Monday, September 28, 2015

Goals Define How Much You'll Move the Needle

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

This week I want to spend a little more time talking about the first and highest of the three elements: the goals.

I've already written about our success indicators, the final element of our Board's Strategy Agenda, and to which our goals, the first element of our Operational Plan, are linked. As I've written before, if the success indicators are the gauges that measure key areas of organizational performance, the goals are the distance we want to move the needles on those gauges in a given plan cycle.

Here's the concrete example I previously provided. One of our success indicators is "Industry Donations: The number of NFPA Foundation donors and the amount of total donations that support fluid power education and research in universities is increasing," and the goal that we've linked to it is "Compared to last fiscal year, increase the number of Foundation donors from 154 to 160, and the amount of donations received from $817,000 to $828,000."

The piece of the puzzle that I want to dig into more deeply here is how important it is, in my opinion, for the Board to have free reign in determining the success indicators, but how equally important it is for the staff executive to have free reign in setting the associated goals. This may sound like heresy to some, stripping the Board of its power to hold the executive accountable for performance, but in my experience, it is the rare Board that understands the on-the-ground environment enough to set realistic goals.

Take the example I provided above. By identifying donors and donations as indicators closely associated with organizational success, the Board has already exerted tremendous influence over what the focus of staff activity is going to be. We are going to be fundraisers and, indeed, in the three years since this indicator was first identified, my organization has been building an increasing staff infrastructure around that function.

But building that infrastructure, and determining how successful it can be, has to be the job of the staff executive. In our case, once the Board had identified fundraising as key to our overall success, I had to take a hard look at the capacity of the organization to do it. In that first year, there was frankly very little capacity. Our Foundation was four years old, and a few dozen members were writing three- or four-digit checks in support of it. Knowing that this was not enough to fund the strategic objectives of the organization, the Board could have given me a goal in that first year, a goal to double or even triple donations, but it is unlikely that we would have been successful. Such a goal, relatively easy to toss off at a Board meeting, would have been unconnected to the reality of the organization. We were already raising as much money as we could with the fundraising mechanisms that we had.

What was needed, and what I identified as the goal in that first year, was to build new fundraising mechanisms and capabilities within the association. Instead of raising more money, we actually had to spend more money so that we could start raising more money in the future.

It was not what the Board would have chosen on its own, but it was what was needed at that moment, and it is only the staff executive that can see that landscape and make those kinds of calls.

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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, September 21, 2015

Your Moment in the Spotlight

You can spend all day, maybe all week, getting ready for your moment in the spotlight. That time when the attention of a crowd turns to you and you have a small window to make a big impact.

Waiting for that moment to arrive creates anxiety. And if you let that anxiety show when your moment comes, you’ll waste it. People won't hear your message, they'll only hear your anxiety.

So, as anxious as you feel, and as unexpected as your time to shine hits you, when your moment arrives, you must look and sound effortless.

How do you do that? In my experience you do two things. You make sure you know the facts of the situation, and you make sure your message is directly on point.

And then you practice, practice, practice. So when your time comes you can say what needs to be said, clearly and calmly.

It works for me, whether I have a week, a day, or even five minutes to prepare. Time and again, it works, especially when I only have five minutes to prepare.

So take my advice. When you see your moment approaching, calm down, decide what you need to say, and speak slowly. Far more people will actually hear you.

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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, September 19, 2015

Kepler’s Witch by James A. Connor

The subtitle here is “An Astronomer’s Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother.” The astronomer, of course, is Kepler, Johannes Kepler, who lived from 1571 to 1630 and who, according to the back cover, “confirmed the Copernican universe, calculated the true shape of the solar system, discovered the three basic laws of planetary motion, and laid the foundation for Newton’s physics.” His witch, evidently, was his mother, put on trial for heresy against the Lutheran church, but I picked up the volume primarily to learn more about Kepler and his scientific discoveries.

I got more than I bargained for.

In its own way, the Lutheran church of Wurttemburg was undergoing a recapitulation of the Catholic experience. Catholics always believed that the faith was a matter of individual conscience, because one had to stand alone before God to be judged. But for the faith to be preserved through time and not dissolve into a battle of confusion, with each individual coming up with a personal interpretation of the Scripture, the church needed to establish some uniformity of doctrine. This meant a unified interpretation made by an exclusive group of official interpreters. This also meant that the church had to have authority, which included the power to compel its members to comply with its teachings, rather than their own consciences.

