Monday, July 25, 2016

Why Do I Keep Blogging?

I had a great experience this past week. I was asked to participate in a special episode of KiKi L'Italien's Association Chat, featuring her favorite association bloggers and podcasters.

If you're interested, you can watch the recording of the session here. I'm near the end, but there's plenty of even smarter people to see and listen to before I come on.

When reflecting on the experience, I still marvel at the idea that I somehow found my way into this community.

I've always been interested in writing, in communicating ideas that matter through the written word, but there are plenty of other outlets I could (and have) chosen for scratching that itch. Why did I start blogging and why do I keep doing it?

Those are two different questions so let me provide two different answers.

I started blogging because I thought I had something to say. Specifically, something about leadership, what it meant for people of my generation, and if, given the way my generation was sandwiched between the two largest generations in our nation's history, people in the other two generations would care. That combination of angst and chutzpah manifested itself in something called The Hourglass Blog, with the hourglass symbolizing the way GenX was pinched between the Boomers and the Millennials.

It was a joint project with my friend and colleague, Jamie Notter, who, I still like to remember, I had never met in-person when I reached out to him with the initial idea for The Hourglass Blog.

Eventually, The Hourglass Blog ran its course, and I wound up saying everything I thought I wanted to say on the subject. There were still ideas, however, I wanted to explore. Ideas about leadership, yes, but about other challenges in my pursuit of leadership as well. About innovation, and about member engagement, and about core values, and about strategy and execution.

And so I launched a new blog, this one uncreatively self-titled, and there I began to post some thoughts on these issues and others that I wanted to explore.

And I'm still doing it. This, in fact, is the 383rd post on that blog. The weekly discipline I've developed to sit, think, and compose my thoughts on the issues I care about is tremendously rewarding, as it gives me, if nothing else, a few minutes of quiet contemplation in an otherwise frantic world.

And by focusing that time and those thoughts mostly on the application of leadership and management theory to practice in my own organization, as I do, it often affords me opportunities to engage others--in and out of my organization--in that journey.

But that engagement doesn’t happen on the blog. Frankly, despite its commenting function, blogs are pretty poor devices for the kind of engagement I'm looking for. The engagement happens most often in person, when I meet someone who has been reading my blog at a conference or in the office. I said something they reacted to--good or bad--and now we can have a conversation about a subject we realize we both care about.

That's great--and the primary reason I keep blogging.

It's a journal, of course. This blog is a journal, but it's a journal I openly share with the world so that others can benefit from whatever wisdom it contains, and so I can benefit from the wisdom that surrounds 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

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

I had a hard time finding my way in this one. Throughout the first half, I was mostly frustrated.

The night that Belle Skiffington would die, that first maid, Annette, grown out of a cough that plagued her for years, would open a Bible in the study of her Massachusetts home, looking for some verses to calm her mind before sleep. Out of the Bible would fall a leaf from a North Carolina apple tree that she had, the night she escaped with five other slaves, secreted in her bosom for good luck. She would not have seen the leaf for many years and at first she would not remember where the browned and brittle thing came from. But as she remembered, as the leaf fell apart in her fingers, she would fall into a cry that would wake everyone in her house and she could not be calmed, not even when morning came. Belle’s second maid, the one who had never been sick a day in her life, would die the night after Belle did. Her name was Patty and she had had three children, one dead, two yet alive, Allie and Newby, a boy who liked to drink directly from a cow’s teat. Those two children would die the third night, the same night the last of Belle’s children died, the beautiful girl with freckles who played the piano so well.

This is 32 pages in, and there have been many paragraphs like this one in that span. A myriad of characters described, all of them revealed in the past, present and future. There’s so many I can’t keep track of them all, and the way Jones saturates his prose with their time-dilated details, I can’t tell which ones are worth remembering.

It was forty-one hours before Rita in the box got to New York. The box was opened with a crowbar by the merchant’s wife, a broad-shouldered Irish woman he had met on the HMS Thames’s twentieth trip to America.

This is on page 50, and he hasn’t let up yet. I know who Rita is, she appears at this point to be one of the story’s main characters. But who is this merchant’s wife? Is she important? Is she going to come to play a major role in the story being told? Ordinarily, if an author provided just the details about her found in this one sentence, I would chalk it up to Creative Writing 101. The merchant’s wife is not a major character (she doesn’t have a name, after all), and these few details told about her are a standard storyteller’s device to add realism and depth to his narrative.

But the details Jones gives don’t stop with this one sentence.

The Irish woman’s first husband had died only one day out of Cork Harbor, leaving her alone with five children. The captain had the husband’s body--coffined only in the clothes the man had died in and his head wrapped in a piece of family lace--tossed overboard after ten Lord’s Prayers and ten Hail Marys were spoken by the man’s oldest child, a boy of eight. The boy, Timothy,

So the boy gets a name, but the Irish woman doesn’t.

had struggled through ten of each when the captain, a German Protestant, thought one of each would have done. An Irish prayer was obviously worth only a tenth of what a German prayer was worth. The boy could not bear to see his father go and everyone assembled could tell that in all the words of the prayers. A month into the voyage the Irish woman’s youngest child died, a girl of some five months--twenty Lord’s Prayers and twenty Hail Marys from Timothy. A coffin of lace for baby Agnes, that lace being the last of the family fortune.

