Monday, November 11, 2019

Top Takes: A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

Take another look at the post that, as of this writing, has the ninth most pageviews on this entire blog:

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

Written in 1955, this is both a detailed accounting of the sinking of the Titanic and, much more interestingly for me, and reflective essay on the death of one set of cultural norms, a way of life that had already been losing traction, but which lost all its footing in the wake of the disaster.

Lord beautifully describes how a cultural preoccupation with wealth quickly became a casualty of the Titanic disaster. To fully understand this, to understand the world as it now exists, it is often helpful to first understand the world as it used to be.

It was easier in the old days … for the Titanic was also the last stand of wealth and society in the center of public affection. In 1912 there were no movie, radio or television stars; sports figures were still beyond the pale; and cafe society was completely unknown. The public depended on socially prominent people for all the vicarious glamour that enriches drab lives.

This preoccupation was fully appreciated by the press. When the Titanic sailed, the New York Times listed the prominent passengers on the front page. After she sank, the New York American broke the news on April 16 with a lead devoted almost entirely to John Jacob Astor; at the end it mentioned that 1,800 others were also lost.

In the same mood, the April 18 New York Sun covered the insurance angle of the disaster. Most of the story concerned Mrs. Widener’s pearls.

Never again did established wealth occupy people’s minds so thoroughly. On the other hand, never again was wealth so spectacular. John Jacob Astor thought nothing of shelling out 800 dollars for a lace jacket some dealer displayed on deck when the Titanic stopped briefly at Queenstown. To the Ryersons there was nothing unusual about traveling with 16 trunks. The 190 families in First Class were attended by 23 handmaids, eight valets, and assorted nurses and governesses--entirely apart from hundreds of stewards and stewardesses. These personal servants had their own lounge on C Deck, so that no one need suffer the embarrassment of striking up a conversation with some handsome stranger, only to find he was Henry Sleeper Harper’s dragoman.

This was truly not just another time, but another world.

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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

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham

This is an early novel of Maugham’s, first published in 1908. Here’s what the author himself says about it in the “fragment of autobiography” that he wrote when it was republished in 1956.

When, a little while ago, my publisher expressed a wish to re-issue it, I felt that, before consenting to this, I really should read it again. Nearly fifty years had passed since I had done so, and I had completely forgotten it. Some authors enjoy reading their old works; some cannot bear to. Of these I am. When I have corrected the proofs of a book, I have finished with it for good and all. I am impatient when people insist on talking to me about it; I am glad if they like it, but do not much care if they don’t. I am no more interested in it than a worn-out suit of clothes that I have given away.

Let me cut in hear and say that this author, for one, feels exactly as Maugham describes himself here -- something I shouldn’t forget now that I’ve decided to post the chapters of my latest novel on this blog. But what about The Magician itself? What does Maugham say about it?

It was thus with disinclination that I began to read The Magician. It held my interest, as two of my early novels, which for the same reason I have been obliged to read, did not. … As I read The Magician, I wondered how on earth I could have come by all the material concerning the black arts which I wrote of. I must have spent days and days reading in the library of the British Museum. The style is lush and turgid, not at all the sort of style I approve of now, but perhaps not unsuited to the subject; and there are a great many more adverbs and adjectives than I should use to-day. I fancy I must have been impressed by the ecriture artiste which the French writers of the time had not yet entirely abandoned, and unwisely sought to imitate them.

Maugham makes it sound like a youthful indiscretion, but one which the adult that had grown from that youth doesn’t entirely regret. I can say that it is an unusual Maugham novel, primarily in its subject matter, but clearly a Maugham novel nonetheless -- with all the structural and character-driven craftsmanship that I’ve come to expect from this, one of my favorite authors. To make a modern comparison, it’s like a lost season of Downton Abbey in which the Crawley family get mixed up in necromancy and starts summoning demons.

He pointed to the covering which still hid the largest of the vases. He had a feeling that it contained the most fearful of all these monsters; and it was not without an effort that he drew the cloth away. ...

This is from the last chapter of the novel, in a passage where all is being revealed. The titular Magician is an obese man named Oliver Haddo, a fictional character evidently based on Maugham’s own acquaintance with Aleister Crowley, who, coming to cross purposes with a young British surgeon and his fiancee, bewitches and comes to possess the young woman's mind with his black magic.

… But no sooner had he done this than something sprang up, so that instinctively he started back, and it began to gibber in piercing tones. These were the unearthly sounds that they had heard. …

In this passage, “he” is that young British surgeon, Arthur Burdon. His fiancee, Margaret Dauncey, has already been murdered by Haddo, and Burdon and Haddo have had a death struggle in which Burdon believes he has killed Haddo, but after which no evidence of Haddo’s corpse has remained.

… It was not voice, it was a kind of raucous crying, hoarse yet shrill, uneven like the barking of a dog, and appalling. The sounds came forth in rapid succession, angrily, as though the being that uttered them sought to express itself in furious words. …

Now Burdon is searching Haddo’s apparently abandoned mansion with two companions, and has found the magician’s secret laboratory, in which his necromancy has reached its horrifying apogee in the existence of these misshapen creatures of elemental life.

… It was mad with passion and beat against the glass walls of its prison with clenched fists. For the hands were human hands, and the body, though much larger, was of the shape of a new-born child. The creature must have stood about four feet high. The head was horribly misshapen. The skull was enormous, smooth and distended like that of a hydrocephalic, and the forehead protruded over the face hideously. The features were almost unformed, preternaturally small under the great, over-hanging brow; and they had an expression of fiendish malignity. …

It is for this that we learn Margaret was sacrificed, her lifeforce first feeding Haddo’s voracious vanity and then his demonic creations.

… The tiny, misshapen countenance writhed with convulsive fury, and from the mouth poured out a foaming spume. It raised its voice higher and higher, shrieking senseless gibberish in its rage. Then it began to hurl its whole body madly against the glass walls and to beat its head. It appeared to have a sudden incomprehensible hatred for the three strangers. It was trying to fly at them, the toothless gums moving spasmodically, and it threw its face into horrible grimaces. That nameless, loathsome abortion was the nearest that Oliver Haddo had come to the human form.

I’ve quoted this passage at length because I think it is an excellent example of the "lush and turgid" prose that Maugham evidently regretted having written. It is clearly replete with the kind of adverbs and adjectives used more frequently in the cosmic horror genre to bring the surreal and unfathomable into some semblance of squishy and base reality.

But not all of the novel is like this. Prior to this, it reads more like a psychological thriller, as neither the reader nor any of the characters truly know the extent of Haddo’s powers over Margaret and the structured world she inhabits. Much of it is described from Margaret's point of view, painfully revealing the tensions of her conflicted mind.

Then Margaret felt every day that uncontrollable desire to go to him; and, though she tried to persuade herself not to yield, she knew that her effort was only a pretense: she did not want anything to prevent her. When it seemed that some accident would do so, she could scarcely control her irritation. There was always that violent hunger of the soul which called her to him, and the only happy hours she had were those spent in his company. Day after day she felt that complete ecstasy when he took her in his huge arms, and kissed her with his heavy, sensual lips. But the ecstasy was extraordinarily mingled with loathing, and her physical attraction was allied with physical abhorrence.

Yet when he looked at her with those pale blue eyes, and threw into his voice those troubling accents, she forgot everything. He spoke of unhallowed things. Sometimes, as it were, he lifted a corner of the veil, and she caught a glimpse of terrible secrets. She understood how men had bartered their souls for infinite knowledge. She seemed to stand upon a pinnacle of the temple, and spiritual kingdoms of darkness, principalities of the unknown, were spread before her eyes to lure her to destruction. But of Haddo himself she learned nothing. She did know know if he loved her. She did not know if he had ever loved. He appeared to stand apart from human kind.

It is the dark temptation of Margaret’s soul that Haddo is able to first appeal to, then capture, then bend to his diabolical purpose. And the slow, structured descent that Maugham offers in this novel of youthful indiscretion is a true pleasure to read.

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

Monday, November 4, 2019

Top Takes: Moral Politics by George Lakoff

Take another look at the post that, as of this writing, has the eighth most pageviews on this entire blog:

Moral Politics by George Lakoff

In this book the author presents a theory about how political liberals and conservatives think; a theory that basically has two parts. One, people’s political attitudes are driven by their underlying morality and, in America, there are two basic moral frameworks at play, both arising out of different view of the family.

Conservatism, as we shall see, is based on a Strict Father model [of the family], while liberalism is centered around a Nurturant Parent model. These two models of the family give rise to different moral systems and different discourse forms, that is, different choices of words and different modes of reasoning.

And two, these family-based moral systems are relevant to political opinions because of the widespread view of the Nation through the metaphor of a family.