Wait. Hold on. Is this the biography of an astronomer or a treatise on religious history?

Well, it’s both. Actually a bit more of the latter than the former. And this little piece of exposition, which I finally came across on page 246, would have saved me a lot of trouble if it had come on page 24.

I’ll try to explain, but let’s get through this explanatory passage first.

In keeping with this line of reasoning, only three hundred years after the founding of Christianity, Augustine of Hippo encouraged the persecution of the Donatists, because they would not conform to the church’s teaching about baptism. They insisted that all those who had fallen away from the faith during the waning years of the Roman persecutions needed to be rebaptized. Augustine disagreed. Subtly, in any organization, religious or otherwise, solidarity becomes ossification, the faith becomes orthodoxy, and compliance becomes more important than conversion of spirit. By the time of the Reformation, Christianity had gotten to the point where authority itself had become the problem.

To reform Christianity, Luther and his followers returned to the idea of individual conscience and individual faith, ideas that had been asleep in Christianity for a thousand years. Luther and his followers, and the pastors who followed them, took the title “Doctor” rather than “Father.” They wanted to be seen merely as educated men rather than men who possessed semidivine authority. Kepler was very much in line with this Reformation thinking. The Lutheran church of Wurttemberg, however, in order to survive intact in the noisy marketplace of religious ideas, had to begin to develop an orthodoxy. Without it, what Luther and his followers had taught would have disappeared, dissolving into thousands of smaller denominations, each one based upon some private interpretation of Scripture. Lutheranism would have dissolved into the religious landscape altogether.

As briefly mentioned above, Kepler was a Lutheran in these challenging times. But he was, in the opinion of the author, a very special kind of Lutheran.

The very nature of human organizations creates orthodoxy, and orthodoxies, in turn, give birth to reformers and mavericks, men such as Luther and Kepler. Kepler, as a good Lutheran, found himself at odds with the Lutheran church, but as a thinking Lutheran he almost had to. He believed that to be a good Lutheran, he had to follow his faith, which meant attending to his own conscience, which also meant that if he did not agree with the Formula of Concord in every detail, then he must not sign it. This did not mean that he stood against his church; it meant that he participated in it more fully. For the Wurttemberg consistory, however, if anyone, especially a famous man such as Kepler, were to be allowed that kind of freedom of conscience, it could eventually spell the end of the church itself.

And understanding that this is how the author views Kepler--as a Martin Luther-like figure, reforming his own church along the lines of his personal conscience--would have been much more helpful to know on page 24 instead of page 246. Because up until that point, I had pretty much been pulling my hair out trying to understand what all the fuss was about.

And I still am, to a certain extent. If Kepler didn’t like the orthodoxy of the Lutheran church, I kept wondering, why didn’t he just stop calling himself a Lutheran?

Kepler was a believing Lutheran and would never become a Catholic, even when it would have benefited his career to do so. People all around him were jumping from one church to another. Kepler’s father-in-law did it. So did many of his acquaintances and rivals, simply to better their political or social position or not to lose their earthly possessions.

This comes on page 3, and is indicative of the premise that the author seems to set. Kepler is not just a believing Lutheran, he is a principled one, and the odds of him betraying his Lutheran principles are absolutely zero. The author seems eager to praise Kepler for this conviction, evidently viewing such a position as more noble than that held by Kepler’s acquaintances and rivals, those “jumping from one church to another.” From my modern and secular perspective, it’s not clear to me why one form of hierarchical social construction is preferred over the other, but okay, I can accept it. Kepler is a man of strong Lutheran principles.

Except the author then goes on to stress again and again Kepler intellectual and principled battles with the hierarchy of the Lutheran church. Here’s a typical example. Through familial and academic connections, Kepler has just received an exemption from a royal order for all non-Catholics living in a certain region to either convert to Catholicism or leave.

Kepler’s own openness did not sit well with his fellow Lutherans any more than his stubborn Lutheranism sat well with Catholics. The other teachers at the Lutheran school resented his exemption, wondering if he had compromised his faith along the way just to please the papists. He had certainly broken ranks with the other teachers by petitioning, but there was more to it than that. His beliefs, like his thoughts, were subtler than theirs. Some later scholars accused Kepler of indifference to dogma, but this too was unfair, for he did believe that there is but one truth, and he pursued that truth, which he identified with God, with all his heart all his life. Kepler had to go his own way, for the truth he pursued was inside his own conscience and did not float outside him among the dogmas of the churches. Sometimes he accepted the teachings of his church, and sometimes he did not, for he had to find the authentic truth for himself, and no one could find it for him. This meant that he could not accept the truth of others just because they told him to, no matter how authoritative they were. Neither armies nor pulpits could sway him by themselves, but only reason and faith.

