Monday, August 27, 2018

When Decisions Get Made

Amanda Kaiser at her Smooth the Path blog gave me a good reminder this week about association membership dues notices.

The most interesting result from the member research on renewal notices is that these letters, emails, and phone calls do not serve to change most member’s minds about renewing. Instead, renewal notices merely remind them to renew. The decision to renew is made far ahead of the renewal period.

Her post makes the point that the time to engage a member comes long before the dues renewal is sent, and that attempts to persuade a member to renew with a bunch of marketing materials send with the dues notice are often wasted. In most cases, the decision to renew or not renew has already been made.

One of the reasons this hit home for me is that I was recently the member in exactly this situation.

There was a new organization starting up in one of the spaces my association operates. I joined, thinking I could better understand that marketplace, advocate for my industry within it, and connect members of my association to resources and partnerships that could help them navigate these waters.

I participated in the webinars put on by the new organization. I talked with their staff about what I wanted to achieve and what part I could see myself playing. I attended their annual conference and networked with as many people as I could.

And at the end of that, about four months ahead of when the annual renewal notice was going to be sent, I decided that this organization was not for me. Like the image I found to accompany this post, I had spent eight months increasing my knowledge about the organization's value proposition, and now was the best time to decide, because looking forward, all I saw was decreasing benefit or increasing loss. The connections I was looking for were not there, or were in such short supply that I would have to expend tremendously more time, money, and energy to find them and make them work for me and my association.

So, I checked out. I stopped reading their newsletters and stopped signing up for their webinars. My decision had been made. It was four months before they were going to send me a renewal invoice, but I wasn't going to pay it when it arrived.

But importantly, here's what I didn't do. I didn't call the organization and tell them I had made this decision. As far as they knew, I was one of their most engaged new members. Look at my track record of participation! The fact that I hadn't found enough value was unknown to them. So, when the renewal notice came, and I did tell them I would be dropping my membership, they were understandably surprised.

This same dynamic plays out in every association. The only thing unique about my experience was that I was the unsatisfied member, not the association desperate to keep them.

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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, August 20, 2018

Before You Begin: 5 Co-Creation Tips

Back in May 2018, I participated in a virtual conference session on co-creation. It was called SURGE Spring 2018, and the organizers just posted a blog summary of some of the points I made in the session. You can read that post here, but I thought I would also re-publish it on my blog.

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Before You Begin: 5 Co-Creation Tips

Co-creation happens when an association and its members work together to create something that is valuable for both the association and the members. Generally speaking, it is important for the association to maintain decision-making control over the use of resources in the co-creative project, whereas the participating members should be given control over design decisions. If too many of the design decisions are made on the staff side, you risk creating something that might be sensitive to the needs of the marketplace, but without having engaged in a co-creative exercise with your members.


Remember that members can and should derive value not just from the finished, co-created product, but from the process of development itself. At my own association, we’ve done a series of roadmapping sessions where we use a facilitated process to identify technological challenges facing our industry. The end product helps us set an agenda for the overall industry, and our members can take the end product back to their own companies and embed it in their own development processes. But members who participated in the roadmapping process have also learned how to roadmap, and this can help them address other challenges within their companies. The Roadmap is useful to them. But the process of roadmapping is even more valuable.


There is too often an unfortunate adversarial relationship in associations between the group that people consider the association and the group that people consider outsiders. Whether that’s staff versus board, or staff and board versus membership, it’s a dangerous way to think about your association. Embracing co-creation is a way of beginning to redefine this relationship between “the association” and “its members.” Co-creation helps bring your members inside your association and helps establish an important duality between the decision makers and the participants in a co-creation experience.


In my association, there is one process that determines our strategic objectives, then another process that develops programs for each of those strategy areas. Both are critically important, but we have to be clear about who is responsible for each so each group succeeds. If people think they’re in charge of strategy, they’re not going to accept the design constraints that you place on their program development process. If they don’t accept that their role is to live within a particular strategic objective, it’s not going to work. Lack of clarity on this essential point creates tension in the co-creation process, and often prevents the organization from delivering the results it seeks.


Co-creative opportunities are practically everywhere, and can help an association address some of its most intractable problems. By way of example, my association, like a lot of manufacturing-based trade associations, is still trying to figure out what we call “the workforce challenge.” Member companies have a hard time finding the engineering talent they need to grow their businesses.

