Kaiser: The Leader Must Have a Plan

I am using the teachings of Michael Kaiser, author of the 2008 book The Art of the Turnaround, to reflect on my own career experiences and offer some advice to any reader of this web log about the art of non-profit management. There is some lamenting as I write this, however, since advice of any value comes from those who have made mistakes and lived to tell the tale. I have made more than my fair share of mistakes and am still here, which leaves me with this opportunity to have my say, whatever its value.

Last week we saw that Kaiser’s Rule Number 1in his list of ten rules for an effective turnaround is that some one individual must lead the effort. I agree, but would simply extend this to mean that one person must always hold the top leadership role in any organization, whether it is confronting something as drastic as a major turnaround or seeking to enhance an already stable position. On the desk of that one leader is where the proverbial buck stops long enough to get parsed into its most important uses. And this cannot be decided by committee with its many faceted claims to every dollar.

This week’s message concerns Kaiser’s Rule Number 2: The leader must have a plan.

Anyone moving into a leadership role of an existing organization will likely find that all of the requisite documents exist; mission, vision and value statements, strategic plans, annual plans and budgets. If yes, then two questions must be immediately answered. Are they being used? And, more importantly, are they worth using? In a turnaround situation the likely answer to both questions is no. Otherwise, a person of Kaiser’s caliber would not be needed. A decisive first step may therefore require a quick surgical strike to remove the dead tissue from a still thriving organism in order to assure its longevity. Otherwise you are simply there to collect a check for supervising the post mortem.

A good leader knows in advance what is needed for creating a healthy organization. He or she will arrive on the scene with the basics already in mind, a generic plan that will be fine-tuned over time. And in the case of a much needed turnaround, you can’t wait for the type of formalities to take place such as a formal strategic planning process. Implementing the much needed changes becomes a matter of doing a quick audit, matching one’s pre-existing checklist of desired behaviors to the actual performance of the entity. Step one, therefore, is to take an inventory of the organization’s resources; its human capital, financial structure, materials, location, operating systems and the external business environment.

This is a hands-on preliminary step that will assist in the strategic planning process, which will take place at a later date. Initially it is a leader/manager’s premiere tool for determining first-hand the organization’s capacity for performance and for change. It is an activity you must be seen doing in order to convey an unspoken message to all about the importance you place on them and the work they do to advance the mission. With this information, you can then proceed in designing or refining the program as needed.

For some management advisors the initial refinements must involve changes in personnel. This is Jim Collins’ “First Who” principle. In his 2001 book Good to Great he used the metaphor of getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off before addressing any other aspect of business operations. For those of us in the non-profit arena, who have managed member-driven organizations, personnel changes are extremely difficult to make. Members form an elite group from which you, as paid staff, are forever excluded. And they thrive on self-preservation. It transforms “First Who” into “Eventually Who” if you can last long enough by winning their hearts and minds through other achievements. For me, this took the form of bringing in more money than they ever thought possible. My strategy for blatantly chasing such filthy lucre involved three steps: create diverse sources of revenue so that no one source accounted for more than 30% of the organization’s total annual income, make charitable contributions the largest of these sources since earned income is more costly to generate and is limited by an organization’s capacity in space and manpower, and focus your marketing on women. They control the purse strings.

All other aspects of a business’ operations are fair game for making changes. But the ancient axiom of first things first is important to your scheme of implementation, for while speed may seem to be a necessity from your point of view, you will find that expediency and diplomacy are often in conflict. Shock and awe tactics can lead to the early shock of being invited to leave the premises to the delighted awe of those intransigent souls adept at waving good-bye to you and any prospects for success.

Kaiser sums up his generic plan in four words: Good art, well marketed. His plan for creating the kind of excitement that leads to increased ticket sales and donations is in the production of quality programming. And this must be supplemented by intelligent marketing; campaigns which understand the best audience segment to target with its advertisements. His confidence, and proven track record, is in great ideas promoted early and often to the right people. Ironically this is antithetical to the general approach troubled organizations take, which tend to cut their marketing budgets and reduce programming options. The unintended result is that they also cut their ability to generate revenue.