Maybe you can see why I started having trouble with this. The author, or Kepler, or both, seems to want to have things both ways. I think those later scholars were right. Kepler was indifferent to dogma, and claiming the reverse because Kepler was busy building his own personal dogma doesn’t prove them wrong. Especially when you follow that claim with the admission that your subject only follows the teachings of his church when he personally agrees with them.

And, his thoughts we subtler than theirs? Really? That was part of the problem? None of the smart people around him could see the nuance of his position? I have a hard time accepting that, knowing that there is a difference between being blind to subtlety and rejecting it as a molehill instead of a mountain.

But, evidently, I’m not the only person who views things this way.

Kepler’s doubts about the ubiquity doctrine and about the sacrament had been paddling about in his head for years, since the days he had first studies at Maulbronn. Now they came to the surface. Perhaps unwisely, he confessed his doubts to the exiled church members, who were shocked and suddenly suspicious. Those who had envied his return and suspected him of compromise suddenly had new ammunition. The others merely shook their heads, wondering. None of them really understood him, though. His theological meanderings were well within the bounds of the Lutheran faith. Or so he thought. But differences over what constitutes the heart of the faith are often the source of schism and heresy. Kepler never quite understood this for himself, but others did, and from that day on they watched him carefully.

Or so he thought, indeed. I would say that the thing Kepler never fully understood was that it wasn’t up to him to decide what a Lutheran was and wasn’t. That was up to the Lutheran church, and they pretty consistently said that what Kepler believed wasn’t Lutheranism.

Which just adds to the overall confusion. Given the pivotal role the author seems to think Kepler played in the “noisy marketplace of religious ideas,” one has to question why, in the face of all this opposition, he didn’t just start a “Kepleran” church the way Luther had started a Lutheran one.

Well, here’s one reason.

The city was now open, defenseless. The Spanish commander Gian d’Urbina led his men through the Borgo, butchering everyone, armed and unarmed alike. They broke into the Hospitale de Santo Spirito and threw the patients into the Tiber while they were still alive. Then they murdered all the orphans. Once across the Ponte Sisto, the plunder started in earnest. Palaces, monasteries, churches, convents, workshops--they attacked them all, broke down the doors, and scattered everything they could find into the streets. Money, booty, plunder was everything to them. They dragged citizens, even those who supported the emperor, even their own countrymen living in Rome, and tortured them until they handed over whatever money they had. They assumed that everyone in the city was hiding some secret treasure and pulled them, beat them, burned them until they handed it over. Those who suffered to most were those who had nothing to give.

When they found a priest, they cut him open until his guts ran out onto the street. Some they stripped and at sword point commanded to blaspheme the name of God. They held satiric masses and forced what priests they could find to participate. The Lutherans killed one priest who refused to give Communion to a donkey. The marauders then shot at holy relics, spat on them, and played football with the severed head of St. John. They tortured on, grabbing any man or woman they could find, still searching for hidden riches. Some they branded with red-hot irons. Others they tied by their genitals. Some they hung up by their arms for hours, some for days. Others they forced to eat their own severed ears, noses, or penises. They raped every woman they could find, young and old, married and single, including nuns. Especially nuns. Many they sold at auction or as prizes in games of chance. They forced mothers and fathers to watch the rape of their daughters. Some they forced to assist in it. The city had collapsed; it was violated, alone, without hope.

Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, an enemy of the pope, rode in with two thousand men to join the attack. He wept when he saw the state of affairs in the city, but his men soon joined the revelers. Most of the soldiers were half-starved peasants who robbed people as poor as they were themselves. Soon the city was empty, and the invaders weary. The noise died down; the exhausted revelers gathered in stupefied clumps, heavy with wine, hung over, bleeding in places from wounds. No one seemed to notice anything. Grandmothers wandered through the streets looking for their children. Babies cried for their mothers. Children stood in the middle of the streets, stunned. Spot fires burned here and there in the city. Over all was the buzzing of flies and the stench of the dead. Here and there dogs gnawed upon corpses.