This problem is a wonderful co-creative opportunity for our association and its members. We started by experimenting with a middle school outreach program that’s branded for our technology space. We initially developed it at the association level and pilot-tested it in our local community where we’re headquartered. But very quickly, we shared it with our members and asked them to run it independently in their local communities. Now, we are regularly bringing all these folks together to share the successes and failures they’ve encountered. That keeps the co-creation practice running—slowly iterating a better product and vastly extending its reach.


Finally, remember that if you’re an association, then you’re probably already doing some level of co-creation. It’s endemic to the association environment. But being more intentional about co-creation can expand on the value of member engagement tools already at your disposal.

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This post 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, August 18, 2018

Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan

The best line in this book comes on page 6, when Sagan is describing his encounter with the disembodied brain of Paul Broca, the scientist for which the Broca’s area of the brain is named.

And then in a still more remote corner of this wing of the museum was revealed a collection of gray, convoluted objects, stored in formalin to retard spoilage -- shelf upon shelf of human brains. There must have been someone whose job it was to perform routine craniotomies on the cadavers of notables and extract their brains for the benefit if science. Here was the cerebrum of a European intellectual who had achieved momentary renown before fading into the obscurity of this dusty shelf. Here a brain of a convicted murderer. Doubtless the savants of earlier days had hoped there might be some anomaly, some telltale sign in the brain anatomy or cranial configuration of murderers. Perhaps they had hoped that murder was a matter of heredity and not society. Phrenology was a graceless nineteenth-century aberration. I could hear my friend Ann Druyan saying, “The people we starve and torture have an unsociable tendency to steal and murder. We think it’s because their brows overhang.” But the brains of murderers and savants -- the remains of Albert Einstein’s brain are floating wanly in a bottle in Wichita -- are indistinguishable. It is, very probably, society and not heredity that makes criminals.

And the best line is, in fact, Druyan’s, not Sagan’s. “The people we starve and torture have an unsociable tendency to steal and murder.” It jumped out at me while reading Broca’s Brain, but it powerfully came back to me some books later, while I was reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. There, the context was not murder, but child abuse and how it, apparently inevitably, leads to broken and dysfunctional adults. Much more on that we I get to writing up my post on that book.

The rest of Broca’s Brain I can frankly take or leave. The book is a collection of essays and articles, most published in other places, that don’t, in my opinion, cohere together very well.

The worst of the bunch is “Venus and Dr. Velikovsky,” a skeptical takedown that goes on for an interminable fifty-six pages. In 1950, a scholar named Immanuel Velikovsky published a book called Worlds in Collision, which was apparently a kind of best seller and cultural phenomenon. In Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky proposed that:

The planet Jupiter disgorged a large comet, which made a grazing collision with Earth around 1500 B.C. The various plagues and Pharaonic tribulations of the Book of Exodus all derive directly or indirectly from this cometary encounter. Material which made the river Nile turn to blood drops from the comet. The vermin described in Exodus are produced by the comet -- flies and perhaps scarabs drop out of the comet, while indigenous terrestrial frogs are induced by the heat of the comet to multiply. Earthquakes produced by the comet level Egyptian but not Hebrew dwellings. (The only thing that does not seem to drop from the comet is cholesterol to harden Pharaoh’s heart.)

That last parenthetical sentence gives you an idea of the humor that Sagan can employ and, yet, despite the biting sarcasm, he then goes on the counter scientifically every possible claim that Velikovsky’s fanciful story employs. Here, for the sake of example, is what Sagan writes about the idea that flies could have come out of a comet that was once part of Jupiter and would eventually, according to Velikovsky, become the planet Venus.

Even stranger are Velikovsky’s views on extraterrestrial life. He believes that much of the “vermin,” and particularly the flies referred to in Exodus, really fell from his comet -- although he hedges on the extraterrestrial origin of frogs while approvingly quoting from the Iranian text, The Bundahis (page 183), which seems to admit a rain of cosmic frogs. Let us consider flies only. Shall we expect houseflies or Drosophila melanogaster in forthcoming explorations of the clouds of Venus and Jupiter? He is quite explicit: “Venus -- and therefore also Jupiter -- is populated by vermin” (page 389). Will Velikovsky’s hypothesis fall if no flies are found?

The idea that, of all the organisms on Earth, flies alone are of extraterrestrial origin is curiously reminiscent of Martin Luther’s exasperated conclusion that, while the rest of life was created by God, the fly must have been created by the Devil because there is no conceivable practical use for it. But flies are perfectly respectable insects, closely related in anatomy, physiology and biochemistry to other insecta. The possibility that 4.6 billion years of independent evolution on Jupiter -- even if it were physically identical to Earth -- would produce a creature indistinguishable from other terrestrial organisms is to misread seriously the evolutionary process. Flies have the same enzymes, the same nucleic acids and even the same genetic code (which translates nucleic acid information into protein information) as do all the other organisms on Earth. There are too many intimate associations and identities between flies and other terrestrial organisms for them to have separate origins, as any serious investigation clearly shows.

