Saturday, November 30, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 24 (DRAFT)

There wasn’t much time to lick my wounds. The next day a group of us were leaving for my client’s national conference, and the afternoon was filled with preparatory meetings, going over a variety of last minute details. I also had to squeeze in a meeting with Michael’s staff. Several of them were going to the conference—they needed to manage the press room and handle the public relations—and Michael’s sudden departure had really unsettled them. Like a lot of junior staff in the company, they were all young women in their twenties, some of them confident but none of them very experienced. I think they had been planning on just doing whatever Michael told them to do at the conference. The realization that they would now be making their own decisions only penetrated their awareness enough to frighten them.

“What if they want to interview someone who’s not available?” one of them asked, referring to members of the press who covered the conference. “What if they don't come to the press conferences we’ve scheduled?” asked another. “What if we need to reach you?”

I did the best I could to reassure them, acknowledging that the situation was less than ideal. I told them they would know what to do, that two of them had been to the conference before and would be able to help the others. I said I had confidence in their abilities. I would check in on them as frequently as I could, and I would always be just a phone call away. All platitudes, but I said them as sincerely as I could, looking into their innocent eyes and trying to determine which ones would make it and which ones would crack under the pressure.

The truth was I had my own demons to wrestle with. I knew a lot was riding on the successful completion of this conference—Eleanor seemed to echo like the voice of doom in my head whenever I thought about it—but with all the energy I had been pouring into the staff qualities, I felt now and suddenly that I had let preparations for the conference take too much of a back seat, and that near-certain disaster awaited. Something would go wrong—with me pinch hitting as director of both the education and communications departments, I didn’t see how that could be avoided. The only question seemed to be how deep the shit was going to get.

Bethany snagged me during a spare minute that afternoon, as I moved from one meeting to another where my only role seemed to be showing a confidence I didn’t truly feel.

“How are you doing?” she asked quietly.

We were standing in a corner of one of the small conference rooms, a meeting with her staff just ending and people still filing out the door.

“I’m good,” I said, not able to say anything else while others were within earshot. I wanted to ask her why the hell she hadn't said anything in the meeting with Mary, why she had simply sat there like a deafmute while Mary dismantled everything we had planned.

Bethany looked like she wanted to say something else, too, but I was glad she didn’t. Given the way she was looking at me, I’m not sure I was ready to hear it.

“I will help,” she said eventually, touching my hand clandestinely, as I had under the conference table earlier. Her back was to the others, but her fingers were warm on my flesh, and they made me feel like everyone could see what was going on. “With Michael’s workload,” she continued. “Especially at the conference. If you need me to cover something, just let me know.”

“Okay,” I said, my eyes more on the departing staff than on her.

She leaned in closer, as if she meant to kiss me.

“You did good,” she whispered. “You stood your ground. People noticed.”

With no help from you. I kept the comment to myself. Even with everyone else out of the room, I knew this wasn’t the place for an argument. Instead, in a moment of weakness, I shared my frustration. “She killed work/life balance, Bethany. The only one that really mattered.”

She offered me a bemused smile, patting my hand before withdrawing. “One step at a time. We accomplished a lot. If we keep pushing, things will change eventually.”

“Do you really think so?”

She looked at me confidently. “I know so.”

I didn’t have much time to think about it until later that night when I took Jacob to another one of his Sports Classes. I was stuck late at the office again, and on the drive home I went through my voicemail and left several messages for people in response. By the time I got home I had already missed dinner and Jenny had Jacob dressed and ready to leave.

“How’d the interview go?” Jenny asked as I came in and Jacob ran into my legs.

“Okay,” I said, turning to the side and helping my son out the door.

“Okay?” she said with dissatisfaction. “Is that good or bad?”

“It's okay. I don’t know, look, I haven’t had much time to think about it. I’ve been running a mile a minute and now I have to get Jacob to class. Can we talk about this later?”

“Sure can. Have fun!”

Yeah, right, have fun. Like that’s possible with her in such a flippy mood. It wasn’t have fun as in, “have fun, my love, you deserve it and I know how much you enjoy spending time with your son.” No, it was have fun as in, “have fun you good-for-nothing piece of shit, it’s about time you started doing your part in raising your little monster.” Those aren’t the words Jenny would have ever used—but, then again, she didn’t have to. When she was at the end of one of her long days as Jacob’s sole caregiver, all she needed to convey her frustration was the tone of her voice.

I knew I should cut her some slack, but it was hard after the kind of day I had had. As I drove Jacob to the high school, I tried to put her and everything else out of my mind.

“Jacob,” I said, looking at him in the observation mirror Jenny had installed on the edge of our sun visor. He was looking out the window, his hat pulled down too far over his eyes.

No answer.

“Jacob, buddy, what will we play tonight?” I adopted my Daddy voice, the one laced with excitement and promises of roughhousing. “Are we going to play soccer? Or tee ball?”

Still no answer—just staring out the window as if hypnotized.

“Jacob!” I barked, dropping all pretense of frivolity. “Can you hear me?”

I heard him sigh, and saw his little shoulders go up and down in my spy mirror.

“Daddy,” he said forlornly. “I don't want to go to Sports Class tonight.”

“What? Why not? I thought you liked Sports Class?”

“I don’t like it. I want to stay home with Mommy.”

Great. Mommy. “Come on, you'll have fun. Maybe we’ll do bowling tonight.” Bowling was Jacob’s favorite, tossing the red rubber ball and smashing it into the wooden pins.

“No,” he pouted. “I don’t want to do bowling. I want to go home.”

About to cajole him again, I paused, remembering I didn’t like Sports Class either. It was really Jenny’s idea, this Sports Class, an opportunity, she explained, for me and my son to spend some time together, just the two of us, away from her and the house. That last part was important, I knew, for even though she never said it, Sports Class was not just about giving me Daddy time, it was also about giving her Jenny time—one hour a week when she could stop being Jacob's mother and do something purely for her. I didn’t know what that thing was, and had never asked, but as I sat there at a red light thinking about bailing out, I imagined all the possible things Jenny might want to do with her free time and what I might ruin by coming home early. Given what she routinely complained she didn't have time for any more, I thought the worst I would be interrupting was her painting her toenails or washing the kitchen floor.

