Monday, December 26, 2016

My Top 5 Blog Posts of 2016

As we end another year, here's a look back at the five posts on this blog that received the most page views in 2016.

1. Stop Calling It Strategic Planning
This has been on every year-end list since it was originally posted in January 2012, and keeps getting a ton of traffic, including as the page through which the highest number of people enter my site. It was inspired by the take-down of strategic planning in Humanize, and in it I pledge to stop using that term to describe the messy, constantly evolving process my association uses to determine our direction and set our objectives. In laying out the guidelines that govern our activities, I realize that only one term makes any sense--association management.

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

3. The Chairman's Gift
Originally posted in July 2012, this one has now been on four of five possible year-end lists. It tells the story about how my association ensures that our outgoing Board Chair receives a gift that recognizes not just his service to the association, but the fact that he is an individual who has made a personal sacrifice to serve in that capacity. The true value is the message it sends to others who might be considering a similar commitment in their futures.

4. Action Plans Describe the Steps Staff Will Take
One of two newcomers to this year's list, this one was originally posted in November 2015, and is part of a series I was doing describing the strategy and execution process my association uses instead of traditional "strategic planning." Action plans are on the deep end of the execution side, coming only after strategic goals have been set and specific program objectives needed to bring those goals about have been identified. As the post title implies, action plans detail the specific steps a staff leader (i.e., the person responsible for ensuring that the organization achieves the program objective) will take in that quest. In the post, I provide examples and explore the two most common questions I get with regard to action plans: (1) When do you set these Action Plans? Is there any room for adjustment? How can you possibly chart a course of action for an entire year? and (2) Who's in charge of these action plans? What happens when they are behind schedule or not progressing at all? Who do you hold accountable? Actually, for a more complete answer to that second question, you need to also go here.

5. Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley
The second newcomer to this year's list, this was originally posted way back in October 2011. It's one of the many "mini term papers" I tend to offer up, free of charge, to desperate freshman English majors the world over. My overall theses: Huxley views the human species as ultimately unable to govern itself, with the decay into totalitarianism an intrinsic and inevitable result of its own human nature. I confess to leaning that direction myself, but hold out some hope, recognizing that some of Huxley's darkest predictions about the "Big Man" determining the reality of the "Little Man" by clutching monopolistic control of their broadcast media were made before the rise of the Internet. Today, I speculate, "narrowcasting" through blogs and Twitter feeds and YouTube videos may have stemmed Huxley's fatalistic asymptotic slide towards fewer and fewer voices controlling the conversation.

My thanks to everyone who has been reading what I've been putting up here. I hope you plan to stay engaged in 2017.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

Listened to this one as an audiobook about a decade ago, and decided then that I would like to read the hard copy someday. Here’s what I jotted down at the time of hearing the audio version:

Huxley is such an interesting writer, capturing ideas and emotions on paper that I never even knew existed. My favorite character, by far, is Coleman, who is always on the lookout for the obscene and blasphemous, not because he is particularly vile himself, but because life is so stuffy and dull that only the obscene and blasphemous can get his attention.

Coleman is exceptional. But so is Lypiatt, an artist, who I suspect is wearing more than one disguise.

He had, indeed, a remarkable face, a face that ought by rights to have belonged to a man of genius. Lypiatt was aware of it. The man of genius, he liked to say, bears upon his brow a kind of mark of Cain, by which men recognize him at once--“and having recognized, generally stone him,” he would add with that peculiar laugh he always uttered whenever he said anything rather bitter or cynical. A laugh that was meant to show that the bitterness, the cynicism, justifiable as events might have made them, was really only a mask that beneath it the artist was still serenely and tragically smiling. Lypiatt thought a great deal about the ideal artist. That titanic abstraction stalked within his own skin. He was it--a little too consciously, perhaps.

His face, his laugh; they are both masks that he hides behind, but lurking within his skin is creature more elusive than the ideal artist--that being, Huxley himself.

And, of course, if we’re talking about exceptional characters, or men of genius, we’ll have to mention the novel’s the main character, Theodore Gumbril, Jr.

Gumbril Junior was lighting his pipe. “I have come to the conclusion,” he said, speaking in little jerks between each suck of the flame into the bowl, “that most people … ought never … to be taught anything at all.” He threw away the match. “Lord have mercy upon us, they’re dogs. What’s the use of teaching them anything except to behave well, to work and obey. Facts, theories, the truth about the universe--what good are those to them? Teach them to understand--why it only confuses them; makes them lose hold of the simple real appearance. Not more than one in a hundred can get any good out of a scientific or literary education.”

Gumbril, obviously and even from these opening pages, is presented and bears the conscious affectation of a self-styled superman. But a superman--or The Complete Man, as Gumbril himself fashions it, that must wear a disguise in order to find the inner fortitude to be taken as such by the world around him.

It is a novel very much about appearances and the search for substance that some seek and that others have abandoned.

Like most Huxley works that I’ve read, there are wonderful allegorical commentaries on the role and struggle of the artist in society. Lypiatt serves this role, but so does Gumbril’s father, who, as an architect, far prefers to work on structures of superhuman scale and grandeur, but who is forced, like many an artist, to make his living by providing serviceable dwellings to the masses of humanity he and his son look down upon.

“And to think,” he said after a pause, “that I’ve been spending these last days designing model cottages for workmen at Bletchley! I’m in luck to have got the job, of course, but really, that a civilised man should have to do jobs like that! It’s too much. In the old days these creatures built their own hovels and very nice and suitable they were too. The architects busied themselves with architecture--which is the expression of human dignity and greatness, which is man’s protest, not his miserable acquiescence. You can’t do much protesting in a model cottage at seven hundred pounds a time. A little, no doubt, you can protest a little, you can give your cottage decent proportions and avoid sordidness and vulgarity. But that’s all, it’s really a negative process. You can only begin to protest positively and actively when you abandon the petty human scale and build for giants--when you build for the spirit and the imagination of man, not for his little body. Model cottages, indeed!”

Is this Gumbril Senior talking about architecture, or is this Huxley talking about literature? Read it again and you’ll see that it retains its meaning either way.

There is also, like other Huxley works, political philosophy transparently dressed up as dialogue. And, as such, it often has to be quoted at length in order to grasp its full allegorical meaning. Here, as an example, Gumbril Junior engages in a conversation with his tailor, a Mr. Bojanus. He has gone there to see if Bojanus can make a novel and ridiculous style of clothing which Gumbril believes he can exploit for commercial purposes.

“Perhaps you would like a share,” suggested Gumbril.

Mr. Bojanus shook his head. “It wouldn’t do for my cleeantail, I fear, Mr. Gumbril. You could ‘ardly expect the Best People to wear such things.”

The Best People is a key phrase. It will come to connote people of a certain class and disposition. People that generally surround Gumbril, but from whom Gumbril inwardly holds himself apart, something Bojunus instantly understands.

“Couldn’t you?”

Mr. Bojanus went on shaking his head. “I know them,” he said. “I know the Best People. Well.” And he added with an irrelevance that was, perhaps, only apparent. “Between ourselves, Mr. Gumbril, I am a great admirer of Lenin…”

“So am I,” said Gumbril, “theoretically. But then I have so little to lose to Lenin. I can afford to admire him. But you, Mr. Bojanus, you the prosperous bourgeois--oh, purely in the economic sense of the word, Mr. Bojanus…”

Mr. Bojanus accepted the explanation with one of his old-world bows.

“ would be among the first to suffer if an English Lenin were to start his activities here.”

“There, Mr. Gumbril, if I may be allowed to say so, you are wrong.” Mr. Bojanus removed his hand from his bosom and employed it to emphasize the points of his discourse. “When the revolution comes, Mr. Gumbril, the great and necessary revolution, as Alderman Beckford called it, it won’t be the owning of a little money that’ll get a man in trouble. It’ll be ‘is class habits, Mr. Gumbril, ‘is class speech, ‘is class education. It’ll be Shibboleth all over again, Mr. Gumbril; mark my words. The Red Guards will stop people in the street and ask them to say some such word as ‘towel.’ If they call it ‘towel,’ like you and your friends, Mr. Gumbril, why then…” Mr. Bojanus went through the gestures of pointing a rifle and pulling the trigger; he clicked his tongue against his teeth to symbolize the report… “that’ll be the end of them. But if they say ‘teaul,’ like the rest of us, Mr. Gumbril, it’ll be: ‘Pass Friend and Long Live the Proletariat.’ Long live Teaul.”