In Exodus, Chapter 9, it is said that the cattle of Egypt all died, but of the cattle of the Children of Israel there “died not one.” In the same chapter we find a plague that affects flax and barley but not wheat and rye. This fine-tuned host-parasite specificity is very strange for cometary vermin with no prior biological contact with Earth, but is readily explicable in terms of home-grown terrestrial vermin.

Then there is the curious fact that flies metabolize molecular oxygen. There is no molecular oxygen on Jupiter, nor can there be, because oxygen is thermodynamically unstable in an excess of hydrogen. Are we to imagine that the entire terminal electron transfer apparatus required for life to deal with molecular oxygen was adventitiously evolved on Jupiter by Jovian organisms hoping someday to be transported to Earth? This would be yet a bigger miracle than Velikovsky’s principal collisional thesis. Velikovsky makes (page 187) a lame aside on the “ability of many small insects … to live in an atmosphere devoid of oxygen,” which misses the point. The question is how an organism evolved on Jupiter could live in and metabolize an atmosphere rich in oxygen.

Next there is the problem of fly ablation. Small flies have just the same mass and dimensions as small meteors, which are burned up at an altitude of about 100 kilometers when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere on cometary trajectories. Ablation accounts for the visibility of such meteors. Not only would cometary vermin be transformed rapidly into fried flies on entrance into the Earth’s atmosphere; they would, as cometary meteors are today, be vaporized into atoms and never “swarm” over Egypt to the consternation of Pharaoh. Likewise, the temperatures attendant to ejection of the comet from Jupiter, referred to above, would fry Velikovsky’s flies. Impossible to begin with, doubly fried and atomized, cometary flies do not well survive critical scrutiny.

And that’s just the flies. On and on the critical analysis goes, page after page, until even I begin to question what it is all about. Is Sagan trying to deal in print with a kind of Gish Gallop? In other words, there are so many things wrong with Velikovsky’s book that the only possible way to conclusively refute them all is through this reasoned and measured approach. Sagan is a scientist after all. He no doubt believes that by putting such a treatise in the scientific literature, the conversation can finally move beyond Velikovsky -- or at least refer back to his rational take down whenever necessary. That would seem to be the case when, near the very end, Sagan says this:

To the extent that scientists have not given Velikovsky the reasoned response his work calls for, we have ourselves been responsible for the propagation of Velikovskian confusion.

I’ve got to admit. This sentence stopped me in my tracks. The reasoned response his work calls for? Are you kidding, Carl? Near as I can tell, the only thing Velikovsky’s “work” calls for is ridicule. That, as a great statesman once said, is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.

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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, August 13, 2018

Thinking in Four Colors

I attended a conference last week where one of the sessions was on the Hermann Whole Brain Model. Not familiar with it? It's another one of those HR assessments that labels the innate characteristics of individuals in an organization and, primarily by giving people a common language for discussing and understanding these differences, promotes better communication and collaboration.

For the sake of this blog post, let me oversimplify what the Hermann system says. Essentially, there are four ways of thinking: Analytical, Practical, Relational, and Experimental; which the system handily color-codes as Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow, respectively. See the attached graphic. And although everyone employs a subtle mix of all four colors, Hermann says that everyone is dominant in only one of these areas. By understanding your dominant way of thinking and the dominant ways of thinking of others on your team, everyone can learn to better communicate with each other and get more things done more quickly.

As part of the session, we attendees were all asked to self-assess and select the color that corresponded with our dominant way of thinking. Then, by seating us all at tables that intentionally contained a mix of colors -- that is, a group of people with a mixture of the dominant ways of thinking -- the facilitator led us through an exercise that demonstrated how the Hermann system could be practically applied in an organization.

Except there was one problem. The facilitator was a self-described Yellow. The graphic I included above associates the word Experimental with Yellow thinking, but other descriptive words she shared with us for her kind of thinking were Adventurous, Conceptual, Future-Oriented, and Big Picture.

And the exercise she led was exactly that. It was Yellow. Long on concepts and short on details. Its few instructions contained errors that seemed to contradict the very premise she had presented. Everyone around the table I was at were confused by it to one degree or another. But, interestingly, our reactions to it seemed to underscore the very concepts that the system was trying to communicate.

