Monday, August 31, 2009
Shawn Grady's "Through the Fire"
There’s a little romance here – the hero’s fiancé calls off the engagement at the beginning of the book and he finds another love interest not too much later – but it’s not the primary plot of the story. That honor goes to the fires being set by an arsonist.
Beyond the writing, I liked how Grady draws his characters – they’re real, multi-dimensional people, with the kinds of problems and flaws shared by all of us. The hero of the story, Aidan O’Neill, has problems and issues beyond the failed engagement. He’s never been able to deal with the death of his father, he’s developing a drinking problem and he’s suspicious of both his best friend and the new love interest in his life. He journey to discover the identity of the arsonist coincides and becomes one with his journey toward faith.
Through the Fire is a great read, and an entertaining one – but one that also makes you think, about what firefighters risk to protect us, what goes through the minds of arsonists, and what firefighting work is actually like. And Grady makes sure that when those tones sound the alarm at the fire station, we slide right down the pole with the firefighters.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
The interior contours
Of the drop of rain,
The shapes of life
In the drop of blood,
The texture of salt
In the drop of ocean sea.
The echoes of hope
In the young girl’s tears,
The fear of desperation
In the young man’s sweat,
The taste of darkness
In the shriveled soul.
The hidden places,
The silent rooms,
The abandoned squares,
The vacant hallways,
The empty hearts.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Tony Dungy, head coach for the Super Bowl-winning Indianapolis Colts, wrote in his book “Uncommon” that you don’t let the bad things that happen to you define who you are as a person. I’d add to that a corollary – don’t let the good things that happen to you define who you are as a person, either. Rather, it’s your responses to both the bad and the good that defines who you are as a person.
I’ve reached that stage in life where I understand that the bad things that happen are actually and ultimately good things in disguise, even though they look bad at the outset. (Some bad things, of course, are always bad – family illness or tragedy, for example. But good can come even of those situations, too.)
So my current struggle is one I’ve experienced before. It’s odd how things in life can be circular, like you need to periodically relearn some lessons. I don’t think I have to relearn anything as much as apply what I learned before. That’s hard enough.
In the middle of all of this, a good friend sent me this, a 10-year-old sermon from the pastor at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. It’s about making tough decisions, and it’s good. And more than good -- it was really helpful.
By the way, thanks to so many who read the poem I posted on Monday – I had all kinds of nice words in emails, in person and on Twitter and Facebook. It was a great encouragement to get them.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Testimony (in the closet)
Lace covering ivory
Time long past.
In its corner,
On its arch of black wire,
A vigilant rest.
Lace layered on satin,
His spot-stained hand
Touches clean lace.
The fires still burn, if lower,
Still burn into oneness.
Fingers trace lace,
Sunday, August 23, 2009
This Happened to a Friend of Mine
He was hired a few years back for a specific job at a non-profit organization, what at my company we’d call an “individual contributor” position. Gradually his skills and abilities led to more and more responsibility. He knew a lot of stuff, because he’d done a lot of stuff.
He was kind of an oddball, something of an interloper working among people who had been there a long time. And, no surprise, his perspective was different from that of his colleagues. He saw and sensed things more quickly than others; he spotted trends with the eye (or heart) of a prophet. He would say things, disturbing or aggravating everyone in the room, and then be proven right, which is often worse than being wrong.
But he was liked anyway. Quiet, dependable, extremely skilled and talented. Solid in a crisis. Adept at fixing messes. People generally forgave him the prophetic outbursts, which he did learn to keep under control. Mostly.
The department he was in expanded, and he found himself leading a lot of people. He had a crazy idea about people. He believed people had the same intrinsic value and worth, because they were each made in the image of God (yeah, he was one of those types). He knew that people possessed different skills, talents and abilities, but those differences didn’t make them any less valuable in God’s eyes. And that’s how he managed, or tried to. He wasn’t a socialist; he differentiated among top and good and average and bad performers. But everyone knew he treated all of his people with respect. The team flourished, producing results that were outstanding, and advanced themselves, the organization and their profession in the process. It’s still an amazing story.