The link between family-based morality and politics comes from one of the most common ways we have of conceptualizing what a nation is, namely, as a family. It is the common, unconscious, and automatic metaphor of the Nation-as-Family that produces contemporary conservatism from Strict Father morality and contemporary liberalism from Nurturant Parent morality.

It's a fascinating read, with a lot of unexpected twists and turns along the way, especially when Lakoff attempts to argue for one of the two moral systems are the "right" way to approach political questions. But beware the false equivalency embedded in his approach. Since the Nation-As-Family metaphor is, at best, an approximation of reality, it's not fair to condemn one moral system because it more frequently fails in raising well-adjusted children.

To wit, Strict Father morality may be a horrible way to raise children. But is it a horrible way of running a country?

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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

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 22 (DRAFT)

On Monday morning there was a voicemail waiting for me when I got into the office—from Ruthie, not from Mary herself—letting me know that Mary had picked a specific time for our staff qualities meeting. She wanted to meet at 11 AM on Tuesday, Ruthie said, and she was looking forward to reviewing our progress.

Okay, I remember thinking. Good. Not perfect, but good. I can do the interview with Quest Partners at ten and be done in time for the eleven o’clock meeting with Mary. I’d have to go somewhere close, though. Maybe down to The Cellar? No, not below ground with all that concrete. There won’t be any cell phone reception. Maybe just the park across the street? Yeah, that’s it. I’ll just go sit in the park and keep an eye on my watch.

But none of these carefully wrought plans worked. At 9:06 AM on the fateful Tuesday morning, my office phone rang and the caller ID window showed my home number.


“Alan?” Jenny’s angry voice said. “What are you doing?”

“I’m working,” I said. “What do you think I’m doing?”

“Why didn’t you call Pamela for your interview? She just called here looking for you.”

I quickly looked at the clock to verify the time. “The interview’s at 10 o’clock,” I said. “It’s just after nine now. Does she want to move it up?”

“It’s ten o’clock her time,” Jenny said scathingly. “You’re late. You’d better call her right now.”

“Oh, shit,” I said, grabbing a pen. “Give me the number.”

“Don’t you have it?” she shouted.

I hadn’t written the appointment on my calendar. All of my notes for the interview were in a file in my briefcase. “I do, but just give it to me again, dammit.”

She recited the numbers with stark clarity, enunciating each one as if it was a score on her side of the tally. When I had them I thanked her curtly and pressed the receiver button before she could respond. Releasing the button and getting a dial tone, I punched in the numbers slowly, making sure I got each one right, and waited through three rings before the line picked up.

“Hello, Pamela Thornsby.”

“Pamela? This is Alan Larson calling.”

“Alan,” Pamela said, sounding relieved again but just a bit more skeptical than before. “Good. You got my message. Was there some kind of mix-up on the time for our interview?”

“There was,” I confirmed. “And it was all my fault. When we said ten o’clock I thought we were talking Central time.”

“Ah. I should have clarified. Is this still a good time for you?”

“Um, yes…” I said, looking up and realizing that my office door was standing open. “Yes, this is fine. Can you give me one moment to shut my door?”

“Of course.”

I put the phone down and darted across the small room. This wasn’t what I wanted at all. I didn’t want to do this interview in the office but now I didn’t have a choice. Bethany suddenly appeared in my door’s long window pane, holding her manicured fingers up and stopping me from shutting it tight.

I quickly pulled it back open. “What?” I said.

Bethany looked back and forth in both directions, the hustle and bustle of the office going on full speed behind her, and then leaned in closer to me and spoke in a low voice. “Let me in. There’s something I have to tell you.”

The memory of our suggestive weekend text messages was still fresh in my mind, and my first thought was that she playing a similar kind of game.

“Oh god, not now, Bethany,” I said. “I’m on a call.”

Bethany looked quickly past me and my gaze followed hers to the telephone receiver lying as if forgotten on my desk, its kinky spiral leash tethering it to its home unit.

“But something’s going on,” she said out of the corner of her mouth. “Michael’s in Mary’s office and Ruthie’s keeping a close guard on the door.”

I craned my neck to see over the multiple spider-like workstation pods that stood between my office door and Mary’s. By lining myself up just right, I could see Ruthie sitting at her desk, sorting through a stack of envelopes, her eyes flicking up to scan the space around her every few seconds, and Mary’s golden veneer door shut tightly behind her.

“Okay,” I said, not knowing if I should be concerned or not. “I can’t deal with it right now. I have to be on this call.” I started closing the door again.

“But there’s more!” Bethany said, gripping the edge of the door to keep it open.

“I’ll come find you as soon as my call is done,” I said, forcing the door closed. Momentarily noting the look of shock on her face, I quickly retrieved my file of interview notes, sat back down and scooped up the receiver.

“Pamela?” I said. “Are you still there?” My voice was little more than a paranoid whisper.

“Yes, Alan. I’m here,” Pamela’s strong voice echoed in my ear. “Are you ready to begin?”

With the fear of a criminal who knows he’ll be caught I twisted quickly in my chair and was relieved to see Bethany had removed herself from my doorway. Through the door’s glass panel there was a lot of office activity, but none of it seemed directed at me.

“Yes,” I said, reminding myself to relax and to focus on the task at hand. “Go ahead.”

As I would tell Jenny later, I did the best I could. Her cousin Tom, however, was right—I was out of practice and stumbled through the entire conversation. I think Pamela could sense she was catching me off my game, and she was kind enough to start with a few softball questions, but she had a script to get through and other candidates to consider, so eventually she started throwing some heat. I swung at every pitch as hard as I could, but never felt like I was making the right connection, never once feeling the satisfying chunk of solid wood on the ball.

I might’ve done better if I hadn’t been so distracted. Not just worried about getting caught interviewing for another job in the office, about ten minutes into the ordeal I realized my bladder was full of my morning coffee. Closing my eyes helped at first, but as the conversation wore on and my need to pee became more desperate, I had to squeeze back against the pressure with a firm grip on the front of my pants. It didn’t even occur to me to excuse myself for a minute or two—to tell her I needed a quick break or a drink of water or something. I just kept thinking it would end soon, but it didn’t. My answers to Pamela’s questions went from hurried to downright abrupt, my mind seemingly unable to focus on anything else except getting to the end and running down to the men’s room.

I checked the clock constantly, watching the minutes tick by in increasing discomfort, and nearly had a coronary about forty-five minutes in when I saw Mary Walton standing in my doorway like an apparition in pale worsted wool. Seeing that she had caught my attention, she quietly opened the door and poked her head inside. In the middle of one of Pamela’s difficult questions, I had no choice but to let the receiver drift away from my ear. I quickly lifted my hand away from my crotch and clapped it over the mouthpiece.

“Are you going to be much longer?” she whispered, reinforcing her question by tracing a growing timeline in the air with two retreating fingers.

I can only imagine what she must have been thinking. I’m sure my eyes were bugging out of my head and, as far as I knew, she had seen me clutching myself. Unable to speak, I rapidly nodded.

“We need to talk before our 11 AM meeting,” she said softly, tapping a fingernail on the face of her Cartier watch. “Come find me when you’re done.”

She backed out, shut the door and disappeared.

When the interview finally ended, at twenty minutes to eleven, I thanked Pamela as graciously as I could, then slammed the phone down. Stuffing my notes haphazardly under a pile of folders, I got up and walked as quickly but as discreetly as I could to the bathroom. A few people tried to catch me as I trotted past—Bethany being one of them—but I refused to make eye contact with them. Inside the mercifully empty men’s room, I spent the next two minutes draining my bladder, watching the urine swirl down the drain, and cursing myself for my abysmal performance.

I had blown it. After her first few “get to know you” questions, it felt like Pamela Thornsby had simply raked me over the coals—questioning my experience, challenging my assertions—and doing everything she could to paint me into a corner where I would be forced to admit I was unqualified for the job. Distracted by the abrupt transition to the interview itself, nervous about the risk of being overheard in my office surroundings, and mocked by my pathetically weak bladder, I had mumbled and bumbled my way through the thing like a stooge.

I pulled the flush handle on the top of the urinal, zipped up, and marched over to the row of sinks to wash my hands. They were mounted too low on the wall—almost like they belonged in an elementary school—and as I stood hunched over like an ogre, wringing the Borax-scented soap into my hands, my conspiracy-prone imagination began to think that Pamela might have planned something more than just a simple screening interview.

The whole thing could have been a set-up, I realized. They already had someone they wanted to bring on board, but the hired guns on the client’s legal team wanted the candidate vetted through a competitive search process. Happened all the time in my profession. Make sure you’re getting the best talent at the best price—that kind of thing. But Mr. Quest or whoever ran Quest Partners wanted to hire his brother-in-law, so all the other candidates had to get washed out, and Pamela, like the good little HR director she was, was only too happy to comply.