Mary O’Donnell

Wait, the Irish woman does have a name? Maybe she is an important character. I guess I should start paying attention.

had been nursing that baby, and the day after Agnes was committed to the sea, her milk stopped flowing. She thought it only a natural result of grieving for Agnes. She would go on to have three more children with her second husband, the seller of Augustus Townsend’s

Augustus Townsend. I know him. He’s the father of the novel’s supposed protagonist, Henry.

walking sticks, but with each child the milk did not return. “Where is my milk?” Mary asked God with each of the three children. “Where is my milk?” God did not give her an answer and he gave her not one drop of milk. With the second and third children, she asked Mary the mother of Jesus to intercede with God on her behalf. “Didn’t he give you milk for your child?” she asked Mary. “Wasn’t there milk aplenty for Jesus?”

Mary O’Donnell Conlon would never live comfortably in America, would never come to feel it was her own dear country.

Okay. I’m convinced. Fifty-one pages in and he’s introducing a new character in his complicated tale. I’ll widen my circle of awareness to include Mary O’Donnell Conlon.

Long before the HMS Thames had even seen the American shore, America, the land of promise and hope, had reached out across the sea and taken her husband, a man who had taken her heart and kept it, and America had taken her baby--two innocent beings in the vastness of a world with all kinds of things that could have been taken first. She held nothing against God. God was simply being God. But she could not forgive America and saw it as the cause of all her misery. Had America not called out to her first husband, not sung to him, they could have stayed home and managed somehow in that county in Ireland where children, even old children, had the pinkest cheeks.

Mary Conlon’s hair stayed all black until her dying day. She would wake one morning as an old woman with a gray hair or two or three and the next morning those gray hairs would be black again. “Such strong black hair,” she would say to God when she was seventy-five, “such hair and all I wanted was a little milk.” Her children stayed devoted to her, but none was closer and more devoted than Timothy, who was affectionately known as his mother’s pet. He had worried himself sick on the ship to America, thinking his mother would be the next to die. Not even a million Lord’s Prayers and a million Hail Marys would have let him consign his mother to the sea.

It was Timothy, then twelve years old, who was at his mother’s side when she opened the box from Augustus Townsend. “Don’t send me back,” Rita said in the darkness as each nail was pried loose and the top of the box was gradually separated from the body of the box and the feeble light little by little began to seep in on her.

And so, we’re back with Rita (a fugitive slave, by the way, shipped North in a crate from 1850s Virginia), and despite a few more sentences of interaction between Rita, Mary, Timothy, and despite the elaborate O’Donnell/Conlon backstory Jones has provided the reader, and despite my prediction, based on that backstory, that Mary (or perhaps, Timothy) would play a major role in the novel yet-to-come … neither Mary nor Timothy will make another appearance anywhere in the novel’s remaining 330+ pages.

Why? What is Jones doing here? And whatever it is, is it worth pressing the patience of his readers? Honestly, I almost bailed on this one. My acquisition of The Known World was instigated by one of my impulsive decisions--this one to read all the works of fiction that have won the Pulitzer Prize. But I have also just recently instituted a new 50-page rule to better govern my experimental reading habits. In other words, Pulitzer or not, convince me in the first 50 pages that I should keep reading you or I am justified in putting you down.

I went to the Internet to see what other people had to say about Jones’s narrative device. There, I found an excerpt from a book by Cindy Weinstein called Time, Tense and American Literature: When Is Now?, that says:

In expending such care on even the most minor of characters, Jones grants a degree of importance to everyone who enters his narrative. Everyone, black or white, Irish or French (the criminal Broussard), straight or gay (Calvin), has a story and a history that demands attention. And in the context of a novel about slavery, where Southern states legally defined humans as non-humans, this authorial commitment to the full humanity of all is especially significant.

Point taken. This is a novel about slavery--a Pulitzer-prize winning novel about slavery, to boot--so I suppose I can forgive Jones in retrospect for frustrating me some much with all the miscellaneous; er, I mean important, details.

But it’s not just the copious details about every character, large and small, that got to me. It’s also the omniscient way in which those details are told. Past, present and future congealing in the narrative flow until you don’t know, to borrow a phrase, when now is. Look at the excerpt on Mary O’Donnell Conlon I included above. In the past, she’s sailing from Ireland to America, in the present, she’s opening the box Rita has been shipped in, and in the future she’s losing her milk and counting her single gray hairs. That happens constantly, and not just for characters who turn out to have minor roles to play. Jones is continually giving us information on the past, present and future actions of major characters.

Stamford had a plan to make Cassandra like him, the third plan that summer. That day weeks later when Stamford would see the crows fall dead from the tree, before he himself walked out toward death, he would say good-bye to Gloria and he would say good-bye to Cassandra, to all that good young stuff that the man had once advised him would allow him to survive slavery.

There’s nothing especially significant about this particular peek into the future (weeks later when Stamford would see the crows fall dead from the tree). It occurs on page 72, and by then I had encountered so many of them that I scribbled a frustrated note in the margin, “Will this even happen in this novel?” My thinking: If everything Jones says is going to happen actually does happen in this novel, then at some point he’s going to need to stop writing about what’s going to happen and start writing about it actually happening. Otherwise it’s going to be an unsatisfying or very crowded finish (or both).

Now, only because I flagged this one, I know that it actually does happen. On page 203.

