the same unknown place.

The horses were already moving. He took the first one that broke and rolled his loop and forefooted the colt and it hit the ground with a tremendous thump. The other horses flared and bunched and looked back wildly. Before the colt could struggle up John Grady had squatted on its neck and pulled its head up and to one side and was holding the horse by the muzzle with the long bony head pressed against his chest and the hot sweet breath of it flooding up from the dark wells of its nostrils over his face and neck like news from another world. They did not smell like horses. They smelled like what they were, wild animals. He held the horse’s face against his chest and he could feel along his inner thighs the blood pumping through the arteries and he could smell the fear and he cupped his hand over the horse’s eyes and stroked them and he did not stop talking to the horse at all, speaking in a low steady voice and telling it all that he intended to do and cupping the animal’s eyes and stroking the terror out.

And there are other places were this mystic connection between men and horses is highlighted. Here’s Alejandra’s father:

He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold. His own father said that no man who has not gone to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that he supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so.

Indeed, McCarthy seems to portray horses as the ultimate embodiment of will. And whose will do they embody? Well, I think McCarthy wants to leave us uncertain.

While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of whose will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of whose will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations and of whose will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned.

Whose will? Horse? Rider? Both? Neither? There’s something almost Melville-ian about horses in this novel, the horse is to McCarthy what the whale was to Melville, the keeper of some inscrutable secret of the universe—except whereas Melville’s whale was indifferent to the desires of man to possess it, McCarthy’s horse is a tool through which man may gain that knowledge.

But the biggest thing I think I missed in the audiobook was how much this was a story of a boy becoming a man, and the changes he has to go through in order to make that transformation. There’s a nice little exchange between John Grady and one of the criminals in the Mexican prison that pretty well describes the difference.

Where did you learn to fight? he said.

John Grady took a deep pull on the cigarette and leaned back.

What do you want to know? he said.

Only what the world wants to know.

What does the world want to know.

The world wants to know if you have cojones. If you are brave.

And that’s the essence. The world does not often test the bravery of a young boy. But as he grows and begins to make his way in it, it will test him, and if the boy passes the test, he will no longer be a boy. Regardless of his age—and John Grady is sixteen—if he can stand up to world and hold his own, he is a man.

John Grady’s test is a difficult and multifaceted one, but even before he faces it, there are allusions to the struggle that’s to come. Here’s what the Mexican police captain tells him.

I will tell you a story, he said. Because I like you. I was young man like you. You see. And this time I tell you I was always with these older boys because I want to learn every thing. So on this night at the fiesta of San Pedro in the town of Linares in Nuevo Leon I was with these boys and they have some mescal and everything—you know what is mescal?—and there was this woman and all these boys is go out to this woman and they is have this woman. And I am the last one. And I go out to the place where is this woman and she is refuse me because she say I am too young or something like that.

What does a man do? You see. I can no go back because they will all see that I dont go with this woman. Because the truth is always plain. You see. A man cannot go out to do some thing and then he go back. Why he go back? Because he change his mind? A man does not change his mind.
Maybe they tell her to refuse to me. So they can laugh. They give her some money or something like that. But I dont let whores make trouble for me. When I come back there is no laughing. No one is laughing. You see. That has always been my way in the world. I am the one when I go someplace then there is no laughing. When I go there then they stop laughing.

I believe the allusion here is to death—that the Mexican captain killed the whore even at such a young age, with much the same kind of business-like obligation he displays when he later has Jimmy Blevins taken out and shot for the alleged crime of killing a man while trying to steal his own horse back—and John Grady’s test involves death, too. A desperate fight for survival in the Mexican prison with a young criminal who had been paid to kill him. John Grady instead kills his attacker, but is gravely wounded in the process and hovers for some time near death.