“I’m afraid you may be right,” said Gumbril.

“I’m convinced of it,” said Mr. Bojanus. “It’s my clients, Mr. Gumbril, it’s the Best People that the other people resent. It’s their confidence, their ease, it’s the ‘abit their money and their position give them of ordering people about, it’s the way they take their place in the world for granted, it’s their privilege, which the other people would like to deny, but can’t--it’s all that, Mr. Gumbril, that’s so galling.”

Gumbril nodded. He himself had envied his securer friends their power of ignoring the humanity of those who were not of their class. To do that really well, one must always have lived in a large house full of clockwork servants; one must never have been short of money, never at a restaurant ordered the cheaper thing instead of the more delicious; one must never have regarded a policeman as anything but one’s paid defender against the lower orders, never for a moment have doubted one’s divine right to do, within the accepted limits, exactly what one liked without a further thought to anything or anyone but oneself and one’s own enjoyment. Gumbril had been brought up among these blessed beings; but he was not one of them. Alas? Or fortunately? He hardly knew which.

Remember that to truly move among them, among these Best People, Gumbril has to disguise himself. Comically, as we’ll come to see, with a false beard and an adopted confidence, but otherwise and always with a cynicism that keeps anything of substance at bay. I’ll come back to that in a minute, but first, let’s hear the remainder of what Mr. Bojanus has to say about the coming revolution.

“And what good do you expect the revolution to do, Mr. Bojanus?” he asked at last.

Mr. Bojanus replaced his hand in his bosom. “None whatever, Mr. Gumbril,” he said. “None whatever.”

“But Liberty,” Gumbril suggested, “equality and all that. What about those, Mr. Bojanus?”

Mr. Bojanus smiled up at him tolerantly and kindly, as he might have smiled at some one who had suggested, shall we say, that evening trousers should be turned up at the bottom. “Liberty, Mr. Gumbril,” he said. “You don’t suppose any serious-minded person imagines a revolution is going to bring liberty, do you?”

“The people who make the revolution always seem to ask for liberty.”

“But do they ever get it, Mr. Gumbril?” Mr. Bojanus cocked his head playfully and smiled. “Look at ‘istory, Mr. Gumbril, look at ‘istory. First it’s the French Revolution. They ask for political liberty. And they gets it. Then comes the Reform Bill, then Forty-Eight, then all the Franchise Acts and Votes for Women--always more and more political liberty. And what’s the result, Mr. Gumbril. Nothing at all. Who’s freer for political liberty? Not a soul. Mr. Gumbril. There was never a greater swindle ‘atched in the ‘ole of ‘istory. And when you think, ‘ow those poor young men like Shelley talked about it--it’s pathetic,” said Mr. Bojanus, shaking his head, “reelly pathetic. Political liberty’s a swindle because a man doesn’t spend his time being political. He spends it sleeping, eating, amusing himself a little and working--mostly working. When they’d got all the political liberty they wanted--or found they didn’t want--they began to understand this. And so now it’s all for the industrial revolution, Mr. Gumbril. But bless you, that’ as big a swindle as the other. How can there ever be liberty under any system? No amount of profit sharing or self-government by the workers, no amount of hyjeenic conditions or cocoa villages or recreation grounds can get rid of the fundamental slavery--the necessity of working. Liberty? Why it doesn’t exist. There’s no liberty in this world, only gilded cages.”

You may now be realizing that this is quite a subversive little book that Mr. Huxley has written. The masks and disguises continue and blossom all around us. Now, even political liberty is a shadow without substance. But it doesn’t end there.

“And then, Mr. Gumbril, even suppose you could somehow get rid of the necessity of working, suppose a man’s time were all leisure. Would he be free then? I say nothing of the natural slavery of eating and sleeping and all that, Mr. Gumbril; I say nothing of that, because that, if I may say so, would be too ‘airsplitting and metaphysical. But what I do ask you is this,” and Mr. Bojanus wagged his forefinger almost menacingly at the sleeping partner in this dialogue: “would a man with unlimited leisure be free, Mr. Gumbril. I say he would not. Not unless he ‘appened to be a man like you or me, Mr. Gumbril, a man of sense, a man of independent judgment. An ordinary man would not be free. Because he wouldn’t know how to occupy his leisure except in some way that would be forced on ‘im by other people. People don’t know ‘ow to entertain themselves now: they leave it to other people to do it for them. They swallow what’s given them. They ‘ave to swallow it, whether they like it or not. Cinemas, newspapers, magazines, gramophones football matches, wireless telephones--take them or leave them, if you want to amuse yourself. The ordinary man can’t leave them. He takes; and what’s that but slavery? And so you see, Mr. Gumbril,” Mr. Bojanus smiled with a kind of roguish triumph, “you see that even in the purely ‘ypothetical case of a man with infinite leisure, there still would be no freedom. And the case, as I have said, is purely ‘ypothetical; at any rate so far as concerns the sort of people who want a revolution. And as for the sort of people who do enjoy leisure, even now--why I think, Mr. Gumbril, you and I know enough about the Best People to know that freedom, except possibly sexual freedom, is not their strongest point. And sexual freedom--what’s that?” Mr. Bojanus dramatically enquired. “You and I, Mr. Gumbril,” he answered confidentially, “we know it’s an ‘orrible, ‘ideous slavery. That’s what it is. Or am I wrong, Mr. Gumbril?”

“Quite right, quite right, Mr. Bojanus,” Gumbril hastened to reply.

“From all of which,” continued Mr. Bojanus, “it follows that, except for a few, a very few people like you and me, Mr. Gumbril. There’s no such thing as liberty. It’s an ‘oax, Mr. Gumbril, an ‘orrible plant. And if I may be allowed to say so,” Mr. Bojanus lowered his voice, but still spoke with emphasis, “a bloody swindle.”

This is far more, I think, than just wool gathering. Huxley is setting up his narrative here, giving Gumbril both the motive and opportunity to perpetrate a deception that makes up most of the rest of the story. He has gone out of his way to position Gumbril in between the established strata of early 20th century English society, a time when the chaos and loss of the First World War had seemed to suck all the substance out of life.

He [Gumbril] was not sure, now he came to think of it, that he didn’t belong to all the herds--by a sort of honorary membership and temporarily, as occasion offered, as one belongs to the Union at the sister university or the Naval and Military Club while one’s own is having its annual clean-out. Shearwater’s herd, Lypiatt’s herd, Mr. Mercaptan’s herd, Mrs. Viveash’s herd, the architectural herd of his father, the educational herd (but that, thank God! was now bleating on distant pastures), the herd of Mr. Bojanus--he belonged to them all a little, to none of them completely. Nobody belonged to his herd. How could they? No chameleon can live with comfort on a tartan.

So, as alluded to earlier, he decides to disguise himself with a false beard and an affected confidence, and wander into these different herds and see what substance, if any, he can find within them. And in this guise, as the calculated fate of fiction would have it, he meets and falls in love with a young common woman named Emily. He finds himself taken with her and her simple world in a way that supercedes any of the transient pleasures he had been able to enjoy in the circles of The Best People. He sheds his disguise upon subsequent rendezvouses with her and, at a pivotal time--the eve of a journey he and Emily planned to take when he had decided to reveal his love to her--he finds himself not entirely unwillingly enticed back into the glitz and spectacle of that other world.

Mrs. Viveash, one of The Best People in Gumbril's circle, is his temptress, and she takes him, among other things, to see a play, an allegorical thing in which a character known only as The Monster unrequitedly seeks love and companionship.

The Monster (Solus): Somewhere there must be love like music. Love harmonious and ordered: two spirits, two bodies moving contrapuntally together. Somewhere, the stupid brutish act must be made to make sense, must be enriched, must be made significant. Lust, like Diabelli’s waltz, a stupid air, turned by a genius into three-and-thirty fabulous variations. Somewhere…

“Oh dear!” sighed Mrs. Viveash.

“Charming!” Gumbril protested. like sheets of silky flame; like landscapes brilliant in the sunlight against a background of purple thunder; like the solution of a cosmic problem; like faith…

“Crikey!” said Mrs. Viveash.

