Monday, December 30, 2019

My Top Five Blog Posts of 2019

I've been posting these Top Five lists at the end of every year for the last seven years. Over those seven years, a handful of posts have come to dominate them. Their popularity, it seems, feeds on itself, with more and more people accessing them every year (probably in part because I keep promoting them through these Top Five wrap-ups at the end of each year).

So, for this year I decided to do something different. Here's a look back at the five posts on this blog that received the most page views in 2019 -- excluding those that have appeared on previous Top Five posts.

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1. Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister of democratic India. His daughter was Indira Gandhi, the woman who succeeded him as prime minister and was eventually assassinated. But as the pages of this remarkable book open, those things haven’t happened yet. The book is a collection of letters, written in 1931-33, when Indira was between 14 and 16 years old, and her father was serving time as a political prisoner.

Partly to help keep his mind active and partly to help his daughter develop an appropriate appreciation for world history, Nehru wrote these letters without notes or other reference materials, relying primarily on his own knowledge and beliefs of what had created and shaped the world around him -- thousands of years of history, from the beginnings of civilization, to the aftermath of the First World War and the initial stirrings of the Second.

And throughout all the letters in this long book, I think it is important to remember that, whatever the reader’s own political and economic beliefs, the words he is reading are the simple and straightforward prose of a loving father writing to his daughter.

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2. 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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3. Closing the Office vs. Working From Home

Unusual winter weather and the changing nature of our technology and connectivity expectations causes me to first rethink and then abandon my association's "office closing" policy.

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4. 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.

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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5. Closing Time by Joseph Heller

Closing Time, in case you didn’t know, is Heller’s sequel to Catch-22, and I feel pretty much the same about it as I did about Catch-22. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’ll read it again.

It is a book written by an older generation and, I fear, for an older generation. Heller constantly plays with the cultural touchstones of his generation, naming one of his characters Strangelove, and including a curly-haired writer named Vonnegut in several scenes. And like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, Closing Time's protagonist seems to move through time throughout the course of the novel.

It gets confusing, and much would probably be revealed on a close second read. Surely someone (if not Heller himself) has diagrammed the novel, and such an exercise would undoubtedly reveal that the protagonist is both the cause and effect of the novel’s action, with effect probably preceding cause in at least one situation. At least things feel that way.

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My thanks to everyone who has been reading what I've been putting up here. I hope you plan to stay engaged in 2020.

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

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Saturday, December 28, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 26 (DRAFT)

Have you ever been to Miami Beach?

You have, huh? Which one?

What do I mean? Well, I imagine you didn’t notice, but there are two Miami Beaches. Couldn’t you tell when you were there? What did you go there for anyway?

A convention? Some headshrinker society you belong to, I suppose.

Well, that explains why you didn’t see the other Miami Beach. You know, you’re just like the volunteers in the nonprofit I managed. People like you and them, you fly into Miami—or San Francisco, or Chicago, or wherever your national convention is being held, upgraded to first class, no doubt—and you experience a city very different from the one people actually live in. From the limousine pickup at the airport to the chocolate-covered strawberries waiting in your hotel suite to the top shelf liquor served at the opening night reception on the hotel’s private portion of Miami’s famous beach—or, I suppose, at Museum of Modern Art if it’s San Francisco or the Signature Room at the top of the John Hancock Building if it’s Chicago—you never get to see what’s really going on in the cities you visit, do you? Even though what’s really going on is often going on right there on the street in front of your four-star hotel, just a couple of stories below the crystal chandeliers hanging in the ballrooms where you hold your fundraising dinners and your professional education sessions.

Think I’m kidding? Look, I may not know much about being a father, but I do know about this. I was on the inside, remember? I’m the one who cut the deals with the man behind the curtain to make all the magic happen, who kept people like you in the dark about that other Miami Beach. It’s not all restaurants with dueling movie star chefs and all-night dance clubs filled with beautiful Cuban women and glowing high-rises and celebrity mansions along the Intracoastal Waterway. That’s just the image they put in your mind. That’s what they spend their millions on, making your brain conjure up those illusions whenever you think about Miami Beach, and convincing you it might be fun to go down there and add some of your money to their pot. But it isn’t real. Like every other city on earth there’s a real Miami on which that fantasy is built, where kids go to school and garbage gets picked up on Thursdays and people struggle to get ahead and some percentage of the population inevitably falls through the cracks.

On this trip to Miami, the juxtaposition of it all hit me really hard. Probably because of all the crap I was dealing with at home and at work. It’s never a good idea to travel when you don’t have a stable anchor to ground you.

The plane ride down was uneventful, giving me plenty of time to think about all the things that could go wrong in the week ahead. On a plane full of people I felt more or less alone, because no one from the office was flying with me. I was coming in a day earlier than I usually did, invited to make a special appearance at the board meeting because of my new role in the organization. I stopped in Memphis to change planes and checked my voicemail about a dozen times during the layover, certain that all kinds of hell was already breaking loose and that my mailbox would be filled with frantic messages from staff members and volunteers alike.

Alan, I missed my connection in Detroit. What do I do?

Alan, all the conference materials got shipped to Miami, Arizona, not Miami, Florida. What do we do?

Alan, I just checked in at the hotel and my room is completely unacceptable. What are you going to do?

But every time I checked there weren’t any messages, just the dry and unfriendly computer voice asking me if I would like to leave any. I didn’t trust it. I was positive the voicemail system was malfunctioning—that the messages were, in fact, piling up on the server but that some computer gremlin was keeping them from getting delivered to my mailbox. I even called back to the office to check on the server status, and got a gruff and somewhat insulted Jurgis telling me to keep an eye on my own business and let him keep an eye on his.

It left me feeling disconnected. Things had been so busy for so long, and now here I was in the Memphis airport with nothing to do and no demands on me other than getting on the next flight. It was liberating and frightening at the same time. Part of me wondered what would happen if I never got on that second plane, if I just left the airport and drifted into the rhythm of that great Southern metropolis. I saw myself working by day as a tour guide at Graceland and spending my nights in the blues clubs down on Beale Street. Would anyone from my current life ever find me? Would any of them even try?

I wasn’t serious, just entertaining another dark fantasy, and when the time came I dutifully boarded the flight to Miami, squeezing myself into my coach seat and checking my voicemail one more time before they closed the boarding door.

The cab ride in from the airport is one of the best times to catch glimpses of that other city, the one the people in the mayor’s office and the convention and visitors bureau don’t necessarily want you to see. It’s hard enough for them to create a protective cocoon around their convention district. Blinding you from their blight for that entire trip is next to impossible. I always investigate the neighborhoods I’m likely to be taken through, wanting to know more about the real lives of the cities I visit. And, as expected, to get to my oceanfront hotel, the cab driver took me on freeways overlooking land-locked communities like Allapattah—a name derived from the Seminole Indian word for alligator, now the home for mostly Dominican and Haitian immigrants—and Liberty City—named for one of the first low-income housing projects in the nation, where riots had once broken out over accusations of police brutality. These were places people are moved to and forgotten when expressways are being built and the dreams of developers are being realized.

This time I was by myself, but I’ve made such journeys with my colleagues and volunteers dozens of times before. For them, the twenty minutes in the taxi cab is always catch-up time—talking on the cell phone with people who had left them messages or punching away on their Blackberry keyboards, trying to stay ahead of a never-ending string of email conversations. But for me these trips were a priceless reality check, an opportunity to stare out at the gritty circus that defined most people’s lives and try to put my own privileged existence into perspective.

Whether it was the strip clubs that lined every airport access road, the rusted and broken industrial buildings that surrounded every crumbling interchange, the graffiti-laden billboards for radio stations and beer that flanked every highway, or the boarded-up storefronts that seemed to wall off blocks of dilapidated houses—the trip in from the airport was one giant reminder that the world is filled with haves and havenots. Some people ignore that fact, spending their cab time just watching the meter count up the dollars it will take to reach their destination. Others see the injustice but feel powerless to do anything about it, and fatalistically forget the divide by the time the bellman brings their bags up to their suite on the twenty-third floor.