The Yellows, generally speaking, were much more on board with it, really liking the forest and not all that concerned about the trees that comprised it. The Reds were happy to use it as a springboard for talking about their feelings. The Greens worked really hard, first trying to understand and then trying to impose their own process on the exercise. And the Blues, like me, skeptically questioned the utility of the whole thing, not seeing the "bottom line" usefulness of either the system or the exercise.

It was, I realized, a interesting validation of the system itself. Here we were, a group of people with different ways of approaching problems, confronting a problem in each of our different ways, and doing it exactly as our color-coded areas of dominant thinking would have predicted.

So in this way, the exercise was a success. Except the purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate how a mixed group like this could come together, understand and employ each other's dominant strengths, and then solve a problem. And this we absolutely did not do. By the time the session came to a close, the best we had managed to do was simply to understand and acknowledge the colors represented around the table.

Hmmm. Looking at it from the point of view of our Yellow facilitator, maybe that was the point.

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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, August 6, 2018

We Are Making a Difference

It's not always obvious. In fact, sometimes it feels like you're not making any progress at all. But then, something happens that allows you to see what you've accomplished from an outsider's perspective, and suddenly, you realize that you ARE actually making a difference.

What am I talking about? Eleven years ago the association work for launched an affiliated charitable foundation to help raise money to support outreach, education, and research initiatives in our industry. The goal is to create a better educated workforce. They hired me as the association CEO at about the same time, and I remember being told that I was the CEO of the association AND its foundation after accepting the position. It hadn't even been mentioned during the interview process!

In the early years, the going was extremely tough. No programs to speak of. Not enough donations to fund the experimental programs we were trying to launch. Donors not feeling engaged or appreciated enough for their support. Only slowly, over time were we able to gain an understanding of what needed to be done, construct a strategy designed to provide it, communicate that strategy to our donor base, raise funds, and deploy targeted and effective programs. Any objective measure of our focus and activity today will show a tremendous advance over where we were when we started.

But still, the need is great, and most of the time it feels like we're emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. It's easy to lose perspective on all the good things we've accomplished when the problem we were tasked with solving remains unresolved.

This past week, however, I received a phone call from a colleague. She runs an association like mine and wanted to pick my brain because her association, like mine of eleven years ago, is contemplating the creation of an affiliated foundation to help them better tackle the workforce challenges that exist in their industry.

I'll admit, it was flattering to hear her talk about all the success she could see that we have had. She'd been on our website and had reviewed all of our programs. She had been observing us from afar, reading our newsletters and tapping into our social media feeds. She wanted to get my advice on how they should start and what they should focus on because we obviously knew what we were doing and had driven a lot of success for our industry.

That was good. But even better was the feeling I had when I started answering some of her questions. They forced me to go back in my mind and reconstruct the steps we had taken to build what we had now. And that, more than anything else, helped me see our progress for what is was: substantial and meaningful. Compared to where we were when we started, we -- and the many partners we have worked with along the way -- have made a tremendous impact for our industry.

We ARE making a difference. I don't think I will doubt that again.

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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, August 4, 2018

Best Stories of O. Henry

This was not what I expected.

O. Henry, if you’re not familiar, is the pen name of William Sydney Porter, a bank robber turned author who wrote prolifically in the early 1900s, whose claim to fame is something that was evidently new at the time he was writing -- the surprise or “twist” ending. As this collection’s editors say in their introduction:

To this day writers are striving to surpass him in this type of story, only to prove anew the truth of that old adage of the prize ring: you can’t beat a champion at his own game.

I picked up this volume on the strength of that reputation alone. To the best of my recollection, I had previously only ever read one O. Henry story -- that staple of high school English classes “The Gift of the Magi.” Remembering the reputation far more than the details of even that story, I was prepared to be dazzled by the intricacies and elegance of Henry’s fiction.

I was not. Surprisingly, the editors may convey my reaction best in their introduction.

The bulk of O. Henry’s written work, truth to tell, does not measure up too well against the exacting standards of the present day [the present day in this case being 1945]. Many of his stories were glib and superficial rather than profound, obviously hurried and cut closely to a pattern that had proven serviceable. His characters, like his plots, tended to repeat themselves, and sustained him only because he was a master at contriving every possible variation of a familiar theme.

Despite this judgment, and quite incongruently, the editors go on to heap praise on the bank robber from North Carolina.