...Somewhere, somewhere. But in my veins creep the maggots of the pox…

“Really, really!” Mrs. Viveash shook her head. “Too medical!”

...crawling towards the brain, crawling into the mouth, burrowing into the bones. Insatiably.”

The Monster threw himself to the ground and the curtain came down.

“And about time too!” declared Mrs. Viveash.

“Charming!” Gumbril stuck to his guns. “Charming! Charming!”

The fact that Gumbril is taken by The Monster’s melodramatic dream of love, while Mrs. Viveash is repelled by it, is not lost on me. It shows not only that he is, in fact, different from the libertines that surround him in his social circle, but that he is now coming to view himself as decidedly different from them.

There was a disturbance near the door. Mrs. Viveash looked round to see what was happening. “And now on top of it all,” she said, “here comes Coleman, raving, with an unknown drunk.”

“Have we missed it?” Coleman was shouting. “Have we missed all the lovely bloody farce?”

The lovely bloody farce. Is he referring to the play Viveash and Gumbril were just watching? Are you sure?

“I hear,” [said Coleman], “by the way, that there’s a lovely prostitute in this play.”

“You’ve missed her,” said Mrs. Viveash.

“What a misfortune,” said Coleman. “We’ve missed the delicious trull,” he said, turning to the young man.

The young man only laughed.

“Let me introduce, by the way,” said Coleman. “This is Dante,” he pointed to the dark-haired boy. “And I am Virgil. We’re making a round tour--or, rather, a descending spiral tour of hell. But we’re only at the first circle so far. These, Alighieri, are two damned souls, though not as you might suppose, Paolo and Francesca.”

The boy continued to laugh, happily and uncomprehendingly.

As well he might. Paolo and Francesca are from the second circle of Dante’s hell, a literary device he used to explore the relationship “between love and lust, between the ennobling power of attraction toward the beauty of a whole person and the destructive force of possessive sexual desire.” Even I had to look that one up online.

“Another of these interminable entr’actes,” complained Mrs. Viveash. “I was just saying to Theodore here that if there’s one thing I dislike more than another, it’s a long entr’acte.” Would hers ever come to an end?

Oh, and there’s the dead giveaway. The whole novel, in a sense, wrapped up in a single sentence. Would hers ever come to an end? Because the play they are watching, and the countless other happy and mindless distractions that comprise the world of The Best People, are the antic hay of the book’s title, it’s absurd dance. And to the Mrs. Viveash’s and Coleman’s of this world, life consists only of suffering through an on-going series of intervals between these dances, each entertaining, but each as shallow and as meaningless as the last. And Gumbril, as he is revealed in this scene, not only wants there to be meaning in these pantomimes but, like those moved by melodrama, is now willing to create it himself if necessary.

In the light of these experiences, Gumbril comes to deeply regret having lied to Emily about his inability to meet her, conjuring up, as he did, a fictional but unavoidable accident in a telegram he sent before his night with Mrs. Viveash and the others. Determined to make amends, he grabs the next available train, and it is there that we find him, reading the reply Emily had quickly dispatched upon receiving his telegram.

Your telegram made me very unhappy. Not merely because of the accident--though it made me shudder to think that something terrible might have happened, poor darling--but also, selfishly, my own disappointment. I had looked forward so much. I had made a picture of it all so clearly. I should have met you at the station with the horse and trap from the Chequers and we’d have driven back to the cottage--and you’d have loved the cottage. We’d have had tea and I’d have made you eat an egg with it after your journey. Then we’d have gone for a walk; through the most heavenly wood I found yesterday to a place where there’s a wonderful view--miles and miles of it. And we’d have wandered on and on, and sat down under the trees, and the sun would have set and the twilight would slowly have come to an end, and we’d have gone home again and found the lamps lighted and the supper ready--not very grand, I’m afraid; for Mrs. Vole isn’t the best of cooks. And then the piano; for there is a piano and I had the tuner come specially from Hastings yesterday, so that it isn’t so bad now. And you’d have played; and perhaps I would have made my noises on it. And at last it would have been time for candles and bed. When I heard you were coming, Theodore, I told Mrs. Vole and lie about you. I said you were my husband, because she’s fearfully respectable, of course; and it would dreadfully disturb her if you weren’t. But I told myself that, too. I meant that you should be. You see, I tell you everything. I’m not ashamed. I wanted to give you everything I could and then we should always be together, loving one another. And I should have been your slave, I should have been your property, and lived inside your life. But you would always have had to love me.

It is a domestic but no less melodramatic version of The Monster’s dream. A love like music. Love harmonious and ordered: two spirits, two bodies moving contrapuntally together. And unlike the tortured Monster of Coleman’s “lovely bloody farce,” this love is actually within Gumbril’s reach. Except note Emily’s constant use of that foreboding future tense. We’d have… You’d have… I’d have… The other shoe is about to drop.

And then, just as I was getting ready to go and call at the Chequers for the horse and trap, your telegram came. I saw the word ‘accident’ and I imagined you all bleeding and smashed--oh, dreadful, dreadful. But then, when you seemed to make rather a joke of it--why did you say ‘a little indisposed’? that seemed, somehow, so stupid, I thought--and said you were coming tomorrow, it wasn’t that which upset me; it was the dreadful, dreadful disappointment. It was like a stab, that disappointment; it hurt so terribly, so unreasonably much. It made me cry and cry, so that I thought I should never be able to stop. And then, gradually. I began to see that the pain of the disappointment wasn’t unreasonably great. It wasn’t merely a question of your coming being put off for a day; it was a question of its being put off forever, of my never seeing you again. I saw that that accident had been something really arranged by Providence. It was meant to warn me and show me what I ought to do. I saw how hopelessly impracticable the happiness I had been imagining really was. I saw that you didn’t, you couldn’t love me in anything like the same way as I loved you. I was only a curious adventure, a new experience, a means to some other end. Mind, I’m not blaming you in the least. I’m only telling you what is true, what I gradually came to realise as true. If you’d come--what then? I’d have given you everything, my body, my mind, my soul, my whole life. I’d have twisted myself into the threads of your life. And then, when in due course you wanted to make an end to this curious little adventure, you would have had to cut the tangle and it would have killed me, it would also have hurt you. At least I think it would. In the end, I thanked God for the accident which had prevented you coming.

Emily has seen through the facade Gumbril tried to embrace in front of her. Despite the dropping of the false beard, she has seen through to the utter fecklessness that consumes Gumbril’s life and those in his circle. She understands, with some pain, but ultimately with relief, that, to him, she is just another absurd dance.

But is she? Clearly not. She was about to be and could have been something more, but Gumbril, like the melodramatic Monster in the play, winds up conspired against by his own milieu.

We might well now take a step back and ask a more literary question. What is Huxley doing here? Why has he set up this cast of characters and why has he created this tragic farce? For that answer, it may be best to return to the words of Lypiatt, the author’s artistic alter ego, in the closing pages of the novel.

But then every man is ludicrous if you look at him from outside, without taking into account what’s going on in his heart and mind. You could turn Hamlet into an epigrammatic farce with an inimitable scene when he takes his adored mother in adultery. You could make the wittiest Guy de Maupassant short story out of the life of Christ, by contrasting the mad rabbi’s pretensions with his abject fate. It’s a question of point of view. Everyone’s a walking farce and a walking tragedy at the same time. The man who slips on a banana skin and fractures his skull describes against the sky, as he falls, the most richly comical arabesque.

Antic Hay, then, may well be Huxley's attempt to come to terms not with the fractured skull, but with the comic fall.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Holiday Break: Before the Storm by Rick Perlstein

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

As I look back on all the books I've profiled here in 2016, the one I'd most like to revisit is Before the Storm by Rick Perlstein. I blogged about it back in September, and included the following as a kind of introduction:

Last year, when my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas I gave her a definitive answer.

“An author named Rick Perlstein has written a three-volume history of the conservative movement in American politics. Get me all three volumes.”

She did. Before the Storm is volume one, subtitled “Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.”