The hotel I was staying in was nice. Real nice. I wasn’t in a suite and I wasn’t on the twenty-third floor, but it was the kind of hotel that had those kind of accommodations, and I knew several had been offered to our VIP volunteers. It was the headquarters hotel for our national convention, the one where we had reserved rooms at a discounted rate and where many of the conference sessions would be taking place. But it wasn’t good enough for Eleanor Rumford. As I dumped my luggage in my room and placed the do not disturb sign on the door before heading over to the board meeting, I remembered how Eleanor had asked us to reserve a special block of rooms for her and the board of directors at an even nicer hotel up the street. The service is so much better there, she had said, and we’ll have much more productive meetings with their conference concierge seeing to our needs.

“Yes, certainly,” I remember Mary saying when Eleanor had made the request at the end of one of our weekly conference calls. No equivocation at all, no caution that we would have to investigate the cost, that the budget may not support such an indulgence, that no incoming board chair had ever asked for such an extravagance before. Just “Yes, certainly,” and then a nod in my direction indicating that she wanted it taken care of, no questions asked. Of course it was me that had to convey the order to Angie who, in the midst of planning six other meetings, would have to find time to negotiate a new contract with a new hotel, Eleanor breathing down her neck the entire time to make sure we got just the amenities she was looking for.

“The woman is insane,” Angie told me at one point. “She keeps going on and on about how this is the hotel she always stays in when she goes to Miami Beach, about how she gave her first presentation there, and about how it will always hold a special place in her heart. She wants me to get a certain board room for their meetings and a certain suite overlooking the ocean for her.”

“So?” I had said, not needing her testimony to convince me that Eleanor was crazy. All I knew was that Eleanor wanted it and Mary wanted her to have it. “Get it for her.”

“It doesn’t work that way, Alan.” Given the tone of her voice, she might as well have called me numb nuts. “We’re not doing any other business at that hotel, and they have another group in-house during our dates. They’re not interested in keeping us happy, they’ve already landed their big fish. I can give Eleanor anything she wants at our headquarters hotel. We’re going to fill all their sleeping rooms and do about a quarter million in catering there. For Christ's sake, if she wants the whole fucking spa to herself for the weekend, I can make that happen. But I’ve got no pull at that other hotel.”

“Do the best you can,” I had said, knowing there wasn’t much more I could say.

And Angie, using the almighty dollar and Mary’s blessing, got the hotel to release both the conference room and the suite Eleanor had wanted. As I walked the few blocks to the better hotel I could see the balconies coming off its tower—the largest ones facing the ocean on the top few floors—and I shook my head knowing how many thousands of dollars we were paying for the suite Eleanor was staying in, and hoping she was enjoying the view.

The main drag between the two hotels was another study in contrasts—a reminder that the two Miamis existed even here. The east side of the street—the ocean side—was reserved for the over-leveraged high rises and hotels, million-dollar real estate gobbled up for their expansive infinity pools and beachside restaurants. Each complex squatted on an entire city block, lifting its luxury towers into the air so its windows could reflect the dazzling light of both the rising and setting sun. Between these giants sat squalid little swimwear and souvenir shops—places where the paint was always peeling—the kind of places the tourists who were staying in the fleabag hotels on the west side of the street would frequent when they ran out of suntan lotion or wanted to pick up a six-pack of beer, or a trinket or two for the kids to remember their Florida vacation by. Later in my trip, I knew, I would spend a few minutes in one of those dismal shops, looking for something to bring home to Jacob, and fully expecting to give up after finding nothing more meaningful than lucite snow globes filled with dolphins and glitter stars, and giant ballpoint pens with MIAMI BEACH stenciled in plastic appliqué down the side.

When I turned down the street where Eleanor’s hotel had hidden its entrance—the truly best hotels always did that, tucking their main entrances down side streets and adorning them only with simple signs, like corporate law firms that don’t need to call attention to themselves—a salty fresh sea breeze hit me in the face and I caught a glimpse of the sand of Miami Beach itself, a blue ribbon of ocean beckoning beyond. The great expanse of dreams and danger had always been a block away, but now I saw how the buildings—and the hotels, always the hotels—tried to keep it prisoner, as if such a thing could be corralled, and in their attempt only succeeded in keeping certain people from it. Eleanor’s hotel and the building opposite—some kind of art deco condo monolith—formed the walls of a white canyon, with a palm tree-lined street snaking its way between the cliffs and ending in a traffic turnabout and several concrete pylons. This configuration kept all but the most determined pedestrians from wandering out onto the finger-thin patch of public beach access that existed between the privacy fences, terraced decks, full service beach cabanas, and manicured sand that the Goliaths of this world used to parcel out the majesty of the unsounded sea, treating it like any other commodity to be hoarded and sold to the highest bidder.

Except these Goliaths weren’t feared and reviled like that ancient Philistine from the Bible story. Instead, they were where everyone wanted to be. The whole cavalcade of humanity was there—from the American princesses with their silk beach wraps and their rhinestone-studded flip flops to the homeless men with soiled swim trunks and toenail fungus—you could see them both by the dozens on the streets of Miami Beach, sometimes passing each other as if members of the same community, as if they had something more in common than just the desire for what only one of them could afford.

People are the same everywhere you go. Bums asking for spare change, hotel doormen working double shifts to put their kids through college, trophy wives laying out on pool decks with their fake breasts and fashion magazines, and volunteer leaders gathering together in oak-paneled board rooms to make decisions on how to spend other people’s money. Whoever they are, if they go to Miami Beach they want the same thing. They want to be where it was happening, where they can lose themselves in the intoxication of knowing that they are a step ahead of someone else, that they have something someone else doesn’t and never will.

That, in fact, is why there are two Miami Beaches. As sad as it is to say, you can’t have one without the other.

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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, December 23, 2019

A Holiday Break: Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass

Books are always the best holiday gift for me. The only thing I like better than the anticipation of reading a long sought after title is the fondness that comes with remembering the discovery of an unexpected treasure.

As I look back on all the books I've profiled here in 2019, the one I'd most like to revisit is Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass. I blogged about it back in September, and found it to be both beautiful and evocative. In telling an outwardly simple story about the early Country music sensation known as the Browns, Bass explores something much deeper and more primal.

In his judgment, the story of the Browns -- both the raggedness that gave their talent its birth and the hungers that compelled them throughout their lives -- it 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.

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.

As you enjoy your holiday break, I hope you find some time to curl up with a good book. I know I will.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Willa Cather by Philip L. Gerber

The last time I wrote about Willa Cather on this blog it was my write-up on her collection of short stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa. I said there, after learning that Cather had published far more stories in the literary magazines of her day which had never been collected in any of her published books:

Note to self: Collecting original copies of the magazines in which Cather’s stories appear could be my next literary affectation. What a delightful quest that would be!

Well, I haven’t started collecting any antique magazines, but I did find a website where I could download all of Cather’s stories, each a facsimile of how it appeared in its original publication. This I have done, and now I have a red three-ring binder full of “new” Willa Cather stories to read.

But this post is about Gerber’s book, which is what I would call a literary biography of Cather -- covering her life from birth to death, and emphasizing the development of her creative spirit and the literary substance of her creative output. Since Cather is one of my favorite authors, it was an absolute joy to read. Here are some of the gems it contained.

The Passing Show

While Cather was attending the University of Nebraska she became the theater critic for the Nebraska State Journal, writing a weekly column called The Passing Show, focused on the actors and plays that came through Lincoln, and exploring art and what it means to be an artist at the same time. What fascinated me about this early time in Cather’s life was how much the theme of much of her own literary career was fashioned and formed in these musings and criticisms.

The possibility of flawless artistry was beginning to engross Cather’s mind, and she commented of Mansfield’s performances that one was left with little to say when faced by real art. Of a perfect work, only another artist might describe the how or why. Such “asides” began early in Cather’s reviews, and in them can be seen the young artist testing her own wings; reaching for an ideal, determined to soar; and setting for herself the highest standards.