He lay there three days. He slept and woke and slept again. Someone turned off the light and he woke in the dark. He called out but no one answered. He thought of his father in Goshee. He knew that terrible things had been done to him there and he had always believed that he did not want to know about it but he did want to know. He lay in the dark thinking of all this things he did not know about his father and he realized that the father he knew was all the father he would ever know. He would not think about Alejandra because he didnt know what was coming or how bad it would be and he thought she was something he’d better save. So he thought about horses and they were always the right thing to think about. Later someone turned the light back on again and it did not go off again after that. He slept and when he woke he’d dreamt of the dead standing about in their bones and the dark sockets of this eyes that were indeed without speculation bottomed in the void wherein lay a terrible intelligence common to all but of which none would speak. When he woke he knew that men had died in that room.

In McCarthy’s talented way, there’s a lot packed into this one paragraph, including, for me, the key to the tension between him and his father that I sensed in the audiobook but which I could never understand the crux of. Turns out I shouldn’t blame myself for missing it, because McCarthy almost goes out of his way to make it cryptic and almost completely absent from the text. “Goshee,” according to a doctoral dissertation on McCarthy’s Border Trilogy I found on the Internet, was more than likely a prisoner of war camp, although no such place name was ever, in fact, documented to have been associated with such a place. If that academic interpretation is true, then my own belief is that John Grady’s father must have met and failed his own test of manhood in that camp—or at least in the unspoken horror of what John Grady imagined he must have faced, John Grady had always assumed that his father had failed—and that failure now hangs over John Grady as a kind of familial destiny that he must try doubly hard to overcome.

But I said John Grady’s test was a multifaceted one—one facet being his ability to stand up against the violence of the world and go on living in spite of it—and the other his relationship with Alejandra. Whereas the world challenges him to be brave, this second facet challenges him to be tender, but in a way that respects the differences that divide adult men and adult women. There’s an interesting exchange between John Grady and Alejandra’s grandmother that shows the difference between men and women of the world, and the gulf that John Grady will have to traverse if he is to pass this test of adulthood.

She poured their cups again.

I lost my fingers in a shooting accident, she said. Shooting live pigeons. The right barrel burst. I was seventeen. Alejandra’s age. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. People are curious. It’s only natural. I’m going to guess that the scar on your cheek was put there by a horse.

Yes mam. It was my own fault.

She watched him, not unkindly. She smiled. Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real. The events that cause them can never be forgotten, can they?

No mam.

Alejandra will be in Mexico with her mother for two weeks. Then she will be here for the summer.

He swallowed.

Whatever my appearance may suggest, I am not a particularly oldfashioned woman. Here we live in a small world. A close world. Alejandra and I disagree strongly. Quite strongly in fact. She is much like me at that age and I seem at times to be struggling with my own past self. I was unhappy as a child for reasons that are no longer important. But the thing in which we are united, my niece and I…

She broke off. She set the cup and saucer to one side. The polished wood of the table held a round shape of breath where they’d stood that diminished from the edges in and vanished. She looked up.

I had no one to advise me, you see. Perhaps I would not have listened anyway. I grew up in a world of men. I thought this would have prepared me to live in a world of men but it did not. I was also rebellious and so I recognize it in others. Yet I think that I had no wish to break things. The names of the entities that have power to constrain us change with time. Convention and authority are replaced by infirmity. But my attitude toward them has not changed. Has not changed.

You see that I cannot help but be sympathetic to Alejandra. Even at her worst. But I wont have her unhappy. I wont have her spoken ill of. Or gossiped about. I know what that is. She thinks that she can toss her head and dismiss everything. In an ideal world the gossip of the idle would be of no consequence. But I have seen the consequences in the real world and they can be very grave indeed. They can be consequences of a gravity not excluding bloodshed. Not excluding death. I saw this in my own family. What Alejandra dismissed as a matter of mere appearance or outmoded custom…

She made a whisking motion with the imperfect hand that was both a dismissal and a summation. She composed her hands again and looked at him.

Even though you are younger than she it is not proper for you to be seen riding in the campo together without supervision. Since this was carried to my ears I considered whether to speak to Alejandra about it and I have decided not to.