He didn’t pay much attention to the first crack of thunder, but the second one pulled his head around. He was in time to see the nearest tree in the woods shudder, stop, then shudder again. An oak tree. Moments later, he could see the first crow flying as if upside down, heading toward the ground, two or three feathers fluttering after the body. The second crow flying upside down told him it wasn’t flying but death that had hold of them both. It took less time for him to blink the rain out of his eyes before the second crow joined the first on the ground, followed by more feathers. If they made a sound as they fell, the rain was too loud for him to hear it.

But I know that only because I was determined to look for it. What about the hundred other things Jones said was going to happen? Did they? At least the ones that were predicted to take place in the time span covered by the novel? Don’t ask me. There were just too many to keep track of. Maybe someone has already written one of those PhD dissertations I keep talking about on this?

So these devices don’t work--at least for me. But, in the end, I’m glad I didn’t bail on The Known World after 50 pages. Because I think Jones is doing something interesting and important here.

I mentioned Henry Townsend before. He’s a freed former slave in 1850s Virginia, who, under the tutelage of William Robbins, a white man with many hundreds of slaves, is able to buy some property and gain some respectability in their antebellum society. After acquiring his property, Henry buys his very first slave from Robbins, a former overseer named Moses. As a former slave himself, Henry decides he wants to be a different kind of master.

With those words she could see him, in her mother’s garden saturated with the smell of honeysuckle, still wearing clothes too heavy for the season, talking about how he would be a master different from any other, the kind of shepherd master God had intended. He had been vague, talking of good food for his slaves, no whippings, short and happy days in the fields. A master looking down on them all like God on his throne looked down on him.

But one day Robbins sees Henry and Moses playing together like children in the dirt.

“Henry,” Robbins said, looking not at him but out to the other side of the road, “the law will protect you as a master to your slave, and it will not flinch when it protects you. That protection lasts from here”--and he pointed to an imaginary place in the road--“all the way to the death of that property”--and he pointed to a place a few feet from the first place. “But the law expects you to know what is master and what is slave. And it does not matter if you are not much more darker than your slave. The law is blind to that. You are the master and that is all the law wants to know. The law will come to you and stand behind you. But if you roll around and be a playmate to your property, and your property turns round and bites you, the law will come to you still, but it will not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed that you will need. You will have failed in your part of the bargain. You will have pointed to the line that separates you from your property and told your property that the line does not matter.” Henry pulled his hand down from the horse’s forehead. “You are rollin round now, today, with property you have a slip of paper on. How will you act, Henry, when you have a hundred slips of paper? Will you still be rollin the in the dirt with them?”

It’s a bitter lesson for Henry to learn, that as gentle as he may want to be as a slavemaster, the law that makes him a slavemaster will not defend him unless he is harsh. But learn it he does, for after Robbins leaves, Henry returns to Moses and the house they were attempting to build when they fell to playing.

“We can get in a good bit fore dark,” Moses said and he lifted the saw high above his head.

“We ain’t workin no more today.”

“What? But why not?”

“I said no more, Moses.”

“But we got good light here. We got good day here, Massa.”

Henry stepped to him, took the saw and slapped him once, and when the pain begin to set in on Moses’s face, he slapped him again. “Why don’t you never do what I tell you to do? Why is that, Moses?”

“I do. I always do what you tell me to do, Massa.”

“Nigger, you don’t. You never do.”

Moses felt himself beginning to sink in the dirt. He lifted one foot and placed it elsewhere, hoping that would be better, but it wasn’t. He wanted to move the other foot, but that would have been too much--as it was, moving the first foot was done without permission.

“You just do what I tell you from now on,” Henry said. He dropped the saw on the ground. He bent down and picked it up and looked for a long time at the tool, at the teeth all in a row, at the way they marched finely up to the wooden handle. He dropped the saw again and looked down at it. “Go get my horse with the saddle on top of it,” Henry said, still looking at the saw. “Go get my horse.”

“Yessir, I will.”

Jones sets up multiple scenarios like this--most of them even more complicated than the relatively simple example of a black man owning another black man. In doing so, he is testing the moral limits of slavery as an institution, and the societal law that sustained it. And the most intriguing moral conundrums Jones poses come from situations where family members end up owning other family members.

She, Minerva, was not a servant in the way the slaves all about her were, for they did not believe they owned her. She did serve, charged with cleaning the house, sharing the job of cooking the meals with Winifred. But they would not have called her a servant. Had she been able to walk away from them, knew north from south and east from west, Skiffington and Winifred would have gone after her, but it would not have been the way he and his patrollers would pursue an escaped slave. A child would have been lost and so parents do what must be done.

The world did not allow them to think “daughter,” though Winifred was to say years later in Philadelphia that she was her daughter. “I must have my daughter back,” she said to the printer making up the posters with Minerva’s picture on them. “I must have my daughter back.”

So she was a daughter and yet not a daughter. She was Minerva. Simply their Minerva. “Minerva, come her.” “Minerva, how does this taste?” “Minerva, I’ll get the cloth for your dress when I come home from the jail.” “Minerva, what would I do without you?” To the white people in Manchester County, she was a kind of pet. “That’s the sheriff’s Minerva.” “That’s Mrs. Skiffington’s Minerva.” And everyone was happy with all of it. As for Minerva, she had known nothing else.

This is one relatively straightforward, as Minerva is not actually Sheriff John and Winifred Skiffington’s biological daughter. She is a slave, given to them as a wedding present, that their Christian opposition to slavery compelled them not to sell but rather to raise as if she was their daughter. Minerva’s uncertain status--neither a slave nor a daughter, while being both a slave and a daughter--creates a fair amount of confusion for everyone who interacts with her, including her own “father,” who struggles with his own sexual attraction to her as she grows older. The law that Robbins lectured Henry on protects none of these deeper relationships, as it can only recognize Minerva’s status as a slave, and cannot accommodate the emotional bonds that grow and break within this family.