Another note to self: Collecting original copies of Cather’s weekly column in the Nebraska State Journal could be my next literary affectation. What a delightful quest that would be!

But there’s more.

A year of arduous play reviewing convinced Willa Cather that the actor’s was the hardest of all lives led for art, his product needing to be created anew for each performance, something comparable to a painter’s being required to finish a new canvas every evening. The evanescence of the performing arts both inspired and appalled her. Each perfect creation bloomed for its brief hour and then vanished “as music dies in a broken lute”; when the actor dies, his greatness perishes. More reassuring was the career of a writer. He might labor and die, but he had the hope of posthumous influence. As her graduation day approached, Willa Cather chose not an actor but a writer to be the topic for her address before the university literary societies.

And which writer did she choose?

Significantly she chose a prose master, the author of “the first perfect short stories in the English language,” Edgar Allan Poe. In retrospect, her decision has the air of inevitability, she herself being drawn to a life dedicated to the literary art. In Poe she saw the life of art at its most demanding, yet its most unadulterated. Friendless, often hungry, plagued by creditors, crippled by alcoholism, and doomed to observe the wreckage of those he most loved, Poe never allowed the flag of his art to be sullied. That he was a liar and an egoist mattered little to Willa Cather, for the man was nothing; his work everything: “There is so little perfection.” By 1895 all that mattered was that somehow, against all odds, Poe had kept the ideal of perfect work. “I have wondered so often how he did it,” Cather said in her speech. “How we kept his purpose always clean and his taste always perfect.”

Remind you of anyone? On the liar and egoist side, Poe sounds a lot like Charles Strickland, the defiant and doomed protagonist of Maugham’s beautiful and terrible The Moon and Sixpence (another special favorite of mine). His work everything. But on the idealistic side, Poe sounds like none other than Cather herself.

Whether she realized it or not, Willa Cather already had her answer embedded in her eulogy to Poe -- his single-mindedness evidenced in his refusal to become discouraged, deflected, or sidetracked. But in 1895, still at the first step of her journey, she could not yet state this answer as a certainty. She needed to live the life of art herself in order to confirm what she had said about Poe.

This is the artist that Gerber introduces us to in this literary biography. Art above all. The theme that would drive Cather is set very early in her life.

Art Above All

Throughout the biography Gerber will return to this theme again and again. It is Cather’s guidestar, and it makes an appearance at nearly every important step of her life’s journey.

In Cather’s decision not to marry:

Her writing of that period -- even her transitory reviews -- speaks much of art and its stringent demands upon the individual who cares passionately; and her decision to be a writer merely strengthened with time. Marriage and a career in her thinking were incompatible. The dire consequences of acting as if they were otherwise are portrayed throughout her fiction, in which marriages for artists exist but are neither satisfying nor successful.

In her short friendship with the aging writer Sarah Orne Jewett:

The Cather-Jewett friendship lasted only a brief sixteen months, for the older writer, ill when they met, died the following year. After Cather’s assignment in Boston had been completed, the two corresponded regularly; and in one of her notes Miss Jewett include the second sentence that became axiomatic to Cather: “The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper -- whether little or great, it belongs to Literature.” This statement defined to Cather the creative process on its highest level; if it did not alter her course in life, it surely buttressed notions she had already approached intuitively. There were youthful materials -- scenes, characters, anecdotes, themes -- that since her university days she had been attempting to record rightly. Her efforts to date seemed shamefully experimental, amateurish, and awkward; but with a volition of their own, these same memories persisted in urging themselves as subjects: life on the Nebraska Divide, the struggle of the gifted individual to achieve.

Jewett’s words also speak powerfully to me. “The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper -- whether little or great, it belongs to Literature.” Think of every great novel you’ve ever read (or tried to write). This simple sentence should help you distill it to its essence.

And also from Jewett:

Before her death Miss Jewett wrote about the hazards involved in balancing a personal writing career with a full-time job in editing. “I think it is impossible,” she concluded. In competition against the magazine’s incessant demands on time and energy, the artist was bound to lose. “Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office,” she warned, “must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world.” Cather cherished this letter; for in stating baldly what she already sensed about herself, it made her painfully aware that her publishing day was comparable only with the exhausting gyrations of a trapeze act.

And even in Cather’s own words:

Great thoughts are not uncommon things, they are the property of the multitude. Great emotions even are not so rare, they belong to youth and strength the world over. Art is not thought or emotion, but expression, expression, always expression. To keep an idea living, intact, tinged with all its original feeling, its original mood, preserving in it all the ecstasy which attended its birth, to keep it so all the way from the brain to the hand and transfer it on paper a living thing with color, odor, sound, life all in it, that is what art means, that is the greatest of all the gifts of the gods. And that is the voyage perilous, and between those two ports more has been lost than all the yawning caverns of the sea have ever swallowed.

It is serious work, art, and the voyage of the artist is a perilous one. Cather believed that. So do I. But more than that, Cather lived it, lived it in everything that she did.

Youth and the Bright Medusa

My own musings about the meaning of this title of one of Cather’s few published collections of short stories came in on the same angle -- the voyage of the artist being a perilous, but dazzling and potentially rewarding one. Here’s Gerber’s description of the same subject:

A strange title, but Cather titles have special meanings, sometimes hinted at in epigraphs; or they are perhaps elucidated elsewhere by the author herself. But she made no comment about the title of this new book, perhaps because she thought it self-explanatory -- and to an extent it is. The monster Medusa, one of three Gorgons, her head a wreath of serpents, petrified all who dared look upon her with naked eye. To attempt her subjugation lay beyond human power, and most of the countless youths who hunted her to her lair perished. Only the brilliant, redoubtable Perseus was successful, and he approached Medusa obliquely, guided by her reflection in his shield. With her severed head he was enabled to perform great deeds.

On this ancient myth Cather constructs her legends of man’s hunt for glory. The analogy with Medusa is imperfect, yet workable, for from Medusa’s bleeding torso sprang the horse Pegasus, whose hooves kicked open the fountain of art atop Mount Helicon. Youth and art, the struggle of the one to master the other -- she saw this pattern in the legend. Medusa stood, therefore, for life’s bright challenge -- bright but without mercy -- that only the fearless, the able, the resolute might dare approach. The promise that most would fail is no dissuasion because the Medusa of art glittered with same magnetic appeal as the Medusa of legend. Her attraction is hypnotic and, in the end, ironic. Speaking of the “magical song of youth, so engrossing and so treacherous,” or of “the bright face of danger,” Cather herself leads others to an identification of the bright Medusa as “art itself, with its fascinating and sometimes fatal attraction for youth.”

Looks like I nailed it. Art: a monster worth defeating?

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

Monday, December 16, 2019

Top Takes: Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru

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

Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister of democratic India. His daughter was Indira Gandhi, the woman who succeeded him as prime minister and was eventually assassinated. But as the pages of this remarkable book open, those things haven’t happened yet. The book is a collection of letters, written in 1931-33, when Indira was between 14 and 16 years old, and her father was serving time as a political prisoner.

Partly to help keep his mind active and partly to help his daughter develop an appropriate appreciation for world history, Nehru wrote these letters without notes or other reference materials, relying primarily on his own knowledge and beliefs of what had created and shaped the world around him -- thousands of years of history, from the beginnings of civilization, to the aftermath of the First World War and the initial stirrings of the Second.

And throughout all the letters in this long book, I think it is important to remember that, whatever the reader’s own political and economic beliefs, the words he is reading are the simple and straightforward prose of a loving father writing to his daughter.

