Diversity…?

Nobody asked me, but...

Actually, in this case someone did…ask me, I mean.

Recently, someone posted a question on a forum I follow that struck me as being tragic while also being painfully emblematic of our time. I’m going to share it here along with an extended version of my response on that forum. The question was:

Is it true the US cannot escape from a violent racial clash as white-non-white power balance is changing?

On the surface of things, the answer to the question seemed almost laughably obvious. But after a moment of thought, I got our interlocutor’s point. I’m still disturbed that it’s something we need ask in the second decade of the 21st Century, but if we’re honest, the news in 2020 doesn’t favor a more optimistic view. That we have not yet embraced the essential kinship of us all is not simply a stain on our soul, it is a missed opportunity, even while it’s understandable, in light of human nature. 

I think it was my sophomore year in high school when one of my history teachers (who remains in my personal pantheon of heroes/heroines, btw) made an incredibly insightful observation that has stuck with me my entire life. She said,

“Nothing is but thinking makes it so.”

It was, she confessed, an adaptation of a line from Shakespear. Hamlet. (Act II, Scene 2.) At the time, I’d had my first rudimentary lessons in epistemology, so my first reaction was, “wait a minute, facts exist independent of our opinions. I was about to raise my hand and object when she spared me the embarrassment of outing myself as having taken her literally. 

“Often,” she went on to say “we construct an alternate reality that has consequences the echo in history, sometimes for centuries.”

Her observation wasn’t about race or racism, it was about the break-up of the feudal system in Europe during the 19th Century, post-Napoleon. Many of the nation-states emerging during that period did so, she pointed out, because of their shared perception that they were one people. They “perceived” themselves as having “kinship.” It was that belief, she said, as much as anything else, that shaped post Napoleonic Europe. And my subsequent experiences have led me to believe she was right.

My thoughtful history teacher’s point was that for those formative nations, the indispensable accomplice of their unity was their belief in it. In the United States, we are an incredibly (& in my opinion, beautifully diverse) collection of people unified by a commitment to the best version of ourselves.

It is a vision we often fail to realize, but at it’s best, it is underpinned by law and a delicate balance of citizenship & stewardship. It’s intellectual bedrock is the notion that all men and women are created equal, however poorly our stated philosophy manifests itself action. There’s a temptation if you’re aligned with this vision and its undeniable promise, to conclude it’s universally shared. Most of us know, better, unfortunately, especially men and women of color. Or any difference, for that matter.

Nothing is but thinking makes it so.

Recall my observation earlier, that my history teacher made my sophomore year in high school. We are what we think. If the photos following bother you, is it time to ask why? 

Love is not blind to difference...
It celebrates it...
with joy & conscious gratitude!

What does your visceral reaction to them say to you and (if you’re honest with yourself) about you? My own reaction to the question with which I began this post and my online answer to it was mixed, as I have already noted. Let me cop here and now to my own prejudices conscious and unconscious.

All of us have them to some degree, I suspect. If you’re like me, (read that white, middle class…ish but the first to go to actually graduate from college)  you grew up in a home that gave lip service to tolerance and respect. But (perhaps) also grew up with an unconscious, sense of entitlement. An “I’m white, so I must be right…” sense of certainty about things, though if asked, you might (as I would have) denied it with an indignance that proved the point.

It’s possible to overcome that…to abandon unconscious self-deception, but most of us need to have it brought to our attention, first. For me, I had to go halfway around the world to overcome it. It wasn’t a conscious pilgrimage. It came to me courtesy of Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (USMC). 

It was in Asia that I got to know you, first brothers and sisters of color and it was from you that I got my first lessons in an alternate view of “American Exceptionalism.” It took a little longer to appreciate the nuanced messages I was sending without meaning to. (I’m still struggling to learn, btw).

In the end, what we see or what happens to us is not what makes us who we are. It is what allow ourselves to think that determines our attitudes. It is the conscious choice to be better.

For me, the partial, imperfect solution to racial, ethnic or religious prejudice has not been tolerance. It has and remains a conscious effort to see the beauty in all of us. And the more I look the more beauty and merit I see.  

Someone about now is thinking, it’s going to take more than that. Yes, it is. It will take engagement, honesty and continual honest, self-examination. It will take conscious engagement, patience and a measure of painful honesty both with ourselves and about ourselves. It will require humility and vision and above all a reverence for the vision that was the basis for our nation.

Yes, that’s asking a lot, especially if you’re not already convinced of the necessity. But there is no alternative if we are to survive and thrive. We are one. Not some of us. Not the privileged few. We are all one. And in the final analysis, isn’t that a good thing. Isn’t it?

Polarization and Healing America

Remember America before COVID-19?

A couple months ago, before the COVID-19 was a thing here in the United States, a friend asked me what I thought might help us in dealing effectively with the hyper-partisanship we see in American politics. I almost fell prey to the knee-jerk reaction most of us have (not excluding myself) to think of politics in terms of the current dialog from our own perspective. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something anodyne, like “listen to understand, rather than to argue,” and that we “should try to put ourselves in our fellow citizens’ place.”

The blinding flash of the obvious implicit  in the foregoing observation is that while my perspective matters, isn’t the only one that matters. Most of us understand that intuitively, while ignoring even the most glaring implications.