And the idea of that American Consensus is key to understanding the genesis of the conservative movement. Between the end of World War II and the rise of Barry Goldwater, Perlstein paints a picture of an America that had forged a great political consensus. The two major parties--then, as now, the Democrats and Republicans--existed in a kind of bipartisan harmony, each standing for essentially the same principles of American exceptionalism and ordained progress mediated by a federal bureaucracy. Each had different policy prescriptions and pet programs, to be sure, but when it came to the great generational wheel of destiny, each essentially agreed that it was spinning the correct way and were willing to apply shoulders with their political rivals.

The book was fascinating enough to read during the hard fought presidential campaign of 2016. I can't help but wonder what additional insights it will offer now that the results of that election have provided a kind of hindsight I hadn't anticipated.

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

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

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Monday, December 12, 2016

The Busy Time of Year

Does your association have a "busy time" and a "slow time" of year?

I remember it certainly felt that way when I first started working in association management. Then, the busy and slow cycles were tied to my association's Annual Meeting. The three months leading up to it were crazy busy and the three months following it we remarkably slower. In a way, I felt like I had earned the slow time by working so hard during the busy time, and everyone else, including my bosses and my members, seemed to agree. Things just plain slowed down.

It doesn't feel that way any more. I'm certainly in a different position today than I was back in those early days, but it feels like the "busy time" has expanded and completely pushed the "slow time" off the calendar. Every month, every week, every day--there's more to do than can realistically get done, and I have to ruthlessly prioritize and focus if I want to keep my head above water.

I'm not complaining. We all know the reasons for the accelerating pace of business and life, and it's generally better to "surf" on the crest of those trends than try to swim against them. But one of the painful realities of losing the slow time of year for associations is the negative impact it has on its ability to engage productively with its members.

Because we association staff are not the only ones who have lost our slow time. Our members have lost it, too, and they likely lost it long before we did.

In the old days, the slow time was the ideal time for them to engage in our volunteer structures. They had the time to give, and we had the time to organize activities to make their volunteered time productive for both them and the association.

But that time doesn't exist any more. They no longer have the time to volunteer and we no longer have the time to organize volunteer structures for them. It's pushing more and more associations towards staff-driven models, which just exacerbates the same problem. More work for the staff to do that is not focused on building engagement with their members.

It may be time to reclaim some "slow time" again. Or at least to better prioritize and focus your "busy time" on activities that keep your members engaged in the leadership and activities of your association.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Cass Timberlane by Sinclair Lewis

This is one of Lewis’s last novels, written in 1945, and is very much about marriage and whether it can survive in that modern age. The frontispiece offers the subtitle: “A Novel of Husbands and Wives,” and it certainly is that, the narrative flow interrupted frequently by short vignettes about married couples, their foibles, and their fates in Lewis’s small, fictional town of Grand Republic, Minnesota.

At the beginning of our history, the Drovers had been married for thirteen years. They had two sons, William Mayo and John Erdmann Drover, aged eleven and nine. Lillian was devoted to them, often looked at them sadly, as though they were doomed. She begged them to listen while she read aloud from Kenneth Grahame and her own girlhood copy of “The Birds’ Christmas Carol,” but the boys protested, “Aw, can that old-fashioned junk, Mum. Pop says it’s panty-waist. Read us the funnies in the paper, Mum.”

Like their father, the boys enjoyed killing things--killing snakes, frogs, ducks, rats, sparrows, feeble old neighborhood cats.

When Roy and the boys were away, she stayed alone in a shuttered room, in a house that rustled with hate, in a silence that screamed, alone with a sullen cook and a defiant maid. She did not read much, but she did read that all women are “emancipated” and can rapidly become “economically independent.” She was glad to learn that.

Roy and Lillian were often cited by Diantha Marl as “one of the happiest couples, the most successful marriages, in Grand Republic; just as affectionate as the Zagos, but not so showy about it.”

Some of these marriages work and some don’t, some of them are happy and some aren’t, but they all, like the one just featured, seem to struggle with perpetuating the appearances of an older age while the opportunities inherent in a newer one continually encroached. The role of women was changing in this newer age, but not everyone--men and women alike--understood what that meant, so their perceptions and expectations regarding married love hadn’t yet changed.

If the world of the twentieth century, he vowed, cannot succeed in this one thing, married love, then it has committed suicide, all but the last moan, and whether Germany and France can live as neighbors is insignificant compared with whether Johann and Maria or Jean and Marie can live as lovers. He knew that with each decade such serenity was more difficult, with Careers for Women opening equally on freedom and on a complex weariness. But whether women worked in the kitchen or in the machine-shop, married love must be a shelter, or the world would freeze, out in the bleak free prairies of irresponsible love-making.

This is about as clearly as Lewis ever states his narrative question, relying instead--in fact, writing an entire novel--on manifesting this tension in the personalities and interactions of his two primary test subjects.

Cass Timberlane:

He was a young judge: the Honorable Cass Timberlane, of the Twenty-Second Judicial District, State of Minnesota. He was forty-one, and in his first year on the bench, after a term in Congress. He was a serious judge, a man of learning, a believer in the majesty of the law, and he looked like a tall Red Indian. But he was wishing that he were out bass-fishing, or at home, reading Walden or asleep on a cool leather couch.

And Virginia “Jinny” Marshland:

The new witness was a half-tamed hawk of a girl, twenty-three or -four, not tall, smiling, lively of eye. The light edged gently the clarity of her cheeks, but there was something daring in her delicate Roman nose, her fierce black hair. Her gray suit indicated prosperity, which in Grand Republic was respectability.

This is how they are first presented to us, and they will be Lewis’s experiment. In the course of the novel they will meet, fall in love, and marry. But can their marriage last? Last in a world with so many changing expectations about the roles of husbands and wives?

And all around them, both in the vignettes and in their closest friends and relations, cautionary tales abound, dark thickets where the path of married love becomes hopelessly turned and twisted until one just sits down and makes a kind of peace with a foreboding feeling of loss and hopelessness.

She said to Cass, in effect, “I want to live in New York and get to know all the intellectuals. But what is a woman who is still good-looking at thirty-six but not beautiful enough to make a career of it, clever enough to know she wouldn’t be clever on any job, aware, through reading, of all the glamor and luxuries of life but with no money for them and no rich relatives to murder, active and yet contemptuous of amateur charities and artistic trifling and exhibitionistic sports, untrained in anything worth fifteen dollars a week on the labor market and not even, after years of marriage, a competent cook or nurse, no longer in love with her husband and bored by everything he does--and he always does it!--and yet unwilling to have the thrill of being vengeful toward him or of hurting him intentionally, liking other men but not lecherous nor fond of taking risks, possessing a successful daughter and too interested in her to desert her--just what is this typical upper-middle-middle-class American Wife to do?

This is Cass’s sister Rose, and her ennui is the ennui of all American wives, all American wives of a certain class and of the time Lewis is writing of.

In this world, Cass is enlightened and good intentioned. He wants to give Jinny whatever she wants, but even his thinking is constrained by the traditions of old.

“Look, Jin. If this were some critical war job, or if it were going to lead to a blazing career for you, I’d be glad. I’d merely be wondering how I could help. I know that more and more millions of women will have to earn their livings now, and I’m all for having every occupation--especially law and medicine--open to them completely. But is it any part of this theological doctrine of the economic independence of women--this rare new doctrine that only goes back to the Egyptian priestesses--that women have to have independent jobs, even if it cracks up the men they love--or at least the men that love them?”

And Jinny, alas, dazzled by all the things and opportunities now within her reach, suffers because she has not been conditioned to think of them as things she can either covet or be entitled to.

What did Jinny want? Security, scenery, power, the ability to recognize a quotation from Steinbeck, a ruby-and-diamond bracelet, a sense of self-discipline, the love of a tangible God, a red canoe with yellow cushions, an unblemished skin, venison with sauce Cumberland, many children, a seventy-five-dollar hat from New York, a request to speak on a nation-wide hook-up, dawn beside Walden Pond, the certainty of her husband’s affection, or an Irish wolfhound? He did not know, and she was not quite certain.

In this environment of expanding opportunities and calcified social stigmas and expectations, it is not surprising that Cass and Jinny’s relationship, their marriage, and their ability to communicate with each other, experience nearly fatal blows.