These were extremely violent times, in which allegiance to one religious dogma or another was literally a matter of life and death. The split between Catholics and the different Protestant churches was dangerous enough. Casting oneself outside the protection and influence of these dogmas was probably more than is fair to ask of anyone of that time.

But, you know what? It was a line that Kepler’s scientific predecessors and contemporaries were able to walk. The following allusion to Copernicus…

The Reformation, like an earthquake, had cracked Western Christianity, stable since the fifth century, into Catholics and Protestants, and the Protestants into Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Anabaptists, with the many camps drifting away like tectonic plates. Even the heavens had been changing, and Kepler had been part of that change. Copernicus, and obscure Polish priest, had published his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which had dethroned the earth from its place at the universe center and sent it spinning through the heavens like a top revolving around the sun. Fear ruled Europe--fear of difference, fear of change.

...can't help but remind me of that obscure Polish priest’s savvy equivocation. “Mathematics,” Copernicus said in his prelude to that famous work, “is for mathematicians,” by which he meant that although the math of his heliocentric solar system was simpler and more predictive of planetary movements than the convolutions and contortions mathematicians were forced into by placing the earth at the center, that shouldn’t be interpreted as him advocating for the view that the sun actually was at the center of the solar system. That, after all, would be blasphemy, and that could get an obscure Polish priest into a great deal of trouble.

Kepler seemed incapable of employing similar strategies, sometimes even going out of his way to rub the noses of the Lutheran magisterium in his independence of thought and action.

And I’m left wondering whether I should respect that or not. Being oppressed for your principled views is one thing. Running away from the neighbor’s dog after you threw a stick at it is another.

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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, September 14, 2015

An Example of an Operational Plan

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the essential elements of an Operational Plan, the new term I've introduced in my association to describe a document owned by me and my staff that defines how the association will go about achieving the success metrics identified by our Board of Directors. It is made up of the following four elements. Our:

1. SUCCESS INDICATORS, the directional metrics of success determined by our Board, from which we identify our
2. GOALS, the degree or distance each success indicator will be advanced in a given plan cycle, from which we determine our
3. PROGRAM OBJECTIVES, the controllable things staff will achieve in our attempt to accomplish the goals, for each of which we set our
4. ACTION PLANS, the tactical steps we'll take throughout the plan cycle to achieve each program objective.

This week I wanted to provide a concrete example of each of those elements, based on the actual terminology and language my association leadership and staff have determined. As described above, each element is derived from and nests within the element that comes before it. Visually, this can be represented as a kind of organizational chart with our 22 success indicators at the top (we've had a strategic Board retreat and some resulting refinements to our success indicators since I last wrote about 26 of them on June 1, 2015). For each success indicator, at least one specific goal, and sometimes several, is identified, giving us 33 goals on the next level of the organizational chart, followed by 106 program objectives, at least one, and usually more, focused on each of the goals. And finally, supporting each program objective, 106 detailed action plans, describing the work that will be performed to accomplish each objective.

What follows, therefore, is one of 106 possible journeys down that organizational chart, from one specific success indicator to one particular goal to one particular program objective and action plan.

I'll choose the success indicator I ended my June 1 example of our Strategy Agenda with: "Industry Donations," which our Board has recently re-defined as "The number of NFPA Foundation donors and the amount of total donations that support fluid power education and research in universities is increasing."

This gives us the metric we're trying to affect (donors and donations) and the direction we're trying to make them go (increase). From that information, we next have to identify specific goals (how much we want to affect the metric in a given period of time). In this example, we looked as the number of donors and the amount of donations received in our previous fiscal year, and set modest increases as our goal for the current fiscal year: "Compared to last fiscal year, increase the number of Foundation donors from 154 to 160, and the amount of donations received from $817,000 to $828,000."

With the goal in hand, the next step is to identify the program objectives, the controllable things that will be accomplished in order to bring about the goal they are aligned with. We have three program objectives aligned with our example goal. We call one of those objectives "Pascal Society," named after one of the major fundraising programs of our Foundation, and that objective is defined as "Seek to renew membership and grow participation in the Pascal Society."