So my prescriptions fore healing America’s hyper-partisan politics are fine as far as they goes, but it ignore the underpinning causative factors contributing to that hyper-partisan polarization.

In a hypothetically pluralistic democracy of 330 million (about), extracting a meaningful consensus on any specific issue is borderline impossible. Irrespective of where we fall on the political spectrum, do we not have to start with the notion that we’re at our best when we recognize that it’s okay to agree to disagree? Disagreements are inevitable in a nation of this size. To me, that’s the first step. But it’s only a first step. We need to recognize that there are legitimate reasons for those differences of opinion.

At the Intersection of Geography and Demographics

If you’re a farmer, you’re wondering how you’re going to compete with corporate farms, falling prices & climate change some factions in our government insist is a hoax. You know better, of course. If you’re a farmer, you live by the weather and this isn’t normal. But you’re busy trying to make ends meet & you don’t have time to sort through all the science. The latest technology doesn’t exactly pass you by, but it’s not in your face, further compressing your daily timeline the way it does someone who lives in New York , Los Angeles of Seattle.

If you’re a wage earner almost anywhere, you’re painfully aware of how many jobs have moved overseas. And if you’re absolutely honest with yourself, you know most of them aren’t coming back. All this even before COVID-19 shuttered the economy and torpedoed almost 40 million jobs, over the last three months.

But who’s doing anything about it? Corporate America isn’t. They’re automating. Portions of the government are doing what they can, but if you’ve been paying attention (you have, haven’t you?) then you that one party is all-in for corporate America while the other is more or less on our side but are the majority in only one branch of government.

We have the government we’ve enabled. We have allowed the rot of dysfunctional government to set in. We allowed money to stand in for civic engagement while we all got on with our lives, leaving politics to the politicians and high finance to the robber barons who’ve forgotten more about turning a buck than most of us will ever know. 

America the Muddled...

The beginning of a solution lies not simply in recognizing we’ve been collectively had, but also in the inescapable conclusion that we are both the problem and the answer. The answer will not be some savior in the form of another politician, or self-proclaimed “non-politician.” Nor is a savior to be found in the form of a wide-eyed, well-meaning liberal barking about the emerging social imperatives of a corporate bashing counter-revolution.

We are the answer. A solution grounded in the almost laughably simple notion that there is more that unites us than separates us. It means shutting down the barrage of noise and self-serving motivated cognition from both extremes of the political spectrum and focusing on what we  can honestly claim we know.

The Way Home...

Having grown up in the Heartland, lived on both coasts and the south, I’ve come to think of most of America writ large as home, not a single region. As a Marine officer, with an advanced degree in Organizational Development and a second career in corporate America, I’ve seen the world from the hyper-conservative perspective common in the Corps. I’ve also seen it from the more liberal perspective of a surfer, snow skier and environmentalist.

What these experiences here and overseas have taught me, is that we are all capable of understanding and empathizing with each other. IF we want to.  But the necessary and indispensable accomplice empathy is a willing mind, untrammeled by the loud mouths with agendas, explicit or hidden.

In the age of for-profit media and 24/7/365 news, there has never been more access to information and disinformation. Unfortunately, we can no longer tune in to the 6:00 PM news and get the story from one source. If you’re getting all your information from Fox News or from the Sinclair Broadcasting Networks, I guarantee you that you don’t know what you think you know. If you’re getting your news exclusively from MSNBC, you’re getting better information but you’re still getting a lot of commentary, however well informed along with the news.

Like it or not, we have to take everything from every source as subject to multiple source verification, not  to mention fact-checking. If you don’t have them bookmarked yet, bookmark OpenSecrets.Org, FactCheck.org & and Annenberg  Public Policy Center and make use of them. You’ll be a infinitely harder to deceive if you know where to go for a little more balance.

Last but not least, recognize that we’re all humans with hopes and dreams, loves and passions, most of which we share in common. It doesn’t matter what color you are, who/what/if you worship or who you love, we all have pretty much the same itches. And they’re a lot of things we can do to help each other, if we want to, but we all need to step outside ourselves just a little and recognize that if we let it all go bad, we all bleed red.

D.B. Sayers is the author of  four books, including West of Tomorrow, Best-Case Scenario, Through the Windshield and his latest, Tier Zero, Vol. I of The Knolan Cycle, the first in his series chronicling first contact between the Knolan Concordant and Earth.

What do veterans think of Donald Trump?

What do veterans think of Donald Trump?

I don’t spend a lot of time knocking around in online forums, but I do spend some time on them, just to see what my fellow citizens are thinking. And I pass on most questions, statistically, either because more than adequate answers have already been posted or because (honestly) I don’t have strong feelings about the question one way or the other. This one, however, begged an answer. 

                      The question was: “What do veterans think of Donald Trump?”

Doesn't that depend on the veteran?

The first thought to cross my mind was, why would anyone think that military veterans are necessarily anywhere even close to unanimous either in their support or distaste for the 45th President of the United States? Fun fact. There are somewhere north of 18 million veterans alive and kicking, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs, which begs a rhetorical question, to wit: in what segment of the U.S. population distributed across all 50 states can you find 18 plus million men and women who agree on anything? Just wondering out loud…

For the same reason it’s misleading to think that all African-Americans, white middle class voters or Latinos living in Southern California think alike, it’s incredibly naive to think that U.S. veterans think alike.