Still, I was leaving the next day for more than a week, and she’d have no relief that entire time. And if I went home now I’d have to talk about the interview, and Michael’s resignation, and my meeting with Mary—none of which I was quite feeling up to. That was one of the nice things about having a four-year-old son. There was a whole new range of subjects and activities that didn’t have anything to do with what I had previously thought of as my life. That other life still mattered—the one with the increasingly complex arc of career and marriage—but not to Jacob. To Jacob I was just Daddy—something I hadn’t been for very long—and what Jacob and Daddy did often had little connection to the life Alan and Jenny had been planning.

So Sports Class it was going to be, for my sake if not for Jacob’s. I needed a break from all the turmoil. When the light turned green I started the car moving again, not telling Jacob about my decision, and wondering if he would notice by the turns we made.

At the high school itself, Jacob acted as if he had forgotten all about his earlier reluctance, bounding out of the car when I opened the door for him, and running ahead of me to the gymnasium, telling me he knew the way as I called out to him and told him to slow down.

In the gym, Marcie and her athletic Wonder Twin had a surprise for us. After our warm-up exercises, the kids were going to play an actual soccer game. This was a first. Up till now we had spent each class just practicing our skills in father-and-son pairs. Now, Marcie said, speaking as if rehearsing the lines to her school play, it was time to put what we had learned to the test.

I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea, but when they heard the news, Jacob and all the kids let out a cheer, as if finally being given the chance to satisfy some long-held desire. After twirling our arms for a few minutes, I checked with Jacob while foot-tapping a soccer ball back and forth across six feet of gymnasium floor.

“Are you sure you want to play soccer, buddy?” There was a fear inside me, large and undefined, like that of a psychic that can only receive dark impressions.

“Yes, Daddy!” Jacob said, his eyes wide with excitement.

“Okay,” I said, not at all sure things were okay.

When the fateful moment came I released my son into the fray and took my seat on the bleachers with the other dads. Tyler’s dad was one of them—adorned in an ironed tracksuit sporting the colors of his alma mater, a small golden cross hanging from the slim chain encircling his unshaven neck. He looked about ready to sit next to me, but veered away at the last moment, probably remembering his confusion from our last encounter and deciding to hunker down with companions more likely to share his interests. The rejection stung for a moment, but when the troop began whooping about their favorite athletes I didn’t feel quite so lonely.

On the gym floor Marcie and the other girl were busy dividing the boys into two teams—first trying to get them to call off by ones and twos and then, when that proved too difficult for their four-year-old brains, gripping them by the shoulders and positioning them on opposite sides of a blue line like overgrown chess pieces. There wasn’t much for me to do as Marcie started explaining the rules and the baboons next to me continued their mutual grooming behaviors, so despite my intentions in coming to Sports Class, I started thinking about the day I had had.

It could’ve been worse, I told myself quickly, thinking I should at least try to stay positive. I had by then already written off the interview with Quest Partners. I had been out of the job market for twelve years—did I think I was going to ace my first interview after all that time? Especially for a high-prestige job that I was only marginally-qualified for? No. Better to chalk it up as part of the unavoidable process of getting back into the market. At least I knew how rusty I really was, and how much I would need to refine my message and my interview presence. There’d be other opportunities, and I’d do just that much better with the next one because of the dry run I had had. That’s what I planned to tell Jenny at least, and sitting there in the relative calm of the high school bleachers, I felt confident I could tell her in a way she would accept as reasonable. Managing other people’s expectations was what I did for a living, after all, and managing Jenny’s would just have to be part of the game plan. Besides, I knew she really didn’t want to move to Boston.

What upset me more were my encounters with Mary—starting with the one in her office regarding Michael’s resignation. Michael was gone. The timing was awful, but I couldn’t say I was sorry to see him go. He was plenty good at what he did, but so were hundreds of other people, and I was confident we could find a replacement that wouldn’t come with Michael’s baggage and bullshit. Covering his workload and seeing to all the details of our national conference would leave me precious little time to conduct a proper hiring process, but the bigger obstacle, I feared, would be Mary.

Mary had hired Michael. She had been overly impressed, I thought, with Michael’s credentials, and overly supportive, everyone thought, of his half-brained ideas. He had been her golden boy, someone who was going to come into the organization under her wing and drive success in the way she defined it. And now he was gone. Driven to resign by a monstrous supervisor who treated him like a child and never appreciated the talents he brought to the table. That wasn’t true, but it was the narrative Mary would choose to construct. That much seemed clear from the way she had treated me in her office and later in the conference room.

I knew her behavior during our second encounter was her trying to exert dominance over me, and that her attack on the staff qualities was part of that same compulsion. But I also knew her thirst for control would not be quenched in one uncomfortable staff meeting. There would be other attempts, very few as direct as what she had done in the meeting. I’d seen it before. Once you stepped over a certain line with Mary your fate was sealed. She’d rarely attack you openly—Michael’s resignation, I realized, must have really caught her by surprise—but bit by bit your life would be made more and more uncomfortable, until you just decided it would be better if you left. In my case, the surest and simplest thing for her to do would be to drag her heels on the roll out of the ten staff qualities she had decided to accept. No new hiring system meant no new hires, and no new hires meant me doing three jobs indefinitely. It would be just a matter of time before things started slipping through the cracks, and Mary would be well positioned to start taking pot shots at me once they did. The only question I had was, “Had I stepped over her line?” If I had, my life could get very ugly indeed, because based on my performance with Quest Partners, I wouldn’t have anywhere else to go anytime soon.