And even outside the bounds of family, there is always sexual desire and intimacy to flaunt the structures the law has put in place.

“Do you know,” Maude had said the first time she and Clarke had lain together, “that if I was a white woman, they would come in here and tear you limb from limb?” “And what they gon do with you being colored?” he asked. Maude, delighted that she had taken such a step in her life, lay back, the sweat over her body still drying. “I suspect that since I own you, since I have the papers on you, they might do the same thing if I up and screamed. They wouldn’t be as fast, I suppose, but they would come, Clarke.” He said nothing.

Maude is a bit of a villain in the novel, reveling in the power she has over others, but her interpretation of the law is clearly one that calmer heads like Robbins would agree with. But there are others who are more morally troubled by these implications.

She did not allow him to make love to her that evening, but when he came back the next evening, she did. “It has been hard without you,” she said to him. “It was hard for me, Missus,” he said. When he said that, they were done and partially clothed on the floor, and his words caused her to wonder if Virginia had a law forbidding such things between a colored woman and a colored man who was her slave. Was this a kind of miscegenation? she wondered. A white woman in Bristol had been whipped for such an offense, and her slave was hanged from a tree in what passed for the town square. Three hundred people had come to see it, the whipping and the hanging, the former in the morning and the latter in the afternoon. People brought their children, their infants, who slept through most of the activities. It had happened a year ago but the news had only recently arrived in Manchester.

“Are you going to come back tomorrow?” she asked after she had risen from the floor.

“Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am, I will.”

He left and she said to herself in the moment before Loretta entered, “I love Moses. I love Moses with his one name.” But when she saw Loretta, the words did not make much sense. “I am ready for bed,” she said, and that made the greatest of sense. Before going to bed, she washed her insides with vinegar and the soap her slaves made for everyone. Hers, however, was made with a dash of perfume that Loretta supplied to the soap makers. In Bristol, the authorities claimed the white woman had been with child. No word of mouth or the newspaper account said what had become of the child.

“She” is Caldonia, the widow of Henry Townsend, who inherits all his slaves upon his death, including Moses (the very first slave Henry purchased and with whom he wrestled in the dirt and thereby received his initial castigation by Robbins). Moses is now Caldonia’s lover, and Caldonia feels very differently about him and her relationship with him than Maude does regarding Clarke. Caldonia fears the power the law gives her over him, fears it to such an extent that she attempts to cleanse any remnant of the relationship from her body.

There are many more examples like these, Jones putting his enormous character list to good use in exploring all the moral complexities. In the end, they add up to the point that the laws of Southern slave society and the laws of human hearts and emotions were in desperate conflict with one another. It’s as though Jones is saying, if you’ll forgive the usage, the “black and white” perspective of the law was always, and inevitably so, at odds with the “mulatto” reality of human relationships.

And it is in embracing that complexity--human, moral, and narrative--that the novel ultimately shines.

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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, July 18, 2016

What's Your Number One Priority?

I tried an experiment at our staff meeting last week.

Like a lot of organizations, we have a weekly staff meeting, where everyone gets together around a table (eleven of us in-person and two more on the phone and webcam), and we talk about what's important this week. Who's got a deadline? Who needs help with something? Who's got a question for another colleague that they haven't otherwise had a chance to ask?

Except, most of the time, these are not actually the things we talk about at our staff meetings. Instead, as we go from person to person around the table, we hear report after report of everything we have been working on. Not what we're going to do, but usually, what we've already done. And when it is something we plan to do, it's usually not something we need any help with. We all, it seems, have a laundry list, and we all think it's important to share it with others at our staff meetings.

Except it's not. That's not what our staff meetings are for. We spend the other thirty-nine hours of the week working on all those tasks, most of it in productive isolation from one another. Isn't there something else we're supposed to be discussing in the one hour we've reserved for team interaction and discussion?

There is. Hence my experiment. I told everyone that we were going to go around the table like we traditionally did, but this week the only thing I wanted people to describe was whatever their number one priority was for the week ahead. Nothing we did last week. Not everything we planned to do this week. Just the one thing we each most needed to get done in the next couple of days.

What happened next was fascinating.

First, everyone followed the instruction. I led off, giving others some time to think, but each, it turn, came forward with a single project or task. No one tried to squeeze in the usual laundry list.

Second, the things were heard were not the kinds of things we typically heard discussed at our staff meetings. There were other things--important things, evidently--that people had not been including on their laundry lists.

Third, the items, by and large, were closely associated with our success metrics. I've written about those before. We have a series of high-level metrics, typically not associated with any one specific program, that we are supposed to aim all of our programmatic activities towards. They spell success, not for an individual, but for the overall organization. And the number one priorities described by each staff member, by and large, were things that were calculated to help us achieve at least one of those metrics.

And fourth, people volunteered to help others with their number one priorities. Instead of sitting quietly waiting for our turn to speak, the brevity and obvious importance of what each of us offered led directly to brainstorming around obstacles and offers of assistance. Unless I was imagining it, we began to act like a cohesive team focused on a finite number of achievable objectives.

All in all, I'd have to say, a pretty successful experiment. I hope we can repeat it next week.