In a recent poll conducted in December of 2019, Mr. Trump’s approval rating had dipped to 42%, with active duty personnel, the lowest since taking office. It would be fair to point out that

Among veterans, Trump enjoys higher approval ratings, with a 57% to 41+% split, favorable to unfavorable.

The inference I draw from the foregoing polls is in line with my own thinking in this matter, to wit, opinion over Mr. Trump (and almost everything else of importance) is that we’re pretty evenly divided, irrespective of the population you consult. I suspect if you subdivided the military population to account for skew relative to geographic origin, education & rank, you would find it dovetails very closely with non-veteran, non-military opinions.

So my short answer to the question is that anyone who thinks they’re speaking for the military (or veterans) writ large is probably smoking something that would get them locked up in Mississippi.

A lot ink has been spilled in the Mainstream Media about Mr. Trump’s deferments during the SE Asia experience. Personally, as a former platoon leader, I’m positively delighted that he sand-bagged his duty to country on that occasion with trumped-up (pun intentional) deferments. I suspect having the Donald in my platoon would have been a lot like having two good people on R&R in Bangkok.

Relying only on my personal observations of the man in public, I can’t imagine him exposing himself to risk for his brothers and sisters in arms. Now for the record, I don’t personally believe everyone must/should serve in the military, or that declining to do so necessarily calls into question one’s patriotism or loyalty. There are (many) other ways to serve and some men and women are just not constitutionally suited for war. I’m certain Mr. Trump was one of those and likely so remains. Given his profound ignorance of even the rudiments of national strategic components, technological evolution and improvements in weaponry, Mr. Trump may be the singularly least qualified human to have a say in setting our national strategy.

There are many forms of service...

That is not function of his lack of military service, by the way. We have had effective presidents who never served. But until Mr. Trump, these men had the self-awareness, humility and good sense to recognize that what they didn’t know and listen to those who did. Personally, as long as they’re willing to listen to thoughtful military thinkers, I’m untroubled by their lack of personal experience. Presidential leadership is (in the end) not about physical courage.

 

It is about moral courage, probity & character. With that in mind, I can’t imagine a thoughtful veteran, mindful of his/her own sacrifices who can find much to admire in Mr. Trump. I struggle to imagine anyone who remembers fallen comrades watching this man’s antics without profound repugnance.

The Essence of Leadership...

The essence of leadership is self-control as anyone who’s ever led knows. It is virtually impossible to control others if you can’t control yourself. From what I have been able to observe, Mr. Trump is a graduate-level study in the absolute antithesis of self-control. He is incurious, under-educated, inarticulate & self-involved. I have seen nothing I can imagine a thoughtful veteran would admire if he/she was paying attention.

 

As stewards of the public trust, we have a right to expect better of our leaders than we are getting from DJT. But that reasonable expectation demands that we as citizens step up to our co-equal responsibility to be paying attention to what our leaders are doing in our name and holding them accountable when they do things that erode the public trust. If we’re paying attention, I can’t imagine that anyone would be in doubt of the need to render Mr. Trump a one-term president.

 

Still, it is precisely that lack of attention that has placed this man in the White House in the first place. A significant number of people (veterans and non-veterans) weren’t and still aren’t paying attention, or if they are, they apparently lack the civic curiosity to exhume the truth. That needs to change. The truth’s out there, hiding plain sight. Surprising things are written and in the public domain, but we have to want to know and take the time to learn. Read & vote! There’s a lot riding on the 2020 elections!

ALERT! America wants a divorce…

I'm leaving you, Donald!

Sexy Lady Liberty

AMERICA:     “I’ve had it, Donald…pack your trash! You were charming, at first, but you’ve gotten complacent and really gross.

DONALD:      “Do you mean gross-icky or gross like fat?”

AMERICA:     “Both, you ignorant blimp! You looked like a slob at the Queen’s state dinner. Even when we dress you up, you look like a slob! And what’s with you and Vlad?”

DONALD:      “Well, I can’t help—”

AMERICA:     (Solicitiously) “I know, Donald. I really do.” (Frowns) “Funny you should mention that…”

DONALD:      “Mention what?”

AMERICA:     (Pats him on the shoulder) “That you can’t help yourself. We’ve all noticed.”

DONALD:      “Nobody else can help themselves! Have you seen my rally crowds?”

AMERICA:     (With a sigh of resignation, realizing he doesn’t get it.) “Like the circus, you mean? What was it PT Barnum used to say? ‘There’s a sucker born every minute?’”

DONALD:      “You know you love it!”

AMERICA:     “Not really. You’re week-old nachos and guacamole, left in the refrigerator.”

DONALD:      (Whining) “But you like nachos and guacamole—”

AMERICA:     (Sighs) Yes, Donald. It’s not bad at all fresh, but it doesn’t age well.”

DONALD:      “But I’ve made you great, again!”

AMERICA:     “No, Donald. I was always hot. You, on the other hand?” (Walks away, shaking her head).