It was difficult for each of them to guess the other’s momentary moods. They ought to be labeled, for warning. He ought to put on the sign, “Stern jurist--be careful” or “Playboy--willing to dance”; she should bear the direction “Wistful little girl” or “Termagant--dangerous” or “Sensitive artist who has been drawing in secret but expects her husband to be so discerning as to guess it and congratulate her.” Then each of them would know how to start off the evening, and have nothing to quarrel about--except each other’s friends, which will be a troublesome topic even among the angels in Heaven, where spirit will say crossly to spirit, “Who was that awful harp-player I saw you flying with last eon?”

All of it told in this light and jesty and surprisingly modern tone, making both the prose a delight to read and the search for a resolution for these characters--and for us all--a refreshingly pressing concern.

There were many springboards for quarrels: he liked the windows open, she shriveled in the cold; he liked pork chops, she like chow mein; he had been too jocular with Diantha Marl, she too chilly with Judge Flaaten; he wanted to stay home, she wanted to go to the movies--so they went to the movies. And there he dared to consider himself a cinema critic and sniffed at her beloved swing musicians capering as would-be actors. But of them all, there was only one cause: they did not know what they wanted.

When they do separate, when Jinny leaves Cass for the baubles she thinks are her dream of a new birthright, Cass is emotionally shattered, not understanding how such a thing could have happened.

Cass’s defeat, he believed, came neither from the intentional malice of men nor from the conscious irony of the gods. It merely happened, like a storm, from causes that could be traced clearly enough but still did not make sense. Human beings, who could crush the atom and talk round the world, still could make no more illuminating comment upon the collapse of solid-seeming love than the ancient wailing, “Why--why--why?”

And Jinny, for her sake, seeking her freedom from the oppressiveness perpetrated not so much by Cass himself as the historical and cultural position he has assumed as her husband, knows not what to do with her freedom once it is acquired. A revealing diagnosis of Jinny’s essential struggle comes later in the novel from Cass’s grown niece Valerie, who has joined the Woman’s Army Corps, and who counsels her uncle not to take Jinny back.

“Now I’m in the Army, I got to thinking, and I thought: People keep saying there’s a new world coming, and women’s position will change entirely. Well, it’s come, and it has changed! But there’s still ten million dolls like Aunt Jinny, that haven’t got guts enough to hold down a job or enough patience to study, and they think that modernity for women is simply being free to skip around with any men they like, and get all the jewelry and embroidered linens.”

It’s a wonderfully thought-provoking book, Cass and Jinny struggling, as many other characters and readers seemingly do, to understand their own sources of inner happiness, and how disconnected they inevitably are from the social constructions that have been built prior to their arrival. Despite its consistently jovial tone, and despite the rom-com framework that has Cass and Jinny marry, separate, and then come together again in the end, what I take to be Lewis’s own dark and pessimistic prescription for our own chances to achieve such an outcome comes through loud and clear.

You cannot heal the problems of any one marriage until you heal the problems of an entire civilization founded upon suspicion and superstition; and you cannot heal the problems of a civilization thus founded until it realizes its own barbaric nature, and realizes that what it thought was brave was only cruel, what it thought was holy was only meanness, and what it thought Success was merely the paper helmet of a clown more nimble than his fellows, scrambling for a peanut in the dust of an ignoble circus.

Married love may survive, Lewis seems to say, but only if we can build for it a more noble society.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, December 5, 2016

Stop Calling It Failing

At my association, we set goals every year. Some of them we're pretty sure we can achieve and others seem a little more far-fetched. I typically don't shy away from those "stretch" goals, but you do have to be careful that you don't pile too many of them on top of each other. Nothing but stretch goals can often lead to low morale. But a handful, carefully placed in areas where "better than normal" performance is required to achieve wider organizational goals, can help organize and concentrate efforts in a way that at least gives you a shot at hitting the targets.

But you won't always. That goes without saying. They wouldn't be stretch goals if you were able to hit them 100% of the time. So what do you call it when things fall short? In the lexicon of goal setting, we often speak about achieving or failing. The goal was to grow membership by a net of 10 more members, and we're 12 higher than last year--so we achieved our goal. Or, we only grew by 8, so we failed.

Wait. What? You grew by "only" 8 more members, and you failed? How is growing the number of members in the association, regardless of how many, a failure? To my way of thinking, any increase in the direction of the goal is a success. Given the goal above, the only reasonable thing to call a failure would be a situation where the trend reversed itself. If you lost 8 members, that would be a failure. Even if you only gained 1 member, that would be some kind of success. You didn't achieve the goal, but you also didn't fail.

In innovation circles, we're often told that we musn't be afraid to fail. And I suppose that is true. But let's be careful about what we call failure and what we call success.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Tell True Stories About Your Members

I've been doing site visits for as long as I've been in association management--23 years at last count. If you're not familiar with the term, a site visit is when you visit a destination and/or conference site to help determine if you would like to book a conference in said destination and/or conference site. I just completed another one, and I was asked a question I'm often asked on these trips.

So, what are your members like?

Generally, the sales manager asking this question wants some insight into the preferred activities and habits of the people attending the conference I'm booking. And lately, when asked this question, I find myself telling the following story.

"Well, I'll tell you, their habits are really changing. When I started with this association, nine years ago, the five people on the Executive Committee who hired me were all men near the end of their careers. Indeed, the first three Board chairs I worked with all retired from the industry within a year of their serving as chair. That was our average member at the time, men in their sixties, with their spouses tagging along, enjoying fine food and fine wine, playing golf and going shopping.

"Today, the situation is very different. The five people on my Executive Committee are all in the middle of their careers, men and women, in their forties and fifties, with kids in high school or college. Our past chairs stay very much engaged in the industry and our association. The average member that they reflect sometimes brings a spouse and sometimes doesn't (depending on the demands of professional careers, youth sports leagues and child care), and with their spouse they sometimes bring the kids for a family vacation and sometimes don't for a romantic getaway. They still enjoy fine food and fine wine, but they are less into golf and shopping and more into mountain biking and spa visits."

I've probably told that story a dozen or more times to a dozen or more sales managers. I told it again on this latest trip. And each time I tell it, I can't help but wonder.

Is it true?

Leadership is passing from one generation to the next. That's an obvious fact. In my industry, that generational shift means Boomers are giving way to Xers. The Millennials are there, but not yet in positions of leadership and influence.

And the story I tell is a nice little package--something I can easily relay while walking around the grounds of the latest luxury resort, checking off the sizes of ballrooms and the number of sinks in the bathrooms of the standard sleeping room.

And there are certainly people in my membership I could point to that typify the generational archetypes on which my story depends. The golfing Boomer with his shopping wife. The mountain-biking Xer with his spa-visiting spouse and three kids.

But, if you look at our members without the frame I've imposed on them, you quickly realize that very few of these archetypes actually exist. Millennials sign up for the golf tournament. Boomers go mountain biking. Men and women of all generations relax by the pool or get up early to go running or do yoga. They all like to go shopping--sometimes for jewelry and shoes, other times for craft beer and artisan cheese.

Chalking up the preferred activities and habits of our attendees to their generational proclivities oversimplifies and obscures what is really going on. Like all of us, they are much more products of their culture and socioeconomics than of their generation.

Telling that story takes longer, but it better helps you understand who I am talking about.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Maugham: A Biography by Ted Morgan

It’s always a dangerous thing: reading a biography of an artist whose art you admire. You’re bound to discover things about the person that will color your interpretation of the art forever after.

Later he took a six-month appointment as an inpatient clerk. He spent the morning in the wards with the house physician, writing up cases and making tests. He found that the male patients were easier to get along with than the females, who were often querulous and ill-tempered, and complained to the hard-working nurses. This at least is the way he saw it, for already he was displaying a tendency toward misogyny. Women, going back to his mother, were a disappointment, an unreliable species. They never lived up to one’s expectations. He rarely missed a chance to make unpleasant remarks about them and he admired the remark with which his professor of gynecology began his first lecture: “Gentlemen, woman is an animal that micturates once a day, defecates once a week, menstruates once a month, parturates once a year, and copulates whenever she has the opportunity.”