For me, Kaiser’s mantra is supported by the sage wisdom of the late, great management guru Peter F. Drucker. His advice for creating a customer, which he termed the only true purpose of any business, was in two basic functions, innovation and marketing. Kaiser has simply applied the concept of innovation to his programming, the art of the organizations he led. Innovation is certainly important to all other aspects of business operations, but the product or service must take pride of place in a manager’s plans for leading any business to financial growth and stability.

“In the end,” Kaiser writes, “the plan must focus on creating a self-sustaining organization.” So here is my own final admonition for any leader of any organization. It might seem to be a bit premature when discussing the art of the turnaround, where all the focus is on resuscitation. But having a succession plan is an integral part of sustainability. Every leader, whether in a temporary turnaround role or one of long-term duration, must be viewed as expendable if only because he or she is mortal. Therefore no plan is complete without knowing how to make any future leadership transition as seamless as possible. What one must ask and honestly answer is happens when I, like Elvis, leave the building?

It is one thing to build a strong organization which thrives when you are there to superintend the operations. But that is still short-term thinking. Preparing the way for a specific someone to follow is paramount to an organization’s surviving the demise of an effective leader. A viable organization needs to be able to confidently attend the funeral and shed its tears for the deceased and not for itself.

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Kaiser: Someone Must Lead

I am in the process of channeling Michael Kaiser, considered to be the go to guy when in need of resuscitating a moribund arts organization. His record of success, as portrayed in his 2008 book The Art of the Turnaround, is surety for many of us in the broader field of non-profit management that there is hope for the similarly struggling entities we have managed even when they do not yield any sign of being an artistic endeavor. The principles by which we govern remain the same.

Kaiser, however, is a little more adamant than me. My principles are his rules and we are working our way through the ten he describes in his book, rule number one being the title for this week’s message. The best way to illustrate why this is a rule for Kaiser is to divide the word someone into its component parts, some and one. This puts the emphasis on leadership being the responsibility of one individual, not a committee or board, which only a few (or some) can fulfill.

Someone must lead seems like a no-brainer, but that is a grave assumption. Most organizations that are in deep doo-doo cannot decide on who that one person is to be. So it is common for any manager taking on the challenge of reviving an organization’s prospects to find themselves trying to tame a multi-headed beast.

What I found in trying to fulfill this role is that an organization in trouble is not leaderless. It is literally dying due to a glut of leaders with competing ideas. The mission statement becomes fragmented into ever diminishing concepts identified by the pet projects directors and staff champion. Resources are therefore allocated on the basis of individualistic will power with internecine warfare the most conspicuous theme at any meeting.

Each member of the board of directors and generally each program, project or department head assumes that the problem, if they can agree that there is one, is the fault of everyone else. Any new manager determined to hit the ground running in order to rescue the imperiled organization hits a stone wall instead. Change encounters the NIMBY mindset at every level as people fear for their positions of power, however modest, should it be discovered that they have more form than substance; a thin veneer of title and perks disguising an innovative wasteland.

Someone must lead requires the implementation of a truce before consensus can be reached about who that one person will be. But even then there is the peril of choosing the least objectionable person to occupy the principal leadership role in the hopes that they will do the least amount of damage to the existing structure. Life goes on but under the delusion that the first turnaround requirement has been met since the turn has actually gone 360 degrees, bringing the organization essentially back to its failing starting point. What is missing is meeting the challenge of finding a qualified leader from the few who are both capable and available to decisively limit the turn to doing a180. This is what I call the some factor of Kaiser’s first rule.

When directors can agree to select one person to lead their struggling organization towards a path of new found prosperity, they find that this superlative person really does need to be someone special. Their knowledge and skills must transcend a vast array of functions if they are to guide board, staff and volunteers in doing the right things in the right way at the right time. As Kaiser reveals in his book:

“This person must have a single unified vision for the organization, have the courage to make difficult decisions in the face of controversy, possess strong negotiating skills, respect all parties including artists, work incredibly hard, and have an obsessive focus on solving the problems. This person must also understand marketing, fund-raising, and financial management. It is a hard job description to meet but the job cannot be divided among many people.”