She leaned back. He could hear the clock ticking in the hall. There was no sound from the kitchen. She sat watching him.

What do you want me to do? he said.

I want you to be considerate of a young girl’s reputation.

I never meant not to be.

She smiled. I believe you, she said. But you must understand. This is another country. Here a woman’s reputation is all she has.

Yes mam.

There is no forgiveness, you see.


There is no forgiveness. For women. A man may lose his honor and regain it again. But a woman cannot. She cannot.

They sat. She watched him. He tapped the crown of his seated hat with the tips of his four fingers and looked up.

I guess I’d have to say that that dont seem right.

Right? she said. Oh. Yes. Well.

Men can fail their tests, and still have future trials by which they can redeem themselves. But women—women have one chance and if they lose it they are forever lost. It’s not a matter of right and wrong, as Alejandra’s grandmother will go on to say, but of who is calling the shots. The world is set up a certain way, and that’s the way it is, right or wrong.

John Grady confronts this reality head-on after getting out of the Mexican prison, returning for an Alejandra who loves him but who will no longer have him. It is, in fact, a deal she has struck with her grandmother. Get John Grady out of that prison and she will never see or pine for him again. It is presented fatalistically to John Grady—not right, not wrong, just the way things are—and John Grady undergoes his final transformation into an adult when accepts it on those terms.

He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all. He felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly and he had no reason to believe that it would ever leave.

The path of a child has a destination—adulthood. But the path of an adult has no destination—because to become an adult is to realize that life is just a slow slide towards death. There’s an interesting section when John Grady is traveling back to Alejandra and he encounters some children and he has to explain to them his story in terms they can understand.

By noon he was riding a farmland road where the acequias carried the water down along the foot-trodden selvedges of the fields and he stood the horse to water and walked it up and back in the shade of a cottonwood grove to cool it. He shared his lunch with children who came to sit beside him. Some of them had never eaten leavened bread and they looked to an older boy among them for guidance in the matter. They sat in a row along the edge of the path, five of them, and the sandwich halves of cured ham from the hacienda were passed to left and to right and they ate with great solemnity and when the sandwiches were gone he divided with his knife the freshbaked tarts of apple and guava.

Donde vive? said the oldest boy.

He mused on the question. They waited. I once lived at a great hacienda, he told them, but now I have no place to live.

The children’s faces studied him with great concern. Puede vivir con nosotros, they said, and he thanked them and he told them that he had a novia who was in another town and that he was riding to her to ask her to be his wife.

Es bonita, su novia? They asked, and he told them that she was very beautiful and that she had blue eyes which they could scarcely believe but he told them also that her father was a rich hacendado while he himself was very poor and they heard this in silence and were greatly cast down at his prospects. The older of the girls said that if his novia truly loved him she would marry him no matter what but the boy was not so encouraging and he said that even in families of the rich a girl could not go against the wishes of her father. The girl said that the grandmother must be consulted because she was very important in these matters and that he must take her presents and try to win her to his side for without her help little could be expected. She said that all the world knew this to be true.

John Grady nodded at the wisdom of this but he said that he had already given offense where the grandmother was concerned and could not depend upon her assistance and at this several of the children ceased to eat and stared at the earth before them.

Es un problema, said the boy.

De acuerdo.

One of the younger girls leaned forward. Que offense le dio a la abuelita? she said.

Es una historia larga, he said.

Hay tiempo, they said.

He smiled and looked at them and as there was indeed time he told them all that had happened. He told them how they had come from another country, two young horsemen riding their horses, and that they had met with a third who had no money nor food to eat nor scarcely clothes to cover himself and that he had come to ride with them and share with them in all they had. This horseman was very young and he rode a wonderful horse but among his fears was the fear that God would kill him with lightning and because of this fear he lost his horse in the desert. He then told them what had happened concerning the horse and how they had taken the horse from the village of Encantada and he told how the boy had gone back to the village of Encantada and there had killed a man and that the police had come to the hacienda and arrested him and his friend and that the grandmother had paid their fine and then forbidden the novia to see him anymore.