A retired Marine officer & corporate trainer, Dirk is on his third career as an author. His books include: West of Tomorrow, a tale of corporate intrigue, betrayal and renewal, Best-Case Scenario, first volume in a coming of age series & Through the Windshield, a collection of short fiction. Due out in fall of 2019 is Tier Zero, Volume I of the Knolan Cycle, a tale of first contact between Earth and the Knolan Concordant.

Chasing Butterflies and Letting the Elephants Get Away

Personal Identity

Growing up in a Midwest college town in the ’60s was probably the best of all worlds. While we were aware of the jarring changes happening elsewhere, we were largely unaffected by it. In Iowa, it was easy to buy the comforting notion that the New Deal and WW II had won the battle for a kinder, gentler America and set the stage for the eventual defeat of poverty, hunger and totalitarianism.

I was not simply the heir to those successes. I was part of the generation that would perfect (or at least improve) on them. All we needed do was stay the course. At the time, I saw little contradiction in accepting a commission as a Marine officer, even knowing what I knew about what was happening in Vietnam. Did I have reservations about the war in SE Asia? Yes.

It was hard not be aware (painfully aware) of the disconnect between our stated values and our foreign policy, or our treatment of our brothers and sisters of color. It was even more painfully obvious when I got overseas and stepped in front of my first platoon and saw how many of my platoon were “minorities.” By this time, if you didn’t want to serve, you could (and many did) dodge it.

Citizenship, Service and Stewardship

I didn’t dodge it, because I believed that direct, personal service in some form was the first duty of citizens. As a Marine officer, I also recognized I was a steward of the lives and well-being of the Marines with whom I served. I owed it to their mothers and fathers  to discharge that stewardship to the best of my ability. In service to something greater than myself, I found deeper meaning and a kinship transcending not only self but my immediate family, embracing all of my brothers and sisters who called the United States home.

When it came time to decide to leave the service or to continue, it was not a difficult choice. I continued and my active service spanned the era bounded by the end of Vietnam and the retrograde from Somalia. That and six bucks gets me a cup of coffee almost everywhere and a “thank you for your service.” You’re welcome, by the way. I’d do it again. But no, in case you’re wondering, I don’t believe the military isn’t the only or even most important way to serve. But honest servants are what’s needed, today.

The bedrock genius of the American ideal is citizens fully vested in America’s promise and the personal commitment to all of it. American is white, but it’s also black, brown and red. It’s both left and right coasts, the Heartland and the south the Islands, (including Puerto Rico) and Alaska. All of it, uniquely beautiful and inexpressibly precious. And when we have occasion to think about it, being American feels good. But being American isn’t about feeling good, it’s about being good. Not perfect, but certainly well-intentions. That is not simply a willingness but a profound desire, to serve. Not self but the nation.

 

It's Not About "Isms..."

A lot of ink, electronic and actual, is being expended these days over “socialism.” Opponents of progressive candidates of all flavors are attempting to hang the (at best) loosely defined term around their necks as a means of heading off change they find threatening. Socialism, it is said, is too expensive and kills both initiative and stagnates growth.

On the other side of the political spectrum, we have more radical progressives demonizing capitalism as the fundamental culprit behind the predicament in which we find ourselves today. Capitalism, some argue, is fundamentally antithetical to life. Capitalism, some say, is the metaphorical millstone grinding up the world, for pocket change.

So who is right? Is capitalism genuinely responsible for climate change, species extinction, undrinkable water and non-biodegradable waste? As currrently practiced, yes. Does socialism stifle growth and degrade  initiative and motivation? Depending on how it’s practiced it might.

Chasing Butterflies and Letting the Elephants Get Away

But what is really at the root of these problems? Is it the system(s) or is it the people responsible for how they are practiced and how success is rewarded? Would we even have capitalism, socialism, democracy or autocracy without humans? Can we agree that the answer is no? We dreamed up the systems, institutions and practices associated with each in order to solve a problem or to exploit potential.

There’s nothing fatally wrong with that. Humans are perfectly imperfect, often sloppy innovators who discover system bugs by implementing them and fixing what’s broken until we “get it right.” We try stuff until we come up with something that works, often with scant regard for the long-term consequences. As an entrepreneurial model, it has worked well and much of our tribal knowledge continues to extoll that thought process as a way to avoid studying problems to death.

But for most of our history, we could afford to make lots of mistakes on our way to “something that works” because there weren’t 7 + billion of us swarming the Earth. Is it possible that innovation in the 21st Century may come with a potential price tag that ought to enter into our innovation calculus?

It has been said that experience is the best teacher. If our experiences over the last twenty to thirty years have taught us anything, it is that unbridled greed does not make for a just, happy or even prosperous society. What it does is concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few who then proceed to leverage that power and wealth the gain yet more, ever more at the expense of the less fortunate.

It has become increasingly obvious that the unregulated growth implicit in laissez-faire economics is unsustainable. The question that begs both for humans as a specie and for the world as an ecosystem is what reward system should replace that of unrepentant greed?

Do we have the intellectual creativity to craft a reward system that is sustainable or will we pretend not to notice the consequences of or actions as we whistle past the graveyard? What might a better model look like and what would be the philosophical underpinnings of a more thoughtful society? These are but two of the themes of my new science fiction series collectively known as The Knolan Cycle. Tier Zero, Vol. I of The Knolan Cycle will be released in Nov, 2019.