“Shit,” I said to myself in the mirror, thinking about how much sense that made, and then moved to dry my hands on the rough pieces of paper toweling that always seemed to disintegrate as soon as they got wet.

It was either that, I thought miserably, or I had just been subjected to my first bona fide stress interview. I’d heard about them before and knew I was bound to encounter one when I started interviewing for the top job. The examination had been real, and there was a job to be won, but Pamela hadn’t been interested in what I had to say—she only wanted to see how I would react under the heat lamps of an aggressive interrogation. If I couldn’t hold my own against a lowly staffer, after all, how could I deal with a bunch of power-hungry board members? This hypothesis made me feel even angrier at myself, but I told myself to calm down, because it didn’t really matter. Stress or sham—either way, there wasn’t a chance I would be called back for a second interview. So all I had to do was come up with a story to tell Jenny. She wouldn’t want to hear that I just plain fucked up.

Upon exiting the restroom, I was surprised to find Ruthie standing outside the door, clearly waiting for me.

“Mary wants to see you,” she said.

“Really?” I said sarcastically. “Why didn’t you come in and get me?”

She gave me one of her intolerant looks, but I blew past her, and headed straight for Mary’s office.

“Alan,” Mary said, seeing me in her doorway. “Come in, sit down.” She beckoned me with a lifeless hand but kept her eyes on her computer monitor, her other hand on her mouse, targeting more email to delete unread. I crossed the vast expanse of her office and sat in one of the visitor chairs opposite her desk. I didn’t close the door behind me because that was not the kind of thing you did unless Mary told you to. She publicly adhered to an “open door” policy whenever possible.

Mary turned in her chair to face me. “Have you heard?” she said softly.

“Heard?” I asked. “Heard what?”

“It happened almost an hour ago,” she said. “I would’ve thought you would’ve heard about it by now.”

“I was stuck on a call,” I said uncomfortably. “What’s going on?”

Mary looked up and following her gaze I saw Ruthie leaning against the doorframe, her arms folded across her chest as if waiting for some task to perform. My eyes lingered there for a moment, sweeping over the wide belt she wore and the long pleated skirt that covered her legs. When I turned back Mary was studying me intently, rolling the diamond pendant that hung from her necklace between her thumb and dominant fingers.

“Michael gave me his resignation this morning.”

“What?” I said, genuinely surprised. “When did he do that?”

“This morning,” Mary said again. “While you were on your call.”

“But I saw Michael this morning. We waited for the coffee to finish brewing in the break room together. He told me about his plans for the weekend. Why didn’t he say anything to me about resigning?”

“Well, that’s part of what we need to talk about,” Mary said. “But we’re coming up on our eleven o’clock with the department heads, so it might be better if we schedule some time later this afternoon. But you should know that we walked him out.”

“You did?” I said. “Didn’t he give any notice?”

Mary nodded. “But given his reason for leaving, I thought it was better to cut him loose and just pay him for the two weeks.”

It was hard to process what Mary was telling me. Michael had quit and was already gone—escorted out of the building like a murder suspect, probably carrying his handful of personal effects in one of the brown cardboard boxes Peggy Wilcox kept stashed in a corner of her office.

“What reason was that?”

Mary pursed her lips, as if trying to keep something noxious from escaping. Her eyes flicked again to Ruthie, and I thought she might ask her to close the door, but she didn’t.

“He said he quit because of you,” Mary said sternly. “He said you treat him like a child and let other staff people abuse him.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, come on.”

“It’s true, Alan. It’s what he said.”

“It might be what he said, but that doesn’t make it true.”

“Are you saying he lied?”

I opened my mouth to speak but stopped myself abruptly, letting the breath fall out in a heavy sigh. I shot a look at Ruthie, still standing like a statue in the doorway. “You mind shutting the door, Ruthie?”

Ruthie twitched like someone had goosed her, uncrossing her arms and taking her shoulder off the doorframe. She traded a cautionary glance with her boss, and only stepped out of the room when Mary gave her an approving nod.

“Look, Mary,” I said, lowering my voice even though the door was now closed. “Michael is a head-case. You know that as well as I do. He always thinks someone is out to ridicule him.”

“What happened at your last staff qualities meeting?”

“What?” I said.

“What happened at your last staff qualities meeting?” Mary repeated. “Michael said you humiliated him in front of all the department heads.”

I bit my lip, remembering some of the things I had said to Michael.

“Alan,” she said with disappointment. “You didn’t—did you?”

“He was acting like a child, Mary. The rest of the team was on board with what we were doing but he refused, sitting there and pouting like a spoiled brat. I gave him a swift kick in the pants.”

Her eyebrows flew up. “You did what?”

“Figuratively,” I cried. “I didn’t actually kick him.” I took a deep breath and changed my tone. “I told him to grow up and get with the program.”

She shook her head and I could feel the frustration coming off of her. “We’re going to have to discuss this more, but we don’t have time now.” She pointed to a golden engraved clock on her desk—another award she had accepted on behalf of one of our clients. “It’s nearly eleven. The department heads are probably already gathering in the conference room.”

She pushed her chair back, stood up, and began mindlessly arranging pens and loose pieces of paper on her desk as though she needed them to be a certain way before she could leave. I skooched to the edge of the visitor chair, my elbows up and my sweaty palms flat on the chair arms, but did not get up. “Maybe we should reschedule?” I said, feeling my heart thumping away in my chest.

“Reschedule what?” she said with disdain. “The staff qualities meeting?”

“Yeah,” I said slowly, realizing too late that I was stepping into a trap.

Mary stopped moving things around on her desk and looked at me coldly, her eyes hooded and suspicious, as if she thought she had caught me trying to pull a fast one on her.

“Why?” she said. “Aren’t you ready?”

Bitch. I smiled at her. “Of course, I am.”

“Well,” she said. “Let’s go, then.”

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

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, October 28, 2019

Top Takes: The Chief Detail Officer

Take another look at the post that, as of this writing, has the seventh most pageviews on this entire blog:

The Chief Detail Officer

In a linked TED talk, Rory Sutherland persuasively makes the case that organizations don't spend enough time working on the small stuff. That, in fact, there is a bias in most organizations that big problems have to be met with big solutions--solutions that have to be conceptualized by powerful people and executed with lots and lots of money.

Sutherland doesn't claim that approach won't work in some situations, but he comes out stridently for a different approach, embodied by something he calls the Chief Detail Officer, the CDO. This isn't the person responsible for coordinating all the details. It is the person responsible for finding small things that cost little that have tremendous impact and making sure they are done right and consistently.

I've seen the need for such an approach myself, and can cite at least one circumstance when some small detail meant a great deal to one of my association members.

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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

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Because some other projects got in the way, I am composing this post about Small Gods approximately fifteen weeks after I finished reading it. And I have to admit, coming back to it after such a delay, I’m hard pressed to remember much about the experience.

Mostly I remember its satiric tone. On the cover, the Houston Chronicle is quoted as saying “Think J. R. R. Tolkien with a sharper, more satiric edge,” and that’s a fair enough description. But in the realm of fantasy and science fiction, I’d personally peg Pratchett somewhere between Piers Anthony and Douglas Adams.

I only dogeared one page, and it leads me now to one short highlighted paragraph; something, I think, I marked more because I liked its turn of phrase than its connection to Pratchett’s theme or plot.

Fear is strange soil. Mainly it grows obedience like corn, which grows in rows and makes weeding easy. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.

Although, now that I reflect on it, I at least remember that the book is about gods, faith, and dogma -- and the strange effects that they often have on people, their fates, and the ways in which they accept or reject them. And in that context, perhaps this lone highlighted snippet does make some contextual sense.

Sorry. I can’t offer you much else.

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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, October 21, 2019

Top Takes: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

Take another look at the post that, as of this writing, has the sixth most pageviews on this entire blog:

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

It's one of the many "mini term papers" I tend to offer up, free of charge, to desperate freshman English majors the world over.

My overall theses: This is a story of a boy becoming a man, and the changes he has to go through in order to make that transformation. The boy is named John Grady, and there is an exchange between him and a criminal in a Mexican prison that pretty well describes the difference between boys and men,

Where did you learn to fight? he said.

John Grady took a deep pull on the cigarette and leaned back.

What do you want to know? he said.

Only what the world wants to know.

What does the world want to know.

The world wants to know if you have cojones. If you are brave.

And that’s the essence. The world does not often test the bravery of a young boy. But as he grows and begins to make his way in it, it will test him, and if the boy passes the test, he will no longer be a boy. Regardless of his age—and John Grady is sixteen—if he can stand up to world and hold his own, he is a man.

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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

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 21 (DRAFT)

That weekend we had a family gathering to go to. One of Jenny’s cousins was getting married and they were throwing a big party to celebrate. It wasn’t the wedding reception—wasn’t even the rehearsal dinner—just a party to celebrate. Jenny’s family was like that. They’d get together for any reason or for no reason at all, and everyone would get hugged, once when they arrived and again when they left. It was weird.