Things were fine for a while, and then came one of those annual job reviews. Here’s what he was told by his boss:
Outstanding performance. Great results.
But, here’s what management thinks about you.
You are not a good leader, because your people like working for you. That means you’re too soft.
You’re old-fashioned. You don’t think like we do.
You are good at too many things. That means you’re tactical, not strategic.
Hard as it is to believe, given the performance and results of his team, that’s what he was told.
Here’s what my friend said:
I have to lead people in the way that’s central to me. I can’t and won’t browbeat them. Look at the results. Could that have happened by making people afraid?
You’re right, I don’t think like you do. And that’s what makes me valuable.
Being good at many things could mean that I can see things clearly from many different perspectives, that I may be the most strategic person you have.
The discussion ended fine; there was no shouting or even defensiveness. (Not with a bang but a whimper, as T.S. Eliot said.) But my friend was shaken.
He asked me what I thought, since I knew him well. I said that if his review was typical for others in his organization, then his organization was doomed.
He didn’t know what others’ performance reviews had been. But he knew he couldn’t change, at least in the ways his boss suggested. He started updating his resume, making phone calls, and networking.
A week after his performance review, something happened.
His boss unexpectedly left the organization.
And my friend was promoted.
He still doesn’t understand it. Neither do I.
Sounds like one of those crazy organizational things.
Or a God thing.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Those Pesky Book Reviews
I wrote a review of his latest novel, Faces in the Fire, and posted the review on Amazon and some thoughts about the book on this blog. That review doesn't apply to Hines' argument, because I really liked the book and my review and my blog post reflected that.
I've learned to avoid the problem Hines discusses by writing reviews only of books I like, and like a lot, books so well written that they make me think of something in a new way, blow my socks off with an incredibly crafted story, or send me to Amazon to find everything else this author has written.
But there's a key word in the first sentence of that paragraph -- learned. I once wrote a review that cited a book's fine writing but pointed out some problems. Some saw the same things but weren't as bothered by them; others felt more strongly than I did. But for whatever reason, it was my review that caught people's attention. It caused some nasty reactions, it did, from the writer's fans. It got so nasty that I ultimately removed the review (in that sense, online is much easier to manage than print). Some Christians can sometimes be very un-Christian like in their behavior. All of us have our moments. But it wasn't worth the general nastiness. (And Hines is right -- those names and comments are burned into my consciousness, and this was just a book review.)
But I still write and post reviews. I read a lot of both fiction and non-fiction. I review perhaps a fifth of what I read (ask my wife how the books pile up around here). I read a variety of genres. But I review very little of what I read. Some books begin with an interesting premise and then fade into triteness. Others promise something different but then discourage you with the utterly expected. Others have characters that never move beyond cardboard. Still others go well for the first three fourths of the way and then collapse into compressed and hackneyed plot resolution.
And then there are the ones that make reading pleasurable and completely worthwhile, including the ones you wished you hadn't read. These are the authors whose writing is consistently good because they work at it hard and work at telling the best story they possibly can. They may not be the "brands" that dominate the best-seller lists but they love what they do and they compel the reader to love what they do. And it's not just the "literary" crowd but writers working across all the genres. Some are well known but many are not, and I'll write reviews of their works and post them and blog about them and tweet them and retweet them, because they deserve a wider audience and readers deserve to find them.
Here are some of them: T.L. Hines, Dale Cramer, Athol Dickson, Travis Thrasher, Chris Fabry, Charles Martin, Bonnie Grove, Susan Meissner, Anne Lamott, Michael Snyder, Charles Martin, Marilynne Robinson, Brandilyn Collins, Mike Dellosso, L.L. Barkat. Check them out.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
A Long Week
Yesterday, I met with six local PR people as part of a study program for the Public Relations Society of America accreditation exam. My topic was social media, and we had a really good discussion. One of the participants asked if I thought social media would have an impact on corporate structures generally, and I said most definitely yes. I said we're already seeing corporate America go through the five phases of social media adoption -- total denial it even exists; a couple of experiments with it; wild enthusiasm until something bad happens; almost total withdrawal; and then a more measured and balanced involvement.