This excerpt, obviously from the time that the young William Somerset Maugham was studying to be a doctor, is one of many in this biography attesting to his misogyny. And indeed, as I found myself reading The Razor’s Edge a few months later, the memory of this passage and the many like it colored my interpretation of his prose. Maugham--at least in the guise of his self-titled narrator in that famous novel--is dismissive and shallow in many of his descriptions of Isabel Bradley. Is it Maugham the narrator showing contempt for Isabel, or is it Maugham the author showing contempt for women? Watch for my upcoming post on that novel. You’ll have to be your own judge.

Another deep impression left upon me is how old and out of time Maugham became as he continued to live and produce while so many of his contemporaries ceased and died. In many ways his true heyday was in the earliest part of the 20th century, writing plays and stories with a sense of propriety appropriate for the previous age.

Maugham was Edwardian in the deepest sense. This was the period of history that put its stamp on him. Throughout his life he maintained an Edwardian set of assumptions. He was a facade person. Propriety was all-important. He went to the right tailor, belonged to a club, and was scrupulously courteous. In his writing he often used such Edwardian expressions as “sexual congress” and “unmitigated scoundrel.” In one of his best known stories, “The Letter,” he used the Edwardian convention of the compromising document.

His belief in a society governed by principles of decorum comes out in stories such as “The Treasure,” where a bachelor, a perfect gentleman who has a perfect servant, sleeps with her in a moment of weakness. They then revert to their previous relationship. “He knew that never by word or gesture would she ever refer to the fact that for a moment their relations had been other than master and servant.” This was the Edwardian sensibility in full flower.

So this is the portrait of Maugham I have been given--a woman-hating phony, for whom appearance is so much more important than substance.

Yet, to judge him by the fiction he wrote, it would seem that such an existence tortured him.

Behind the mask of the Edwardian gentleman there hid the alienated, mother-deprived outsider who lacked a secure grip on his identity. As he said, “The accident of my birth in France … instilled into me two modes of life, two liberties, two points of view [and] prevented me from ever identifying myself completely with the instincts and prejudices of one people or the other.” He pretended to be heterosexual, whereas his deepest sympathies lay elsewhere. He was not what he seemed, and it is no wonder that many of the characters in his short stories are not what they seem.

In “The Lion’s Skin” a perfect English gentleman married to an American heiress and living on the Riviera is found out to be the son of a waiter. When his house catches fire he goes in to save his wife’s Sealyham, as a gentleman would, and is killed: “Bob Forestier had pretended for so many years to be a gentleman that in the end, forgetting that it was all a fake, he had found himself driven to act as in that stupid, conventional brain of his he thought a gentleman must act.” ...

Like … a whole gallery of his characters, Maugham’s life was one of partial concealment.

And his fiction, of course, is an appropriate lens to use to understand the heart of the artist. As Maugham himself said in one of his letters:

My own impression is that most of what one writes is to a greater or lesser degree autobiographical, not the actual incidents always, but always the emotions. Anyhow we are able to fouter ourselves of the world at large--when one has to suffer so much it is only fair that one should have the consolation of writing books about it.

And it is, I think, their emotional truth, not the litany of events, that make much of Maugham’s fiction so compelling. It was interesting on many levels to learn through reading this biography that Maugham found his first success in writing plays, not novels, and that, to him, the form of drama was much more restrictive of the things he wanted to say.

Drama was a damnable business, he said, the plots were arbitrary, the characters were obvious. In writing a novel one did not have to make these wholesale surrenders. One could be a subtle as life itself.

In retrospect it seems obvious. In plays, character dialogue can only advance the plot; while in novels, the inner lives of characters can advance themes. And, in the best of novels, all four devices are combined into a narrative and thematic whole.

As Maugham does brilliantly in his most famous and most personal work.

Maugham’s first choice of title, a quotation from Isaiah, “Beauty from Ashes,” had already been used, and so he changed it to Of Human Bondage, one of the books in Spinoza’s Ethics. This was the novel he had written to free himself of his obsessions, on the “misery loves company” theory that when private feelings were made public, they ceased to be his. Thirty years later, however, when he was asked in New York to read the first chapter for a recording for the blind, he broke down and could not finish. Publication had not provided that thorough a catharsis.

But it was all there: the loss of his mother, the breakup of his home, the years at the vicarage, the wretchedness of his school years, the stammer transposed into a clubfoot, the happy times in Heidelberg, the year in Paris, and medical school. “It is not an autobiography,” he wrote, “but an autobiographical novel; fact and fiction are inextricably mingled; the emotions are my own but not all the incidents are related as they happened and some of them are transferred to my hero not from my own life but from that of persons with whom I was intimate.”

For the first and last time Maugham dropped the mask. Gone was the pose of Edwardian gentleman, of “The Jester,” of epigrams to amuse society women. Here was the painful reality of the cripple, who carried through life a feeling of apartness, friendless and longing for friends, but perversely compounding his alienation by his own aloofness. Here was the true condition of life, not success or invitations to the right homes or scores of admirers, but bondage. Philip Carey is in bondage to his physical defect, to his upbringing, and to the woman who mistreats him. The novel’s theme is his struggle to free himself.

I read Of Human Bondage in high school, and I remember my English teacher’s love of the novel better than I remember the novel itself. So while reading Maugham, while I was on vacation in Gatlinburg, I ventured out to find a tattered copy of the novel in a used book store in Cosby, Tennessee, and immediately put it back on my to-read list.

The Moon and Sixpence

Of course, pending my re-reading of Of Human Bondage, my favorite Maugham work is The Moon and Sixpence, so I was especially interested to see how that work was handled in this biography. Generally speaking, Maugham is often given the backward compliment of being a “superb craftsman,” implying that he is not truly a “great artist,” and The Moon and Sixpence seems to be one of the primary witnesses for the prosecution in that case. In reporting the critical reaction to the novel, the biographer Morgan slips easily between the voices of the reporter and the narrator, telling us what critics thought, but not always putting it in quotation marks.

In The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham’s view of women was given its fullest airing. They were the enemies of creative life, parasitic and manipulative, sapping the strength of men. In Charles Strickland, who says that “women are very unintelligent,” he found an outlet for his gall. When Gauguin’s wife read the book, however, she said that she did not find a single trait of Strickland’s that had anything in common her with husband. Of course, to have found Maugham’s portrait a good likeness would have been to admit that she had married a scoundrel.

Nor did those who knew it recognize Maugham’s Tahiti. One got no impression from the book that it had been colonized by the French, was the chief of the Society Islands, could be reached by steamship, and had a newspaper and a radio station. A novelist of course is not bound to paint an accurate portrait.

Thanks for throwing that last line in, Morgan. Criticizing The Moon and Sixpence for not accurately portraying Gauguin and Tahiti is a little like criticizing Moby-Dick for not accurately portraying the captain of the whaleship Essex and Nantucket. Accurate portrayals aren’t exactly the point.

The book’s real weakness lay elsewhere: in its failure to live up to the principle stated by the critic Richard Blackmur that “the intelligence must always act as if it were adequate to the problems it aroused.” Maugham presents Strickland as a great painter and a genius but is unable to do more than tell us that this is the case. The only clue to Strickland’s genius is that it is a sudden force that overwhelms him. “I tell you I’ve got to paint,” he says. “I can’t help myself. When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly; he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.” The only way Maugham can show genius at work is by making Strickland boorish, as if greatness were somehow synonymous with bad manners. A more convincing book about a painter was Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, which showed the complicated processes of a gifted painter’s mind. With Gully Jimson, the reader knows that he was in the presence of a great painter. Maugham did not even come close.

Katherine Mansfield cited this flaw in the novel when she reviewed it in The Athenaeum on May 9, 1919: “We must be shown something of the workings of his [Strickland’s] mind; we must have some comment of his upon what he feels, fuller and more exhaustive than his perpetual ‘Go to hell.’ It is simply essential that there should be some quality in him revealed to us that we may love, something that will stop us for ever from crying: ‘If you have to be so odious before you can paint bananas--pray leave them unpainted.’”

This criticism is a little more learned and serious, but it actually misses the same kind of point that the first criticism about accurate portrayals did. The power of The Moon and Sixpence is simply not dependent on whether or not Strickland is a great painter. That’s not the point. In fact, the way I read it, novel is MORE powerful if Strickland is assumed NOT to be a great painter.

Because, ultimately, The Moon and Sixpence is not a novel about a brilliant painter who abandons the conventions and commitments of domestic life to pursue his fevered vision with full force. It is a novel about a popular author who wishes he could abandon the conventions and commitments of his professional life and pursue his own fevered vision with full force.