Dirk is the author of West of Tomorrow , Best Case Scenario and Through the Windshield, Drive-by Lives. All are available in Kindle and paperback formats on Amazon. 

To stay current on his work, subscribe to his “Updates,” top right of this page. 

Finding Your Voice in the Digital Age

What the hell is "Voice," anyway?

So who asked me? Sometimes I just can’t help myself, but in this case, I actually waited for someone more “qualified” to answer, but no one did.

It was on a forum I follow there are several threads deal with the arts and one deals specifically with literary art. Out of the blue, the following question popped up: “How do you find your voice as a writer in the digital age?”

I had my own opinions, but kept my mouth shut for quite a while, knowing there were a number of narrow gauge authors on this forum better qualified to answer the question than I, but after a couple days of the sound of crickets, I eventually popped off, unable to contain myself any longer.

Yeah, I know…Say it isn’t so…Dirk has an opinion? He does, and that opinion follows.

When you use the term voice, may I assume that you mean what you’ll often hear critics & acquisitions agents refer to when they use the term? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess your answer is yes, and respond accordingly, with the following caveat emptor. What follows is my opinion, as an independently published author of modest success with several books currently in print.

Let me lead with my answer, & follow up with an explanation. You “find” your voice by writing. I think that has always been true and don’t see the digital age as changing that. The times in which we live surely color that experience, but they don’t change the process.

You will often read or hear literary and acquisitions agents refer to finding someone with a “unique” voice. When you break that down, what they really seem to mean is someone with a marketable difference from what is currently available in (you fill in the blank) genre. I don’t say this to be cynical. There are both artistic and practical reasons for their emphasis. There really is such a thing, and it does matter, but at its best, it seems to me that it’s so elusive, so almost indefinable that focusing on it almost defeats the purpose.

Finding your "Voice..."

Here’s the good news. If we’re writers, we all have a “voice.” It’s not now and never has been lost, so we don’t need to find it. What we need to do is develop it and refine it. Voice is a little like sedimentary rock. It’s built up, layer by layer. An incomplete list of things that go into voice are:

  1. How what we read influences the way we write. What we read informs not only our attitudes, but how we are inclined to express ourselves. This is true even when we’re making no conscious effort to develop our own writing style. Without conscious effort, we pick up turns of phrase and literary artistry that we encounter as we read and adapt them to our own writing.
  2. How our world view influences our choice of themes. In the same way that what we read influences our attitudes, those attitudes then emerge in the form of themes that are woven into the stories we write. If we are growing as authors, both our writing and the themes implicit in them become more nuanced over time as we what we’ve learned from others influences our own thinking.
  3. How your point of view character(s) reveals the author’s views. The characters in our writing often act as mouthpieces or guides in the stories we write. As a consequence, who we choose as characters, how they speak, act and what they value emerges and evolves as we grow artistically and (hopefully) intellectually.
  4. What you choose to write. All of the foregoing then gets folded into the stories we tell if we’re writing fiction, or if non-fiction, the topics we choose to address head-on.
  5. The technical elements of your writing. (word choice, cadence, description, etc). Every author experiences this. The more we write, the better we become at it. Our word choice becomes more precise and over time, our language often becomes more economical as the natural outgrowth of that precision. Sentence structure becomes more varied and our use of cadence and pace becomes consistently more suited to expressing the mood of whatever passage we’re writing.

 

So how do you find your "Voice?"

You get out in the world and watch people, experience things and are shaped by those experiences. You do things that fire your soul, learn things that absorb your full attention and you ask yourself why, and why not and then when you stir all of that together in a story reflecting that passion.

You populate that story with nuanced, flawed characters in interesting situations. Characters who grow or shrink before the readers’ eyes and (hopefully) teach readers some fundamental truth(s) that leave them breathless or reflecting thoughtfully for days, or minimally, entertain them.

Then you promote and market the hell out of your first book while you write the next story and the next and the one after that. You learn just how hard it is to do both and not burn out. And each time, your voice refines itself through the painful effort of opening your veins and bleeding truth as you see it, agonizing over each turn of phrase, each image, and each scene.

At some point, you will recognize you will never find your voice, because it’s like the rabbit at the greyhound track. It will always be faster than you are. The good news is, it will develop without you making a conscious project of it. Do your best work and your voice will evolve as you do.

Dirk Sayers is a retired Marine officer, retired corporate trainer/executive and the author of West of Tomorrow, Best Case Scenario and Through the Windshield, all currently available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. Tier Zero, the pilot volume of his upcoming science fiction series of first contact will be out toward the end of 2019

Time and Tides

Change and Conflict...

Is there anything quite as disorienting as change we can neither predict nor fully understand? Maybe…perhaps even probably. But for most of us, it’s right up there. In West of Tomorrow, change, both personal and professional is a pervasive theme for the principal characters in the story.

There are several themes at work in West of Tomorrow, but ultimately, all of them either have their origins in change or are in the need for profound change to “fix” what’s wrong. When we catch up with Clay Conover, the first character we meet in the novel, we learn he’s a Vietnam era re-careered Marine officer turned corporate trainer.

