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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