It was at Jenny’s aunt’s house, a sprawling, palatial thing down by the lakefront with stucco walls and angular lines. It was a split-level, with a pool and a four-bay garage, each one with its own cedar wood door and Frank Lloyd Wright windows. We had just come in from the obligatory tour—Jenny’s uncle was rebuilding a 1963 Aston Martin in the far bay. Every time we went there we had to go see what small amounts of progress he was making. I was standing in one corner of the kitchen with a beer in my hand talking to one of the brothers of the groom-to-be. There were a lot of brothers in that family—six or seven, at least—I was never really sure. This one was named Tom.

“How’s work going?” Tom asked.

“Okay,” I said. It’s pretty much what I always said whenever someone asked me that question. It was simpler that way. But Tom was sort of family, and he knew what I did for a living, so I added, “Some days are better than others.”

Tom stopped himself in mid-sip of his Bacardi and Coke. “Didn’t Jenny tell me you were looking for something new?”

It was an interesting way of asking the question. It was entirely possible—likely even—but how was I supposed to know what Jenny told him? Jenny was always telling people something—quietly, and in confidence, as if setting traps for me to stumble into. Telling Pamela Thornsby about her pregnancy was a good example. I was still mad at her about that. I looked out into the great room and saw her in animated conversation with her Mom and two of her aunts. I had told her the night before that I was upset about how she had put me on the spot with Pamela, but she had just brushed it off, her tone practically indicating that I should really be thanking her for all the work she was doing on my job search.

“Well, yeah,” I said. “We’ve started looking.”

“How’s the job market look these days?”

Tom worked in the financial sector—doing what I’m not even sure. He seemed to get a new job every two years or so, hopping from one unheard of financial services firm to another, and always for an impressive step up, according to the family gossip.

I shrugged. “Hard to tell, we just started. I’ve got an interview on Tuesday.”

“Great!” Tom said with a wide smile. “Good luck with that.”

“It’s for a job in Boston.”

Tom gave me a strange look, prompted probably by my tone of voice. “Don’t want to move to Boston, eh?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“A little,” Tom said. “You might want to work on that before Tuesday. How long have you been at your current place?”

“Twelve years.”

Tom whistled. “Well, even if you don’t want to move to Boston, you should go into the interview like it’s the only job there is. You could probably use the practice.”

“Yeah,” I said, knowing he was right but not liking being told. Suddenly my phone started buzzing in my pocket.

“Is it a phone interview?” Tom asked.

I nodded, fishing my phone out and turning it so I could see its screen.

“All the more reason to work on your tone. Your voice is all they’re going to hear.”

I couldn’t make sense out of what the phone was telling me. I wasn’t getting a call, and the thing had stopped buzzing, but the red light was blinking as if I had gotten a voicemail and there was a strange icon I had never seen before on the screen.

“Excuse me,” I told Tom and began moving away from him as I flipped the phone open. I had one new text message.

Text message? I thought. Who was sending me a text message? I had never even used that function before.

I pushed the button to open the message and was greeted with: WHAT R U DOING?

What am I doing? Who was sending me this? There was a phone number listed in the “From” box, but I didn’t recognize it.

I decided to go into one of the bathrooms. The bride-to-be was just coming out and she smiled at me as I slinked past her and shut the door. Sitting down on the closed toilet I began trying to figure out how to respond to this message.

WHO IS THIS? I finally managed to type and then send.

I sat waiting, looking down at my phone as if it would start speaking to me. I was beginning to think that it was a fluke, a texted wrong number, if such a thing was possible, when it began vibrating in my hands, almost making me drop it. It was a new text from the same phone number. I pushed the button.


Bethany. Why the hell was she texting me on a Saturday? Why was she texting me at all? I sat there a looked at the message for a minute, trying to wrap my mind around what it might mean. Should I respond? I didn’t have to, did I? What if I just ignored it?

The phone buzzed again. R U THERE?

Maybe I should tell her to stop texting me?

YES. I sent back.


I took me a while to punch out my reply, my thumbs not used to the exercise.


I thought mentioning my wife might be a good idea. But I was curious. As I waited for the reply to come back I could feel my heart beating in my chest. It felt illicit, having this conversation with someone else’s wife when she wasn’t really there.


Thinking of me? What in God’s name did that mean? The little glowing letters gave me no other clues. There was no body language to read, no real context to put it in. Was she flirting with me?


I was imagining what Bethany might be wearing when I heard a child scream. My heart in my throat, I stood up to look out the window and saw Jacob and four of his cousins, running around in the backyard, laughing and shouting at each other.

The phone buzzed in my hand.


This should stop. I knew that and, as if to confirm it, just then there came a knock on the bathroom door.

“Is someone in there?” a woman’s voice called out.

“Just a minute!” I said, thinking wildly that it was Jenny, coming to catch me.

“No problem,” the voice said loudly, clearly now not Jenny, and then more softly, as if to a child, “come on, honey, let’s go find another potty.”

My thumbs went to work, my chest pounding now, the fear that I would be caught edging out the thrill that Bethany might send me something even more provocative.


After hitting send, I closed the phone and put it back in my pocket. I flushed the toilet for appearance sake and then went to the sink and turned on the water. I was splashing some on my face when I felt the phone start vibrating in my pocket. It created a warm feeling, and I tried not to make a lewd association. I told myself not to look at it, to ignore it and go back to the party, no matter how many more times she texted me, but my curiosity overwhelmed my resolve. I dried my face on one of the guest towels and then clawed the phone out of my pocket. The devilish little red light was flashing. I flipped it open.


It was only one word, and hopefully the last one, but the whole record of our preceding conversation was there for anyone to see. I fumbled around with my slippery fingers, trying to figure out how to delete the previous messages. Eventually I succeeded.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

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

Image Source

Monday, October 14, 2019

Top Takes: The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Take another look at the post that, as of this writing, has the fifth most pageviews on this entire blog:

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

It's one of the many "mini term papers" I tend to offer up, free of charge, to desperate freshman English majors the world over.

My overall theses: This is a play about the balance between order and freedom, and specifically order’s ultimate triumph over its weaker counterbalance.

The historical setting is, of course, the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. The order is that of the theocratic state, its functionaries able to convict, jail and hang those they determine to be in league with the Devil. The freedom is that of John Proctor, his wife Elizabeth, and their fellow villagers, who are held hostage by the accusations of a group of vengeful teenage girls.

It may seem silly to our modern sensibilities, but these people very much believed in God and the Devil, and the way the two of them battled for people’s souls right here on earth. And Miller paints no one in his drama as a fool, just as people with clashing motivations interpreting the world as they understand it.

It's a great play.

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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

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Martian by Andy Weir

So, in the face of overwhelming odds, I'm left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.

This is perhaps the most famous line in Andy Weir’s 369-page novel about an astronaut getting stranded alone on Mars and having to figure out how he was going to survive and get rescued. And when he says science, he is very much talking about hard sciences like botany, chemistry and physics, and not any of those silly soft sciences like psychology.

Teddy swiveled his chair and looked out the window to the sky beyond. Night was edging in. “What must it be like?” he pondered. “He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?”

He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”


How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.

Oh, and pop culture references. He’s going to “science the shit” out of those, too.

This is one of those cases where I saw the movie before reading the book. And I remember while watching Matt Damon’s performance, who the hell is this guy? This guy who is stranded on Mars and whose name I can never remember? And consistently, again and again, the movie refused to tell me. He’s an astronaut. He’s stranded on Mars. He’s going to science the shit out it. What else do you need to know? After the movie was over, I decided that the inner life of Mark Watney was something that the film producers had to leave on the cutting room floor in order to bring their project in on budget and at under three hours.

And then I read the book.

Anyway, at this rate it’ll take four more sols of (boring-ass) work to finish the drilling.

I’ve actually exhausted Lewis’s supply of shitty seventies TV. And I’ve read all of Johanssen’s mystery books.

I’ve already rifled through other crewmates’ stuff to find entertainment. But all of Vogel’s stuff is in German, Beck brought nothing but medical journals, and Martinez didn’t bring anything.

I got really bored, so I decided to pick a theme song!

Something appropriate. And naturally, it should be something from Lewis’s godawful seventies collection. It wouldn’t be right any other way.

There are plenty of great candidates: “Life on Mars?” by David Bowie, “Rocket Man” by Elton John, “Alone Again (Naturally)” by Gilbert O’Sullivan.

But I settled on “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees.