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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, July 11, 2016

Decide Despite the Doubt

Here's a secret.

Leaders are filled with doubt.

Why? Because their world is not linear. There is no outline or project plan for them to follow. Their world is comprised of an ever-growing number of spinning wheels, some intersecting with others, some spinning in narcissistic isolation, but all demanding attention.

In that environment, it's not always possible to predict the consequences of any decision. Nor even to fully understand the needed inputs. When they decide (if they decide at all, because the worst leaders don't) they're still doubting the wisdom of their decision.

But deciding is what makes them good leaders. Frequently, the results of their decision are a secondary factor in determining their worth as leaders. What matters is deciding.

They decide despite the doubt.

Do you?

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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, July 9, 2016

Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley

This is a complex and thematically-intriguing novel, something I’ve more or less come to expect from Aldous Huxley. The title comes from Milton’s Samson Agonistes.

Ask for this great Deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke.

This comes after Samson, the great hero, has been blinded and put into slavery by the Philistines, and it’s a good a title as any for this very philosophical novel that attempts to call into question the very nature of self that most everyone assumes to be true. In that way, the characters, and all of us readers, are similarly blind, slaves not to Philistines but to our own frail natures.

But let me get back to that. Let’s just start with the novel’s complexity. Part of what makes it complex is the way it jumps around in time, each chapter seemingly randomly plucked from one of four general periods (1902-03, 1912-14, 1926-31, and 1933-35) in the life of our protagonist, Anthony Beavis. These chronological gymnastics at times frustrated me (as they seem to have frustrated many of the people who have also shared their view on this book in various corners of the Internet). But Huxley is, I think, doing something useful with the device.

As I’ve often posited before, I believe that there are clues that can be used to discover a good novel’s secrets scattered about in its opening pages. Here, the initial scene has Beavis, in 1933, looking at snapshots of himself and his mother from much earlier in his life. To Beavis, this photographs are…

...a proof that progress can only be recorded, never experienced. He reached out for his note-book, opened it and wrote: “Progress may, perhaps, be perceived by historians; it can never be felt by those actually involved in the supposed advance. The young are born into the advancing circumstances, the old take them for granted within a few months or years. Advances aren’t felt as advances. There is no gratitude--only irritation if, for any reason, the newly invented conveniences break down. Men don’t spend their time thanking God for cars; they only curse when the carburetor is choked.”

And, a few pages later, when his friend and former lover, Helen, tries to engage Beavis in the fond remembrances that such photographs should evoke…

Then, in a tone of disgust, “All this burden of past experience one trails about with one!” he added. “There ought to be some way of getting rid of one’s superfluous memories. How I hate old Proust! Really detest him.” And with a richly comic eloquence he proceeded to evoke the vision of that asthmatic seeker of lost time squatting, horribly white and flabby, with breasts almost female but fledged with long black hairs, for ever squatting in the tepid bath of his remembered past. And all the stale soap suds of countless previous washings floated around him, all the accumulated dirt of years lay crusty on the sides of the tub or hung in dark suspension in the water. And there he sat, a pale repellent invalid, taking up spongefuls of his own thick soup and squeezing it over his face, scooping up cupfuls of it and appreciatively rolling the grey and gritty liquor round his mouth, gargling, rinsing his nostrils with it, like a pious Hindu in the Ganges.

Okay. First, if I’m going to be treated to prose such as that, I’m not going to care if the novel jumps around in time or is successful in using that device in support of its larger theme. Reading Huxley is sometimes like reading a 19th century English version of T. C. Boyle.

Here’s a quick aside, but still on the general theme of blindness. I still very fondly remember one of the opening scenes in Water Music, my first experience with Boyle’s work, assigned to me in my college American Literature class, when Mungo Park is about to have his eyes drilled out.

Gloucester’s eyes, they say, were gray. Oedipus’ were black as olives. And Milton’s--Milton’s were like bluejays scrabbling in the snow. Dassoud knows nothing of Shakespeare, Sophocles or Milton. His rough fingers twist the screws. The explorer grins. Oblivious. The onlookers, horrified at his mad composure, turn away in panic. He can hear them rushing off, the slap of their sandals on the baked earth … but what’s this? -- he seems to have something caught in his eye ...

Huxley, like Boyle, is a writer you can enjoy merely for the flow of his prose. But like Boyle, Huxley is far more literate than most of his readers, and understanding who Proust is and the way Huxley intends to use him, he often provides just the same kind of lyrical satisfaction as Boyle’s allusions to Shakespeare, Sophocles and Milton.

But getting back to Eyeless in Gaza, let’s pay closer attention to what Huxley is actually saying here. Anthony Beavis is a protagonist set, in the opening pages of this novel, against the idea of fond remembrance of the past. Indeed, as alluded to in the opening excerpt against progress, he will challenge the very idea that one can remember the past, that there is even a past to be remembered.

With this as one of the novel’s central themes, the choice to eschew a strict chronology of the novel’s plot and events makes complete sense.

But things are actually even more complex than this. For what, in fact, is this thing we call memory?

Somewhere in the mind a lunatic shuffled a pack of snapshots and dealt them out at random, shuffled once more and dealt them out in different order, again and again, indefinitely. There was no chronology. The idiot remembered no distinction between before and after. The pit [where Beavis, as a boy, played with a childhood friend] was as real and vivid as the gallery [which Beavis, as a young man, visited with Helen’s mother, his former teacher and his first lover]. That ten years separated flints from Gauguins was a fact, not given, but discoverable only on second thoughts by the calculating intellect. The thirty-five years of his conscious life made themselves immediately known to him as a chaos--a pack of snapshots in the hands of a lunatic.