Finally, aligned with that program objective is a detailed action plan, the discrete tasks that will be performed throughout the year and that will be necessary to achieve the objective. The specific action plan for "Pascal Society" looks like this:

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

With these concrete examples I hope the linkages between the elements of our Operational Plan are more clear. By doing the tasks listed on the "Pascal Society" action plan, we will achieve the program objective of renewing membership and growing participation in the Pascal Society. By achieving that program objective, we increase our chances of achieving our goal of securing 160 donors and $828,000 in donations to our Foundation. And by accomplishing that goal we keep advancing the indicator our Board has defined as closely correlated with the organization's overall success.

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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, September 7, 2015

What Are You Looking For In Your Next Board Member?

I've written before about my experiences on the Board of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives. Now in my last year of service, having chaired the Board last year, I have the somewhat traditional job given to many past chairs--chairing the Nominating Committee. Having been chair of the association, and about to depart forever, I guess I'm uniquely qualified to determine the types of individuals who should follow in my footsteps.

So, what kind of individuals am I looking for?

It's a great question. And the responsibility associated with the position has made me stop and think more critically about it than I otherwise might have. As I find myself chatting with nominees, essentially interviewing them as I might interview job candidates for my own association, I find my mind and my questions focusing on three key areas. And they may not be what you expect.

1. What do you do in your day job? I'm a firm believer that the world a nominee lives in is the world they will bring to the Board table. If their day job has them tactically executing someone else's strategy, then tactical is the mindset that they're going to have in Board meetings. They'll end up arguing with staff over how programs should be executed rather than working with their fellow Board members to decide which programs produce the results we're looking for. Very few of us in the association world have jobs that are 100% strategic, but experience formulating strategy, and adjusting that strategy when the envisioned tactics meet the real world, is an absolute prerequisite.

2. Who do you blame when things go wrong? To me, the most often correct answer is "no one." When things don't go according to plan, the simple and usually wrong answer is that it is some one person's fault. It's often not even a team's fault. When things go wrong, it is almost always due to a deficiency in the overall system. The organization lacks the resources. The people in charge of execution lack the competencies. The strategy itself was not well matched to the reality of the situation. Board members need to be looking to these three options before deciding to assign blame. They are far more often the real root of the problem, and people who don't recognize that and don't know how to deal with those problems will make poor Board members.

3. Do you control your own calendar? In other words, if the Board decides to add another meeting to its calendar, and that meeting requires an overnight stay away from your hometown, do you need to get permission from someone else, or can you commit your own time and resources to that meeting? Professionals who lack the freedom or authority to make those kinds of decisions are also usually not ready to be making the kind of decisions that need to be made around a Board table. That may sound harsh, but it's the truth. A Board needs to be comprised of people in charge of their own careers, not people who need permission from their supervisors before making any new commitments.

Do you agree with my areas of emphasis? What else do you think is absolutely necessary in new Board members? Let me know you're out there by leaving a comment.

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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, September 5, 2015

Closing Time by Joseph Heller

Closing Time, in case you didn’t know, is Heller’s sequel to Catch-22, and I feel pretty much the same about it as I did about Catch-22. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’ll read it again.

It starts with real promise.

Outside the hospital it was still going on. Men went mad and were rewarded with medals. Interior decorators were culture heroes, and fashion designers were the social superiors of their clientele.

These are the observations of Yossarian, Catch-22’s Assyrian anti-hero, now sixty-eight years old, and a wealthy man living in the 1990s.

There were still plenty of poor people.

Yossarian looked askance at a bunch sprawled on the sidewalk outside the hospital as he strode out to the curb and the stretch limousine with black windows waiting there to transport him to the luxury high-rise apartment building across town in which he now made his home. He had reserved a sedan; they had sent the limousine again; there would be no additional charge. The high-rise apartment house he lived in was called a luxury building because the costs of living in it were large. The rooms were small. The ceilings were low, there were no windows in his two bathrooms, and no space in the kitchen area for a table or a chair.

And Yossarian’s view of his world is somewhat unique.

From the lofty picture windows in his high-rise apartment, Yossarian commanded an unobstructed view of another luxury apartment building with an even higher rise than his own. Between these structures ran the broad thoroughfare below, which teemed more and more monstrously now with growling clans of bellicose and repulsive panhandlers, prostitutes, addicts, dealers, pimps, robbers, pornographers, perverts, and disoriented psychopaths, all of them plying their criminal specialties outdoors amid multiplying strands of degraded and bedraggled people who were now actually living outdoors. Among the homeless were whites now too, and they also pissed against the walls and defecated in the alleyways that others in their circle eventually located as accommodating sites to bed down in.