I’ve got a better suggestion. Mark Watney is the ultimate “Nowhere Man.” This is about the fiftieth reference to the media entertainment that the other astronauts -- the ones who inadvertently left him behind on Mars when the mission went wrong -- brought along with them. And never, not once, do we hear what Watney himself brought. We know he hates Lewis’s shitty seventies TV and music, but what does he like? What did he bring with him?

Nothing. Because he is not a real person in any sense of the word. In more ways than one, he is “the Martian.”


Being your backup has backfired.

I guess NASA figured botany and chemistry are similar because they both end in “Y.” One way or another, I ended up being your backup chemist.

Remember when they made you spend a day explaining your experiment to me? I was in the middle of intense mission prep. You may have forgotten.

You started my training by buying me a beer. For breakfast. Germans are awesome.

Anyway, now that I have time to kill, NASA gave me a pile of work. And all your chemistry crap is on the list. So now I have to do boring-ass experiments with test tubes and soil and pH levels and Zzzzzzzzzz….

My life is now a desperate struggle for survival … with occasional titration.

Frankly, I suspect you’re a super-villain. You’re a chemist, you have a German accent, you had a base on Mars … what more can there be?

This is one of the personal messages that Watney writes to his other crew members -- something the flight psychologist asked him to do, once he and they figured out how to pass communications between Mars, Earth, and the spaceship accelerating in-between. And it was about this time in the novel when I started wondering if Watney was simply an asshole, or if he suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome.

But more than that, I think it is symptomatic of the novel’s neglect of the psychological in favor of the hard scientific. There is only one time when the enormity of his situation seems to intrude on Watney’s knee-jerk bravado.

I’m no stranger to Mars. I’ve been here a long time. But I’ve never been out of sight of the Hab before today. You wouldn’t think that would make a difference, but it does.

As I made my way toward the RTG’s burial site, it hit me: Mars is a barren wasteland and I am completely alone here. I already knew that, of course. But there’s a difference between knowing it and really experiencing it. All around me there was nothing but dust, rocks, and endless empty desert in all directions. The planet’s famous red color is from iron oxide coating everything. So it’s not just a desert. It’s a desert so old it’s literally rusting.

The Hab is my only hint of civilization, and seeing it disappear made me way more uncomfortable than I like to admit.

In this moment, and apparently this moment only, Watney is no longer the titular Martian; the alien creature, ready to science the shit out of his surroundings. Here, and only here, he is a simple human being: weak, vulnerable, and afraid.

And, to me at least, far more interesting.

I put those thoughts behind me by concentrating on what was in front of me. I found the RTG right where it was supposed to be, four kilometers due south of the Hab.

Oh well. Back to the “story”.

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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, October 7, 2019

Top Takes: Membership Sales Is About More Than Just Increasing Membership Numbers

Take another look at the post that, as of this writing, has the fourth most pageviews on this entire blog:

Membership Sales Is About More Than Just Increasing Membership Numbers

It makes the point that selling is always about interacting with the market, and adjusting what you're saying about what you're selling (and sometimes adjusting what you're selling) based on that interaction.

Specific to associations, statements of membership value become most effective when they are tested and developed in discussion with real members and membership prospects. Crafting all your marketing copy in the office and launching it untested on the world is one of the best ways to get it wrong.

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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

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 20 (DRAFT)

It’s hard for me to describe the way I felt after that meeting. Confident. Proud. Happy in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. It was the first time since receiving my promotion that I honestly felt like I deserved it. I had actually done something important—adding value and leading the team to an outcome they couldn’t have achieved without me—instead of being just another layer of management, obfuscating what needed to be done.

When I got back to my office I somewhat giddily left Mary a voicemail. She was traveling that week, but I wanted her to know that we had completed our task, that we had a new system for screening talent that I thought she would be pleased with, and that we needed some time on her calendar to present it to her. While I was leaving the message my own voicemail light went on, and I was still feeling strong when I punched in my code to access my mailbox.

“Hi, honey,” my wife’s self-assured voice sounded. “Give me a call when you get this message. The company from Boston just called and they want to set up a phone interview at your earliest availability. I’ve got a good feeling about this one. The woman I spoke to was very nice. Love you.”

I deleted the message and put the phone back in its cradle. It was late in the afternoon and the office was starting to clear out. Even with Mary out of town, I felt a little awkward about following up on another job from my office—from a phone owned by my present employer. I thought about it for a minute or two, turning more considerations over in my mind than the situation really warranted, and eventually convinced myself it would be better to just cut out a few minutes early and talk to Jenny about it at home.

When I got there she was both surprised and disappointed to see me. “Why didn’t you call me? Boston’s an hour ahead of us. They might not be in the office anymore.”

“It didn’t feel right,” I said. “Calling from the office about another job.”

“Oh, Alan, please. You don’t work for the mob. Next time, just close your door.”

I had come in through the garage so Jenny led me to the phone sitting on a small table in our front foyer, directly at the bottom of the house’s main flight of stairs. Her stomach was big enough now that she was wearing maternity clothes, and I watched as the hem of her blouse flounced up and down with her movement. When we got to the foyer she started dialing the number for me.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Who am I calling?”

Instead of answering she simply pointed to the notepad beside the base of the wireless phone. Looking down I saw written in Jenny’s graceful script a woman’s name, the name of the Boston company, and a phone number with a 617 area code. When I looked back up Jenny was holding the receiver out for me and I could hear the distant Boston phone ringing. I quickly put the phone against my ear just as the line picked up.

“Hello, Pamela Thornsby.”

“Hello, Pamela? This is Alan Larson.”

“Alan,” the voice said, sounding relieved. “Thanks for returning my call. You caught me just before I walked out the door.”

I gave Jenny a stern look. “Is it a bad time? Should I call back tomorrow?”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Pamela said. “It’s actually better that we touch base now.”

I heard the shuffling of some papers from Pamela’s end of the line and then she quickly resumed. “I’m the human resources director for Quest Partners, and we received…yes, here it is, we received your resume and application for the account executive position we have open. We’d like to set up a telephone interview for sometime next week, if that will work in your schedule.”

Jenny moved closer to me and I knew she was trying to hear what Pamela was saying.
“That’s great,” I said, pushing Jenny gently away. “Can you hold a minute while I grab my calendar?”


I put the phone down and went to retrieve my calendar from my briefcase. As I was doing so Jacob appeared at the top of the stairs and began calling down for Jenny.


“Shhh!” Jenny hissed, springing up a few of the steps and motioning for Jacob to quiet down. “Daddy’s on an important phone call, honey.”

Calendar in hand, I picked up the phone again. “Okay, next week,” I said as calmly as I could. “Earlier in the week is better than later for me.”

“But, Mommy!” Jacob cried, if anything, louder than before. “I need your help!”

“How about Tuesday?” Pamela asked in one ear.

“One minute, honey,” Jenny’s voice echoed in the other. “After Daddy finishes his call.”

Now my mind was racing. I knew Mary was back in the office next week but I didn’t know what was on her calendar. I didn’t want to schedule this interview for a time she might later choose for our meeting on the staff qualities. Figuring she would want at least a day to catch up before meeting with us, I said, “That could work. But Monday might be better.”

“Mommy! I need you RIGHT NOW!”

“I’m sorry,” Pamela said. “I’m booking all the phone interviews for next week and Monday is full up. I do have a spot on Tuesday morning. Will that work?”

I looked up at Jenny. She was halfway up the stairs now, crouching like a bloated crab to keep both me and Jacob in her sights. She had one arm extended towards Jacob with a cautionary finger raised, but her face was turned back towards me, her ear cocked as if still trying to listen in on my telephone conversation. “Just a minute, honey,” she said.

I waved my hand at her violently, trying to shoo her the rest of the way up the stairs and keep Jacob quiet. “Yes, what time?” I said into the phone and then clamped my hand over the mouthpiece so I could shout-whisper at my wife. “Go deal with him!”

“Ten o’clock?”

Jenny looked about ready to start an argument but Jacob began bellowing Mommy again and that got her moving finally up the stairs.

“Yes,” I said, watching Jenny turn Jacob by his slender shoulders and begin marching him down the upstairs hallway towards him room. “That would be fine.”

“What number should I call you on?”

Jacob was still babbling, going on and on about something missing from his train set and Jenny needing to find it for him, with Jenny hushing him the entire time. She eventually got him behind his closed bedroom door, and that muffled him enough that I thought I could concentrate again.

“Uh, would it be all right if I called you?” I asked, realizing I wouldn’t want to take the call at home or at the office.

“Yes,” Pamela said. “Just use the same number you called today. I’ll be here.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“Was that your son?”

My mind was wandering, thinking about quiet places I could go to make the call on Tuesday—a coffee shop, the library, my car in a corner of the parking structure.

“Excuse me?”

“In the background, was that your son? When I spoke to your wife earlier she said you had a four-year-old.”

“She did?”

“Yes. He sounds a lot like mine. And Jenny said she was expecting your second in a few months. Congratulations.”