As the narrator muses during a climactic scene with Strickland:

Until long habit has blunted the sensibility, there is something disconcerting to the writer in the instinct which causes him to take an interest in the singularities of human nature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against it. He recognises in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him; but sincerity forces him to confess that the disapproval he feels for certain actions is not nearly so strong as his curiosity in their reasons. The character of a scoundrel, logical and complete, has a fascination for his creator which is an outrage to law and order. I expect that Shakespeare devised Iago with a gusto which he never knew when, weaving moonbeams with his fancy, he imagined Desdemona. It may be that in his rogues the writer gratifies instincts deep-rooted in him, which the manners and customs of a civilised world have forced back to the mysterious recesses of the subconscious. In giving to the character of his invention flesh and bones he is giving life to that part of himself which finds no other means of expression. His satisfaction is a sense of liberation.

It’s not about painting. It’s about writing. Not Strickland. Maugham. And, most decidedly, not the Maugham tarred with the brush of Edwardian sensibilities.

And the bitterest tragedy of all is that Maugham, the man or the artist, is no Charles Strickland.

“There is no such thing as inspiration. At least if there is I have not discovered it. There is, instead, dedication and complete absorption in your craft. I am a self-made writer. I started with a poor prose style, and had to fine it down as best I could. You must appreciate right from the start that writing is a profession like Medicine or the Law … I keep the same regular hours today as I did when I was a medical student. I suppose you could say that today, the public are my examiners.”

This taken from a letter Maugham had written: advice to a young and admiring novelist. Charles Strickland does not view his art as a profession; it is a calling. The goal is not competent prose after years of clock-punching practice. The goal is release; release of the amoral spirit of truth and beauty that crouches beneath the surface of every attempt at art.

Maugham's Genius

Maugham’s genius, I think, when he is able to show it, is not in writing prose that allows that amoral spirit to dance, but in writing prose that is able to seamlessly merge theme and plot. It’s a subtle talent, not always recognized, and with plenty of restrictions on form and content. Maugham’s fiction, as he admits in the following passage, does not preach.

Sixty was an age for assessment. As the list of his published works grew longer with each new book, Maugham asked himself where he stood in the English literature of his time. He felt that he was not taken seriously by critics, and it pained him. He saw himself as isolated, excluded from the lists of best novelists and the “Whither literature?” symposiums. In 1925, when Virginia Woolf attacked Bennett, Wells, and Galsworthy, and listed the significant writers as E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot, she did not even mention Maugham, so easy was he to overlook.

There was a “Maugham problem,” one that he was all too conscious of. He tried to dismiss it with the explanation that he was a teller of tales: “Though I am not less concerned than another with the disorder of the world, the injustice of social conditions, the confusion of politics, I have not thought the novel was the best medium for uttering my views on these subjects; unlike many of my more distinguished contemporaries I have felt no inclinations to preach or prophesy.”

Maugham’s preaching on these subjects, if it happens at all in his fiction, comes through his use of plot, not polemic, and that, I believe, is infinitely harder for an author to achieve. In his own regard, after all, Maugham had many admirers among his fellow authors.

Over the years his books were reviewed by important writers who found much to praise. As early as 1905 Virginia Woolf liked his Land of the Blessed Virgin, and thirty-two years later she praised The Summing Up. The success of Of Human Bondage was made by Theodore Dreiser’s tribute. Maxwell Anderson praised The Moon and Sixpence, and Rebecca West found several of his stories “admirable.” L. P. Hartley and William Plomer called him a great short-story writer. Victor Sawdon Pritchett said he was “the most readable and accomplished English short-story writer of the serious kind alive.” Graham Greene said he was “a writer of great dedication,” and Elizabeth Bowen said he was a “first-rate professional writer.” Stephen Vincent Benet called Of Human Bondage a masterpiece. Evelyn Waugh said he was “the only living studio-master under whom one can study with profit.” His fan club included Alec Waugh, Anthony Burgess, Frank Swinnerton, Glenway Wescott, Jerome Weidman, S. J. Perelman, S. N. Behrman, James Michener, Christopher Isherwood, and Raymond Chandler. The great Latin American writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez said Maugham was one of his favorite writers. One unexpected fan--considering the difference in their views on life--was George Orwell, who wrote in an autobiographical note: “The writers I care most about and never grow tired of are Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Dickens, Charles Reade, Samuel Butler, Zola, Flaubert, and among modern writers James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence. But I believe the modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.”

Straightforwardly and without frills. Yes, of course, Maugham’s fiction is that. But look beneath the surface. There is something deeper there, isn’t there? Am I the only one who sees it?

Because I’m sorry. For the life of me, I can’t understand how anyone can read a novel like The Moon and Sixpence and not think that the author is preaching. Charles Strickland is an electric current, the elemental force that any artist fears to embrace, but is unable to release once clutched.

Maugham’s least successful works, I think, are the more overtly philosophical ones. As mentioned earlier, I just finished reading The Razor’s Edge not long ago and was less than impressed. The preaching was almost too subtle there, and the numerous characters distracted me on first read from understand which philosophical archetype was really the hero of the tale.

Another curious title in this model, which I have not yet read, seems to be The Narrow Corner.

The Narrow Corner, set in the Dutch East Indies island of Banda Neira (Twin Islands), which Maugham called Kanda Meira, was a philosophical novel disguised as a thriller. The title came from the Roman emperor and stoic Marcus Aurelius: “Short therefore is man’s life, and narrow is the corner wherein he dwells.” Maugham’s stoic was Dr. Saunders, struck from the register for unethical practice and settled in the East, where he smokes opium and observes life with detached benevolence, expounding the author’s view that “life is short, nature is hostile, and man is ridiculous; but oddly enough most misfortunes have their compensations, and with certain humour and a good deal of horse-sense one can make a fairly good job of what is after all a matter of very small consequence.”

Again, the preaching there seems much closer to the surface and, at least in the case of my experience with The Razor’s Edge, less connected to the progress and resolution of the plot.

Maugham's Other Problem

But Maugham remained an admired author throughout his long and productive career. So imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the following anecdote.

To celebrate the occasion [of Maugham’s eightieth birthday], and as a surprise for Maugham, Heinemann commissioned the English writer Jocelyn Brooke to put together a Festschrift. Brooke asked some thirty British and American writers to contribute. Their replies, some evasive, some direct, give an idea of how ungrateful some of Maugham’s writer friends were, and, more generally, how some of his contemporaries felt about him.

Compton Mackenzie, to whose symposium on music Maugham had cheerfully contributed in the thirties, pleaded overcommitment. So did Noel Coward, whose career Maugham had pushed by praising him and writing a preface for the American edition of Bitter Sweet and Other Plays. William Plomer, who had sent Maugham several of his books and received encouraging letters in reply, and who had in a review of the short-story collection Ah King written that Maugham’s stories “are among the best now being written,” said: “I’m not a great fan of his and I don’t know his work well.” Evelyn Waugh, who had been a guest at the Mauresque, replied with a printed card that said: “Mr. Evelyn Waugh greatly regrets that he cannot do what you so kindly suggest.” Rosamond Lehmann, whose novel A Dusty Answer Maugham had admired, and who had been a guest at the Mauresque, where Maugham offered advice about her unhappy love affair with the poet C. Day Lewis, said: “I quite see that you do not want what you call eloges but I should not feel free to write critically about him under these circumstances.” Vita Sackville-West, the wife of Harold Nicolson, a frequent guest at the Mauresque, said: “I don’t think I had better do so, partly because I could not make it sufficiently enthusiastic for a birthday tribute, and partly because I have the reverse of admiration for his personal character. This of course is just between you and me.” Peter Quennell, whom Maugham saw on the Riviera and thought of as a friend, pleaded overcommitment. The oldest friend of all, his Mediterranean neighbor Max Beerbohm, did not reply to Brooke’s request.

And on and on like that for another long paragraph or two. There were so many refusals, Morgan tells us, that eventually the project was scrapped. Even those few who responded positively admitted that they had an extremely difficult time “grinding out” enough words about Maugham the writer to make an adequate essay.