Marcie’s shrill referee whistle brought my attention back to the gym floor. While woolgathering, two goals had been set up at opposite ends, and a clueless four-year-old had been placed in front of each. The other children were clumped in the middle, Jacob among them, all kicking wildly at an under-inflated soccer ball. The dads to my right rose suddenly to their feet, clapping and shouting at their own versions of their immortal selves—GET THE BALL! KICK IT AWAY! Some kids understood—Tyler, especially—and when one of them came away from the pack with the ball between his feet, it didn’t surprise me that it was him.

I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket and pulled it out. This time I knew what the flashing red light meant.


It was as if she was there, sitting next to me, seeing the hang-dog look on my face.

NO, I sent back, wishing she was there, and then watched the boys play while waiting for her to make the phone buzz again. I saw now why the ball was partially flat. Fully inflated, it would’ve danced too quickly across the gymnasium floor and gotten away from the slow-moving children.


YIPPEE. I wondered if she’d pick up the sarcasm as I hit the send button.


Damn if she didn’t. I started my thumbs working on my response.

“Hey, buddy.”

Startled, I looked over at the men standing next to me.

It was Tyler’s dad. “You better get your boy under control.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but he was angry and I felt like the skinny teenager I had once been when he barked at me. I looked out onto the floor and saw Jacob chasing after another boy, tears and spittle running down his face. I hadn’t heard his crying over the noise of the game before but I heard it now. I watched in horror as Jacob caught up to the boy, who had the ball between his feet, and pushed him roughly in the back. The boy fell hard and Jacob tried to grab the ball but he was too slow and another boy—Tyler, athletic Tyler with his little muscular legs and Ivy League haircut—swooped in and kicked it away, the shin-guarded portion of his leg connecting with Jacob’s body as it came swiftly forward. A piercing shriek filled the gymnasium as Jacob fell backward onto the floor, clutching his hollow chest.

Marcie and friend came running over, their whistles blowing and stopping most of the activity. I leapt down off the bleachers and trotted to Jacob’s side. Even with my heart pounding, knowing I was under the watchful gaze of the silverback and the other alpha males, I could not bring myself to run.

Jacob was screaming as if he had broken ribs.

“Is he all right?” the Wonder Twin asked, her nose wrinkled in distaste.

I bent down and scooped Jacob off the floor, trying to cradle him in my arms like a baby, but he fought against me blindly, terror surging through him like a rabbit caught by a farm cat. “He’ll be fine,” I said sternly as I wrestled him into a position stable enough for me to carry him out of there. He was screaming in my ear now, and I could feel his wet face against my neck.

“Does he need a breather?” Marcie said. “We can rotate some of the kids in and out.”

She was trying to help—I know that. Somewhere in all her adolescent indoctrination she had been trained to take this gig seriously, to do what she could to keep the kids under her charge “in the game” and to “never stop trying.” At sixteen, she was a true believer, an evangelist ready to pass her unproven beliefs onto the next generation. And over her shoulder I could see her acolytes staring at us—some of them frightened, but others contemptuous of Jacob and what he represented. Already at that tender age they were contemptuous, recognizing a freak when they saw one, and knowing what their doctrine told them to do.

“No, thanks,” I said hurriedly, turning to get Jacob out of there, again walking swiftly but not daring to run nor even to look at the other dads in my shame. Jacob wailed the entire time—all the way out of the gym, down the halls, out the door, into the parking lot, and to the car. He wasn’t hurt—not physically, but he was upset and scared. And as I struggled to strap him into his booster seat while he continued to flap and flail his arms, I finally lost my cool, shaking him roughly and shouting at him.

“Goddammit, Jacob! You’re okay! Shut the fuck up already!”

I slammed the door and marched around to the driver’s seat, getting in and slamming that door, too. With my son crying hopelessly behind me, I pounded my fists on the steering wheel as hard as I could, screaming both to blot out his cries and my own consuming sense of inadequacy.

+ + +

“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, November 25, 2019

Top Takes: The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

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

The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

This is a marvelous little book that uses four different narrators to explore the dark and painful repercussions that come with the loss of innocence. On the surface, the innocence in question is the lives of fourteen children from a small town called Sam Dent, who are killed in a school bus accident, but roiling away under the surface are the irrevocable thoughts and fears of our four narrators.

The four narrators come to represent a set of competing philosophies -- ranging from apathetic fatalism to domineering determinism -- but in the end we come to see that only one of them is able to dimly discern the truth of what has happened. And from that viewpoint we find the bitter and painful lesson that those who are to blame for tragedy rarely, if ever, get what's coming to them.

+ + +

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 23, 2019

Moral Minds by Marc D. Hauser

I very much liked the thesis of this book. It is as follows:

As a classic text in moral philosophy concludes, “Morality is, first and foremost, a matter of consulting reason. The morally right thing to do, in any circumstance, is whatever there are the best reasons for doing.”

This dominant perspective falls prey to an illusion: Just because we can consciously reason from explicit principles -- handed down from parents, teachers, lawyers, or religious leaders -- to judgments of right and wrong doesn’t mean that these principles are the source of our moral decisions. On the contrary, I argue that moral judgments are mediated by an unconscious process, a hidden moral grammar that evaluates the causes and consequences of our own and others’ actions. This account shifts the burden of evidence from a philosophy or morality to a science of morality.

In other words, contrary to much public opinion, morality is not a reasoned position, arrived at through philosophy. It is an unconscious process, whose grammar and expression can best be determined through scientific inquiry.

That’s an intriguing idea. But I am probably oversimplifying it -- because, as the author admits and as it apparent to anyone who tries to do the right thing, sometimes we do engage in moral reasoning, and sometimes that reasoning is the basis on which our moral judgment is expressed.

But, at the same time...

Acknowledging that we do engage in conscious, rational forms of reasoning is different from accepting that this is the one and only form of mental operation underlying our moral judgments. … Many of [our] judgments are made rapidly, involuntarily, and without recourse to well-defined principles.

So, this moral landscape that Hauser leads us into is a treacherous one. We’ll find a little conscious moral reasoning here and a little unconscious moral grammar there. What sense are we to make of it all?