He failed to mention “must walk on water” as the catch-all phrase at the bottom of the qualifications list. But if this sounds too good to be true, he is correct in assembling this wish list of capabilities. A good manager for a tough situation is a generalist, capable of managing the specialists, who devise and implement the tactics required for the turnaround.

My entry into non-profit management came by way of being an accountant, who stumbled into accepting a general manager’s position for the sole purpose of helping a struggling organization put its fiscal house in order. By the time I retired some thirty-plus years later I had performed or supervised every task mentioned in Kaiser’s list and a whole lot more. Whether or not I was “respectful of all parties” during those years, as he suggests, is open to debate.

My one regret as I survey my career is that I did not train for this work. Non-profit management was not a degreed program when I was in college. And if it had been I doubt I would have selected it as my major. But what I found in being the accidental NPO manager is that, despite the difficulties of being forced-fed,  more politely known as learning by doing, I enjoyed my work and can only wish that I had brought better knowledge and skills to the positions I occupied instead of gaining them after the fact. It would have benefited each organization more and might have helped me to ultimately master the stellar and essential knack of walking on water.

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Kaiser: An Introduction

From time to time I am asked for advice about managing a non-profit organization and the answers vary in length based on the nature of the question. Usually it is about money, as in how to get more. And the second most popular attempt at playing stump the expert is about how to improve the board of directors, with a not so subtle indication that the goal is to eliminate one or more difficult persons from their lofty perch of intransigence, interference, or insouciance. Take your pick. The damage done is roughly the same. And, yes, there is an egotistical “I” in each of those well-established roles, which sap the emotional strength of everyone else on the board and on the payroll.

Occasionally there is a much more expansive concern about management at which time I make a simple recommendation as the quickest way to address a lengthy issue: get a copy of Michael Kaiser’s book The Art of the Turnaround and then, at minimum, read the introduction and the first chapter. They offer the most concise and easy to understand advice on what plagues us all in non-profit management. You will find that the word Art in the title has a double meaning. His specialty has been managing performing arts venues, which in turn have helped shape his perception of the artistry involved in reviving the near death, out of mind and body experiences of some large and well known organizations here and abroad. What you will find, however, is that his advice is generally applicable to most of us regardless of the size or purpose of the organizations we lead. There is too little money to adequately fund our missions.

I did have the opportunity to make this recommendation recently, but it also prompted me to review his work myself as it has been awhile since I first discovered his well-written book published in 2008 by the New England University Press. Maybe I like Kaiser’s authoritative comments so much because it has a balance between new perspectives I had never considered and old ones that served as affirmation of what I was already doing. It is encouraging to have someone you respect tell you, even from the impersonal distance of a printed manuscript, that you are doing somethings right. It seems rare to get that kind of positive boost from the people you know and who know you only too well. The bonus feature of this re-read of The Art of the Turnaround is that it gave me a prop for launching into a new web log series by writing about my own experiences following his ten rules governing non-profit management. Thank you, Michael. But first there is that pertinacious issue of too little money which we must address as it shapes our efforts at attempting the art of the recovery in returning our respective organizations to sound fiscal health.

Kaiser’s introductory comments are a must read. This is a cautionary tale from me for if you are like me you likely skip over book introductions and their acknowledgement of editors, researchers and typesetters before getting down to the content, which caused you to acquire the book in the first place. Not so here. In this case the introduction sets the stage (pun intended for a book focused on performing arts entities) for the rules and case studies which follow. It states the dilemma we all face and the strategy or strategies we employ in hopes of finding a resolution to our problem. Key point: Capacity and productivity are fixed aspects of our programs, making earned income a fixed and insufficient resource as well. His example is that you cannot add seats to a theater or cut the number of actors for a performance of a Shakespeare play. One thing that will increase on an annual basis is the cost of production. This creates a significant gap between revenue and expense, which must be filled if we are to survive.

Kaiser identifies four ways in which we try to fill that gap. He also gives the weakness of each of these as his own cautionary tale for how there is no one simple solution.