This is not a writer well esteemed by his contemporaries and peers. Morgan calls them ungrateful, but I think it may be more complicated than that. Even if they respected and admired his ability to tell simple and straightforward stories, few, it seemed, wanted to be associated with him. Perhaps this was because, by all published accounts, Somerset Maugham was a miserable human being, with tastes and behaviors that lived on the fringes of polite society.

Maugham did not like or understand Mexico, and he abandoned the idea of a novel set there. He needed the contrast between the transplanted British colonial and an exotic foreign setting. If only Mexico had been a British colony. “Mexico City is not thrilling and I do not think we shall stay here long,” he wrote Knoblock. “My chief object, of course, was to find material for stories, and so far I can see there is not the smallest likelihood of it … it is exasperating to have come so far and feel that one is wasting one’s time.” Mexico City did, however, offer a few pleasures, among them the boys Gerald brought back for his employer. One of them was a thin, large-eyed child who said he was fourteen. He undressed in Maugham’s hotel bedroom, knelt to say his prayers, and crossed himself before getting into bed.

Teenage male prostitutes, it seems, were one of Maugham’s guilty pleasures, and he built up quite a familiarity with some. Once, after introducing one to his twenty-year-old nephew, Robin, Maugham wound up chiding his relative for falling in love with the professional.

“Last night Laurent told me that he loved me,” [said Robin].

“And you believed him,” [said Maugham]. “You poor idiot! Don’t you realize that he says that to every one of his clients? The boy may well be attracted to you, but that’s because you’re lucky enough to have an extremely well-formed body. However, that’s not the reason he lets you fuck him all night. He lets you have him because each time he goes with you, I pay him his standard tariff--which, in fact, is almost the equivalent of three pounds. The boy’s nothing more than an accomplished little prostitute. The fact that he has persuaded you to believe that he’s in love with you has annoyed me quite considerably. I refuse to allow you to make a complete fool of yourself while you’re staying under my roof.” Shaking with anger, Maugham told his nephew that he would never see Laurent again.

I certainly don’t mean to pass any moral judgments on Maugham for his homosexuality, nor even to mock the decisions he made throughout his life to keep the orientation secret from others and from himself. But there is a certain ruthlessness with which Maugham pursued his sexual gratifications, and a certain horror, I think, embedded in his pretext that such ruthlessness was an accurate measure of enlightenment in others.

This conclusion, however, may simply be a symptom of Morgan’s source material, which is frustratingly short on insights into Maugham’s artistic process and long on his social appearances and engagements.

Lord Maughan came to spend a week over his brother’s seventy-sixth birthday. He was eighty-four, and age had not improved his humor. He disapproved of the festivities arranged by his younger brother’s friends and neighbors to celebrate his birthday. Baron von Seidlitz gave the birthday dinner at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. The menu was poached salmon hollandaise, chicken Souvaroff, asparagus, and a pistachio dessert, washed down with Krug 1938 and Hospices de Beaune 1929. Lord Maugham had an attack of gout, which did nothing to make him more agreeable.

This is a frightfully typical paragraph in this book--biography by calculator and scrapbook invitation. Contrast this amount of detail about which food and wine was served at a dinner party to the details we get about some of Maugham’s artistic works.

In April there appeared Up at the Villa, a novel that Maugham had apparently written several years earlier.

Apparently? You’re the biographer, Morgan. What can we hope to learn about this artist if even you didn’t know he was working on a new novel before its publication date?

What Fiction Teaches

And yet, despite the warts this biography revealed about itself and about Maugham the human being, there is still something about his fiction that can’t be denied. On that family vacation in Gatlinburg, my ten-year old niece--as smart and precocious as they come--was talking about her school work at the dinner table one night, and expressed bafflement over the requirements she had already been given to read fiction.

“What am I supposed to learn from a bunch of made-up stories?”

Her bookish uncle couldn’t resist the bait. “There are things you can learn from fiction that you can’t learn from anything else,” I told her.

“Oh, yeah?” she challenged. “Like what?”

“The futility of all human endeavor,” I told her without missing a beat, enjoying the delicious confusion that all children show when jarringly confronted with grown-up nihilism. But the next day, I stumbled across an even better answer to my niece’s question in a Maugham-authored epigram to one of the chapters in Morgan’s biography.

I think there is in the heroic courage with which man confronts the irrationality of the world a beauty greater than the beauty of art.

Well said, Willie. Maybe someday you’ll speak to my niece the same way you speak to me.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, November 21, 2016

Because I Said So

"Because I said so." It's a line that I've used frequently with my children. Usually when their stubbornness butts heads with mine, I'm tired of arguing, and I simply want unquestioned obedience. I know I'm not the only parent who uses it and, truth be told, it can be a fairly effective strategy when dealing with an eight-year-old.

But in the office, when dealing with my team members, I do everything I can to avoid it.

As I've just described, "because I said so," is a line you can get away with using on children, not on professional adults. Some of my earliest professional memories, in fact, are working for a boss that had a "because I said so" style of management, always telling me only what was absolutely necessary to perform the desired task. That was demoralizing, demotivating, and destructive.

And yet, there are times, even now, when the temptation to say "because I said so" in the office is very strong. It usually comes at the end of some long fought battle, when my guard is down and the desire to declare victory on something feels overwhelming.

The temptation, in my mind, is a good thing, because it serves as an important warning sign that I'm about to step over the line.

And that's how I use it. When I'm tempted to say "because I said so" it generally means that I haven't communicated or defined the strategy well enough. If I had, there would be no disagreement and no situation where saying "because I said so" would appear necessary.

It's hard. Remember I said the temptation only comes at the end of long fought battles. But if you want better alignment between strategy and execution, giving in to that temptation is about the worst thing you can do.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, November 14, 2016

Research Is Education

My posts from a few weeks back (here and here) on the role of associations in the work of educating next generation professionals for the industries or professions that they represent have been getting some attention. Beyond the usual tweets and retweets, this time someone actually reached out to me, wanting to know more. In the ensuing discussion, as I began thinking more concretely about the work of my association and the challenges it has been designed to address, a couple of additional thoughts occurred to me.

One is the idea summarized in this post's title: Research is Education.

The industry my association represents is engineering and manufacturing-based. One category of high-skilled workers my member companies are looking for is college-degreed engineers with detailed knowledge of my industry's technology and products. The challenge is that only a tiny fraction of our nation's universities teach that technology as part of their engineering curriculum. As a result, most of my member companies are used to providing their own professional education in our technology. Their preference, however, would very much be that university graduates come to them with a pre-existing knowledge (and interest) in our technology, and much of the work my association has been engaged in is in an attempt to make this a reality.

The challenge is not a simple one. Getting universities to add something to their engineering curriculum generally means getting them to remove something else, and everything that's already there typically has well-entrenched advocates in place. We've tried numerous times to develop new courses and curricula in our subject matter, and also watched numerous times as the developed programs were rejected or failed to perpetuate in the larger curriculum the way we intended.

So, on the advice of some of our academic partners, we tried a different approach: supporting research projects related to our technology on the intended campuses.

There was some initial (and still some lingering) pushback from our member companies on the idea. They didn't easily see the connection between sponsoring research and educating undergraduate engineers in our technology. But, as I reported in one of those previous blog posts, we had already demonstrated that the number one factor in encouraging engineers to enter our industry was a positive experience with an academic faculty member already engaged with our technology.

What better way, then, the get faculty engaged with our technology then to sponsor research projects in our area? Research is key to a faculty member's tenure and career advancement. And since most research faculty are also educators, it is almost axiomatic that those faculty would be drawn to develop curriculum and teach courses that closely align with their research work. If you'll forgive the coarse way of phrasing it, we decided to stop paying faculty to develop and use curriculum they weren't interested in, and start paying them to pursue intellectually-stimulating research challenges related to our technology, and allow them to naturally bring that interest to both their graduate and undergraduate classes.

It hasn't been without its challenges, but so far, the process has worked pretty well. New classes related to our technology are generating on the campuses where we have supported research, and graduates from those universities are being hired in higher numbers than before by our member companies. And when we ask our members how satisfied they are with those hires, compared to the candidates coming out of the same schools ten years ago, we're consistently told that there is no comparison. They no longer have to introduce them to our technology.

Truly, we have seen that research is education.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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