Thou Shalt Not

One really useful tool the book offers is the reminder to look at moral questions through three different lenses: actions, causes, and consequences. Many ancient moral systems only take the first of these into account, classifying certain actions as morally forbidden.

For example, all of the following actions are universally forbidden: killing, causing pain, stealing, cheating, lying, breaking promises, and committing adultery.


Like other rules, these moral rules have exceptions. Thus, killing is generally forbidden in all cultures, but most if not all cultures recognize conditions in which killing is permitted or might be justifiable: war, self-defense, and intolerable pain due to illness. Some cultures even support conditions in which killing is obligatory: in several Arabic countries, if a husband finds his wife in flagrante delicto, the wife’s relatives are expected to kill her, thereby erasing the family’s shame.

Something is clearly wrong here. You can’t call actions universally forbidden if they are certain exceptions in which they are not. Rules of conduct therefore have to be bounded by other moral forces and judgments -- things like causes and consequences.

Do the rules actually capture the relationship between the nature of the relevant actions (e.g., HARMING, HELPING), their causes (e.g., INTENDED, ACCIDENTAL), and consequences (e.g., INTENDED, [UN]FORESEEN)?

In other words, an action that is harmful, done intentionally by the actor, with foreseen consequences is morally distinct from one that is helpful, done accidentally by the actor, and with unforeseen consequences. And the pivotal point in this triad, from my way of thinking, the actor’s intentions. It is not, despite what the Book of Exodus teaches, actions that are moral or immoral. It is intentions.

But intentions can be hard to discern. Frequently, the consequences get in the way. Here’s a great example from Hauser’s book.

How we judge the moral relevance of someone’s actions may also influence how we attribute cause. This shows the interaction between the more general folk psychology and more specific moral psychology. Consider the following scenario:

The vice president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also harm the environment.” The chairman of the board answered, “I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.

How much blame does the chairman deserve for what he did? Answer on a scale of 1 (considerable blame) to 7 (no blame).

Did the chairman intentionally harm the environment? Yes or no?

When subjects answer this question, they typically say that the chairman deserves blame because he intentionally harmed the environment. In contrast, when they read a virtually identical scenario in which the word “help” replaces the word “harm,” and “praise” replaces “blame,” they typically say that the CEO deserved little praise and did not act to intentionally help the environment. At the heart of these scenarios is whether a side effect of an action is perceived as intentional or not. In these cases, there is an asymmetry. When the side effect of the action is a negative outcome, people are more willing to say that the agent caused the harm. This is not the case when the outcome is positive or helpful. Recent studies with children show that such effects are present as early as at three years of age, suggesting that we are endowed with a capacity that is more likely to perceive actions as intentional when they are morally bad than when they are morally good.

It is finding inherent moral capacities like this one that Hauser’s book is really about -- about defining the grammar of the “folk” morality that our genes and our culture creates for us. In the above example, the board chair did not intend to harm the environment. He intended to make a profit and harming the environment was correlated consequence of that intent. It is not our moral reasoning that holds him morally liable, because the distinction between intentions and consequences should be clear when we invoke our reasoning. It is the fact that we need to suppress another, apparently innate set of moral instincts in order to make this determination that makes Hauser’s exploration so interesting.

Is Someone Watching?

Hauser spends a lot of time trying to break down the “case-relevant dimensions” of moral thought experiments -- the kinds of things that are rife in the psychological literature. Things like “Sports Car”:

A man is driving his new sports car when he sees a child on the side of the road with a bloody leg. The child asks the car driver to take her to the nearby hospital. The owner contemplates this request while also considering the $200 cost of repairing the car’s leather interior.

Is it obligatory for the man to take this child to the hospital?

And things like “Charity”:

A man gets a letter from UNICEF’s child health care division, requesting a contribution of $50 to save the lives of twenty-five children by providing oral rehydration salts to eliminate dehydrating diarrhea.

It is obligatory for the man to send money for these twenty-five children?

Researchers like Hauser use questions like these, and dozens of minor variations on each, in an attempt to tease out the distinct dimensions on which our moral judgment -- both our innate and our reasoned versions -- turn. Using these two cases as his example, he presents a fairly comprehensive list of these dimensions, ranging from how many people are helped, to how much it costs the person making the moral judgment, to the relationship between the judger and the people helped, to the degree to which the judger caused the situation that should be resolved.

But in all of this analysis, there was one dimension that I found conspicuously missing -- whether or not someone is watching us when we need to make our decision. Driving past that kid in your sports car, after all, would be harder if your own children were in the back seat, and tearing up that UNICEF solicitation would be harder at your family’s dinner table.

Trolley Problems

Of course, the most famous of these thought experiments are the trolley problems.

Denise is a passenger on an out-of-control trolley. The conductor has fainted and the trolley is headed toward five people walking on the track; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. The track has a side track leading off to the left, and Denise can turn the trolley onto it. There is, however, one person on the left-hand track. Denise can turn the trolley, killing the one; or she can refrain from flipping the switch, letting the five die.

Is it morally permissible for Denise to flip the switch, turning the trolley onto the side track?

Hauser calls this one “Bystander Denise,” and he offers three other variations: “Bystander Frank,” in which Frank has to decide whether or not to push a large man in front of the trolley to stop it from killing five others; “Bystander Ned,” is which Ned has to decide whether or not to flip a switch that will divert the trolley onto a track that will cause it to be stopped by the body of a large man before it can kill five others; and “Bystander Oscar,” in which Oscar has to decide whether or not to flip a switch that will divert the trolley onto a track that will cause it to be stopped by a heavy weight before it can kill five others, but also kill one in the process.

A lot has been written about trolley problems like these, and a lot more has been assumed about what people will actually do based on the way they solve them. But Hauser’s analysis has helped me understand that the utility of trolley problems does not lie in their predictive power. It lies in the way they reveal our innate moral intuitions.