Even in the better neighborhood of Park Avenue, he knew, women could be seen squatting to relieve themselves in the tended flower beds of the traffic islands in the center.

It was hard not to hate them all.

And right now I’m thinking, good, Heller is going to skewer the madness of modern life the way he skewered the madness of war in Catch-22, and I am very much looking forward to that indeed.

Nowhere in his lifetime, Yossarian was bound often to remember, not in wartime Rome or Pianosa or even in blasted Naples or Sicily, had he been spectator to such atrocious squalor as he saw mounting up all around him now into an eminent domain of decay.

Because, of course, our modern tug-of-war between the haves and the have nots is another kind of Catch-22, isn’t it? Perhaps Catch-23 or, with a nod to Douglas Adams, Catch-42. And Heller knows just how to reveal it.

For things were good, he reminded her: as measured by official standards, they had not often been better. This time only the poor were very poor, and the need for new prison cells was more urgent than the needs of the homeless. The problems were hopeless: there were too many people who needed food, and there was too much food to be able to feed them profitably. What was wanted was more shortages, he added, with just a small smile. He did not volunteer that by now he was one more in the solid middle class who was not keen to have his taxes raised to ameliorate the miseries of those who paid none. He preferred more prisons.

Especially if Yossarian turns out to be the Milo Minderbinder of this tale--not the radical trying to disrupt the system, but the businessman trying to turn it to his own profit.

But this does not adequately describe the novel that Closing Time is.

It struck him all of a sudden that overnight everyone he’d known a long time was old--not getting old, not middle-aged, but old! The great entertainment stars of his time were no longer stars, and the celebrated novelists and poets of his time were of piddling significance in the new generation. Like RCA and Time magazine, even IBM and General Motors were of meager stature, and Western Union had passed away. The gods were growing old again, and it was time for another shake-up.

Snippets like this appear again and again in the text, constantly reminding me that this is a book written by an older generation and, I fear, for an older generation.

Because Heller constantly plays with the cultural touchstones of that generation, naming one of his characters Strangelove, and including a curly-haired writer named Vonnegut in several scenes. And like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, Yossarian seems to move through time throughout the course of the novel.

From the physicists on the plane, Yossarian also thought he heard, without understanding any of it, that in the world of science, time continuously ran backward or forward, and forward and backward, and that particles of matter could travel backward and forward through time without undergoing change. Why, then, couldn’t he? He also heard that subatomic particles had always to be simultaneously in every place they could be, and from this he began to consider that in his nonscientific world of humans and groups, everything that could happen did happen, and that anything that did not happen could not happen. Whatever can change, will; and anything that doesn’t change, can’t.

This is exactly what I think Heller is doing throughout the book, moving Yossarian around, if not physically from time period to time period like Billy Pilgrim, than at least from subplot to subplot, experiencing everything that can be experienced, and being everywhere that it is possible for him to be.

It gets confusing, and much would probably be revealed on a close second read. Surely someone (if not Heller himself) has diagrammed the novel, and such an exercise would undoubtedly reveal that Yossarian is both the cause and effect of the novel’s action, with effect probably preceding cause in at least one situation. At least things feel that way.

This surrealness reaches it’s peak when Yossarian interacts with the character Gaffney, a god-like real estate attorney who tails Yossarian throughout the novel, bugging his phone and apartment to eavesdrop on all his conversations, and, as a result, seems to know everything about him. Here’s a typical exchange between Yossarian and Gaffney, occurring near the end of the novel while Yossarian attends a wedding with several of his current and former wives and mistresses.

Dancing with Frances, for whom he preserved that special shared friendship some might call love, he felt only bone, rib cage, elbow, and shoulder blade, no fleshy thrill, and was uncomfortable holding her. Dancing equally inexpertly with pregnant Melissa, whose plight, stubbornness, and irresolution were agitating him at present into an almost ceaseless fury, he was aroused by the first contact with her belly in her sea-green gown and lusting to lead her away into a bedroom once more. Yossarian peered now at that belly to ascertain if the plumpness was fuller or whether the corrective measures restoring her to normal had already been taken. Gaffney regarded him with humor, as though again reading his mind. Frances Beach at the wedding spied his difference in response and ruminated dolefully on her sad facts of life.

“We’re unhappy with ourselves when we’re young, and unhappy with ourselves when we’re old, and those of us who refuse to be are abominably overbearing.”