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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, December 14, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 25 (DRAFT)

Jacob cried all the way home. He was like that. When he got hurt, no matter how slight the injury, he cried as if the world was coming to an end, as if he had never felt pain before and found himself sucked into a hell of never-ending agony. He’d throw a fit—there was no other word for it—a wailing, incoherent hissy fit, and there was absolutely no reaching him until he stumbled out of it like a nomad finally making his way across the desert. I used to think he might be retarded, that he lacked some essential thing that every other boy on the planet had, something he had failed to inherit from me or which I had failed to teach him, some spark of latent manhood that bestowed the ability to face adversity and overcome it. He seemed so utterly incapable of dealing with life’s smallest challenges and discomforts.

And at these times I hated him. It sounds awful to say, but it was true. He was like something alien to me—a blind, embryonic troll from another dimension, with balled up fists and a slime-covered face, unable to fully perceive our universe. He frightened me. I didn’t know what he was and didn’t think I ever would.

I shouted at him a few more times, knowing it wouldn’t do any good, but needing to shout at him all the same. It was just me and him in the car and he wouldn’t hear me, so it felt like the rules were suspended, like I could blow off some steam and there wouldn’t be any consequences.

But by the time we got home, I had calmed down and Jacob’s crying had decayed into a soft whimpering. After parking the car, I opened his door and stood there for a few moments, looking at him and seeing not the hated monster, but my son again, strapped securely into his booster seat.

“Are you all right, Jacob?” I asked him gently.

His red eyes turned to look at me, tears glistening on his face under the dome light inside the car. “Where’s Mommy?” he asked.

“She’s inside,” I said, swallowing back some of my frustration for the sake of peace. Mommy, always Mommy. When he began looking around with disorientation I added, “We’re home now. Mommy’s inside the house.”

He began to struggle then, desperate to get free of the seat belt restraining him, but his little fingers weren’t schooled enough to unsnap the buckle. I helped him out and he ran to the back door, clawing on its locked surface and crying out for his mommy to come. By the time I got there with the key Jenny was already opening the door from the inside.

“Alan?” was all she could say before Jacob burst into a fresh set of tears and ran for his mother’s protective embrace. The two of them practically collapsed on the floor of the back hallway together, Jacob clinging tightly and Jenny trying to comfort him while protecting her belly, where his sister slept in her prenatal fog.

Jenny’s questions were rushed and panicked. “Oh my god, what happened? Are you hurt? Did you get hurt?” But Jacob had no more answers for her than he had had for me, just a long and plaintive howl like the cry of injustice itself. She looked up at me, eyes afire.

I opened my mouth but I had no answer for her, either. It was as if all my words had been tossed out of my brain and into a jumbled pile on the floor. I could have started picking them up, but they wouldn’t have been in the right order, and I knew I’d have to sort through them while my son cried and my wife continued to glare at me in order to put them back where they belonged. It felt easier to just stand there and look at the mess.

“Alan! What happened?”

I shook my head. “They tried to play soccer,” I said, as if that explained anything.

Jenny dismissed me angrily and then tried to get to her feet. Pregnant, and with Jacob clutching her tightly, she had some difficulty, but when I attempted to help she shooed me away and relied instead on the knob on the pantry door. Planting Jacob on her hip, his nose nuzzled in behind her ear and beginning to settle back down into whimpers, she turned and retreated into the house.

I stayed in the back hallway and listened as her feet went up the stairs and moved into Jacob’s room. I remember thinking about leaving then, about getting back in my car and driving away, never to return. The size of the task before me seemed that big, and the confidence I felt in my ability to complete it seemed that small. It shamed me, but the idea of giving up and starting over somewhere else had a certain dark appeal to it. It seemed like it would have been better than standing in the back hall like a misbehaving child, waiting for his mother to come down a dole out her righteous punishment. But like that child—afraid of what might happen when mother returned, but more afraid of what life would mean without mother in it—I simply closed and locked the door and quietly made my way to the bottom of the stairs.

I could still hear them above me—my wife and child—Jacob now not whimpering at all, and the two of them in some kind of hushed conversation. As I turned my head to try and better pick up what they were saying, I saw Jenny’s knitting set out on the coffee table in the living room, the remote control and a cup of tea on the table beside one arm of our sofa, and the television frozen on some frame of one of her favorite cooking shows. The knitting, I knew, was a toddler-size sweater with a dinosaur pattern on the front—something she was trying to finish and present to Jacob as a special gift before Crazy Horse was born.

I couldn’t hear any talking now, and when I looked back Jenny was standing at the top of the stairs. We stared at each other for a few moments, and then she slowly made her way down the steps, easing into each movement as if her back hurt.

“Alan, what happened?” she asked when she reached the bottom. Her voice was softer and much less threatening.

“What did he tell you?” I countered, jealous that Jacob had undoubtedly told his mother what he was feeling.

“He said Tyler kicked him. Is that what happened?”

“Yeah. He’s not really hurt, is he?”

“I don’t think so. He said he got kicked in the chest, but I didn’t see any marks or bruises.”

I shook my head and looked away. I could feel the tears in my eyes but I blinked a few times and drew them back in.

“Alan, what really happened tonight?”

It was a loaded question—loaded in my mind at least. What Jenny wanted to hear was the recitation of events, and I could have said them, could have gone through the long litany like the play-by-play announcers Tyler’s dad surely listened to. But that’s not what I wanted to say at all. I wanted to say something entirely different.

What happened tonight? I failed, Jenny, that’s what happened tonight. I failed as Jacob’s father and as your husband, just like I’m failing at work and with the job search. I’m an impostor. I can feel the wall crumbling around me and I can’t do anything about it.

“Honey,” she said, obviously seeing the hurt in my eyes. “What is it?”

I sighed. “They tried to play soccer tonight,” I said again, not knowing if I would be able to say what I wanted to say, but knowing at least that I had to start somewhere else.

“Uh huh.”

“Well, they’ve never done that before and Jacob wasn’t ready for it. Every other night they’ve just had us practice our skills together and that was fine because I could encourage him and keep him engaged. He doesn’t know how bad he is, but I do. I look around and see how well the other boys are doing. They’ve got real skills. They’re not like Jacob. They’ve been playing with soccer balls and footballs and hockey sticks, probably since they came home from the fucking hospital. You know how most men are. Come on, sport, when you finish with all that breast feeding, how about tossing the old pigskin around with dear old dad?”

Jenny wrinkled her brow. I felt raw inside and I wanted to lash out, but I was getting carried away and I was losing her.

“Never mind,” I said, composing myself. “The point is tonight they put all the kids into their own soccer game. No dads to serve as buffers, just fifteen kids all going after the ball at the same time. Jacob couldn’t handle it. Everyone was better than him and he couldn’t get the ball and he had a meltdown. He pushed a kid and tried to steal the ball, and when he went to grab it he got kicked.”

“By Tyler?”

“Yes, by Tyler,” I said, dismissing from my mind the fact that I had just reconstructed that chain of events from past behaviors I’d seen Jacob exhibit. My eyes, after all, had been diverted while all that was supposedly happening on the gymnasium floor.

“But it wasn’t on purpose," I continued. "Tyler was going for the ball and Jacob got in the way. Tyler was just doing what boys do—what boys are supposed to do. He kicked at the ball and got Jacob instead.”

“Then what happened?”

“What do you think happened?” I snapped, angry more at myself, and knowing I would hide behind the anger instead of confessing my fears. “I carried him out of there and brought him home. He was screaming like a banshee, Jenny. You know what he’s like when he gets hurt. The slightest scratch will send him into hysterics. Remember last fall when he cut his finger? You thought he was going to pass out from all the screaming and made us all go to the hospital.”

Jenny looked at me crookedly, clearly not liking the reminder of how she had overreacted.

“Look,” I said, “he got kicked in the chest tonight. Like the cut on his finger he wasn’t seriously hurt, but Tyler thumped him a good one, and he reacted the same way. What else was I supposed to do?”

“I don't know,” she said. “Maybe he would’ve calmed down after a while and could’ve gone back into the game?”

Does he need a breather? The memory of Marcie’s words suddenly stung me, as if even she knew more about parenting little boys than I did.