At the level of moral reasoning, all four of Hauser’s trolley problems resolve down to the same fundamental choice: act and kill one, or fail to act and watch five die. And there are undoubtedly human creatures among us who see them all in exactly that light. Whether you’re Denise, Frank, Ned, or Oscar, your choice is exactly the same because each situation carries with it the same numerical calculation.

But most people will feel differently about the four situations. Denise, Ned, and Oscar should probably act, because flipping a switch is a neutral/impersonal action, but Frank should definitely not act, because pushing a man is a negative/personal action. Frank is intending to do harm, while Denise, Ned, and Oscar are not.

Some others will feel a different distinction. Their moral intuition is telling them that Denise and Oscar should probably act, because they can foresee, but do not intend a negative outcome from their action. But Frank and Ned should definitely not act, because not only to they foresee a negative outcome, they intend it. The man who dies after Denise’s or Oscar’s action is an unintended casualty. The one who dies after Frank’s or Ned’s action is an outright victim.

Whatever kind of human creature you are -- the one who sees all four situations as the same, the one who sees the distinction between Denise/Ned/Oscar and Frank, or the one who sees the distinction between Denise/Oscar and Frank/Ned -- the point is we cannot predict how you would really act in any of these situations because they are not designed to determine that. I secretly suspect that most people would actually do nothing in all four of these cases, secure in their knowledge that they themselves are the innocent bystander in all this mayhem, but that’s beside the point. The utility of trolley problems is not in their ability to help us develop actionable moral reasoning, but in illuminating the innate moral intuitions that we all possess.

But most people are confused by this, thinking that there is a logical set of moral precepts that will lead them through the tangled jungle of trolley problems. Hauser beautifully makes this point with the following illustrative story about his father.

My father’s responses to some of these dilemmas represent a perfect illustration, especially given his training as a hyperrational, logical physicist. I first asked him to judge the Denise case. He quickly fired back that it was permissible for her to flip the switch, saving five but killing one. I then delivered the Frank case. Here, too, he quickly judged that it was permissible for Frank to act, pushing the large person onto the tracks. When I asked why he had judged both cases in the same way -- why they were morally equivalent -- he replied, “It’s obvious. The cases are the same. They reduce to numbers. Both are permissible because both actions result in five people surviving and one dying. And saving five is always better than saving one.” I then gave him a version of the organ-donor case mentioned in chapter 1. In brief, a doctor can allow five people, each needing an organ transplant, to die, or he can take the life of an innocent person who just walked into the hospital, cutting out his organs to save the five. Like the 98 percent of our internet subjects who judged this act as impermissible, so did my father. What happened next was lovely to watch. Realizing that his earlier justification no longer carried any weight, his logic unraveled, forcing him to revise his judgment of Frank. And just as he was about to undo his judgment about Denise, he stopped and held to his prior judgment. I then asked why only Denise’s actions would be permissible. Not having an answer, he said that the cases were artificial. I am not recounting this story to make fun of my father. He has a brilliant mind. But like all other subjects, he doesn’t have access to the principles underlying his judgments, even when he thinks he does.

And that’s it in a nutshell, what makes this book so interesting. We don’t have access to the principles underlying our judgments, even when we think we do.

When the Trolley Goes Off the Rails

This, so far, has been Hauser’s set-up. We are endowed with an innate moral grammar that we typically neither sense nor understand. But what is that moral grammar? And from where does it arise? The rest of Hauser’s book is a study of those two questions, often citing the results of scientific and behavioral experiments to provide a stable foundation for the structure he is building. But many of these experiments -- or perhaps the way Hauser describes and then interprets them -- leave me a little flat.

Here’s one example.

Are infants built with the machinery that perceives actions with respect to a hierarchy, unconsciously recognizing the infinite potential to combine and recombine meaningless actions into meaningful actions and events? As a small step in the direction of answering this question, the developmental psychologists Dare Baldwin and Jodie Baird presented infants with a video of a woman walking into a kitchen, preparing to wash dishes, and then washing and drying the dishes. As part of this sequence, they saw the woman drop and then pick up a towel. After watching this video over and over again, infants looked at one of two stills extracted from the sequence: a completed action of the woman grabbing the towel on the ground or an incomplete action of the woman reaching for the towel, but stopping midway, bending at the waist. Infants looked longer when the woman appeared frozen at the hip, suggesting that they carve up a continuous stream of actions into smaller units that represent subgoals within larger goals. Like human speech comprehension, in which we glide over the smaller phonemic units to achieve a higher level of understanding with respect to words and phrases, event perception in infants is similarly processed.

Yeah. That. Or maybe the infants just had gas?

Hauser is meticulously laying his foundation here, apparently not willing even to assume that humans can perceive the world around them as populated by moral agents with an awareness of the consequences of their actions, or even that consequences come from the actions of moral agents. He wants to build the syntax of his moral grammar from the ground up. And, despite some of what I see as methodological shortcomings, his conclusion is a powerful one.

We are endowed with a moral acquisition device. Infants are born with the building blocks for making sense of the causes and consequences of actions, and these early capacities grow and interface with others to generate moral judgments. Infants are also equipped with a suite of unconscious, automatic emotions that can reinforce the expression of some actions while blocking others. Together, these capacities enable children to build moral systems. Which system they build depends on their local culture and how it sets the parameters that are part of the moral faculty.

It is very much like language, this moral grammar, in which an underlying set of structures and syntax rules them all, but in which each individual language can be customized to the specifics of the culture that gives it rise.

The Animalistic Continuum

One more thing. In the last section of his book, Hauser tries to tackle one of my favorite subjects: deciding whether or not humans are unique in the animal kingdom -- in this case when its comes to having a moral grammar -- or whether, like most everything else, there is a kind of continuum on which all animals, including humans, reside. It’s probably little surprise that Hauser cites plenty of evidence for moral systems in the non-human animal kingdom, and in doing so, makes an observation I have so seldom come across in similar discussions.