In the silence of my own response I could hear my wife’s muffled voice coming through the floorboards, chiding Jacob for needing to be quiet while Mommy or Daddy was on the phone, and Jacob still pleading with her to help him.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said eventually. “The ultrasound says this one’s going to be a girl. I hope she’s quieter than her brother.”

Pamela chuckled. “Don’t bet on it,” she said. “I’ll talk to you on Tuesday, Alan.”

“Ten o’clock,” I confirmed.

We said our goodbyes and the line clicked off, but I was still turning her last few comments over in my mind. Why, I wondered, would Jenny share such personal details with a prospective employer? Couldn’t she just take a message? How on earth did such a subject even come up? Hello, is Alan there? I don’t know, let me move my pregnant belly out of the way and see if I can find him.

Jenny and Jacob still embroiled in their discussion above me, I put the phone back on its charging pad and began walking up the stairs to find out.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

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

Image Source

Monday, September 30, 2019

Top Takes: The Chairman's Gift

Take another look at the post that, as of this writing, has the third most pageviews on this entire blog:

The Chairman's Gift

It's about a tradition we have at our association, where we give the outgoing chair of the Board a gift unique and meaningful to them. We do it because we value our chairs for the humans they are, but also to send a clear message to everyone else on the Board and at the retreat where the gift is usually bestowed.

Our association is a family, and we care about each other in ways that go beyond financial reports, strategic objectives, and key performance indicators.

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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

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass

This is a delightful short novel, ostensibly about the early Country music sensation known as the Browns, but really about something much deeper and primal.

The Browns are siblings -- Jim Ed, Bonnie, and Maxine -- and, for a time in the 1950s and 60s, they were among the most popular recording artists in the world. The harmonic sound of their voices, stylized by Bass and others as “Nashville Chrome,” was not only their claim to fame, but is, in many ways, the lever Bass uses to pry open the novel’s dark secrets.

That the greatest voices, the greatest harmony in country music, should come from such a hardscrabble swamp -- Popular Creek, Arkansas -- and that fame should lavish itself upon the three of them, their voices braiding together to give the country the precise thing it most needed or desired -- silky polish, after so much raggedness, and a sound that would be referred to as Nashville Chrome -- makes an observer pause. Did their fabulous voices come from their own hungers within, or from thrice-in-a-lifetime coincidence? They were in the right place at the right time, and the wrong place at the right time.

So Much Raggedness

Bass’s novel, as beautiful and as evocative as it is, doesn’t lend itself to easy citation or explanation. There is a plot, but it is pleasantly subservient to the sparse tone and philosophic yearning of its prose.

Early on, the focus is very much on the ragged forest world from which the Browns are seemingly called.

The little sawmill was perched at the edge of the dark woods, resting atop the rich soil, with the workers gnawing their way slowly into the old forest. Some years the workers would bring the logs in to the mill, and other years -- depending on transportation logistics and contracts -- the mill would pack up and move a little farther into the woods. There were still panthers in the swamps and bears in the mountains, or what passed for mountains in those old worn-down hills.

This was another of the paths of their childhood, the physical and sensual sounds and odors of the mill, with the blades whirring on and off throughout the day -- the high whine of the spinning, waiting blade powering down to a deep groan as the blade accepted the timber, the blades sending out a different pitch for rough cut, planing, or finishing, and likewise a different tone based on size, density, even species of timber and time of year, and whether the tree grew on a north slope or a south slope.

Different smells, too, wafted through their lives in ribbons of scent -- the green odor of the living wood and the drier one of dead wood, the latter a scent like that of a campfire; the smell of the diesel engines as well as those of the mules and horses that sometimes skidded the logs out of the swamp when gasoline was scarce or could not be squandered; the scent and creaking sound of the leather harnesses and other tack of the mules and horses; the stale alcohol-sweat and the tobacco of the laborers, all of them missing fingers, even hands and arms, sometimes from the blade but more often from the logs themselves, thousand-pound rolling pins cascading off the truck, crushing and pinching anything in their way.

And where the workers had not lost some of the various parts of themselves -- where there was still a full complement of teeth and fingers and thumbs, hands, feet, arms, and legs -- there were internal injuries: broken bones, alcoholism, rage, and the mute desperation of a poverty unknown by several previous generations.

It is an ancient place, only recently occupied by man, with only a handful of generations to learn its dark secrets, not nearly enough to either master or transcend it. But...

The children knew no other world. The forest -- both the injured forest as well as the uninjured -- combined with the children’s spirits like the gold light that came down through the dense canopy of broad leaves in the morning: each pattern of leaf, each lobe and serration, already accommodated to the specificity of its time and place.

In that forest, the shady dapple of the leaves moderated the temperature of the soil and gave nutrition to the legions of meek insects, the lives of which also helped enrich and process the soil, and each morning in the spring and summer, the forest would begin to hiss with chlorophyllic excess -- a tremendous, thunderous, silent power, a silent energy shimmering above the leaves with such verve that it was almost audible.

The green light bathed the children, infiltrated their lungs, shimmered its golden way up into their minds. They could have stayed there forever -- as had the generations before them -- but the force that had come into them desired otherwise.

This is not the first mention of this force, and it will not be the last. But for now, let’s focus a moment on what happens when something as beautiful as Nashville Chrome enters this ragged world.

Floyd and Birdie [the parents of the Browns] continued to marvel at -- to revel in -- their children’s ability to make a living doing what everyone in their family had always done, playing music and singing -- and marveled too at the celebrity. Only Norma [a younger sister] remained behind now, still in school, but in some ways it was almost as if the others were still at home, for at almost any hour of the day or night, they could turn on their radio -- a gift from their children -- and, if they listened long enough, one of the Browns’ songs would always come on. It was almost like it had been when they were still living at home.

To Floyd, in such moments, lying on his back beneath the maw of a tractor, or mucking out the mules’ stalls, it was almost as if they were still right there, and occasionally he would stop in his labors and just listen: and though they were his children and it was a sound he had known all his life, even he, with his familiarity with their music, and his gruff demons, would in those moments know a balm. He would lie there looking up at the blue sky through the underside of the old engine, or would lean on his shovel and just listen, with a strange and wonderful mix of emotions; the old fevers draining away as if never to return, and pride swelling in him, and the core thing, the thing he didn’t even think about much: love.

One of the things I like so much about this book -- and, I think about Bass as a writer, is his ability to put us there, with Floyd, leaning on that shovel, remembering what love is. A moment of respite from a weary world.

When times were good like that, and Floyd was in his cups but not yet despondent or bitter or frightened, he had a saying, a little joke, that indicated how pleased he was with such rare moments of calm and cheer and fearlessness. He knew such confidence was foolish, which was why it amused him, on the occasions he felt it.

“We might get out of this alive after all,” he would say, grinning, enormously pleased with life, and the moment. Laughing at himself, mostly, knowing how quickly that moment of optimism was fading even as he briefly inhabited it.

Their Own Hungers Within

But Nashville Chrome has other effects -- effects both on those who hear it and on those who produce it. With the love, it awakens a deep and unsatisfiable hunger for more, more, more. And of the three Brown siblings, it is Maxine that feels this hunger the deepest of them all.

For a long time, things had been simple, and any hungers they ever had were physical, but once the world discovered their sound, they knew a different kind of hunger. The size and magnitude of it, she realizes now, was precisely the size of the world’s hunger, though for what, even now, she cannot say for sure.

This is told in the future, when Maxine is an old woman, living alone in a house with the memories of her youth and career.

Sometimes she goes into her tiny office, where all her memorabilia is stored neatly in cedar chests, and where framed photographs cover every inch of wall and occupy every portion of desk space: photos of her and her brother and sister with all of the old greats: Ernest Tubb, Vassar Clements, Doc Watson, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner. Elvis, of course, and the Beatles, and the Mamas and the Papas, even Dylan. Pictures of her with senators, governors, and presidents. A newspaper from London that reported them to be the number one musical act in all of England. Pictures of her throwing out the first pitch at the All-Star Game in 1956, when the Browns were at the top of both the country and pop charts simultaneously, the first time that had ever been done, and also the last. She was dating the Washington Senators’ third baseman, who was playing in the game; they were a couple in the era before the proliferation of tabloids dedicated to chronicling such movements. He suggested that she throw out the first pitch, and that the Browns sing the national anthem, which they did.

A clock somewhere ticking, melting away, back then, but they had no idea.

Maxine’s end is not a pretty one. A practical shut-in, she dreams of a return to her former glory, dreams even while her brother enjoys a semi-successful solo career and her younger sister -- after coming close to marrying Elvis Presley, settles down with another man and fades happily from the spotlight. Maxine, it seems, can do neither -- too proud to settle down and too frightened to put herself out and fail.