“Alan, what is it?” Jenny said with fresh concern. “What’s the matter? It’s here, isn’t it? Right here between us, whenever you talk about Jacob. I can see it but I don’t know what it is? Will you tell me?”

I opened my mouth but no sound came out. The words were there but I held them back.

And suddenly she was hugging me, her pregnant belly pushing into me, her arms squeezing my back, and her soft voice telling me it was all right, all right. It was tender and intimate, and it scared me more than anything else that had happened that day because I hadn’t known she was going to do it. I hadn’t seen it coming. I had thought she was still mad at me.

In a moment I felt Crazy Horse kicking away in her womb. They seemed like violent kicks to me, and they caused Jenny to break the embrace, putting one hand on her stomach and one hand on the banister to steady herself.

“Well,” she said. “I don’t think this daughter of ours is going to have any trouble playing soccer.”

And then she smiled at me and, for a moment, everything really was all right.

“I overreacted, didn’t I?” I asked. “Like you did with the hospital. I should’ve given him a chance to calm down.”

That seemed obvious now, but at the time it had been the farthest thing from my mind.

Jenny reached out and grasped my hand. “Why don’t you go up and talk to your son?” she said. “He’s calmed down now. Maybe you guys can play a game or something?”

“You want to get back to your cooking show?” I teased.

“It is supposed to be my night off.”

I nodded, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and began making my way up the stairs. Jacob’s bedroom door was closed but not shut tight. With two fingers I gently swung it open and found him sitting on his bed, one of his giant picture books spread open on the mattress before him.

“Hi, buddy,” I said meekly from the door.

No answer. Just his little head turned down, ears sticking out, and eyes scanning the pages.

I wasn’t sure what I should do. The part of me that Jenny had helped build back up wanted to go in and give him a hug, but the part of me that even Jenny couldn’t reach wanted to close the door and pretend he didn’t exist. I slowly moved into the room and sat down on the bed next to him.

“Hi, Jacob.”

“Hi, Daddy.”

I put a gentle hand on his back. I could feel the knobby buttons of his spine through his shirt. “What are you looking at?”

“It’s a mystery search book,” he said, his attention still clearly on the page. “I’m looking for ten sharks.”

I looked at the book. It was a big one, twice the size of a news magazine, and the two-page spread Jacob had open was filled with a colorful under-the-seascape, hundreds of little cartoon fish swimming around and past each other. Just glancing at it made them all blur together and my eyes swim.

“How can you tell which ones are the sharks?” I asked.

Jacob pointed to a column of ordered fish on the far left-hand side of the spread. There at the top was a little gray shark, with a sharp top fin, powerful tail, and an angry mouth. Below him was a yellow number ten. Scanning down the column I saw other kinds of sea creatures with other numbers beneath them—six dolphins, five stingrays, seven seahorses.

“You’re supposed to find all of these fish?” I asked, running my finger down the column.

“Yes,” he said with a kind of sigh. “But I’m starting with the sharks.”

“How many have you found so far?”


He was so focused on the task that his answers to my questions came as if from the back of a dark cave where he was carefully rubbing two sticks together to make a fire. Drawn in by his concentration I began to search through the seascape myself, my eyes focusing on and rejecting each fish one by one. It didn’t escape my notice that this kind of interaction was far easier with Jacob than anything I may have thought to demand of him.

“There’s one!” I said with a pointing finger, stumbling across a shark the way you might find a buffalo head nickel in a jar of loose change.

“That’s four,” Jacob said, and then dutifully showed me the three he had already found. They were all slightly different, but unmistakably sharks, lost in an ocean of other creatures.

We kept at it until all ten sharks were found. When we had six, I climbed more fully onto his bed, my back resting against the headboard, and pulled Jacob over to sit next to me. He nestled in comfortably under my arm, the book spread open on his lap. He found some and I found others, and Jacob seemed just as pleased either way. When there was only one left to find I spotted it but didn’t point it out right away.

“I see number ten.” I said.


“Can you find it yourself?”

He looked up at me, no sign of the tears he had previously shed. He clearly wanted to do this, to find the remaining shark on his own, but he also clearly wanted me to tell him, seduced by the idea that such a thing could be known. “Give me a hint.”

“A hint?” I said, deciding to test him a little, to see if he could handle this small challenge. “I didn’t get any hints.”

“Please, Daddy?”

“Well, all right,” I said as if making a great concession. “Let me see here. The tenth shark is between a jellyfish and a swordfish.”

Jacob rapidly turned his attention back to the book. I looked down on the golden fuzz on the back of his neck while his eyes scanned the page anew. Coming up the stairs I had dreaded the idea of talking to him about what had happened at Sports Class. It had felt like one of the mandatory duties of fatherhood—you know, talking to your son about the role sports can play in teaching a young man about teamwork, healthy competition, and self-improvement—but my heart wasn’t in that kind of thing. And I abandoned the idea altogether the moment I saw the peaceful concentration Jacob showed over his mystery search book. He rarely showed the ability to focus on any one thing for so long, especially on things that were difficult. He usually gave up too easily, occasionally breaking a toy or throwing a fit if he didn’t immediately succeed. This studied fascination with the mystery under the sea was something new, and I decided it would be better to reward this as positive behavior than to call attention to another one of his failures.

“There it is!” Jacob cried triumphantly, his index finger stabbing at the tenth shark like a spear. “Right between a jellyfish and a swordfish. Just like you said, Daddy. Just like you said!”

“Good job, buddy. That was a really good job.”

Jacob looked up at me and smiled, his eyes glowing and his white baby teeth glistening. My arm was already around him, but I pulled him closer to me and kissed the top of his head.

“Now,” Jacob said, turning back to the book, happy, but all business. “Let’s find those six doll-fins.”

“Let’s do it,” I said, knowing then and there that the two of us were done with Sports Class forever. If Jenny wanted us to go somewhere for our bonding time, I could now think of dozens of other more productive things we might go 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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Monday, December 9, 2019

Top Takes: The Stranger by Albert Camus

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

The Stranger by Albert Camus

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.

The Stranger is not a novel that turns on characters or plot. It turns, rather, on ideas, indeed, the one powerful idea of our own death that we must all come to terms with if we ever hope to transcend it, to act in opposition to the patterns of thought and behavior that keeps us a stranger to ourselves. Even though that realization only makes us a stranger to the rest of humankind.

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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, December 7, 2019

The Physics of Consciousness by Evan Harris Walker

If memory serves, this book was a gift from a friend -- someone who knows my scientific, yet strangely spiritual bent, and who thought I would enjoy this stroll through a mysterious garden of quantum events that explain everything and nothing at the same time.

I didn’t.

My experience in reading Walker’s book reminded me of the same frustrating experience I had reading The Mind and the Brain, but Walker seems even less grounded in facts and more willing to let literary interpretation stand in for them.

Let’s jump right in.

Matter is not really both particle and wave, but rather discrete packages of energy that dart from place to place in a frenzy of quantum jumps, that ebb and flow in waves of chance. It is a world in which nothing stays long where it should be but only stays where it could be. The atoms dance and the electrons hop, zipping about from the wildly random thermal commotion and from the blurry speed with which probability waves speckle the tiny electrons around their nuclei, painting fleeting mazes into solid things like you and me -- and her.

And yet none of this is what is there. All of this motion is frozen. All this darting and all these quantum jumps exist only as potentialities. The jumps and darts happen when measurements take place, when we observe, and when things interact with other things. We cannot view the probability waves as arising because real discrete particles of matter in precise locations with exact speeds dart about so fast or so discontinuously that we cannot follow their true paths. They have no path. They have no exact place and no exact momentum. They exist as potentialities at all these places at once: a frozen static frenzy, the silent excitement of nature. Particles do exist, but their states are represented by waves of probabilities. That is the resolution of the wave-particle duality paradox. That is the solution that cloaks still more mysteries than we ever thought might hide there.