If we run the subtraction operation, taking away those aspects of our moral psychology that we share with other animals, we are left with a suite of traits that appear uniquely human: certain aspects of a theory of mind, the moral emotions, inhibitory control, and punishment of cheaters. There may be others, and some of those remaining from the subtraction operation may be more developed in animals than currently believed. If I have learned anything from watching and studying animals, as well as reading about their behavior from my colleagues, it is that reports of human uniqueness are often shot down before they have much of a shelf life. Consider the proposed set of nonoverlapping abilities as an interim report.

Indeed. Here’s an article published a decade after Hauser’s book, that seems to demolish the concept that non-human animals do not engage in the punishment of cheaters, as one example:

But sometimes, here again, Hauser goes a little too far in assigning human meaning to the actions of animals in moral-based psychological studies. My favorite has to do with blue jays and reciprocal altruism.

A second way to test for reciprocal altruism in animals comes from work on captive blue jays trained to peck keys in one of two classic economic games. … Every game involved two jays, each with access to a “cooperate” and a “defect” key. One jay started off, pecking either the “cooperate” or the “defect” key. Immediately after the first jay pecked, the second jay had an opportunity to peck, but with no information about his partner’s choice until the food reward emerged; the experimenter made the food payoff depend upon the jay’s choice, indicated below by the relative size of each circle within the two-by-two table.

When the jays played a prisoner’s dilemma game, they rapidly defected. No cooperation. In contrast, when the jays switched to a game of mutualism, they not only cooperated but maintained this pattern over many days. The jays switch strategies as a function of the game played shows that their responses are contingent upon the payoffs associated with each game.

Yes. Their responses are contingent upon the payoffs associated with each game. Obviously. But to what degree can we say that the jays are “cooperating” or defecting”? What, I wonder would be the outcome if you took the “cooperate” and “defect” labels off the keys? Or switched them? In the latter case, the jays aren’t likely to peck the “cooperate” keys when they want to cooperate and the “defect” keys when they want to defect. They, if I may be so bold to suggest, don’t actually want to “cooperate” or “defect.” They just want food.

A Clockwork Morality

And finally, this anecdote from Hauser’s book is too good to pass up.

When Anthony Burgess sent the manuscript of A Clockwork Orange to the United States, his New York editor told him that he would publish the book, but only if Burgess dropped the last chapter -- chapter 21. Burgess needed the money, and so went along with the suggested change. The rest of the world published the full twenty-one chapters. When Stanley Kubrick produced the film adaptation, it was hailed as cinematic genius. Kubrick used the shorter, American edition of the novel.

When I first read about the shortening of Orange, I immediately assumed that the last chapter would be ferociously violent, a continuation of the protagonist’s destructive streak, a rampage against the moral norms. I was completely wrong. As Burgess put it in the preface to the updated American Orange: “Briefly, my young thuggish protagonist grows up. He grows bored of violence and recognizes that human energy is better expended on creation than destruction. Senseless violence is a prerogative of youth, which has much energy but little talent for the constructive.” This change is not sappy or pathetic but, rather, a proper ending to a great novel. As Burgess acidly pointed out: “When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or allegory. The American of Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel.”

I’m going to have to check that unread copy of A Clockwork Orange on my bookshelf to find out which one I have. But more importantly, I wonder which one better describes human morality: a novel or a fable?

+ + +

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 18, 2019

Top Takes: Moving the Goal Posts

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

Moving the Goal Posts

In it, I talk about the situations in which "moving the goal posts," that is, changing the metrics by which the success of a program or strategic initiative is determined, is necessary.

These situations are marked, I've found, by the need for the association to learn more about the environment it is entering before it can successfully identify the true markers of success. In other words, you leap into an external environment with one understanding of what is needed, necessarily calibrating the program defining/metric tracking piece of your operation with that understanding, only to discover that, once you are in the thick of implementing those plans, that different tactics, and sometimes, a different strategy, are needed in order to achieve success.

It is not for the faint of heart. But, in these situations, keeping the goal posts where they are means turning what might be your organization's greatest endeavor into a make-work exercise.

+ + +

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 16, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 23 (DRAFT)

The meeting did not go well.

As we made our way out of Mary’s office, I split off from her to get my presentation materials, and by the time I got back to the conference room, Mary and all the department heads were already gathered around the table.

I noticed an odd silence when I entered the room—the dozen or so copies of the staff qualities and their associated behaviors sticking haphazardly out of the file folder I had grabbed from the stack still hiding my interview notes on my desk. It wasn’t one of those silences where everyone in a room stops talking when you enter it. That happened all the time in the company; so often it was almost the norm. No, this silence was different. It had a much greater permanence to it, as if it had been brewing for a long time. Stepping into that conference room was like opening the door to a forgotten tomb and discovering huddled about in the fetid air the undisturbed remains of an ancient queen and her royal attendants. It was obvious that this group of mummies—Gerald, Bethany, Jurgis, Peggy, Scott, Angie, and their leader, Mary, sitting as if bejeweled and enshrined at the head of the conference table—had been passing the time prior to my arrival in uncomfortable silence. As I entered the room, the only human movement to dispel the crypt-like impression came from Mary herself, her head turning and looking up at me in cold anticipation. All the others sat unmoving, their gazes askance in different directions, all looking safely at nothing in particular.

“Alan,” Mary said, the warmness in her voice opposing the chilliness of her stare. “Please. Come in. Sit down.”

I did as requested, taking the only available seat, the one at the bottom of the table, directly opposite Mary. Bethany sat on my immediate right, and as I settled in I saw her eyes flip up fearfully, catching mine for an instant before dropping back down to the tabletop.

“We were just talking about Michael,” Mary said amiably, as if he was just down the hall, a few minutes late to the meeting, same as me. “I was telling the group about the news he shared with me this morning and some of the unfortunate steps we had to take as a result.”

I looked at Mary suspiciously. News he shared? What did she mean by that? She didn’t tell them about what Michael had said about me, did she? I wanted to ask these questions, but couldn’t bring myself to do so in front of the audience. “Oh, yes?” was all I was able to say.