“That’s pretty good dialogue you give her,” Yossarian challenged Hacker, with belligerence.

“I like that too. I got it from Mr. Gaffney here. It sounds pretty real.”

“It should sound real.” Yossarian glowered at Gaffney. “She and I already had that conversation.”

“I know,” said Gaffney.

“I thought so, you fuck,” Yossarian said without anger. “Excuse me, Olivia. We say things like that. Gaffney, you still keep monitoring me, Why?”

Pay attention to what comes next.

“I can’t help doing it, Yossarian. It’s my business, you know. I don’t make information. I just collect it. It’s not really my fault that I seem to know everything.”

“What’s going to happen to Patrick Beach? He isn’t getting better.”

“Oh, dear,” said Olivia, shuddering.

“I’d say,” answered Gaffney, “he’s going to die.”

“Before my wedding?”

“After, Mrs. Maxon. But, Yo-Yo, I would say that about you also. I would say that about everyone.”

“About yourself too?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“You aren’t God?”

“I’m in real estate. Isn’t God dead? Do I look dead? By the way, Yossarian, I’ve been thinking of writing a book too.”

“About real estate?”

“No, a novel. Maybe you can help. It begins on the sixth day of creation. I’ll tell you about it later.”

“I’m busy later.”

“You’ll have time. You’re not meeting your fiancee until two.”

“No,” said Yossarian. “And I have no fiancee.”

“Yes, he is,” answered Gaffney.

“Don’t listen to him.”

“He doesn’t know yet what he’s doing. But I do. On with this wedding, Warren.”

Yossarian, of course, has always been Heller’s alter ego, but in Closing Time, Gaffney takes the navel gazing to a whole new level. One can only interpret Gaffney as Heller himself, interacting directly with his famous character both within the text and at the level of the text’s creation. Heller is more or less manifesting himself within his work as he creates it.

Still, despite these parlor tricks, sometimes Heller’s satire is razor sharp. Here’s an exchange between the Vice President of the United States--given the moniker “Little Prick” in the novel--and Yossarian’s friend and business partner Noodles Cook, as he applies for a job in the Vice President’s office.

“You’ve been to college, Mr. Cook? You’re an educated man?”

“Yes I have, sir. I have my graduate degrees.”

“Good. I went to college too, you know. We have much in common and should get along--better, I hope”--and here a sound of the querulous crept in--“than I am getting along with those others. I have a feeling they make jokes about me behind my back. Looking back, I should have pursued philosophy and history and economics and things of that sort in college more. I’m making up for that now.”

“How--” Noodles started to ask, and changed his mind. “Sir, my experience has been--”

“I’m not going to cry over spilt milk, and that’s past.”

“My experience has been,” Noodles threaded his way onward obsequiously, “as a student, and even when teaching a bit, that people do what they are. A person interested in athletics, golf, and parties will spend time at athletic events, golf, and parties. It is very difficult in later life to grow interested in subjects like philosophy and history and economics if one was not attracted to them earlier.”

“Yes. And it’s never too late either,” said the Vice President, and Noodles did not know whether they were in agreement or not. “Lately I have been studying the Napoleonic Wars, to sort of round out my education.”

For a second or two Noodles sat motionless. “Which ones?” was all he could think to reply.

“Was there more than one?”

“That was not my field,” answered Noodles Cook, and began to give up hope.

“And I’m doing the battle of Antietam too,” he heard the man who was next in line for the presidency continue. “And after that I’m going to have a crack at Bull Run. That was really a great war, that Civil War. We’ve not have one like it since, have we? You’d be very surprised, but Bull Run is only a short car ride from here, with a police escort.”

“Are you preparing for war?”

“I’m broadening myself. And I believe in being prepared. All the rest of the work of a President is pretty hard, it seems to me, and sort of dull. I’m having all of these battles put onto videocassettes and turned into games where either side can win. Varoom, varoom, varoom! Gettysburg too. Do you like video games? Which is your favorite?”

“I don’t have a favorite,” Noodles muttered, downcast.

“Soon you will. Come look at these.”

On a cabinet beneath a video screen--there was a video screen with game controls in many recesses in the office--to which the Vice President walked him lay a game called Indianapolis Speedway. Noodles saw others, called Bombs Away and Beat the Draft.

And one more, called Die Laughing.

His host gave a chuckle. “I have nine college men on my staff with eleven doctoral degrees, and not one has been able to beat me at any of these a single time. Doesn’t that tell you a lot about higher education in this country today?”