We can increase ticket prices, but this has a negative impact with a price sensitive audience. Attendance actually declines, giving the false impression that there is no interest in our mission or our programming.

We can court donations, but this is a highly competitive, time consuming operation especially when pursuing major gifts; and major gifts are the principle type worth pursuing.

We can look to diversify our revenue streams, such as adding food or merchandise services, but few of us produce the type of products that will generate sufficient market interest for generating an appreciable excess of revenue over expense. The result is therefore negligible.

We can ultimately, and too often do, cut expenses and this usually takes place in what we consider to be the least essential aspects of our work – marketing and program initiatives. He notes that people will pay to see new and interesting programming, but they cannot attend our glorious creations if they do not know about them due to our reduced advertising budget. In the long run we merely cut our means of generating any revenue, which is the death knell of our organization. Layoffs occur, there are fewer operating dates, the board panics and the call goes out for someone like Michael Kaiser to step in and do his artistic best to turn things around. Hence he views his line of work as being indispensable – if you afford him.

Fortunately he has promulgated ten rules to follow in order to forge a resurgence in an entity’s financial health. And over the next ten weeks I will do my best to write about each one based on my own attempts at breathing new life into the organizations I have managed these past many years. This gives me a month and a half of content to follow in keeping faith with my goal of posting a new message each week. And if successful, it will be the first time in my blogging career that I have managed to produce fifty-two messages in a single calendar year. So once again I say thank you, Michael.

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The Ten-Fifteen File

I am of an age where current events easily trigger memories of past events and the rapidity with which the connections are made is in direct proportion to my age. A meaningful length of years for anyone who has not been comatose during a six-plus decade timeframe easily corresponds to the volume and variety of memories made and casually catalogued inside a prodigiously absorbent brain. Connections between then and now are a dime a dozen for geezers like me.

Current events these days get a much broader airing than what I knew as an avid listener to the nightly news growing up in the LA area. Now we have multiple outlets courtesy of cable and satellite technology reporting the same sad stories 24/7. Then we had a handful of independent television stations offering a local slant on the news in competition with the programming of the three national networks; this being before PBS joined the ranks of those having a nationwide audience. One major difference between then and now is that the news had a self-imposed cap of 30-minutes duration. Somehow we deemed that an appropriate allocation of our time for considering all the news that was fit to broadcast.

The number of TV stations available to us for free allowed us to select who we wanted to hear read the news to us, although our options were admittedly limited to mostly men who were generally returning World War II vets fortunate enough to hitch their professional careers to the rising star of the post-war television industry. Some held dual positions by also writing columns for local newspapers, giving them a rather extensive voice with an enhanced credibility when it came to reporting the news or framing an editorial opinion. This was also an immensely prosperous time in Southern California’s history. Not only were we boomers causing the area growing pains, but LA was like a giant vacuum, sucking people in from the rest of the country; people who became willing partakers of this new Eden. And with the growth came all of the vices from which reporters could earn their daily bread.

My personal favorite of the nighttime informers was a man by the name of Paul Coates. He had a nightly program on the KTTV station entitled “The Ten-Fifteen File”, which was appropriately named since his news segment aired at 10:15pm following the popular and patriotic newscaster, George Putnam. Coates’ half of the thirty minute broadcast consisted of interviews with topics that were highly entertaining to my childish brain for their outrageous content in my otherwise passive, suburban-drab existence.

Organized crime, drugs, prostitution, gambling, scams, infidelity and homosexuality were exhilarating topics for me and when you consider that this program ran in the early 60s you can better appreciate that my fascination with it occurred when my age had barely reached double-digits. Who knew that the news could be such fun? It’s a wonder that my parents never put a stop to my youthful viewing habits.

Coates once said of his programming decisions that “I’ll take people where they ordinarily couldn’t and wouldn’t go. It’ll be ‘Off-Beat Journalism’ on TV. It won’t be nice, but I believe it will be effective and will make for a better city and a better community.” In truth his program never redeemed Los Angeles from becoming a variant of Sin City, but it did make for better entertainment value than the after-school cartoon programs, which also filled by waking hours.