This is about as concise a statement of Walker’s thesis as I can find in his book, they key phrases being “Particles do exist, but their states are represented by waves of probabilities,” “The jumps and darts happen when measurements take place, when we observe, and when things interact with other things,” and “Painting fleeting mazes into solid things like you and me.” I’m going to have a lot to say about each one of these ideas.


But before going to those places, the reference to “her” in the above passage warrants some kind of explanation.

And so it goes -- algebra, Latin, English, study hall; Mr. Goodwin grading test papers; jolly debate class; Whitson with an idea to canoe to Mobile in the summer; and walks with Merilyn, always Merilyn. Walking with her between classes; walking her to Homewood for her Les Amies Club meeting; going home with her; phoning her to talk for an hour -- going back again some nights. Reading the poems she had written and, sometimes, something I had written. How much of my time and how much of my life … even then I did not know.

Walker’s book would be about half as long if he didn’t constantly interrupt his argument with vignettes and reminiscences like this of an old teenage flame named Merilyn Ann Zehnder. The book begins and ends with her, as if she, her death, and his memory of her are the keys that he wants us to use to unlock the secrets of the universe.

With all due respect for the deep emotional bond he obviously had with her, Walker’s obsession with ‘always Merilyn’ frankly grows tiresome and tedious. It’s deeply personal for him, but it’s distancing for the reader, a little too much like reading someone’s diary. And what, other than his exploring the inside of his own head, does it have to do with the physics of consciousness, the purported subject of his book? I honestly think it clouds Walker’s judgment, this intense focus on this emotional experience, and it only helps him jump unreasonably to his hypothesis about nonphysical consciousness. Because that’s where his argument will eventually take us. Quantum mechanics proves that consciousness is nonphysical -- and that it is the mechanism that creates physical reality.

Walker’s journey, ultimately, is that of a physicist, who followed his physics down the quantum rabbit hole, hoping to find meaning, only to not just find no meaning, but actually nothing at all. He’s angry about that, because he wants it all to mean something -- he desperately wants his memory of Merilyn to be real -- and so he makes it mean something, something personal, and then something universal; something, ultimately, that only he and his mathematics can see.

Particles do exist, but their states are represented by waves of probabilities

Walker’s book is a great history lesson, detailing and documenting the rise of quantum mechanical thought -- and two of the biggest stars in that galaxy are Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, each of whom had a different way of pinning down the elusive atomic particle.

[Heisenberg’s] formulation does not follow the particle from one location to another but, rather, creates an array of values representing all the possible measurement results that might be found when a measurement is carried out on the object. It is as though the way in which an object gets from one place to another, from one energy to another, or from one orientation to another matters much less than the idea that eventually the object will be observed, and that when it is observed, it may be found in any one of a whole collection of possible states. Physics no longer describes where, but the potentiality of where; not how energetic, but the possibilities for an object’s energy. In Heisenberg’s case, the conception of reality had changed to a picture in which the things that actually are real are the measurement events. Things between observations become a bit fuzzier than they had ever been in physics. In a way, things seen now become “imaginary” potentialities to affect what we will see.

Did you catch what he did there? If you’re not up on your physics, Walker is talking about the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle here, in which it is claimed that you can never definitively know both the velocity and the position of an electron. You can measure its velocity, but then you won’t know where it is. Or you can measure its position, but then you won’t know its speed or direction. Both are artifacts of the math that physicists use to describe (and then define) reality, but that’s not what I want you to notice.

What I want you to notice is that Walker first starts talking about “particles,” then shifts to talking about “objects,” and finally settles on “things.” He is evidently applying the Uncertainty Principle to them all, even though he never bothers to define them. I’m pretty sure than Heisenberg was strictly talking about electrons (which, by the way, are only “particles” in the scientific definition of that word). But Walker, like a lot of other authors I’ve read on this subject, aren’t satisfied with staying so rigorously in the atomic world. They wish to subtly expand the use of these concepts and ideas to the macro world by introducing the fuzziest language possible. Electrons, eggs, elephants -- what’s the difference, right?

So that’s Heisenberg. Now, here’s Schrödinger

Where Heisenberg used matrices -- whole arrays of numbers to represent the positions and motions of an atomic particle -- Schrödinger took de Broglie’s conception of matter as waves and developed an equation that would describe matter exactly in terms of these waves. Where Heisenberg gave us matrix mechanics, Schrödinger gave us wave mechanics. The paradox of wave-particle duality gave rise to two paradoxical formulations of physics: one in which the discreteness of particles extended even into the description of space and motion as arrays of discrete numbers, and one in which everything was seen as waves. Incredibly, both gave the same accurate answers.

Schrödinger’s wave mechanics will lead us to something called the wave function -- a complicated set of mathematics that provides the probabilities for all the possible locations and velocities of the atomic particle in question. Where Heisenberg worked to pin the pesky electron down precisely, Schrödinger approached the challenge from another direction, figuring out not where the electron was, but the likelihood all the places it could possibly be.

Both are accurate ways of solving the problem, but in acknowledging that, Walker accidently gives us a peek up his magician’s sleeve.

If both Heisenberg’s and Schrödinger’s formulations give the same correct answers, then somehow, underneath it all, they must merely be different mathematical attire dressing up the same reality that each formulation only partly reveals.


Heisenberg and Schrödinger (and Walker) are using math to describe reality with greater and greater precision, but they are not defining reality because math doesn’t do that. And yet, as with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Walker will slowly begin to apply Schrödinger’s wave function to larger and larger objects in the real world, thinking that because its math describes the interaction of electrons, it can equally be applied to the interaction of eggs and elephants.

Particles do exist, but they only exist at the subatomic level.

The jumps and darts happen when measurements take place, when we observe, and when things interact with other things

What is a “measurement”? Like “particle”, it seems to be a term with no fixed definition in Walker’s text, forever as malleable as he needs it to be in order to support his suppositions.

...if quantum mechanics does describe the true nature of reality -- if [the wave function] is the complete representation of reality -- then there exists the possibility that a choice made by one’s mind, whatever that may prove to be, has an effect on physical events. Could this be what reality actually is? Is it possible that reality is not ultimately a vast collection of overly agitated billiard balls or even a world of fuzzy, hopping, and popping atoms and elementary particles? Could it be, instead, that mind actually does affect matter?

This, to my way of thinking, is a leap, similar to the leaps that led us previously from electrons to eggs to elephants. “Measurement,” to Walker’s way of thinking, is not limited to their earliest example he provides, which is illumination. Shining a light on something in the macro world isn’t going to do much, but sending a photon into a quantum system is another matter entirely. If you’re not careful, you’re likely to kick an electron up to another energy level, completely changing the behavior of the thing you’re trying to detect. In this context, “not knowing what you have until you measure it” makes a certain amount of sense. But Walker doesn’t want to stay there.

One might assume that this state vector collapse occurs when we disturb the system by having some measuring device interact with it in order to make a measurement on the system -- that is, when the outside world interacts with it. But that is not how quantum mechanics works. When a second system interacts with the first system, all that happens is that we get an even more complicated system with more potential states: a bigger [wave function] with more little [wave function] component pictures than before. The measurement device we use to look at quantum mechanical atoms is itself governed by the Schrödinger equation, and, therefore, it cannot give us anything but a more complicated [wave function] that is made out of the set of pictures that represent the overall system’s potentialities, but now consisting of two parts: one part for the atomic system’s state in each picture and one part for the measurement device’s corresponding readings.

Are you with me so far? After arguing that reality doesn’t become reality until it is measured, Walker is now expanding his wave function of probabilities to include the measuring device itself. It’s not just the electron that doesn’t exist until you measure it, the yardstick you’re using to measure also doesn’t exist until you … until you … what? Well, that comes next.