And in her end, Bass, I believe, wants us to see his, ours, everyone’s.

Restricted to the downstairs section of her house as she is, Maxine longs for the day when she can climb the steps again and shower in her own bathroom, can select clothes from her bedroom closet, rather than sleeping on the couch and living out of the cardboard box that Bonnie brought downstairs for her. No one ever thinks they will end up this way; yet neither are there any plans that can be laid to prevent such steady approach of darkness, when it is darkness’s time to come.

Only An Elemental Force

And Bass’s judgment, again and again, is that this story, all of it, both the raggedness that gave them birth and the hungers that compelled them, is all part of some fundamental force that shapes us and the way the world receives us. This “elemental force” is mentioned frequently, given as an explanation that of course explains nothing.

The girls didn’t get to sleep around. That was the boys’ task, the boys’ duty. Bonnie didn’t want to -- was saving herself for marriage -- and Maxine, though she wanted to, didn’t, mostly just because she wasn’t supposed to. More smoldering. So much waiting. Still believing she had a hand in this matter of her life -- in any of it.

In the morning the party-life would be gone entirely, passing like a wonderful storm for the boys, and they would all four reconvene for breakfast, bleary-eyes and wrung out, but filling back up, the well recharging from what was surely a limitless reservoir.

Did Maxine and Bonnie want their own partners, as enduring and steadfast as were the boys’ liaisons fleeting? Bonnie, certainly; Maxine, less so. By that point she would bury any ten lovers if it helped her get more of the drug she needed. She told Bonnie she was “horny as a two-peckered billy goat,” but her real hunger was for something far below.

Was it her fault that she was that way, or anyone’s fault that two sisters of the same parents could be so different? There was no right or wrong in it. It was all only an elemental force blowing through them. It was all requisite for the world to turn as it turned.

I think Bass is able to capture the poignancy of it all, even if his characters never really do. When it comes to Nashville Chrome -- both the sweet sound of the Browns and the metaphoric spirit that it represents -- there can never really be an explanation for why it comes and why it goes. The world produces it, the same way it produces both summer showers and raging hurricanes, either for reasons beyond our comprehension or for no reason at all. We, after all, are only the droplets of water that the world harnesses for its inscrutable purpose.

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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, September 23, 2019

Top Takes: The 4 Disciplines of Execution

Take another look at the post that, as of this writing, has the second most pageviews on this entire blog:

The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling

It's my take on a book with the subtitle of “Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals,” something the authors refer to as WIGs. In the overall, it describes a deceptively simple and oddly compelling system for achieving them. They call it 4DX, short for the Four Disciplines of Execution, and they are:

1. Focus on the Wildly Important
2. Act on the Lead Measures
3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
4. Create a Cadence of Accountability

Lots of great content in the post, even a theoretical application of these disciplines to my own organization.

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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

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 19 (DRAFT)

Talking with Bethany helped me decide one very important thing. If this insurrection was going to have any chance of success, I was going to have to be careful not to get too far out in front of it. If I tried to position myself as its leader—the magnetic messiah here to take everyone to the Promised Land—it was going to fail. I certainly didn’t have the charisma to pull something like that off, but more importantly, there was too much cynicism about leaders and leadership boiled into the culture of our organization.

Mary Walton and Don Bascom were daily reminders that leaders had agendas which rarely coincided with the interests of the people they led. Don wanted his systems running smoothly and Mary wanted her clients staying happy, and neither seemed to care a morsel for any of the people in their employ. And if Don and Mary’s example wasn’t convincing, then all you had to do was look out into the ranks of the volunteer leadership in our client organizations. There you would see even starker examples—opportunists like Eleanor Rumford, for whom you were just a tool for advancing her own career—or worse yet, predators like Wes Howard, who used people to satisfy even baser desires.

Every organization had people like these—small-minded operators like Mary and Don, and major manipulators like Eleanor and Wes—and everyone knew why people like that rose to become leaders. No one but them would ever have as much drive or ambition. A deep collective understanding had penetrated the consciousness of all who did not have their corrupting aspiration to lead, who only wanted to do their jobs to the best of their abilities and contribute in their own small way to the overall success of the organization. All leaders, they knew, were tyrants, and they each were only interested in their selfish and self-absorbed objectives.

So I couldn’t lead this revolt. If I tried, no one would trust me, seeing in me the same power-mad behavior that had burned them so many times before. But I could help the revolt happen because I had been given a weapon like no other in the company. My position was unique, remember, residing below Mary and Don, but ambiguously above everyone else, such that no one quite understood the limits of my authority. I knew I could start testing those limits by taking liberties, by consciously erring on the side of action, and seeing bit by bit what Mary would allow. And it was that strategy, coupled with the mandate Mary herself had given me to reinvent the way in which the company reviewed and hired talent, which created this unbelievable opportunity to start pushing against the castle walls and see if any of them could be toppled.

Acting alone, or as the visible leader of a movement, would only isolate me and make me easier to destroy. But by turning my special weapon over to the people and letting them decide how to use it, I thought we just might be able to slay the dragon and move back into the keep she had stolen from us.

And that’s exactly what Bethany and I decided we had to do at that afternoon’s staff meeting. Together we had come up with a way to deal with the ninety-nine behaviors, something that could make them manageable and easy to implement within the company—and most importantly, something that everyone would have a stake in. At its root the idea was based on a brainstorming technique Bethany had read about in one of the trade magazines that were always piling up in her office. It was something called an “affinity diagram.”

“A what?” Michael said as soon as I mentioned it around our afternoon meeting table. There was a sneer on his face and a dash of disdain in his voice, as if it couldn’t possibly be useful for brainstorming if he hadn’t heard of it before.

“It’s a way of taking a long list of things—things like these behaviors—and having a group organize them into similar themes and categories.”

“Well, what good will that do?” Michael snapped.

“Let just try it and see,” I said, and began passing around packs of fluorescent yellow Post-it Notes and black Sharpie markers. I had already distributed copies of the ninety-nine behaviors, and now I asked everyone to help me transfer them to ninety-nine different Post-It Notes. I got a few skeptical looks but no open rebellion, and in a few minutes the table was covered in yellow flags, each with an observable behavior written on it in black ink.

Next I stood up and began transferring the Notes from the table to a large open section of the conference room wall. To keep them from getting stuck together, I could only do three or four at a time, but Bethany got up to help, and when it became clear what we were doing, several of the others pitched in as well. Scott helped, and I thought that was a good sign. So did Peggy, Angie, and Jurgis. Michael and Gerald were the only two who didn’t budge.

“Okay,” I said, turning to face them all with the Notes scattered on the wall behind me. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’ve got a lot of ideas here, but there’s too many and they’re too interrelated for them to do what we want—succinctly describe the qualities of an ideal staff person. So we’re all going to come over to this wall—Michael and Gerald; you, too—and together we’re going to move the Post-It Notes around until the behaviors are grouped into the categories that make the most sense.”

“Categories?” Angie said, looking at the wall behind me as if expecting to see more information there. “What categories?”

“I don’t know,” I said calmly. “I’m going to let the group decide that. Oh, and we’re going to do this grouping of behaviors without talking to each other.”


Michael had risen from his seat but had not moved away from the table.

“You heard me right, Michael. No talking.”

“But how are we going to decide on the categories if we can’t talk about them first?”

I saw the anxiety in his eyes. “I don’t know,” I said, perhaps too smugly, quietly happy to see him squirm. “Why don’t we give it a try and see what happens.”

Michael looked around the room, his eyes searching for an ally. Only he and Gerald remained near the conference table—Gerald sitting quietly and Michael standing beside him. Everyone else was already gathered with me near the wall of Post-it Notes, staring back at him and waiting to see what he would do.

Suddenly Gerald rose to his feet. Michael looked at him with relief, but then with growing concern as Gerald slowly made his way around the conference table. The cluster of us parted to give him room to leave if that was what he planned to do—and part of me feared he would. If there was anyone in the room who was going to see through my clumsy attempt at team building, it was Gerald—because Gerald was not a team player. But to everyone’s surprise, Gerald did not leave the room. Instead, he gave me an odd sort of satisfied look and then began rearranging Post-It Notes on Mary’s white wall.

All eyes were suddenly on me. Eyes surrounded by happy faces, and no face more happy than Bethany’s. She positively beamed at me.

“Well, go on,” I told them. “Don’t just stand there. Take a look at what Gerald is doing. Do you agree with how he’s grouping them? If not, move them around. That’s another one of the rules. Anybody can move any behavior to another group or to a new group at any time. We’ll keep going until no one wants to make any more moves. And remember—no talking!”

Then they all fell in, lining up along the wall on either side of Gerald and paying close attention to what he was doing. I waited until several had begun to touch the Post-It Notes, creating their own groupings and even pulling Notes out of the groups Gerald was building, before turning to face Michael.