Also on Wednesday, InsideWork published one of the posts from this blog -- one about layoffs. We've been blogging the experience at work on our intranet, which hasn't thrilled Human Resources but which has drawn thousands of employees to the stories.
My ribs continue to mend; I'm making do with Aleve and Tylenol. My lung is back to normal. Last week, I was actually given the OK to do the stationary recumbant bike for a short stretch. If things continue to go well, I'll get to be up on my road bike by mid-September, at least for a 20-30 minute ride. Unfortunately, that means I'll miss the MS 150 over in Columbia, Missouri, for which I'm registered and have my new team jersey, a fiery red in color -- perfect for someone my age to look totally foolish in.
I've been reading Shawn Grady's Through the Fire, and it's extraordinarily well done. It's a first novel, but this guy knows how to write and he knows about fighting fires (he's a firefighter in Reno). Take a look at his web site -- it includes the "soundtrack" for the novel -- the music he listened to while writing the story. (I'm listening to it right now, in fact -- songs from U2, Led Zeppelin, Cold Play, Jars of Clay and the Dave Matthews Band, among others.)
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Found by the Pool
Wait for the move,
The liquid whisper that frames
Lie on my mat.
The water stirs.
Too slow to reach.
Lie on my mat,
Eyes burned by the sun.
The voice flows,
Submerging my mat,
Lifting to the light.
Ride the cascading spiral.
Pick it up.
The voice vanishes
Among the dripping faces.
In my hands
Lies my mat.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Discipleship, Evangelism and “Return Policy”
I think Mike’s right. Stroll through a Christian bookstore, or the Christian fiction section at Barnes & Noble, and it’s pretty obvious who Christian fiction is published for (not to mention that a non-Christian would not likely be wandering around a Christian bookstore or the Christian fiction shelves at B&N). So Mike asks an additional, more provocative question – who should Christian fiction be aimed at?
It’s easy to end the discussion with “well, both, of course.” But for a Christian writer, the answer isn’t so simple, especially in the culture we live in today. If a lot of people don’t have the foggiest as to whom Noah was, or what a “road to Damascus” experience actually refers to, then you have to write very different kinds of stories than you might have even as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, if you're trying to reach a broader readership.
I had this discussion in mind as I read Michael Snyder’s novel Return Policy (I posted my review at Amazon earlier today). He’s published by a Christian publishing house (although one with a secular corporate parent) but his readers are likely to be Christians and non-Christians alike. The gospel message is there, but it’s not overt. Instead, Snyder achieves something more difficult. He doesn’t “tell” the gospel message; rather, he lets the story play out the gospel message so that the reader sees it.
Here’s my character description from the Amazon review: “Willy is a writer and college teacher, who can't deal with his wife's abandonment from years before and spends time trying to destroy what belonged to her, like the espresso maker, while he desperately misses her. Ozeena, a customer representative at the espresso maker manufacturer, was abandoned years earlier by her husband after he allowed their child to almost drown in the bathtub; she struggles to raise her brain-damaged son and competes for a promotion at work. And Shaq, a homeless man with large gaps in his memory (large as in almost total), is searching for his wife Patrice and searching for what is missing from his mind while almost fearing he's going to find it.”
Through the lives of these three characters, and a few of the minor ones, the reader experiences the healing of brokenness, faith, hope and love. Each character is struggling with the realities of life. Each reaches a decision point where it’s either take a leap of faith or accept being permanently broken. Each receives and gives grace. The novel isn’t the stereotyped sermon at a tent revival; it is the telling of the stories of people’s lives where we can see what faith actually means.
There were elements of “Return Policy” that reminded me of the oddball humor of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and the stories of Flannery O’Connor. But Michael Snyder is an original, with an original voice and a decidedly original perspective. Return Policy does what good fiction, Christian or otherwise, should always do – broaden and deepen our understanding while forcing us to confront an old truth in a new way.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Poetry on the Web
I read poetry, but not on a regular basis. Last year, I wandered over to a book fair in a nearby suburb and found myself having an extended conversation with Walter Bargen, the state of Missouri's poet laureate. He was standing at his booth, trying not to look occupied, and I walked up and introduced myself. (If nothing else, I thought, I'd make a good prop for the booth.) (I was right.)