But we do know that when we observe the system, we will see only one picture, one state, one condition. We know that the state vector collapse must have already occurred or that it occurs at the time of this observation. As a result, investigators often speak of “state vector collapse on observation.” But observation is just a euphemism for consciousness, for mind; this interpretation of quantum mechanics says that the system undergoes state vector collapse because of our mind! Moreover, there appears to be nothing else to blame for state vector collapse. Everything else is something physical and, as a physical system, must be subject to the Schrödinger equation. At best, it can only create more potential states, not remove them. Yet when we observe the system, we know that state vector collapse has occurred. We only see one state, one of the component states [of the wave function]. This effort to obtain an entirely practical interpretation of quantum mechanics -- this Copenhagen interpretation -- leads us to the incredible conclusion that mind, or consciousness, affects matter!

Here, we see the leaps in action. First illuminate, then measurement, then observation, then consciousness. Walker doesn’t explain how he jumps from concept to concept, evidently trusting that they will be as obviously connected in his reader’s mind as they are in his. But they aren’t. Sending a photon into an atom adds energy to the system, but thinking about an elephant doesn’t. And yet, Walker would have me believe that the elephant doesn’t exist until I think about it.

Painting fleeting mazes into solid things like you and me

But getting to consciousness is absolutely essential to Walker’s thesis, primarily, I think, because consciousness is one of those terms that even he admits can’t concretely be defined.

Consciousness cannot really be defined. These words merely suggest analogies, and you have been asked to examine your own experience to see whether you recognize what we are talking about. The reason why we cannot define consciousness is that definitions, true delineations, require objective demonstration, and here that it not possible.

How convenient. So, in other words, you can make consciousness mean anything you want it to and it is up to me, the reader, to “examine my own experience” and see if I recognize what you are talking about. Great. So not only are you pretending math is reality, you’re not even pretending to do science any more.

Walker will spend the last third of his book on two ideas -- one, that consciousness is nonphysical, and that, two, although nonphysical, it causes things to happen in the physical world. It is the thing that paints fleeting mazes into solid things like you and me. For me, this section of the book is so riddled with dogeared pages and confused comments scribbled with frustration in the margin, that I can’t even try to fairly represent Walker’s attempt at quantifying these ideas. I frankly don’t understand what he’s doing -- or why.

But here, for entertainment’s sake, are a few of those frustrating journeys.

Quantum Tunneling

Here’s some comments from Walker’s section on quantum tunneling. If memory serves, Walker will somehow use the idea that electrons “tunnel” across the synapses in our brain to define his nonphysical definition of consciousness.

First, the idea of quantum tunneling itself:

Walker: What clearly separates quantum processes from classical processes is the way objects move. In our everyday world, an object can go from one location to another only if it moves smoothly step by step, point by point, along a path connecting the two locations. Ordinary things move on definite, specific paths.
Me: Arrghh! Quanta are not objects! Particles are not billiard balls! Stop confusing the terms!

Walker: In quantum theory, we discover that objects move according to the ebb and flow of probability waves. It is possible in quantum mechanics for an object to go from point A to point B even though the two points are separated by a barrier that the particle cannot pass through nor even exist within. Quantum mechanically, an object can go from the inside of a bottle to the outside without removing the top, or breaking the bottle; without punching a hole in it, or squeezing past the cork. The phenomenon is known as quantum tunneling. Although it is virtually impossible for this to occur in our everyday world, tunneling goes on “everyday” in the atomic world. The radioactive decay of radium and uranium is due to the fact that a part of the nucleus, an alpha particle, can suddenly pop out of the “bottle” formed by the nuclear forces that hold the nucleus togethers. It pops out even though it does not have the energy to get out! It tunnels out without going through a hole. It is inside one moment and outside the next -- without ever going through the barrier, without the barrier ever being removed.
Me: By describing quantum tunneling this way, you are applying “billiard ball” concepts to quantum events. Maybe there is another solution. After all, who says it is the same alpha particle and both sides of the barrier -- especially since the “barrier” of nuclear forces is something that doesn’t map cleanly onto our macro understanding of physical barriers?

Now, it’s connection to consciousness:

Walker: We have found a way to bring together the idea that consciousness stems from a quantum mechanical process and the requirement that consciousness be connected to the basic hardware involved in the logic-processing functions of the brain, the synapses. Moreover, we have shown that this insight into the way the brain must function in order for consciousness to be explained in terms of quantum mechanics has yielded a new understanding of the structure and functioning of synapses. This is the kind of confirmation that builds a conviction that we are on the right track. But it is now time to see how well these ideas fit the phenomenology of consciousness itself. We must ask, “If consciousness arose from quantum mechanical tunneling of electrons at individual synapses in the brain, what would be the nature of our conscious experience?” We should ask, “What spatial extent should we expect to characterize consciousness according to the picture of its mechanism as so far developed?” What we have so far is merely consciousness tied to individual synaptic firings. There is, in fact, no spatial extension at all. There is nothing here that would give rise to a process integrating synaptic functioning into a single holistic entity. We have not shown why a synapse that fires in one part of our brain should be integrated into a conscious experience involving some other synapse in our brain, nor have we shown why a synapse that fires in your head should not contribute to my conscious experience just as strongly as any synapse firing in my head.
Me: Walker’s entire book seems to follow the same pattern as this confusing paragraph. Make assertion. Then speculate on what assertion might mean if true. Then accept assertion as true. Then make new assertion based on “factual” foundation of last assertion.

One of the key supports of Walker’s house of cards is getting the electrons in question to tunnel all the way across the synapse -- a distance that even he admits is far larger than can be explained by the mathematics of quantum tunneling. He does this by introducing his “hopping” theory: the electrons hop across a series of free-floating molecules in the synaptic soup in order to make it to the other side. He spends a lot of time on this, and then, without support, makes a startling conclusion.

Walker: It is possible, therefore, for this quantum mechanical interaction to join events taking place in the brain’s switches into one grand, unified process. This holistic process brings the mysteries of quantum mechanical uncertainty into play in the functioning of the brain. It links “thought” -- that little fire of the fleeting, jumping electrons -- and the specter of the “observer” of quantum mechanics into one orchestration of mental phenomena. Without this connection, the brain might, for all the world, be nothing but a big billiard table of senseless chaos. But this contact between synapses and electrons, reaching across the space of the brain, turns on the light of consciousness.
Me: Ummm … how does it do that? For all the math and chemistry you’ve described, you still haven’t shown why electron jumping = consciousness. After all, don’t electrons “jump” in the brain’s non-conscious processes as well?

Zen Buddhism

Walker starts talking about Zen Buddhism pretty early in his exploration, and especially how its teachings include the idea of the impermanence of the self.

Buddhism points us to a particularly intense and clear understanding of what consciousness is. It points to a realization that consciousness experience is reality. It is what I am. It is what you are. It points to a realization that this book in your hand is your actual being. This book at this moment as you hold it in your hand is in fact you because that is the content of your consciousness at this moment. Not just “content” but, in fact, the full being of your existence. You are nothing else.

For those familiar with it, this is pretty garden-variety Buddhism. We are not the entity paying conscious attention to the book. We are the conscious attention. Not “I think, therefore I am,” but “I think, therefore thinking occurs.” Walker uses this mind-bending concept to loosely connect a lot of his confusing dots together, appealing more often than not to the poetry rather than precision of the idea. But when he gets down into the quantum mechanical details, this sometimes helpful concept gets thrown out the window.

When addressing philosophers who compare the brain to computer hardware and consciousness to the software running on it:

Walker: Though the similarities to religious ideas are only slight (at least in this point of our story), what we have in the quantum mechanical picture is closer to a conception of a soul-like consciousness inhabiting and animating the machine. (I didn’t start out with this as a goal; it is just the idea that seems to work best at present.) The classical machine cannot have consciousness, and it cannot have any identity of its own. It is we, of course, who anthropomorphically imbue the collection of mechanical parts with its machine identity. But there is a transformation that takes place with the onset of consciousness. Something changes when the brain undergoes the transition to this new mode of functioning that lies outside the capabilities of all present computing machines. When this happens, we acquire our identity -- and identity that exists in and as that consciousness state. Individual identity resides in the continuity of the quantum mechanical process.
Me: Here’s the first chink in his Zen Buddhist armor. He’s desperate to explain the apparent continuity of consciousness, and he’s going to hang it on the “something” that changes in the brain when we focus our conscious attention.