This volume of selected stories is conclusive evidence, in the editors’ opinion, that O. Henry at his best, however, deserves rank with America’s greatest masters of the short story. Such tales as “A Municipal Report,” “An Unfinished Story,” “A Blackjack Bargainer,” “A Lickpenny Lover,” “The Gift of the Magi,” “Mammon and the Archer,” and “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen” (by actual count the O. Henry stories most often reprinted in anthologies) are gems of their kind; mellow, humorous, ironic, ingenious, and shot through with that eminently salable quality known as “human interest.”

Okay. Here’s the thing. The stories mentioned above, the ones most frequently anthologized, and not the best stories in this collection. In some cases, far from it. They, more than many, epitomize the “glib and superficial rather than profound” charge leveled at Henry by the editors.

So, in my learned opinion, what are the best stories in this collection?

“Roads of Destiny”

This is the one in which it seems Henry is manipulating his own form the most. In “Roads of Destiny,” there is no twist ending. There are, in fact, three.

A young shepherd and aspiring poet, David Mignot, decides to leave his home village, and the woman he loves, and seek his fortune in the City of Light.

Three leagues across the dim, moonlit champaign ran the road, straight as a plowman’s furrow. It was believed in the village that the road ran to Paris, at least; and this name the poet whispered often to himself as he walked. Never so far from Vernoy had David travelled before.

He comes to an unexpected junction. Three roads lay before him. A left branch, a right branch, and the main road. And here, Henry similarly splits the story into three parts; three stories, told in succession, of what happens to a David who journeys forth on each road.

On the left branch he is plucked from the road by the carriage of the Marquis de Beaupertuys, taken to a pub in the nearest town, and forced to make a difficult decision.

“Then listen, master shepherd and poet, to the fortune you have blundered upon to-night. This lady is my niece, Mademoiselle Lucie de Varennes. She is of noble descent and is possessed of ten thousand francs a year in her own right. As to her charms, you have but to observe for yourself. If the inventory pleases your shepherd’s heart, she becomes your wife at a word. Do not interrupt me. To-night I conveyed her to the chateau of the Comte de Villemaur, to whom her hand had been promised. Guests were present; the priest was waiting; her marriage to one eligible in rank and fortune was ready to be accomplished. At the altar this demoiselle, so meek and dutiful, turned upon me like a leopardess, charged me with cruelty and crimes, and broke, before the gaping priest, the troth I had plighted for her. I swore there and then, by ten thousand devils, that she should marry the first man we met after leaving the chateau, be he prince, charcoal-burner, or thief. You, Shepherd, are the first. Mademoiselle must be wed this night. If not you, then another. You have ten minutes in which to make your decision. Do not vex me with words or questions. Ten minutes, shepherd; and they are speeding.”

After speaking with the Mademoiselle, David agrees to marry her, it is quickly made legal by a traveling priest, and then, based on the accusations of cruelty and crimes that the Marquis had perpetrated against his wife, David challenges his new in-law to a duel. It does not end well for David Mignot.

With a little cry of terror and despair, the widowed maid ran and stooped above him. She found the wound, and then looked up with her old look of pale melancholy. “Through his heart,” she whispered. “Oh, his heart!”

“Come,” boomed the great voice of the marquis, “out with you to the carriage! Daybreak shall not find you on my hands. Wed you shall be again, and to a living husband, this night. The next we come upon, my lady, highwayman or peasant. If the road yields no other, then the churl that opens my gates. Out with you to the carriage!”

The marquis, implacable and huge, the lady wrapped again in the mystery of her cloak, the postilion bearing the weapons -- all moved out to the waiting carriage. The sound of its ponderous wheels rolling away echoed through the slumbering village. In the hall of the Silver Flagon the distracted landlord wrung his hands above the slain poet’s body, while the flames of the four and twenty candles danced and flickered on the table.

On the right branch David makes it to Paris, takes up lodging in a house, and begins to write his poems. There, he meets a woman of incredible beauty who, unbeknownst to David, is part of a group of conspirators seeking to kill the king. She tricks him into taking a secret message to their co-conspirators inside the royal palace, but poor David is caught by the king’s guard. Before the king himself, the plot is exposed.

“First,” said the duke, “I will read you the letter he brought:

“To-night is the anniversary of the dauphin’s death. If he goes, as his custom, to midnight mass to pray for the soul of his son, the falcon will strike, at the corner of the Rue Esplanade. If this be his intention, set a red light in the upper room at the southwest corner of the palace, that the falcon may take heed.

“Peasant,” said the duke, sternly, “you have heard these words. Who gave you this message to bring?”