Bargen was delightful to talk with -- and eminently approachable. And when I told him I had actually read a book of his poems, he got downright voluble. I bought two more of his books; he signed both and did a special drawing/autograph in one called Feast. It was the coolest thing. Our conversation attracted others, and by the time I left, his booth traffic had ballooned from one to quite a few.
I've read a lot of poetry over the years -- Frost, Dickenson, the English Romantics, Rupert Brooke, Longellow, Whitman, Eliot, Yeats, Wallace Stevens -- all the standards. But I don't really visit the web to find poetry. Until the last month or so.
I'm not sure if I found poetry or it found me. I was looking at a site called The High Calling Blogs, and discovered that it had a Friday feature called Random Acts of Poetry -- poems on a stated topic with links to others also writing on the featured topic. Well, you know the web. Before long, I was looking all over the place at poetry that was really good stuff. I found poems by L.L. Barkat, Jim Schmotzer, Marcus Goodyear and many others -- and it was poetry I connected to on several levels.
We live in a time that's not exactly conducive to the reading of poetry. And yet, in a way, we live in a time when we desperately need to be reading poetry.
A recent post in The Evangelical Outpost by a writer and thinker named Hayden Butler cited three reasons for reading poetry: it breaks us out of our linguistic ruts; it can make us speak more precisely; and it shows we can create beauty in our speech. None of these is necessarily critical for political sound bites or 140-character microblogging, but they are vitally important for expanding our hearts and nurturing our souls.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Findings on Today's Web
L.L. Barkat, who has three blogs and posts on several others, has a short, sweet post today at Seedlings in Stone called "Nothing in Return" and one at Love Notes to Yahweh about coming into wild roses. (OK, so I'm a fan. I like her writing and her art, and her children are no pikers in the art department either.) (I have a real rube's definition of art -- if I can draw it or paint it, it's not art. I can't do what L.L. does. And I can't do what her children do, either.) And in only the way that the internet can, I tweeted a reply to an question from Intervarsity Press about a favorite IVP book (Stone Crossings), L.L. retweeted it, IVP retweeted my blog post about it, and my blog got a rush of visitors. Crazy but fun.
I'm still reading Michael Snyder's Return Policy. I'm deliberately reading it slowly, catching the rhythm and the pace. I don't think I've read anything quite like it before. It reminds me, in a way, of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, but Snyder has his own distinct voice.
I spent part of the weekend working on two articles about blogging about layoffs. The editor who commissioned them saw my posts here and asked if I could write one or two articles about them. (He was editorially nonchalant, and I was editorially gaga, at the request.) We'll see how the editing and rewriting process goes.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Employee or Leadership Engagement
The other day, a group of us at work were having a conference call with a representative of an industry association. The association is actually useful—a collection of companies big and small who talk with each other about communications, sponsor studies, get consulting help and learn how others tackle similar problems. This organization also says it facilitates the sharing of best practices and key learnings, but I’ll forgive them for that.
One of our number asked the rep if there was any one question she was hearing from senior executives of member companies, any particular issue or concern or desire for information. In other words, “What’s on the minds of American corporate leaders about communication right now?” My first thought was that her answer would be “social media,” the current hot button in corporate communications. But I was wrong.
She said that there was one question that was coming up over and over again. And the question was—how do we get employees engaged?
The rep said this was the single biggest issue for member companies of all sizes, and some were beginning to sound desperate. They had tried everything – town halls, small group meetings with executives, special newsletters, one-on-one conversations and internal blogs. They had “segmented their target audiences” and “refined their key messages”—but nothing was working.
So I asked her a question: how many of those companies had recently been or were currently going through layoffs?
“Oh, about 80 percent of them,” she said.
So here’s a learning we can all share, and maybe one day it will become a best practice: When an organization is laying people off, employee engagement—with the business, with customers, with suppliers, with market conditions and competitors—is going to suffer, and for a considerable period of time.
Employees won’t get engaged until they know the answers to four questions:
- Do I have a job?