With a distinguished record as an officer and self-evident competence in his new career, everything seems to be on track for Clay. He has his ghosts, personal and professional, but who doesn’t? And on balance, he’s got it all handled and hardly anyone he meets sees him anything but balanced, thoughtful and pretty together.

His successful navigation, from senior leadership in the military to responsible mentor in the private sector demonstrate both his adaptability and and admirable innate competence. But in common with many of us, Clay has unfinished business lurking beneath the surface.

What happens when several unsettling events come together all at once to cast a shadow on Clay’s prospects for tomorrow? Will the awakened ghosts from his past short circuit his future? The triggers of memory, we are reminded, have the power to inflict pain or bestow peace…and paradoxically, sometimes both at once.

The Last High Tide

In a chapter entitled The Last High Tide, we find Clay in the throes of an intensely personal transition, forced to confront not simply his own fallibility, but issues he’s spent his life avoiding. Tectonic changes , personal and professional have left him with little to hang onto. How does he reinvent himself at this late stage of his life? Exhausted from thinking about it, Clay awakens from a dream he doesn’t want to have. A raging thirst drives him to his refrigerator for a bottle of water, when he notices the shadows of leaves, dancing across his balcony, in the moonlight.

Walking out on his balcony, Clay hears the distant thunder of surf, even above the offshore winds through the trees and a snippet of a poem he wrote years ago wafts into his mind.

                                  And I thought I heard the sea, as I used to, 

                                 Each time as the first time, far-off, new…

There’s nothing to stop him now. He has nowhere he must be, today. And sometimes, he tells himself, when the going gets tough, the tough go surfing. Deep down, the reader suspects Clay is unconsciously avoiding or at least postponing the work he dreads doing. But is this something he needs to do, or is this a character flaw springing up?

After all, it isn’t a foregone conclusion that Clay will get through this. Neither his successes in combat, nor his subsequent accomplishments in peace are at best imperfect predictors of his ultimate fate. Not unlike the turning of the tide, Clay is painfully aware of all of this. While he’s out there surfing, it’s clear that it claims his full attention.

Clay Conover Exits the Zen Zone (Photo Courtesy of Jeremy Bishop & Unsplash).

But like all postponements, it’s only temporary. On the beach, Clay pauses after a nostalgic session in the waves to reflect on an activity that has been part of his life, identity and sanity—and senses it may be over.

Clay time-warped thirty years. The waves felt the same, and the men sharing them could have been the guys he’d surfed with in the seventies. Even the longer hair was back. He thought of his trips to Mexico, of the trips he and Natalie had taken to the Islands and the kinetic oneness with self and life that seemed to animate every surfer he’d ever known.

It had been Clay’s one bastion of rebellion—his defiance of a “system” his service helped support, while he tried not to see it’s dark side. Surfing had helped keep him young, he guessed—a partial antidote for the gnawing misgivings about the life he’d chosen. But in the end, it had called attention to the contradiction between what he did and who he was. Clay’s laughed, inwardly. Really? he thought. And who the hell are you? That most personal of all Koans, again—never quite solved. Is self-awareness a curse or a blessing?

Back at his car, Clay shrugged out of his wet suit and pulled on his sweat pants and t-shirt. After locking his board in the car, he walked back to the beach to watch.

They’re better than I was at their age, he thought. While he watched, the offshores subsided, reversed, and conditions deteriorated quickly.

Thirty years ago, he’d spent many weekends here—first alone, later with his wife, and later still with his daughter. Jayna had learned to surf half a mile down the beach at Old Man’s and Dog Patch. As he watched, the outrunning tide exposed more of the red algae-coated rocks.

What twists the gut like endings? (Photo courtesy of Jamie Davies & Unsplash).

Clay lingered, reluctant to leave—sensing that when he left this time, he might never return. The incoming afternoon tide would erase his footprints and all memory of him. He’d become just one more of countless others who surfed here, once. What does it matter? he wondered. He had no answer—but it did matter.

On the horizon, a hazy bank of silver-gray clouds heralded an impending change in the weather. It would rain tomorrow, or the next day, as the low that had spawned the waves moved in.

The sea breeze stirred up an eddy of sand around his feet as he turned, heading for his car, his silent home and whatever might be left of his life.

In this moment, Clay senses he’s at a crossroads. Whether he will ever return to the ocean as a surfer and commune with it, Clay’s life has been changed in ways that will be profound and permanent. Change in itself isn’t bad and most of us recognize this. But when it’s laced with uncertainty and the fears that often go along with it, the uncertainties can be unnerving or even paralyzing and we are defined by our responses both to those fears and the paralysis that may accompany it.

Intuitively, Clay recognizes this, and nothing drives this lesson home like the memories prowling his condo, reminding him of his past. Confronted with what’s left of what was once a life of promise, he finds no escape from the necessary steps of self-examination, acknowledgement of his human failures.Will he grow and overcome them, or be overwhelmed by them?

Readers who have confronted the sneaky realities of fallibility, mortality and bittersweet angst of aging can relate, especially in our age of runaway change and shifting paradigms. Where exactly are we, when we’re half an hour West of Tomorrow? A tentative answer lies on the pages of this evocative tale of corporate intrigue, betrayal, misplaced love and the phoenix living all of us.

West of Tomorrow is available from Amazon, in paperback and Kindle formats.