“Yes,” Noodles said.

“What does it tell you?”

“A lot,” said Noodles.

“I feel that way too. There’s a new one coming out just for me, called Triage. Do you know it?”


“Triage is a word that comes from the French, and in case there’s a big war and we have to decide which few should survive in our underground shelters--”

“I know what the word means, Mr. Vice President!” Noodles interrupted, with more asperity than he had intended. “I just don’t know that game,” he explained, forcing a smile.

“Soon you will. I’ll break you in on it first. It’s fun and challenging. You would have your favorites and I would have mine, and only one of us could win and decide who would live and who would die. We’ll enjoy it. I think I’ll want you to specialize in Triage because you never can tell when we really might have to put it into play, and I don’t think those others are up to it. Okay?”

“Yes, Mr. Vice President.”

And a page or two later, an exchange that may be even more evocative of the dreadful political times in which we live.

“I believe in the flood,” the Vice President replied.

“I don’t think I heard that.”

I believe in the flood.”

“What flood?” Noodles was befuddled again.

“Noah’s flood, of course. The one in the Bible. So does my wife. Don’t you know about it?”

Through narrowed eyes Noodles searched the guileless countenance for some twinkle of play. “I’m not sure I know what you mean. You believe it was wet?”

“I believe that it’s true. In every detail.”

“That he took the male and female of every animal species?”

“That’s what it says.”

“Sir,” said Noodles, with civility. “We have by now catalogued more kinds of animal and insect life than anyone could possible collect in a lifetime and put onto a ship that size. How would he get them, where would he put them, to say nothing of room for himself and the families of his children, and the problem of the storage of food and the removal of waste in those forty days and nights of rain?”

“You do know about it!”

“I’ve heard. And for a hundred and fifty days and nights afterward, when the rain stopped.”

“You know about that too!” The Vice President regarded him approvingly. “Then you probably also know that evolution is bunk. I hate evolution.”

“Where did all this animal life we know about now come from? There are three or four hundred thousand different species of beetles alone.”

“Oh, they probably just evolved.”

“In only seven thousand years? That’s about all it was, as biblical time is measured.”

“You can look it up, Noodles. Everything we need to know about the creation of the world is right there in the Bible, put down in plain English.” The Vice President regarded him placidly. “I know there are skeptics. They are all of them Reds. They are all of them wrong.”

“There’s the case of Mark Twain,” Noodles could not restrain himself from arguing.

“Oh, I know that name!” the Vice President cried, with great vanity and joy. “Mark Twain is that great American humorist from my neighboring state of Missouri, isn’t he?”

“Missouri is not a neighboring state of Indiana, sir. And your great American humorist Mark Twain ridiculed the Bible, despised Christianity, detested our imperialistic foreign policy, and heaped piles of scorn on every particular in the sort of Noah and his ark, especially for the housefly.”

“Obviously,” the Vice President replied, with no loss of equanimity, “we are talking about different Mark Twains.”

Noodles was enraged. “There was only one, sir,” he said softly, and smiled. “If you like, I’ll prepare a summary of his statements and leave it with one of your secretaries.”

“No, I hate written things. Put it on a video, and maybe we can turn it into a game. I really can’t see why some people who read have so much trouble coming to grips with the simple truths that are put down there so clearly. And please don’t call me sir, Noodles. You’re so much older than I am. Won’t you call me Prick?”

I told you people in the novel call him Little Prick.

“No, sir, I won’t call you prick.”

“Everyone else does. You have a right to. I have taken an oath to support that constitutional right.”

“Look, you prick--” Noodles had jumped to his feet and was glancing around frantically, for a blackboard, for chalk and a pointer, for anything! “Water seeks its own level.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that.”

“Mount Everest is close to five miles high. For the earth to be covered with water, there would have to be water everywhere on the globe that was close to five miles deep.”

His future employer nodded, pleased that he finally seemed to be getting through. “There was that much water then.”

“Then the waters receded. Where could they recede to?”

“Into the oceans, of course.”

“Where were the oceans, if the world was under water?”

“Underneath the flood, of course,” was the unhesitating reply, and the genial man rose. “If you look at a map, Noodles, you will see where the oceans are. And you will also see that Missouri does border on my state of Indiana.”

It’s passages like these where Heller’s genius as a satirist comes shining through.

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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