- Do the people I work with have jobs?
- Is my organization changing, and what does the new one look like? And
- Will I be expected to do significantly more work because there are fewer people?
Once those questions are answered and understood, then, and only then, can an organization realistically begin to entertain ideas of employee engagement.
When there are layoffs, answering those questions can take months, if not longer.
A more interesting question to me is, how could senior executives at so many companies not know this?
After the conference call, a few of us talked about it. And there is at least one answer.
At many organizations, leadership defines “interacting with employees” as town hall meetings, email broadcasts, and maybe a video or two. When leaders of such an organization decide they must lay off people, whatever the reason might be (even substantive ones), they make the decision and then move on. Their thinking is often six months to a year down the road. They decide to lay people off, and assign Human Resources and people managers to implement the decision. For the leaders, it’s a done deal and time to think about everything else they need to do. (It’s also unpleasant and often messy.)
The affected employees, on the other hand, are at the very beginning of the process. Sometimes it’s quick. Usually it takes at least weeks, but more often months. So if your own individual status with your employer is unclear, and you could lose your job, you’ll be less prone to take risks, create new programs, suggest changes or innovations that could save money, or volunteer for anything. Why should you? In fact, there’s an argument to be made that it would be irrational for employees to do anything else except hunker down and wait it out. Or find another job elsewhere, if that’s an option.
So there’s the rub. Employees are in the here and now. Leadership is in the future, and mystified about why employees aren’t engaged. If leadership gets addicted to layoffs as a routine form of cost savings, the problem will never disappear.
The solution lies with leadership engaging with employees in the here and now. Routinely. Walking around. Talking. Drawing people into conversation. Challenging people. Not letting HR be your conduit for feedback. Listening.
Leaders engage first. Ask Jesus.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Michael Snyder's "Return Policy"
How I came across Return Policy is a good example of how online connections work (and can help sell books). I began to follow a group blog called "The Master's Artist," written by several writers who are, according to their purpose statement, "united by the blood of Christ and a love for language. We come from different backgrounds, have different theological outlooks, and are interested in a wide variety of genres and artforms." I read Snyder's posts, and then the note about his new novel being published. I thought if it were like his posts, it was going to funny, entertaining -- and with something important to say behind the comedy.
Snyder is the comic in the group, but as with all comics, there's a seriousness just below the surface. His most recent post on the blog, "Conversating," is a short conversation about a possible broken jaw that's funny in and of itself but then becomes a satire when Snyder adds a list of "Reader's Group Questions," a send-up of the practice that's become common in Christian fiction. (These are guides for book discussion groups.) Other of the blog's writers and readers have been adding additional discussion questions in the comments, and the post with comments has gotten out-of-control funny.
Return Policy, by the way, does not include a group discussion guide. But I'd love to read the one Snyder would create for it.
Back to the novel.
Friday, August 7, 2009
Update: Blogging on Layoffs
The response so far has been, well, what you might expect it to be. Both posts have been read. A lot. I've had people stop by my office, call on the phone and send emails. Several have posted comments on the blog. One person said that the first post had "gone viral" in their 1000+ department. One employee posted a heartfelt response and then accepted our invitation to write his own blog post.
The real understanding came yesterday afternoon, when I was called by one of the company switchboard operators, who was asking the right place to direct a reporter who had called. I told her, and then she said, "I read your blog post." She hesitated, and then said, "It was good. Thanks."
The important thing the blog posts have done have been to say it's OK to talk about this, that we're all feeling the same concerns and fears. They also underscore we have management that's not typical.
Two more posts are scheduled for next week: what happens when you're not laid off, and networking in a totally networked world.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Blogging on Layoffs
So I blogged my own layoff 10 years ago. We posted it on our intranet. The response has been amazing -- the blog post clearly touched a chord with a lot of people. I've gotten emails and phone calls, and vague reports of the post "going viral" in parts of the company.
Standard operating procedure is don't talk about it. We're trying something different.
The first post was about what happened. Next will be questions you get from family and friends. Then we'll have a post by someone who went through the process but didn't get laid off. And then one on why networking is so important, and all of the various ways it's done today.