When he was done they sat in silence and finally the girl said that what he must do is bring the boy to the grandmother so that he would tell her that he was the one at fault and John Grady said that this was not possible because the boy was dead. When the children heard this they blessed themselves and kissed their fingers. The older boy said that the situation was a difficult one but that he must find an intercessor to speak on his behalf because if the grandmother could be made to see that he was not to blame then she would change her mind. The older girl said that he was forgetting about the problem that the family was rich and he was poor. The boy said that as he had a horse he could not be so very poor and they looked at John Grady for a decision on this question and he told them in spite of appearances he was indeed very poor and that the horse had been given to him by the grandmother herself. At this some of then drew in their breath and shook their heads. The girl said that he needed to find some wise man with whom he could discuss his difficulties or perhaps a curandera and the younger girl said that he should pray to God.

The children cannot solve John Grady’s problem, for it is not the kind of problem that children can solve. It is an adult problem—and adult problems cannot be solved. They can only be understood and accepted. John Grady cannot even tell them his story in words they will understand. The paragraph where he summarizes the events of the novel sound like a children’s story, but they are anything but.

In the end, John Grady proves himself not just to be a man, but a thinking man, a man of conscience. He has struggled, and still wrestles with some of the judgments that must be made, but the ones he does make are better ones for the reflection he gives them. In many ways, he is very much like the Judge who has to weigh his actions and determine if he is entitled to keep the horse Blevins brought with him to Mexico. After that trial, John Grady visits the Judge at his home and make another confession.

When I was in the penitentiary down there I killed a boy.

The judge sat back in his chair. Well, he said. I’m sorry to hear that.

It keeps botherin me.

You must have had some provocation.

I did. But it dont help. He tried to kill me with a knife. I just happened to get the best of him.

Why does it bother you?

I dont know. I dont know nothin about him. I never even knew his name. He could have been a pretty good old boy. I dont know. I dont know that he’s supposed to be dead.

He looked up. His eyes were wet in the firelight. The judge sat watching him.

You know he wasnt a pretty good old boy. Dont you?

Yessir. I guess.

You wouldnt want to be a judge, would you?

No sir. I sure wouldnt.

I didnt want to be a judge. I was a young lawyer practicing in San Antonio and I come back out here when my daddy was sick and I went to work for the county prosecutor. I sure didnt want to be a judge. I think I felt a lot like you do. I still do.

What made you change your mind?

I dont know as I did change it. I just saw a lot of injustice in the court system and I saw people my own age in positions of authority that I had grown up with and knew for a calcified fact didnt have one damn lick of sense. I think I just didnt have any choice. Just didnt have any choice. I sent a boy from this county to the electric chair in Huntsville in nineteen thirty-two. I think about that. I dont think he was a pretty good old boy. But I think about it. Would I do it again? Yes I would.

I almost done it again.

Done what, killed somebody?


The Mexican captain?

Yessir. Captain. Whatever he was. He was what they call a madrina. Not even a real peace officer.

But you didnt.

No sir. I didnt.

They sat. The fire had burned to coals. Outside the wind was blowing and he was going to have to go out in it pretty soon.

I hadnt made up my mind about it though. I told myself that I had. But I hadnt. I dont know what would of happened if they hadnt of come and got him. I expect he’s dead anyways.

He looked up from the fire at the judge.

I wasnt even mad at him. Or I didnt feel like I was. That boy he shot, I didnt hardly even know him. I felt bad about it. But he wasnt nothin to me.

Why do you think you wanted to kill him?

I dont know.

Well, said the judge. I guess that’s somethin between you and the good Lord. Wouldnt you say?

Yessir. I didnt mean that I expected a answer. Maybe there aint no answer. It just bothered me that you might think I was somethin special. I aint.

Well that aint a bad way to be bothered.