But the Zen Buddhist doesn’t necessarily believe in the continuity of consciousness, as Walker makes clear as he explores several interpretations of his theory of the quantum mind:

Walker: The third option is that when we awake, we are indeed someone new. It may be that the you who now reads this, perhaps just before retiring, are about to pass into oblivion. It may be that each morning a consciousness is born, lives one day, and dies to eternity -- no soul, no greater existence, no further purpose; a legacy only in what you pass to tomorrow’s inhabitant of your borrowed body.
Me: It may actually be worse than that. “You” may not even be a consciousness that lives for a day and that drifts into eternity. Remember your Zen. “You” are only the experience of “your” conscious attention, and that comes and goes through each day. Remember your drive to work today? Or chewing your breakfast? “You” may not have existed in those time periods.

You can’t have it both ways. So don’t distract me with your Zen poetry if you’re not going to accept the logical consequences of its teachings. But having it both ways is something Walker needs for his hypothesis of quantum minds to work.

Walker: Finally, when the “observation” happens -- when state vector collapse occurs -- one synapse, from all those that could have fired, does fire. And the state selected by the synaptic firing, by this process associated with consciousness, specifies just what the brain, and consequently, what the body, will do next. This observation process brings our brain’s next thought and out body’s next action into being. This is a perfect description of will. Like Maxwell discovering that light is an electromagnetic wave, we have found that will is quantum mechanical state selection going on in the brain.
Me: So which is it? We are dependent on synapses firing to be conscious -- or it is our consciousness that causes synapses to fire? It can’t be both.

Attacking Materialism

Towards the end, after Walker has piled so many speculations on top of each other that the reader is understandably lost, he starts ripping into the “materialistic worldview” -- the idea that only the things that can be detected are real.

Walker: Materialism in science has served us well. It has enlightened us. It has brought us closer to many truths. But science’s investment in materialism has itself turned into a creed, with its own high priests ready to torment the unorthodox. Many phenomena have been ignored in the name of this materialism. The obvious -- such as consciousness -- has been shut out, exactly as if such ideas were the teachings of a heretic. Phenomena that would not fit materialistic concepts have been made anathema and estranged.
Me: Two points: (1) Consciousness has been studied ( returns more than 8,500 articles when “consciousness” is searched), you just don’t accept the materialistic conclusions of much of this research; and (2) “Phenomena that would not fit materialistic concepts” is a synonym for “things that don’t exist.”

But it’s not just “materialism in science” but “science” itself.

Walker: Science has the capacity to show us the path to truth. We must go down that path and face whatever is there. But I think that just as some high priests of past religions have sought to impose their personal wills by distorting the teaching of their own prophets, so too scientists have often guided our steps down equally false trails. We have often presumed the direction of science first and cut the path later, before checking to see whether we were going the right way. Science has ignored all issues that might have suggested some middle ground or that might have compromised its secular bias. It has now brought us to the very edge of a world stripped of all innate moral values, without giving us anything to take its place.
Me: It has not. Read Moral Minds. Innate morality is alive and well, and it is science, not religion, that is helping us understand it and its biases.

And since “science” is so bad, we’re justified in making whatever claims we want and calling them facts.

Walker: But more than all of this, surprisingly, we have discovered that every path we have taken to learn something of the structure of the universe finally comes around to the same result. Whether to understand the interconnections of will, to understand the most basic facts of quantum theory, or to discover the beginnings of the Big Bang universe, each path leads to the fact that there must exist a supreme Consciousness out of which everything else springs. It is Consciousness that began everything, that grows matter into a universe of existence; it is Consciousness that unifies and constrains all of us as individual beings; it is Consciousness that orders space and time out of a chaos of random events.
Me: “It all leads to the fact that there must exist a supreme Consciousness out of which everything else springs.” That’s quite an assertion, and it suffers, from my point of view, from the same failing that we began this treatise with. Can you please define your terms? Just as an electron is not an elephant, and I wonder if Walker’s supreme Consciousness -- if it exists at all -- might be something different than the attentive light that exists between my ears.

And where is this attack on science leading? Do you really need to ask?

Walker: There are many questions to which we do not have answers. We have the beginnings of many answers, but many questions remain about the structure of reality, about other realities, about life after our bodily death. We have many questions about just how we should sort the wheat from the chaff of all the religious literature that has come down to us through the ages. We should know that if we can understand the message clearly, it has something to tell us. But we need more tools to find the comfort of truth that faith alone has been able to give us in the past. Faith was never meant to be blind faith. Faith was always meant to be a faith guided by revealed truth -- revealed through the experience of something beyond our own physical self; revealed through the lives that many have lived as examples; revealed in histories; in prophesies, and in the poetry of scripture.
Me: I told you he wasn’t even pretending to do science anymore. But wait. He’s not done.

Walker: But the demands are so much greater now. Now we can see better how easily we err and how easily we stray. We need a better way to seek out truth, to assimilate the jewels of all our religious teaching into one universal faith founded in knowledge that we can verify as we do the facts of science. I hope that the discoveries recorded in this book are the beginning of such a mission. No one who believes in the truth of any of the world’s great religions should fear losing any essential part of that faith by testing its truth against what we can learn with this new science. Those willing to discover an even greater truth in their religion will find untold wonders hidden in what they already believe.
Me: Okay. Here’s what I don’t get. Even if the quantum universe is conscious -- again, whatever that means -- why does that mean any of the ancient ideas of any of the “world’s great religions” are true? Why doesn’t the supposedly scientific discovery of the conscious universe negate old religious ideas, just as those of Copernicus and Darwin did?

Unlocking the Mystery

There is, however, one very positive thing I can say about Walker’s book -- and that is that it helped me unlock the mystery of quantum mechanics. And it’s not what Walker thinks it is.

Here’s the part where the epiphany hit me.

In all of this, some may be bothered that what we are really determining is not the temporal length of consciousness but the speed at which neurons can operate. For example, it takes about ⅛ second for a neural impulse to transit the brain. When you drive down the highway at 60 miles per hour, you are really about 11 feet in front of where you think you are just because of the delay in the nervous system.

We’re deep in the section where Walker, like any good mathematician, is trying to come up with a formula to describe how nonphysical consciousness works and how it creates reality by collapsing all those physical wave functions. But what he tosses off as a passing comment hit me like a ton of bricks. Wait. Back up. How can I be 11 feet in front of where I think I am? I thought my consciousness created my reality. How can I be somewhere that I’m not conscious of being?

But Walker doubles down on this point.

When we speak of consciousness -- of its characteristics, of its contents -- it seems we are speaking of the brain. This problem mirrors the problem of distinguishing brain functioning from the external world, recognizing that we do not see the external world directly but rather images of the world that are created in the brain. Indeed, this is that hard path to enlightenment with which we began. We do not see the outside world, but instead we see the “inside” of our brain! And then we realize that we do not see images created by our brain but that we see instead our consciousness. We discover that what we see is ourselves, our own consciousness. The brain is there and the outside world is there, but consciousness, not these other things, is our existence that we know directly. All of these elements fold so perfectly into one another that we almost miss the reality, miss the hierarchy, and miss the finding of enlightenment.

Okay. So, if all we see is our own consciousness, then isn’t it an obvious conclusion that the strange and reality-distorting effects of quantum mechanics are an effect of our consciousness and not part of the external world? I mean, if I am really 11 feet in front of where I think I am, then isn’t it also plausible that state vector collapse is the quantum of my conscious attention? In other words, I’m not collapsing wave functions by making observations, the wave function is instead the mathematical representation of the most granular observation that I can make.

That idea almost makes it worth re-reading Walker’s book. How much of his meanderings can be better explained not by a universe comprised of a superposition of infinite probabilities, but by the biological delay built into our own conscious attention?

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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