The “Fine Art” of Ghosting

The Woes of Full Employment...

Recently, I ran across a post on Linked In, noting an uptick in candidates for employment and already employed workers ghosting their employers or would-be employers. Bernie Reifkind, the author of the article is a recruiting executive in the greater Los Angeles area. It was a short post, comparatively,  decried the inherent discourtesy and lack of professionalism in bailing on a scheduled interview, or simply bailing on work without warning after employed. A Washington Post article recently appeared, noting the same phenomenon. 

The Urban Dictionary defines ghosting as “cutting off all communications with friends, or a date with no warning.” (I’ve paraphrased for brevity) Let me get my position out up-front. No, I don’t approve, not that my opinion matters. 

As Dr. Jennifer Vilhauer points out in her Psychology Today article, “The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.”

We could debate whether Dr. Vilhauer’s observation is true for all values, not to mention whether we think employees should love their employers, but for now, let’s just acknowledge whether it’s an individual or an organization, there’s an inherent wrong in “ghosting.”

The Vanished...

And at an intuitive level, I think most of us would agree with Dr. Vilhauer, at least as it relates to personal matters. What’s worse than our cries of joy/elation or tears of disappointment/sorrow being greeted with stony silence? Zap! You don’t exist.

In the Linked In post to which I referred, earlier Bernie ended with the question; “Am I missing something?” I was moved to respond because it folds into one of the themes in West of Tomorrow. There are character limitations on Linked In, so I was obliged to edit it down. My extended response follows here.

The Fading Phenomenon

No, Bernie you’re not missing something, we all have. This is a collective phenomenon in the creation of which virtually all of us have participated. From a business perspective, ghosting is the logical result of decades of misuse of the men and women to whom in large measure companies owe their success. Most everyone with a Linked In profile has been a corporate drone, at some point in their career or another…or has cynically used corporate drones for their own professional purposes.

I don’t make this observation pejoratively. It’s what we were taught by the “higher-ups” in our organization, themselves cowtowing to the money/power junkies cynically running a game they patiently rigged to their advantage over decades. Merciless rounds of down-sizing, right-sizing, re-engineering, reorganizing all in the name of wringing another fractional percentage out of margins while executive salaries spiraled through the overhead. At some point, most people got the non-verbal message we were sending collectively. YOU DON’T MATTER. What you do for us matters.

What’s artfully camouflaged in both Mr. Reifkind’s post and many of the responses to it is the role organizations have played in legitimizing ghosting. To be clear, ghosting isn’t new and it isn’t an organizational phenomenon. Most of us have had people drop out of our lives without warning. But the ghosting of organizations is relatively new. In my opinion, part of employees’ (and prospective employees’) comfort with the practice is the logical result of long-term, organizational power plays at employees’ expense. Organizations have reaped what they’ve sown.

In West of Tomorrow, one of the book’s recurring themes is the fusion of the sweeping paradigm shifts of our age greed, both personal and organizational. Repeatedly, we see examples of men and women taking opportunistic advantage of situations proximal to those changes, cynically and in ways that are hard to justify, ethically. In one passage, the protagonist, (Clay Conover) discusses with an old friend and former professor, Dr. Mastrovik.

 

In the conversation above, Clay confronts his own, unconscious role in perpetuating a system in which the little guy’s role is downplayed and the (hypothetically) more important powers that be remain the litmus test of both contribution & legitimacy. But wherever we are in the organizational ladder, if we’re honest with ourselves,  most of us recognize we ride to victory on the collective efforts of our brothers and sisters working toward the same goals. The rewards systems do not reward us equally, and perhaps that’s okay.

But from time to time, we should be asking ourselves if it’s (at least) equitable. If it isn’t we should not be surprised when our treatment of our employees come back haunt us. What do you think and what has been your role in promoting a sustainable, reward system within your own organization?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, before. In the midst of a discussion with someone you thought you knew really well, it suddenly goes sideways. You learn they have a “blind spot” where their logic or education should be.

Because you’re invested in them, you want to set them straight, so you start making your case. They push back. Their resistance to logic &/or legitimate evidence is nothing short of breathtaking and nothing you say gets through. They counter with something you know isn’t true, but the more you try to set them straight, the more inclined they are to drop anchor. Been there, done that? We all have, I suspect.

For the same reason we as a species argue endlessly over (for example) the ontological mysteries of the universe or where to go for dinner tonight, we’re going to differ over virtually everything on which two or more strong opinions are possible. (In other words, pretty much everything).

Decision time…fight it out or let it go. If you’re like me, you’re not entirely happy with this binary choice, thinking we can have a “discussion.” But if you’re dealing with, say, motivated cognition, we could be at it a very long (and probably inconclusive) discussion.

Whether it’s the precise nature of “God,” however we choose to define it or what actually happened at the CIA compound in Benghazi, our beliefs have everything to do with how we see ourselves, our relationship with the Universe, truth and each other. Most of us have reasons for believing what we believe and…again, for most of us…those reasons are often hidden, nuanced and multi-sourced.

During the course of that discussion we were talking about earlier, did you feel that hot rush in your gut, or that self-righteous anger over (you fill in the blank)? That’s your emotion and your motivated cognition kicking in. You’re about to make a fool of yourself. I know…I do it all the time.