Only seventeen pages in, but still with Beavis’s snapshots, a fitting metaphor, based on how the images are resolved and pixelated on the paper, for what’s to come.

And who decided which snapshots were to be kept, which thrown away? A frightened or libidinous animal, according to the Freudians. But the Freudians were victims of the pathetic fallacy, incorrigible rationalizers always in search of sufficient reasons, of comprehensible motives. Fear and lust are the most easily comprehensible motives of all. Therefore… But psychology had no more right to be anthropomorphic, or even exclusively zoomorphic than any other science. Besides a reason and an animal, man was also a collection of particles subject to the laws of chance. Some things were remembered for their utility or their appeal to the higher faculties of the mind; some, by the presiding animal, remembered (or else deliberately forgotten) for their emotional content. But what of the innumerable remembered things without any particular emotional content, without utility, or beauty, or rational significance? Memory in these cases seemed to be merely a matter of luck. At the time of the event certain particles happened to be in a favourable position. Click! the event found itself caught, indelibly recorded. For no reason whatever.

Modern science now knows that this is not really how memory works, although I think Huxley would have been even more enamoured with the latest neuroscientific theories about the cognitive generation of memories at the time of recollection, given what comes next.

Unless, it now rather disquietingly occurred to him, unless of course the reason were not before the event, but after it, in what had been the future. What if that picture gallery had been recorded and stored away in the cellars of his mind for the sole and express purpose of being brought up into consciousness at this present moment?

It is with this extended passage that I think we find the key that unlocks the entire novel. It explains not just the jumping around in time, but the grander idea--equally dependent on the same narrative device to reveal itself--that the continuous and conscious entities we mostly think we are are just as transient and time-dependent as the events described in Huxley’s novel.

The story Huxley tells is dramatically in service to this idea, and that story relies at least partially on the life-long relationships and interactions of Anthony Beavis and two of his friends--Brian Foxe and Mark Staithes. Here’s an interesting snippet of dialogue between Beavis and Staithes from the earliest of the time periods. I flagged this text as interesting at the time I read it, but now, understanding the scope of the novel more completely, I’d like to go back and read it and all the interactions between these three characters again. Here, Staithes is complaining to Beavis about how Foxe treats him.

“I don’t want his damned niceness,” said Mark. “Why can’t he behave properly?”

“Because it amuses him to behave like a Christian.”

“Well, then, tell him for God’s sake to try it on someone else in the future. I don’t like having Christian tricks played on me.”

“You want a cock to fight with, in fact.”

“What do you mean?”

“Otherwise it’s no fun being on top of the dunghill. Whereas Brian would like us all to be jolly little capons together. Well, so far as dunghills are concerned, I’m all for Brian. It’s when we come to the question of the hens that I begin to hesitate.”

Mark looked at his watch again. “I must go.” At the door he turned back. “Don’t forget to tell him what I’ve told you. I like Brian, and I don’t want to quarrel with him. But if he tries being charitable and Christian again…”

“The poor boy will forfeit your esteem for ever,” concluded Anthony.

“Buffoon!” said Staithes and, slamming the door behind him, hurried downstairs.

Left alone, Anthony took the fifth volume of the Historical Dictionary and began to read what Bayle had to say about Spinoza.

There you go. Huxley has not only described these three characters in a nutshell, he has also now set them out as archetypes in the philosophical journey that is Eyeless in Gaza. Brian Foxe, the model of Christian charity; Mark Staithes, the aggressive conqueror; and Anthony Beavis, the detached observer. (Not only does Beavis turn to his books when Staithes leaves the scene, Huxley specifically points out that he “observes” what one philosopher observed about another. Talk about detached!)

In retrospect, I realize that I should have paid closer attention to what these three characters make of the novel’s underlying presumption--that people are not coherent entities acting with willful intent, but assemblages of particles acting randomly in accordance with fundamental laws. Foxe the Christian should certainly rebel against such a sacrilegious idea. Staithes the conqueror should craftily look for ways to exploit it or other people’s belief in it to his advantage. And Beavis the observer? Beavis the observer should simply steeple his fingers and comment dispassionately on it.

Do they? Well, maybe I can put that on my list of future doctoral dissertations.

I do know that Beavis acts pretty much to form, since many of the chapters are presented as if they were his journal entries, where what he thinks and observes about the external and internal universe are put down with unmistakable clarity.

It was left to Blake to rationalize psychological atomism into a philosophical system. Man, according to Blake (and after him, according to Proust, according to Lawrence), is simply a succession of states. Good and evil can be predicted only of states, not of individuals, who in fact don’t exist, except as the place where the states occur. It is the end of personality in the old sense of the word.

That’s about as plain as it gets, but Beavis (Huxley) continues, never satisfied to state things simply when a thrilling journey through a set of philosophical ramifications presents itself.