“Indeed,” Mary said. “The news came as quite a shock—to me, as well as to everybody in this room. Michael was well-liked in the company. The group here has a lot of questions about what’s going to happen next.”

I looked around the table at the department heads, Mary’s description of their concern grossly out of sync, at least with their posture. Most were still looking away, their body language indicating they would crawl under the conference table if they could, but a few turned towards me, and they had anything but questioning looks on their faces. Peggy was one, I remember. Her sad eyes looked at me with droopy compassion, as if she yearned to spare me from some terrible ordeal. Gerald was another, his eyes behind his glasses more a warning, a caution to watch my step, and a promise, I thought, to guard my back if I decided to move forward.

“Such as?” I asked.

“Well,” Mary said coolly, “their biggest question seems to be ‘Why?’ Why did Michael resign? Given the legal realities of the situation, there’s of course only so much we can publicly tell them. But, I wonder, in confidence, what would you say, Alan? What would you say was Michael’s reason for resigning?”

I looked at her incredulously. What was she trying to pull? Did she expect me to tell them it was my fault Michael left the company? I didn't even think that was true. “I don’t know, Mary,” I snapped. “You’re the one he talked to. All I know is what you told me.”

Mary’s eyes narrowed, looking at me like an insect she had found crawling across the Persian rug in her office. “Well, let’s just say that he never felt comfortable here. That there are…people, here, who never made him feel welcome.”

She looked at me the whole time she said this. Anyone who had their eyes up—and most still didn’t—certainly saw what she was doing and couldn’t fail to make the connection. I had no idea why she was trying to tar me in front of all the remaining department heads, and although her clumsy attempt made me angry, I kept my mouth shut. Perhaps because of my recent experience with Pamela Thornsby, I knew it wouldn’t do any good to lose my cool, and besides, I wasn’t sure Mary’s attempt at character assassination was having the effect she was looking for. There was more than one person around the table, I knew, who couldn’t possibly be upset about Michael’s decision to leave.

“Were there any other questions?” I asked, turning my gaze away from Mary and addressing the group as a whole, trying to draw others into the conversation.

“Only one,” Mary said. “Who’s going to pick up all of Michael’s work until his replacement is hired?”

That one was at least easier for me to answer. “I will,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, knowing that the existing company culture demanded no less, and that nothing was at that time more important than setting a leadership example for the others. “I’ll meet with his staff later today and get the run down on all the projects already in motion.”

“I’ll help.”

It was a mousy squeak of a voice, and it took me a moment to realize it was Bethany who had said it. I looked at her, surprised she had even looked up, much less spoken aloud.

“It’s only a few days before the big national conference,” she said a little more confidently, as if needing to justify herself to the table. “And Alan’s already doing Susan’s job. No one should be asked to pick up that much extra work.”

She started strong, but her voice tapered off near the end, as it became clear that everyone around the table was looking at her—some of them blankly, others with a twinge of sorrowful pity, still others with a horror that could not be concealed. But worst of all was Mary, who seemed to zoom in on Bethany, now finding a second insect and magnifying it in her powerful stare, the calculating wheels behind her eyes already turning with the inexorable determination of how best to exterminate it.

“I’ll take care of it,” I said forcefully, touching Bethany’s hand under the table to caution her, and hoping to bring this topic to a close and move on to the original purpose of the meeting. “After all, it shouldn’t be long before we identify qualified candidates for both Michael’s and Susan’s positions. With this new system of staff qualities and behaviors, we think we can dramatically reduce the time it takes to hire, and increase the quality of those hiring decisions.” It was very corporate-speak, I know, but that’s what the situation called for. Delivered appropriately, I knew that corporate-speak had a certain soothing effect on its listeners. It was designed to be inoffensive and value-adding in all of its many dialects, and that’s exactly what I needed at that point.

Without waiting for Mary to respond, I opened the folder in front of me and began passing around copies of the document I had prepared for the meeting. It was a transcription of all eleven staff qualities and their associated behaviors, taken directly from the affinity diagram the department heads had created on that very conference room wall six days ago. I hadn’t changed a word of it, and at that moment I was glad I hadn’t. I had expected that Mary would want to put her own stamp of approval on our work—that was fine, she was the president of the company. But now I saw that she may try to sabotage the entire effort, much like she seemed to sabotaging our team morale by her pessimistic fixation on Michael’s departure and my supposed role in it. If that was the game she was playing, I was going to need every arm in the room to help bend her to the group’s will.

As the papers settled into hands and both battered and battering eyes turned down to decipher the meaning hidden in the little black symbols, I launched into my presentation. It was nothing fancy, but I had rehearsed it a couple of times and knew most of it by heart. I started by restating the charge given to me and the department heads—redesign the company’s hiring process to focus on the qualities most associated with success. Then I described the process we followed, making sure to give full credit to the team for its creation and execution, and then I walked one by one through the resulting qualities and behaviors. I described how they could be used in the screening process for new hires and in the evaluation process for existing staff, and how those two systems would reinforce each other by bringing on people with the best qualities and rewarding those who demonstrated the best behaviors. I avoided all mention of a potential culture change in the organization, focusing instead on objectives of more palatable corporate sloganeering. I was a bit shameless, but by that point I was so deep into the presentation, and had been speaking for so long without interruption, I wasn’t sure anyone was really listening anymore. I had just described the proposed initiative as one allowing “better alignment with success vectors” when Mary interrupted me.

“Alan, can we go back for a second?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Tell me more about number eight.”

I looked down at the document in front of me, scanning down the page to the eighth quality we thought necessary for success in the company.

“Practices a healthy work/life balance?” I asked, seeking confirmation.

“Yes,” Mary said. “What does that mean?”


“Work/life balance,” Mary said slowly, her lips forming the words as if they were foreign to her tongue. “What does that mean exactly?”

I looked at her blankly across the table and again felt the pervasive silence that filled the room whenever she or I stopped talking. There were eight of us shut up in that windowless room—six department heads with me and Mary, all of them supervisors and leaders in the company—but for all the noise they were making they could have just as easily been store mannequins.