He still stood on the other side of the table, his lower lip protruding like a kid who hadn’t been picked by either playground team. I didn’t know what his hang-up was, but I told myself to go easy on him as I slowly made my way over to his side of the table.

“Michael, come on, just give it a try,” I said as softly as I could, not realizing how much my voice would carry in the silent room. It was odd to have that much activity and for there to be no sound but the papery shush of sticky Post-It Notes coming off the wall. “We need your input. This isn’t going to work unless everyone participates.”

He gave me an ornery look and seemed ready to say something, but then held it back.

“What?” I asked him, whispering because I could tell by his darting eyes that he was concerned about us being overheard.

“Nothing,” he said softly through clenched teeth. “It’s nothing.”

That was a lie if I ever heard one. Something was boiling away under Michael’s collar, but I wasn’t likely to hear about it now. Later he might come storming into my office to complain, or worse yet he’d bitch to a group of junior staff and it would be morphed into next week’s office gossip, but he wasn’t going to tell me now—not now, when I could actually do something about it. And suddenly I thought, you know what—screw it. I’m doing the best I can with this, and if Michael wants to get his undies all twisted up, then he’ll just have to straighten them out by himself. I’d lost my patience for his melodrama.

“Fine,” I said directly. “Then how about acting like a grown up and joining the others in this little exercise?”

Michael gave me a searing look, and I knew I was going to pay for that remark later, but I held firm and eventually he went over and joined the group. I watched him as he stood there unmoving for a while, a dead insect lost and forgotten on the outskirts of the colony, but I could tell by his posture that he was paying close attention to what everyone else was doing.

“No, not there!” he said suddenly, his deep voice echoing off the vast white wall with all its fluttering yellow flags. He rushed forward, ripping a Note off the wall, one that Angie had just moved from one group to another. “These are all about problem solving,” he said angrily, making a big circular motion with his hand. “This,” he said, holding the single Note up in front of Angie’s nose, “is about showing initiative. It belongs over here.” He slapped the Note on the wall where he thought it belonged, and then turned back to the group, a smug and confident smile on his face.

I felt like running over there and smacking the arrogant prick on the head, but I held myself back, waiting to see how the others would handle it. It pleased me to see the confidence drain out of Michael’s face as he was met by the scowls and frowns of the other department heads.

“Michael,” Bethany said gently. “It’s okay if you want to move that behavior to a new group, but you’re not supposed to talk about it.”

“Well, why not?” Michael complained. “How are we supposed to get the groups right if we don’t talk about them and decide what they should be?”

“We were doing just fine before you opened your mouth,” Scott said peevishly. It was the first thing he had said in the whole meeting. “Did you not know that group was for problem solving and this one was for showing initiative?”

“Well, yeah,” Michael said reluctantly. “But if that was so clear to everyone, why did Angie put that behavior in the wrong group?”

“Maybe I did put it in the wrong group,” Angie allowed. “But maybe I didn’t. Maybe I see a different pattern and that behavior belongs in that group.”

“Maybe,” Michael said skeptically, looking back at the wall. “But how are we supposed to know that unless you tell us about it?”

“Michael,” Gerald said with great diplomacy. “We don’t want to talk about it. If we talk about it, it’ll turn into an argument, and if it’s an argument then someone will want to win it, and that’ll likely be the person who complains the most. We’re not trying to win an argument here. We’re looking for a consensus, and the best way to find one is to give everyone equal authority in the process. That means no squeaky wheels. Just actions the group is free to accept or reject.”

Michael shook his head. “This is fucking crazy.”

“Just try it, okay?” Peggy said, clasping Michael’s arm. “If you just be patient and watch, I think you’ll find that this process is working.”

It was good to see the group policing itself like this, and especially satisfying to see Gerald expressing such support, but a little alarm bell went off in my head when Michael yanked his arm out of Peggy’s gentle grasp. He looked ready to bite her, but he partially composed himself when he saw her shocked look.

“I’ll watch,” Michael said tersely. “But I’m not going be quiet if I see you guys doing something wrong.”

“Then get out of their way, Michael,” I said irritably. “You can play by the rules or you can sit on the sidelines. You decide.”

Michael gave me another venomous look, and I thought he might go storming out of there, like he had the week before when I hadn’t taken his complaints about Gerald seriously. I really didn’t want him to leave. Everyone needed to be a part of this if it was going to work, but I also couldn’t have him disrupting the process. Supportive looks from the rest of the team gave me the sense I was handling him right, and I returned his stare with equal vehemence.

“Okay,” Michael said, plopping himself like a pouting child into one of the conference room chairs and crossing his powerful arms across his chest. “I’ll watch and be quiet. But I don’t think this is getting us anywhere.”

It was the best I was going to get. The others turned back to the wall of Post-It Notes. I kept my attention on the back of Michael’s thick head for a while, but as he maintained his promised silence my eyes were drawn towards the work of the others.

It was fascinating to watch. For twenty minutes they worked in silence, moving yellow behaviors around on a great white canvas, creating something none of them could individually articulate. There was a lot of back and forth—the same two people often moving the same behavior between the same two groups, but without the ability to argue, one of them would eventually take a step back and look at the larger pattern that was being created. Sometimes they would acquiesce and allow the contested behavior to stay in the other person’s group, and sometimes they would dive in with fresh inspiration and rearrange several other behaviors into new groupings altogether. Once, when Jurgis did this, the others stood back and examined the new arrangement, and then burst into spontaneous laughter, Gerald even going so far as to give Jurgis a congratulatory slap on the back. They couldn’t say anything, but they needed to express their satisfaction, nodding positively to each other and smiling with their mouths open.

I found it inspiring. The only shadow on the production was Michael, who sat unmoving in his chair the entire time. As the group came to their final consensus, the whisper of moving Post-It Notes slowing and eventually stopping like the sound of microwave popcorn, I was determined to find some way to get him engaged.


I looked up. It was Bethany, standing amidst the others, smiling broadly.


“We’re done.”

“You are?” I said, stepping quickly around the conference table to join them beside the wall. It was still covered with yellow Post-It Notes, but now they were all neatly arranged into eleven distinct groups. “Are you sure?” I asked, running my eyes over the black writing on each one. “No one wants to make any more changes?”

“No,” Gerald said. “We’re done.”

I’m not sure I ever saw Gerald smile before, but he was smiling now. They all were. Gerald and Bethany and Jurgis and Angie and Scott and Peggy—all smiling at me like I had given them some precious gift, some magical talisman that they had used to create something both beautiful and sublime.

And now, in this triumphant moment, I took a pack of blue Post-It Notes out of my pocket and tossed them to Michael. He flinched awkwardly as they landed in his lap, and then clutched at them to keep them from sliding off his thigh.

“Michael,” I said gently. “Why don’t you put a title on each of these groups.”

He looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. “What?”

“With those,” I said, indicating the blue Post-Its Notes. “Grab a Sharpie and put a title over each group the rest of the team has assembled. I don’t think anyone will mind.”

Then I saw the understanding come like a blush over his face, followed quickly by a scowl, and for a moment I thought he was going to rebuff me—thought he was going to throw the Post-It Notes back at me and tell me where to stick them. But then the others started to encourage him. Bethany first, then Peggy in her wholesome way, and then everyone, even Gerald, beckoning Michael forward and asking him to join their team. And where he might have rejected me, I saw, there was no way he could reject them all.

So like a star pupil called on to solve a difficult problem, Michael rose out of his chair and silently approached the wall. With the blue Post-Its I had given him and the black Sharpie he had taken from the table, he gave each grouping a title, writing each in his strong hand while the rest of the team looked on approvingly.

Thrives in a team environment, was the first one Michael wrote and stuck on the wall, followed by Shows initiative and Anticipates challenges. He stood and thought for a while with the next grouping, eventually settling on Creatively applies resources to solve problems, and then fired off Maintains positive relationships and Shows respect for others in quick succession. Supports the mission of the organization was an easy one, as was Practices a healthy work/life balance and Mentors others. An actual buzz of excitement began to rise in the room as Michael wrote and affixed Values professional development, culminating in an actual round of applause when Is visionary rounded out the group of eleven.

There were no surprises—not for me nor for anyone else in the room. Bethany’s affinity diagramming had worked so well that any one of us could have done what Michael did and we would have wound up using the same or very similar words. In one hour we had done what had seemed impossible the week before—we had described the characteristics of the ideal staff person and, for each trait, we had a list of observable behaviors. The mechanism to generate the interview questions that would help hire new staff, and to reframe the performance evaluation to better determine rewards and incentives, was there on the wall before us. We had succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations and we had done it by working together as a team. As Michael turned away from the wall, a transformed look of satisfaction and pride on his face, I felt like there wasn’t anything that team couldn’t do.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

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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