“My lord duke,” said David sincerely, “I will tell you. A lady gave it to me. She said her mother was ill, and that this writing would fetch her uncle to her bedside. I do not know the meaning of the letter, but I will swear that she is beautiful and good.”

“Describe the woman,” commanded the duke, “and how you came to be her dupe.”

“Describe her!” said David with a tender smile. “You would command words to perform miracles. Well, she is made of sunshine and deep shade. She is slender, like the alders, and moves with their grace. Her eyes change while you gaze into them; now round, and then half shut as the sun peeps between two clouds. When she comes, heaven is all about her; when she leaves, there is chaos and a scent of hawthorn blossoms. She came to me in the Rue Conti, number twenty-nine.”

“It is the house,” said the duke, turning to the king, “that we have been watching. Thanks to the poet’s tongue, we have a picture of the infamous Countess Quebedaux.”

“Sire and my lord duke,” said David, earnestly, “I hope my poor words have done no injustice. I have looked into that lady’s eyes. I will stake my life that she is an angel, letter or no letter.”

The duke looked at him steadily. “I will put you to the proof,” he said, slowly. “Dressed as the king, you shall, yourself, attend mass in his carriage at midnight. Do you accept the test?”

David smiled. “I have looked into her eyes,” he said. “I had my proof there. Take yours how you will.”

And that is exactly what they do. The red light is placed in the appropriate room of the palace, and when David ventures out in the guise of the king, the falcon strikes.

When the royal carriage had reached the Rue Christopher, one square nearer than the Rue Esplanade, forth from it burst Captain Desrolles [one of the conspirators introduced earlier to the reader], with his band of would-be regicides, and assailed the equipage. The guards upon the carriage, though surprised at the premature attack, descended and fought valiantly. The noise of conflict attracted the force of Captain Tetreau [of the King’s guard], and they came pelting down the street to the rescue. But, in the meantime, the desperate Desrolles had torn open the door of the king’s carriage, thrust his weapon against the body of the dark figure inside, and fired.

Now, with loyal reinforcements at hand, the street rang with cries and the rasp of steel, but the frightened horses had dashed away. Upon the cushions lay the dead body of the poor mock king and poet, slain by a ball from the pistol of Monseigneur, the Marquis de Beaupertuys.

Yes, using his trademark twist ending, Henry reveals that the character previously introduced as Captain Desrolles was, in fact, Beaupertuys, the same villain who had killed David in the duel that ended his journey down the left branch. Two roads, in other words, each leading to the same fate. What, the reader would be justified in asking, will happen to David as his journeys down neither the left not right branch, but down the main road?

Well, it turns out David does not journey down the main road at all. When faced with that choice in the story’s third segment, he remembers the devoted love of his home village, a young woman named Yvonne, whose troth he is forsaking by journeying secretly to Paris. Coming to his senses, he returns to his village, marries Yvonne, and enjoys many years as a humble shepherd, writing his pastoral poems in the fields for his own and Yvonne’s amusement.

Eventually, however, he is consumed by nostalgia for the life that might have been, neglecting his sheep and his wife in equal measure, tortured by the desire and uncertainty of his muse. The town notary, Monsieur Papineau, encourages him to seek a professional opinion.

“Friend Mignot, I affixed the seal upon the marriage certificate of your father. It would distress me to be obliged to attest a paper signifying the bankruptcy of his son. But that is what you are coming to. I speak as an old friend. Now, listen to what I have to say. You have your heart set, I perceive, upon poetry. At Dreux, I have a friend, one Monsieur Bril -- Georges Bril. He lives in a little cleared space in a houseful of books. He is a learned man; he visits Paris each year; he himself has written books. He will tell you when the catacombs were made, how they found out the names of the stars, and why the plover has a long bill. The meaning and the form of poetry is to him as intelligent as the baa of a sheep is to you. I will give you a letter to him and you shall take him your poems and let him read them. Then you will know if you shall write more, or give attention to your wife and business.”

David does exactly this. The judgment of Monsieur Bril is not what he would have hoped.

“I have read all your verses,” continued Monsieur Bril, his eyes wandering about his sea of books as if he conned the horizon for a sail. “Look yonder, through that window, Monsieur Mignot; tell me what you see in that tree.”

“I see a crow,” said David, looking.

“There is a bird,” said Monsieur Bril, “that shall assist me where I am disposed to shirk a duty. You know that bird, Monsieur Mignot; he is the philosopher of the air. He is happy through submission to his lot. None so merry or full-crawed as he with his whimsical eye and rollicking step. The fields yield him what he desires. He never grieves that his plumage is not gay, like the oriole’s. And you have heard, Monsieur MIgnot, the notes that nature has given him? Is the nightingale any happier, do you think?”