“A work/life balance?” I said, afraid of where this was going but trying to be brave. “That’s when...uh, that’s when...”

I looked down at the document in front of me, searching desperately for an answer. And, of course, the answers were there. Twelve of them, in fact. That’s exactly what our exercise had been all about—coming up with answers. There were twelve observable behaviors associated with Quality Number Eight, every one of them a perfectly good definition for what it meant to have a healthy work/life balance.

Things like Shares information about pursuits outside of work.

And Manages workload appropriately within standard business hours.

And Takes and encourages others to take all earned vacation time.

But as I went through the list, I rejected each one of these definitions in turn, knowing that none of them stood a chance against Mary’s warped view of work and life. I looked back up at her with my mouth hanging open. I didn’t know what to say.

And Mary wasn’t the type to miss such an opportunity. “I mean, after all,” she said, setting the hook now that I had taken her bait, “the words ‘work’ and ‘life’ mean different things to different people, don’t they? We all have different life situations. And different sets of job responsibilities. Some of us are married and some are single. Some have kids and some don’t. Some jobs require out-of-town travel. Others demand evening hours spent entertaining clients. It’s just not clear to me what ‘work/life balance’ means in an environment like ours.”

This was bad. She was making a frontal assault on what I saw as the most important quality we had come up with—the one we really needed if we had any hope of changing the culture in this screwed-up company. I looked around the table to see if any of the department heads were even listening, to see if they saw what Mary was trying to do. Most still looked ready to crawl under the table, but I felt ennobled by what I saw as support from my two main co-conspirators. The look on Gerald's face still clearly told me to fight back, and Bethany looked so concerned I thought she might drift into a panic attack if I didn’t do something.

“Mary,” I said quickly, before she could continue with her self-fulfilling prophecy, “are you saying that, whatever the individual’s situation, maintaining a healthy balance between personal and professional interests is not something we should encourage our employees to strive for?”

She’s not going to answer that. I knew it before the words were even completely out of my mouth. She was sick, I knew, but she wasn’t stupid. If she agreed, if she said that we all should seek balance—well, that would be a lie so transparent that not even her most snowblind sycophants could pretend that they believed it. But if she disagreed, if she said balance was unimportant, she would be saying that openly and in front of her whole management team—a team that had brought that very subject to her as something they believed necessary for success. What kind of message would that send? No, I had maneuvered her so that she couldn’t oppose this directly, but since the spirit of what we were trying to do ran so diametrically against what she stood for, I knew she would try to find some other way to kill it.

“What I’m saying, Alan, is that I don’t think there is a consistent way to measure this quality in our environment. All of the others—showing initiative and solving problems, for example—yes, I can wrap my head around those. They’re all clear and can be universally applied throughout the company.” She suddenly pitched her voice to the team, as if recognizing their presence for the first time. “You’ve all done an excellent job with those and I thank you all for your efforts.”

Oh shit, I thought, realizing that the change in Mary’s tone meant we were getting the brush off, and so was our vision for work/life balance.

“The team feels pretty strongly about the whole list,” I said, keeping my eyes on Mary but trying to get some sense of the team’s support in my peripheral vision. “Even the one about work/life balance. They all came out of the same process and are interconnected with each other. Dropping any one of them would be leaving something essential out of the mix.”

Mary did not even hesitate. “Really?” she said. “Is that true?” she asked the table. “The other ten seem perfectly acceptable to me. Who else here agrees with Alan?”

To my great dismay, but not surprise, the death-like silence descended on us again. In that moment it reminded me of Conrad’s darkness—the underlying natural state of the universe—and I knew that it was only my voice, like the light of civilization, that was momentarily holding it at bay. I looked around the table, searching for a comrade to go up the river with me, but knew there wouldn’t be any volunteers. Even Gerald looked suddenly skeptical, the defiance I had previously seen replaced with the undeniable calculation of someone now deciding which horse to hook his wagon to.

“Gerald?” I said woefully, knowing I had to try, knowing even though none of them would speak up, they would all blame me if I didn’t try. “Bethany?” I said, now calling the two of them by name and in turn, calling those out who had been most behind me in this, the ones with whom I had dared to share some part of my vision for cultural change.


In the end, it was Scott who spoke—Scott Nelson, Mary’s hand-picked successor to head the accounting department. Scott, the sniveling little toady, who I now realized had remained mostly silent throughout our process, and who, I remembered, had signed on to our merry group of mutineers more out of professional curiosity than out of any inner drive to change anything. What was it he had said at our first meeting, I wondered, when doubts were strong and I had to call people to account in order to see where their loyalties were?

Let’s see where this thing goes.

Yeah, Scott. Let’s see indeed.

“Alan,” he began, and I blanched just from the fact that he was addressing me and not Mary. “I think Mary’s right on this one.” Of course you do. “The other ten are so strong, so exactly what we need, but this work/life balance thing, it’s fuzzy, it’s too hard to define, it can only be subjectively applied, and that’s not what we want at all.”

I wanted to call Scott a traitor, or at least an idiot for his typically fragmented way of speaking, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Checkmate, Mary had won, and it didn’t matter if I beat up on Scott or not. No one around that table thought Quality Number Eight was worth fighting for, perhaps believing in a way I didn’t that any ten out of the eleven qualities was victory enough, and without their support I didn’t stand a chance. But more importantly, it wasn’t true. Scott wasn’t a traitor. In that moment, I knew all he had ever been was a mole.

I bowed my head, not admitting defeat, but recognizing that it was not possible to keep fighting.

A smile passed over Mary’s face. Her victory now complete, the dragon would want to flaunt her power over those she had vanquished. “Besides,” she said. “Eleven is such an odd number. It will work so much better if there are only ten. Don’t you think?”

I most certainly didn’t, but when the heads started nodding around the table, I found myself conforming.

+ + +

“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, 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.

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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?

+ + +

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.”

+ + +

“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