In the wake of  the 2018 elections, I’ve come to remember what I once knew, in my previous professional incarnation as a Marine officer. Opinions are not the measure of our worth. Behaviors are. We were not perfect when we took our first breath, and chances are we won’t be when we take our last.

But we can each day and every day, work to be the best versions of ourselves. Like it or not, we are defined by our actions. While opinions and facts matter, what we do with them is what matters most. Including knowing when to look someone in the eye and end a conversation with “We’ll have to agree to disagree.”  Civility and the recognition of our own imperfections is the beginning of wisdom. Arguing long after you’ve both stopped listening is…well, you decide.

Thank you for your service…

The last full measure of devotion...

With Veteran’s Day coming up, I’m bracing for the inevitable “thank you for your service” I get every year. It’s always an awkward moment, for me. I usually respond with something like: “It was my honor to serve…” (it was, btw. And I’d do it again).

But this year, I have an idea how you can honor all those who served and still serve, as well as do your civic duty in a more general way. VOTE! It has never been more important. On the ballot, this November are a host of issues that should matter to every human of good faith. An incomplete list of those issues follows.

  1. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Senator McConnell has opined these should be on the block, in the next session because of the balooning deficit the Republican tax cuts largely favoring the wealthy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are largely responsible for. In response to which, they’re coming after your grandmother’s Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid which in part funds opioid addiction interventions? Oh and just for the record. Those veterans you’re going to thank this Veterans’ Day? Most of them get part of their healthcare from Medicare, when they retire.
  2. Immigration and Border Security. All BS aside, most reasonable U.S. citizens believe in border security and some kind of controls on immigration. Mr. Trump’s yammering notwithstanding, Democrats are no exception. But what human with the sense to avoid falling over backwards in the toilet thinks a wall is the answer?
  3. Voter Suppression. Georgia, Kansas and North Dakota come to mind. In all cases, it’s clearly intended to disenfranchise people of color, but perhaps most egregious in my mind is the North Dakota case. If any ethnic group has a right to expect they would not be disenfranchised it must be Native Americans. But recent voter ID laws clearly calculated to target them and suppress their voice.
  4. Foreign Policy. It’s a dirty little secret most U.S. citizens would prefer to ignore, but U.S. policy regarding Saudi Arabia’s fratricidal war in Yemen is tacitly permitting a humanitarian crisis even more acute than the one in Syria. Quite apart from being a fairly transparent accomplice in genocide, no thoughtful expert in the area of international geopolitics of whom I’m aware thinks much of his policies. As a retired Marine officer who spent the last half of his career involved in strategic and operational planning, I feel comfortable giving Mr. Trump the prize for strategic ignorance. George the Second was a close second, but he listened (sometimes to his sorrow) to others with more experience.
  5. Income inequality. The tax cuts failed miserably and if you see who arrays on each side of raising the minimum wage, it’s pretty clear that his protestations to the contrary, Mr. Trump and his Republican enablers are on the side of big business, not the average man, woman or child on the street. (Examples).
  6. Corruption. To date, Tom Price Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Scott Pruitt, Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency both resigned due under scandals involving documented malfeasance. Additionally, Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior have been embroiled in similar scandals. In the latter case, Mr. Zinke is under seventeen (yes, 17) separate investigations, including at least one referred to the DOJ for possible indictment. And this does not include Mike Flynn (NSA Advisor), Paul Manafort (Campaign Manager) and Rick Gates all of whom have pleaded guilty to a host of charges associated with fraud, etc.
  7. Decency. There is nothing in the Constitution stating the president must be a “good” man, whatever that means. And it is possible to imagine someone who is not a good man (or woman) who could still be effective as president. But among the arguments for Mr. Trump as president was the notion that he would Make America Great Again. The whole notion of American Exceptionalism (whether you buy it or not) pivots on leadership. If we are to view the election of Mr. Trump as a referendum on that notion, then perhaps you’re okay with him being a demonstrable liar, serial sexual assaulter and (when all is said and done) an abysmally deficient mind for someone hypothetically leading the greatest nation on Earth and Commander in Chief of the most powerful military the world has ever seen.

Now is it fair to tar all of Mr. Trump’s shortcomings on Republicans running for office? Logically and in a word, no. The president of the United States is part of the Executive Branch, separate and distinct from Legislative and Judicial Branches. Every sophomore knows this (or should) from their Civics/Government classes. As they should also know, however, it was the intention of the framers of the Constitution that the Legislative and Judicial Branches should act as a check on the Executive and vice versa.

They are not by law bound to oppose, simply because they are different branches. Rather they are expected to form independent judgments and act accordingly. At virtually every step, the Republicans in both houses of Congress have acquiesced when they have not actually abetted the president in his intentions and (frankly) routine departures from the truth. If we watch what they do, rather than listen to what they say, it’s pretty clear there’s not much daylight between the president and the Republicans in Congress. Following their conscience, that is their right as duly elected members of Congress.

Just as it is our right to jerk a knot in the butt of someone when we don’t like what they (or the president) are doing. Mr. Trump has suggested we should vote as though he was on the ballot.

I couldn’t agree more. We should take him at his word and remind him he answers to someone.