David rose to his feet. The crow cawed harshly from his tree.

“I thank you, Monsieur Bril,” he said, slowly. “There was not, then, one nightingale note among all those croaks?”

“I could not have missed it,” said Monsieur Bril, with a sigh. “I read every word. Live your poetry, man; do not try to write it any more.”

On his way back from Dreux, David stops at a merchant and buys a pistol, which the merchant says he recently acquired after purchasing at sale the possessions of lord who had been banished for conspiracy against the king. David says he needs the pistol to protect his sheep from the predation of wolves, but in fact, he uses it immediately upon returning home to end his own life.

David laid his pistol under his coat and walked to his cottage. Yvonne was not there. Of late she had taken to gadding much among the neighbors. But a fire was glowing in the kitchen stove. David opened the door of it and thrust his poems in upon the coals. As they blazed up they made a singing, harsh sound in the flue.

“The song of the crow!” said the poet.

He went up to his attic room and closed the door. So quiet was the village that a score of people heard the roar of the great pistol. They flocked thither, and up the stairs where the smoke, issuing, drew their notice.

The men laid the body of the poet upon his bed, awkwardly arranging it to conceal the torn plumage of the poor black crow. The women chattered in a luxury of zealous pity. Some of them ran to tell Yvonne.

M. Papineau, whose nose had brought him there among the first, picked up the weapon and ran his eye over its silver mountings with a mingled air of connoisseurship and grief.

“The arms,” he explained, aside, to the cure, “and crest of Monseigneur, the Marquis de Beaupertuys.”

It’s not a perfect story, but it is an interesting structure, well told, and the most meaningfully complex story in the collection. Roads of destiny, indeed.

“The Duplicity of Hargraves”

In this story it is the character sketches that seem more accomplished than most.

Major Pendleton Talbot is a old Southern gentleman, relocated to Washington after the American Civil War, ostensibly to finish writing and to publish his book of antebellum remembrances. And Henry Hopkins Hargraves is a young actor living in the same boarding house, who attaches himself to the Major, seemingly attentive to the old Southerner’s anecdotes.

In fact, Hargraves is using the Major as a character study of his own. One night, as Talbot attends the theater, he is shocked to see himself in the character of one Colonel Calhoun -- himself in appearance, dress, mannerisms, and loquacious anecdotes -- on stage.

Major Talbot, sitting quietly, but white with indignation, heard his best stories retold, his pet theories and hobbies advanced and expanded, and the dream of the “Anecdotes and Reminiscences” served, exaggerated and garbled. His favorite narrative -- that of his duel with Rathbone Culbertson -- was not omitted, and it was delivered with more fire, egotism, and gusto than the major himself had put into it.

The monologue concluded with a quaint, delicious, witty little lecture on the art of concocting a julep, illustrated by the act. Here Major Talbot’s delicate but showy science was reproduced to a hair’s breadth -- from his dainty handling of the fragrant weed -- “the one-thousandth part of a grain too much pressure, gentlemen, and you extract the bitterness, instead of the aroma, of this heaven-bestowed plant” -- to his solicitous selection of oaten straws.

It is Hargraves, of course, who has created a theatrical phenomenon by making a farce out of everything the Major is. The next day, Talbot confronts Hargraves, and the scene is, I think, one of the finest Henry has written.

“Mr. Hargraves,” said the major, who had remained standing, “you have put upon me an unpardonable insult. You have burlesqued my person, grossly betrayed my confidence, and misused my hospitality. If I thought you possessed the faintest conception of what is the sign manual of a gentleman, or what is due one, I would call you out, sir, old as I am. I will ask you to leave the room, sir.”

The actor appeared to be slightly bewildered, and seemed hardly to take in the full meaning of the old gentleman’s words.

“I am truly sorry you took offence,” he said, regretfully. “Up here we don’t look at things just as you people do. I know men who would buy out half the house to have their personality put on stage so the public would recognize it.”

“They are not from Alabama, sir,” said the major, haughtily.

“Perhaps not. I have a pretty good memory, major; let me quote a few lines from your book. In response to a toast at a banquet given in -- Milledgeville, I believe -- you uttered, and intend to have printed these words:

“The Northern man is utterly without sentiment or warmth except in so far as the feelings may be turned to his own commercial profit. He will suffer without resentment any imputation cast upon the honor of himself or his loved ones that does not bear with it the consequence of pecuniary loss. In his charity, he gives with a liberal hand; but it must be heralded with the trumpet and chronicled in brass.