He picked up his hat and held it in both hands. He looked like he was about to get up but he didnt get up.

The reason I wanted to kill him was because I stood there and let him walk that boy out in the trees and shoot him and I never said nothin.

Would it have done any good?

No sir. But that dont make it right.

The judge leaned from his chair and took the poker standing on the hearth and jostled the coals and stood the poker back and folded his hands and looked at the boy.

What would you have done if I’d found against you today?

I dont know.

Well, that’s a fair answer, I guess.

It wasnt their horse. It would of bothered me.

Yes, said the judge. I expect it would.

I need to find out who the horse belongs to. It’s gotten to be like a millstone around my neck.

There’s nothin wrong with you son. I think you’ll get it sorted out.

Yessir. I guess I will. If I live.

In fact, my only critique of the book is something you’ve probably already noticed—the odd lack of punctuation and the overindulgence for run-on sentences. Sometimes it works powerfully, like in the tightly described scene I first quoted above when Alejandro and John Grady make love in his bunk. But too often it’s frankly distracting, my eyes running on over the words and losing all sense of their meaning because there is no punctuation to help me slow down and take notice.

That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesa where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.

Yeah, I get it. It’s a dream and all the images run together like these words, but I can’t get any meaning out of this without a couple of periods.

But other than that, it’s a fabulous read.

+ + +

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, July 6, 2015

"We're Clearly Doing Things Right...

...but are we doing the right things?"

This is a borrowed quote that one of my Board members said during our recent strategic planning retreat. It was after my presentation on this year's action plan--the one I mentioned in a previous post, where I presented all the things that had gone well for us and a few of the areas in which we have fallen short.

The first half of his comment was a recognition of all the good things that have happened in our association over the past year--membership numbers, participation, and leadership engagement are all up, for example. But the second half was a recognition of something equally valid. That with all of our focus on ends statements and success metrics, we're still having a difficult time determining if the things we are doing are actually creating the conditions we would call success.

I don't think our association is alone in this regard. This disconnect, sometimes more "felt" than actual, between success in programs and success in objectives, is something that troubles many associations. We can grow membership, we can increase conference attendance, we can come in over budget in revenue and under budget in expense, but does any of that mean we are fulfilling our mission or realizing the visions described in our ends statements?

When I'm confronted with difficult questions like this, I like to respond with really simple answers. Being blunt tends to save time and helps cut right to the heart of the issue at hand. In that vein, imagine me responding to my Board member's question like this:

Are we realizing our vision? Well, that depends on which vision we're talking about, doesn't it?

One of our ends statements talks about creating a forum where stakeholders across our industry's supply chain can come together to address their collective challenges. Are we achieving that vision? Yes, you bet we are. Look at our metrics. The supply chain diversity within our membership is growing and more and more of them are coming to our conferences and participating in our leadership activities, where the areas of collective challenge are discussed and addressed. This is an area where our programs are clearly connected to our objectives, where we're clearly doing things right and doing the right things.

But another one of our ends statements talks about helping young people understand our industry's potential as a career path. Are we achieving that vision? Well, looking at our metrics, I'd have to say no, or at least that we don't know if we're achieving that vision. We clearly have a program where we engage with young people--specifically students in middle and high schools--and we know this program presents them with information about our industry. The number of students participating in that program is even increasing. But is the program helping them understand our industry's potential as a career path? That's tough to say because, believe it or not, although that's what we say we want to achieve, we don't currently have a way of measuring our impact in that area. We're delivering the messages, but we don't know if the students are receiving it, and if they are doing anything different as a result. Maybe it's time we built the capacity to measure that outcome into that program?

That may be too much "inside baseball" for you--too deep in the specific programs and objectives of my association--but I hope you see the larger picture I'm painting. When this question arises--when Board members ask if your association is doing the right things--seize it as an opportunity to diagnose exactly where the gap between your programs and your objectives is, and make the connections that may otherwise be lacking.

+ + +

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

Image Source