(Parenthetically--for this is quite outside the domain of sociology--is it the beginning of a new kind of personality? That of the total man, unbowdlerized, unselected, uncanalized, to change the metaphor, down any one particular drain pipe of Weltanschauung--of the man, in a word, who actually is what he may be. Such a man is the antithesis of any of the variants on the fundamental Christian man of our history. And yet in a certain sense he is also the realization of that ideal personality conceived by the Jesus of the Gospel. Like Jesus’s ideal personality, the total, unexpurgated, noncanalized man is (1) not pharisaic, that is to say not interested in convention and social position, not puffed up with the pride of being better than other men; (2) humble, in his acceptance of himself, in his refusal to exalt himself above his human station; (3) poor in spirit, inasmuch as ‘he’--his ego--lays no lasting claims on anything, is content with what, for a personality of the old type, would seem psychological and philosophical destitution; (4) like a little child, in his acceptance of the immediate datum of experience for its own sake, in his refusal to take thought for the morrow, in his readiness to let the dead bury their dead; (5) not a hypocrite or a liar, since there is no fixed model which individuals must pretend to be like.)

And who would be an example of this kind of man? This total, unexpurgated man with the ideal personality? Not Brian Foxe, and not Mark Staithes, but Anthony Beavis, of course, our humble protagonist. Anthony Beavis is a character, Eyeless in Gaza is a novel, and, dare I say, Aldous Huxley is a writer, all equally obsessed with this description of life, of the self, of the mind.

Put in four hours this morning at working up my notes. Extraordinary pleasure! How easily one could slip back into uninterrupted scholarship and idea-mongering! Into that “Higher Life” which is simply death without tears. Peace, irresponsibility--all the delights of death here and now.

And with this detachment comes the uncanny perception, bordering on the teetering edge of reality, that people are not people at all, not consistent entities with long and coherent existences, but transient collections of random particles, with today’s arrangement no more connected to yesterday’s than successive entries in the encyclopedia.

Anthony shook his head. “No, no, I’ve known it, of course. All the time. But theoretically. In the same way as one knows … well, for example, that there are birds that live symbiotically with wasps. A curious and interesting fact, but no more. I didn’t let it be more. And then I had my justifications. Work: too much personal life would interfere with my work. And the need for freedom: freedom to think, freedom to indulge my passion for knowing about the world. And freedom for its own sake. I wanted to be free, because it was intolerable not to be free.”

“I can understand that,” said Mark, “provided that there’s some one there who can enjoy the freedom. And provided,” he added, “that that some one makes himself conscious of being free by overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way of freedom. But how can you be free, if there’s no ‘you’?”

“I’ve always put it the other way round,” said Anthony. “How can you be free--or rather (for one must think of it impersonally), how can there be freedom--so long as the ‘you’ persists? A ‘you’ has got to be consistent and responsible, has got to make choices and commit itself. But if one gets rid of the ‘you,’ one gets rid of responsibility and the need for consistency. One’s free as a succession of unconditioned, uncommitted states without past or future, except in so far as one can’t voluntarily get rid of one’s memories and anticipations.”

And with that perception, as Beavis begins to do at the end of that last passage, comes certain conclusions about how to conduct oneself in the world.

What was the point of doing things finally and irrevocably? What right had the man of 1914 to commit the man of 1926? The 1914 man had been an embodied state of anger, shame, distress, perplexity. His state to-day was one of cheerful serenity, mingled … with considerable curiosity.

And yet, there is something about our human existence that belies this interpretation. Cloistered with his books and intellectual pursuits, Beavis can convince himself that the man of 1914 has no designs on the man of 1926. But when he ventures into the real world, and meets other collections of particles (i.e., other people), his confidence is easily shaken.

She released his hand, and, clasping her own behind her head, leaned back against the pillows in the attitude, the known and familiar attitude, that in the Hotel des Saints-Peres had been so delicious in its graceful indolence, so wildly exciting because of that white round throat stretched back like a victim’s, those proffered breasts, lifted and taut beneath the lace. But to-day the lace was soiled and torn, the breasts hung tired under their own weight, the victim’s throat was no more a smooth column of white flesh, but withered, wrinkled, hollow between starting tendons.

She opened her eyes, and, with a start, he recognized the look she gave him as the same, identically the same look, at once swooning and cynical, humorous and languidly abandoned, as had invited him, irresistibly then, in Paris, fifteen years ago. It was the look of 1913 in the face of 1928--painfully out of its context. He stared at her for a second or two, appalled; then managed to break the silence.

The body of his first lover supports his philosophy of separation. Her eyes, and the intelligence that resides behind them, do not.

And it is the body and its sensations that most frequently confound Beavis’s view of the self, that restricts him from fully committing to the disjointed nature of existence both he and the non-chronological flow of the narrative would prefer to paint. In a powerful scene near the end of the novel, Beavis finds himself accompanying Staithes, a doctor, on one of his missions of mercy in Central and South America.

Puerto San Felipe was a village of huts, with some wooden sheds, near the water, for storing coffee. Don Jorge’s agent at the port helped them through the customs. A pure Spaniard, half dead with tropical diseases, but still elaborately courteous. “My house is yours,” he assured them as they climbed the steep path towards his bungalow, “my house is yours.”

Orchids hung from the veranda and, among them, cages full of incessantly screaming parrakeets.

An emaciated woman, prematurely old and tired, hopelessly tired, beyond the limit of her strength, came shuffling out of the house to welcome them, to apologize in advance for her hospitality. Puerto San Felipe was a small place, lacked commodities; and besides, she explained, the child was not well, not at all well. Mark asked her what was the matter. She looked at him with eyes expressionless with fatigue and answered vaguely that it was fever; fever and a pain in the head.