I'll provide an update on what happens.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
"Faces in the Fire" by T.L. Hines
And this is Christian fiction published by a Christian publishing house. Noir bizarre?
That’s exactly what “Faces in the Fire” is – edgy, gritty, supernatural, breathless, and off-center. This is fiction that doesn’t so much make the reader think as it does assault the mind and the senses.
It’s one wild trip and a flaming good read.
The novel is four (or is it three?) interlocking stories. Kurt is a truck driver/sculptor suffering from amnesia and likely hauling his last load; his hobby is buying clothes at garage sales, but only the clothing containing trapped voices, calling for help. Corinne is a professional email spammer who comes to face a deadly kind of email spam. Grace is a tattoo artist and heroin addict, a woman who has run away from her husband and children not once but twice; she uses a new ink and changes everything. Stan is a hired assassin who kills by touching his victims, until he himself is touched to help save a life rather than destroy it. They briefly intersect with each other, and those intersections are the crucial heart of the novel.
I was thrown at first by the chapter numbering (it starts with chapter 34) but soon rolled with it and ultimately understood it as part of the story being told.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find overt Christian messages here. But you will find them, if you read hard enough, especially the message of redemption.
Finishing the book left me with one thought: “Wow! What a story!” But the reviewer and publisher blurbs omitted the most telling description of all.
If you want to be a face in the fire, you can upload a photo at Hines' web site.
I didn't. Reading the novel was sufficient.
Monday, August 3, 2009
My article on engagement -- employees or leadership -- is posted this morning at InsideWork.net. If you're interested or concerned about faith in the workplace, Inside Work is a good place to visit. Currently, it's featuring articles on public education, a different philosophy of success, causing God pain, charitable giving, and dealing with annoying people.
I've completed a short review on L.L. Barkat's Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Difficult Places and posted it on Amazon. This is the book I had with me at the hospital when I had my ribs and lung attended to. The author is a writer and poet and writes for several print and online publications. If you're interested in exploring her work, a good place to start is her web site.
Currently I'm reading Faces in the Fire by T.L. Hines. He's written several books; this is the first of his I've read. It's an edgy, gritty supernatural thriller -- four interlocking stories about a man with no memory, an email spammer, a tattoo artist/heroin addict and a hit man. It's unlike any Christian fiction I've ever read -- Hines grabs the reader by the throat and doesn't let go.
Finally, I continue to mend after my bike crash. The last four days had been marked by doing very little except resting, reading and writing. The pain and soreness are lessening; I'm relying less on the prescription and more on over-the-counter stuff like Aleve, which is good. I plan to return to work on Tuesday; I have a check-up with the doctor on Wednesday. Thanks for your notes and prayers.
Saturday, August 1, 2009
Routines, Reading and Writing
I've napped a lot, read a lot, napped some more, talked with my son and daughter-in-law who have just arrived in St. Louis. They're moving here from Phoenix. So I give up biking the Arizona Canal Trail once a year in exchange for having them around all the time. OK, it's a deal.
I've spent some time yesterday and today rereading parts of L.L. Barkat's Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places. I cited it in my last post -- it's the book I read during my short hospital stay -- and I'm working on a longer review. It's good. In fact, it's better than good. It's remarkable.
Today, I opted for something completely different and began reading Faces in the Fire by T.L. Hines. It's suspense and thriller and supernatural suspense/thriller and I already know not to try to read it before I go to sleep. I'm hooked -- Hines does that to a reader.
I've also spent my enforced rest to work on an outline for a post, either here or on another blog, about layoffs, and how and why organizations get disconnected when they do them. The idea came from a conference call I was in the other day. Someone was discussing the problems so many companies and organizations were facing with employee engagement, and said it was perplexing management across America. It was one of those "Duh" moments, and an idea for an article was born.
And somehow, between hosptial visits, broken ribs, family arriving in town, work and having to rest, I'd managed to write about 5,000 words on the novel. Ar first I thought it was getting completely out of control, until a I reread the whole thing with the new material included. And the story is actually becoming more focused.
Then again, maybe it's the pain meds.