“Do you think that picture is fairer than the one you saw of Colonel Calhoun last night?”

“The description,” said the major, frowning, “is -- not without grounds. Some exag-- latitude must be allowed in public speaking.”

“And in public acting,” replied Hargraves.

Touche. The tension is palpable, as it the dichotomy between the Northern and Southern points of view. It’s social commentary dressed up in entertaining fiction, and it works.

“The Cop and the Anthem”

In which Soapy, a tramp in New York City, repeatedly tries and repeatedly fails to get himself arrested so he can spend the coming cold winter months in the Rikers Island jail.

On the opposite side of the street was a restaurant of no great pretensions. It catered to large appetites and modest purses. Its crockery and atmosphere were thick; its soup and napery thin. Into this place Soapy took his accusive shoes and telltale trousers without challenge. At a table he sat and consumed beefsteak, flapjacks, doughnuts and pie. And then to the waiter he betrayed the fact that the minutest coin and himself were strangers.

“Now get busy and call a cop,” said Soapy. “And don’t keep a gentleman waiting.”

“No cop for youse,” said the waiter, with a voice like butter cakes and an eye like the cherry in a Manhattan cocktail. “Hey, Con!”

Neatly upon his left ear on the callous pavement two waiters pitched Soapy. He arose joint by joint, as a carpenter’s rule opens, and beat the dust from his clothes. Arrest seemed but a rosy dream. The Island seemed very far away. A policeman who stood before a drug store two doors away laughed and walked down the street.

The ending is predictable (after a while they all are; just predict the opposite of what seems to be happening and that is certainly where Henry’s is going to take it), but it is told with more grace than most. In others, the twist ending comes like that dog that won’t stop barking is suddenly dropped in your living room. Here, it is gentle, and almost welcome. Exhausted, Soapy returns dejected to his park bench and grows transfixed by the beauty of some organ music floating out a nearby church window.

The conjunction of Soapy’s receptive state of mind and the influences about the old church wrought a sudden and wonderful change in his soul. He viewed with swift horror the pit into which he had tumbled, the degraded days, unworthy desires, dead hopes, wrecked faculties and base motives that made up his existence.

And also in a moment his heart responded thrillingly to this novel mood. An instantaneous and strong impulse moved him to battle with his desperate fate. He would pull himself out of the mire; he would make a man of himself again; he would conquer the evil that had taken possession of him. There was time; he was comparatively young yet: he would resurrect his old eager ambitions and pursue them without faltering. Those solemn but sweet organ notes had set up a revolution in him. To-morrow he would go into the roaring downtown district and find work. A fur importer had once offered him a place as driver. He would find him to-morrow and ask for the position. He would be somebody in the world. He would--

Soapy felt a hand laid on his arm. He looked quickly around into the broad face of a policeman.

“What are you doin’ here?” asked the officer.

“Nothin’,” said Soapy.

“Then come along,” said the policeman.

“Three months on the Island,” said the Magistrate in the Police Court the next morning.

But the real genius is the voice. As advertised, it is “mellow, humorous, ironic, ingenious.” There are only a few other voices like it in the fiction I’m familiar with, and it was a delightful moment when I discovered an unmistakable connection with one of them.


There are hints in many of the stories.

From “The Cop and the Anthem”: He arose joint by joint, as a carpenter’s rule opens, and beat the dust from his clothes.

And from “The Ransom of Red Chief”: That boy put up a fight like a welter-weight cinnamon bear.

But it wasn’t until I got to this line in “Shoes” that the connection clicked home for me: In some houses the thrumming of lugubrious guitars added to the depression of the triste night.

looking or sounding sad and dismal.
synonyms: mournful, gloomy, sad, unhappy, doleful, glum, melancholy, woeful, miserable, woebegone, forlorn, somber, solemn, serious, sorrowful, morose, dour, cheerless, joyless, dismal; funereal, sepulchral; informal down in/at the mouth; literary dolorous "lugubrious hymns"

It was not the first time I had stumbled across this word in the collection. But this was the time that the telling thought popped unsolicited into my mind.

Lugubrious. The only author I know that uses lugubrious as much as O. Henry is T. C. Boyle. And once that connection was made, another came effortlessly.

He arose joint by joint, as a carpenter’s rule opens, and beat the dust from his clothes.

O. Henry. T. C. Boyle. Authors of different generations but of the same wicked stripe.

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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