They went with her into the house and were shown a little girl lying on a camp-bed, restlessly turning her head from side to side, as if seeking, but always vainly, some cool place on which to rest her cheek, some position in which she might find relief from pain. The room was full of flies and a smell of fried fish came from the kitchen. Looking at the child, Anthony suddenly found himself remembering Helen, that day on the roof--turning and turning her head in the torture of pleasure.

He’s remembering a sexual encounter with Helen. The comparison seems inappropriate, but Huxley will drive it home in a few short paragraphs.

“I suppose it must be mastoid,” Mark was saying. “Or meningitis, perhaps.”

As he spoke, the child lifted thin arms from under the sheet and, clasping her head between her hands, began to roll still more violently from side to side and at last broke out into a paroxysm of screaming.

In immediate response, the noise of the parrakeets on the veranda swelled up, shriek after shriek, to a deafening maximum of intensity.

“Quiet, quiet,” the mother kept repeating, wheedlingly at first, then with a growing insistence, begging, exhorting, commanding the child to stop crying, to feel less pain. The screaming continued, the head went on rolled from side to side.

Tortured by pleasure, tortured by pain. At the mercy of one’s skin and mucus, at the mercy of those thin threads of nerve.

And that, of course, is the inescapable human condition that neither philosophy nor fiction can ultimately transcend. We are all, irrevocably, at the mercy of those thin threads of nerve.

“Quiet, quiet,” the woman repeated almost angrily. She bent over the bed and, by main force, dragged down the child’s lifted arms; then, holding the two thin wrists in one hand, laid the other on the head in an effort to hold it unmoving on the pillows. Still screaming, the little girl struggled under the constraint. The woman’s bony hand tightened round the wrists, rested more heavily on the forehead. If she could forcefully restrain the manifestation of pain, perhaps the pain itself would cease, perhaps the child would stop that screaming, would sit up perhaps, smiling, and be well again.

The scene is uncomfortable and it’s supposed to be. But the final punch is yet to come.

“Quiet, quiet,” she commanded between clenched teeth.

With a violent effort the child released her arms from the grasp of those claw-like fingers; the hands flew once more to the head. Before the woman could snatch them away again, Mark touched her on the arm. She looked round at him.

“Better to leave her,” he was saying.

Obediently she straightened herself up and walked away towards the door that gave on to the veranda. They followed her. There was nothing whatever they could do.

“Mi casa es suya.”

My house is yours, indeed. And here Huxley obviously means more than just a domicile and Spanish hospitality. The house he refers to is the body, the body that suffers both pain and pleasure, the vessel in which all of our seemingly transcendent existences--continuous or disjointed--reside. When it comes to philosophical novels like Eyeless in Gaza, the body is the great equalizer.

Inside the Craft

Huxley’s writing always provides interesting perspectives on the craft of writing. Frequently he drops out of the narrative completely and just provides unvarnished essays on the subject. But it’s always better, I think, when he’s able to include the commentary in the flow of the story.

That was the chief difference between literature and life. In books, the proportion of exceptional to commonplace people is high; in reality, very low.

“Books are opium,” said Mark.

“Precisely. That’s why it’s doubtful if there’ll ever be such a thing as proletarian literature. Even proletarian books will deal with exceptional proletarians. And exceptional proletarians are no more proletarian than exceptional bourgeois are bourgeois. Life’s so ordinary that literature has to deal with the exceptional. Exceptional talent, power, social position, wealth. Hence those geniuses of fiction, those leaders and dukes and millionaires. People who are completely conditioned by circumstances--one can be desperately sorry for them; but one can’t find their lives very dramatic. Drama begins where there’s freedom of choice. And freedom of choice begins when social or psychological conditions are exceptional. That’s why the inhabitants of imaginative literature have always been recruited from the pages of Who’s Who.”

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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, July 4, 2016

Strategic Agendas Create Strategic Boards

I wrote a post a few weeks back on what I called paradoxes in association management, which I defined as counter-intuitive practices that we must embrace if we want to be successful. Here's one:

Strategic agendas must create strategic boards before strategic boards can create strategic agendas.

I've spoken to association executives who feel that this is the ultimate "chicken and egg" dilemma. They don't have strategic boards. They desperately want strategic boards. They believe there isn't a single thing they can do to turn their non-strategic board into a strategic one. They feel powerless.

Now every case, in my experience, is unique. Some boards are so mired in trivia and tactics, and so tenaciously cling to that tradition, that getting them to think and act strategically can likely only be accomplished through changing which individuals make up the board. But one thing that always helps is making sure they have a strategic agenda.

Take the committee and staff reports off the agenda, or at least put them at the very end. Front load the agenda with strategic questions and strategic topics. What's happening in our industry right now? What trends are going to be accelerating over the next few years? How is the association positioned to mitigate the negative or capitalize on the positive effects of those trends? What kind of 5-year goals should we be setting today? What resources do we need to secure or acquire in order to make sure those goals are achieved?

A non-strategic board may struggle with some or all of these questions. Let them. Don't give them the answers. Don't have any outside experts come in and talk to them. Don't put any materials in their agenda packets for them to read. Let them hash it out. Like many of us, they won't succeed the first time they try something, but that shouldn't mean returning to the trivia and tactics they are used to. Put questions like these at the top of every board agenda and get them thinking, talking, planning for the future as they understand it.

A strategic agenda will force any board to function more strategically. The biggest mistake many of those powerless association executives make is continuing to put non-strategic items on their board's agenda. A mentor once told me that if there's something you don't want your board talking about, then don't put it on their agenda.

It's as simple as that.

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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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