What I remember of those short but pointed interviews is that they took place in virtual isolation. There was no stage setting, just two people sitting in chairs facing each other with darkness as a backdrop. The somber tones of the black and white era made for a more intimate and nearly claustrophobic atmosphere, forcing the people to be your visual focus, while their voices and consequently their words came through with a clarity surprisingly compelling for a TV set that had rabbit ears for an antenna.

Coates was called an “urbane master of the art of probing.” And I am indebted to Roger M. Grace, co-publisher of the Metropolitan Daily News – Enterprise, for also being a fan and writing about Coates as “… a crusader, a communicator, a truth-seeker. Coates explored what had been taboo subjects on television, doing so without sensationalism, but with frankness. His interviews were incisive. He was focused, serious-minded, and effective.” This is an affirmation of what I recall from those nights, sitting in the dark of my room, learning about the world outside of the sanctity of my middleclass, suburban neighborhood. And here is the connection hinted at the start of this message.

“Without sensationalism” is antithetical to today’s broadcast, print and blogging journalism, where the word “expose” seems to be the norm even when reporting on the most innocuous of subjects. But it is the interviewing techniques which cause the greatest clash for me between then and now. No matter who I observe in my rare forays into television viewing, the questions seem to be nine parts editorial comment and one part query in the form of asking the target of the probe “Isn’t that so?” The journalists begin with the answers and merely seek affirmation of their fixed opinions. And when the reply seeks to veer outside the established bounds of the required response, the guest is cutoff mid-sentence and rebuffed for his or her independence of thought; censorship taking the form of talking over the interviewee in order to eclipse the opportunity for an unscripted insight.

Coates had the gift of listening, which seems to be absent in many of today’s on-air and on-line reporters, as if there is a fear of hearing something in contradiction to their own received wisdom. I would go so far as to offer a different interpretation of the Marshall McLuhan quote that the medium is the message in that the popular broadcasters of limitless air time to fill are like mediums at a séance, voicing the counsel of an intentionally nether world for consumption by a gullible audience in need of something to believe.

Ironically Coates was followed by a half-hour program hosted by the late Tom Duggan. He was the alt-newscaster of his day, being a sensationalist who was out and proud long before that phrase became a mantra for sexual preference. Think Rush Limbaugh at a higher decibel level and you will get a fairly accurate picture of his style and content. He was a man ahead of his time, while Coates was a man whose style diminished when the news media went Hollywood, glamour and glitz replacing substance and content integrity.

A lesser known quote attributed to McLuhan is that “A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” The connections I would make of this are that a point of view is the “now’ of journalism, insight and understanding the “then” of the Paul Coates era. And for me, I am glad I had the chance to experience the one by which I can appraise the other, unfortunately however, with serious dissatisfaction.

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… it is command that made the difference

My current read is the recently published Lincoln’s Lieutenants, by Stephen W. Sears, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, of Boston and New York. I am by nature a history buff and never tire of reading good material about our nation’s most catastrophic event. I am always interested in the qualities of successful leaders and our own Civil War is a treasury of what is best and worst in those who have command over the fates of others.

The focus of this book is on those very people who guided the Army of the Potomac to its ultimate goal of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. And while I am only fifty pages into a nearly 800 page tome, I need only read Sears’ introductory comments to understand his well-researched perspective on the ill-fortunes and convoluted route the Army took from Washington, DC to that country crossroads in Virginia during a four-year campaign.

He begins by quoting Union General Regis de Trobriand, a survivor of that ordeal, who wrote that “Everybody meddled in its affairs.” The “everybody” of his statement included the President, the cabinet, the Congress, the press and men of affluence and prestige in addition to those who actually held military rank and were directly responsible for the Army’s performance. The subsequent finger pointing, naming, blaming and obstructionism caused the military folks to fear the enemy behind as well as the one equally entrenched before it on the acknowledged battlefields. It also perfectly foreshadowed the political environment we know today as business as usual inside the Washington beltway. Still there is not much comfort in knowing that our capacity for dissolution has not changed in the more than 150 years since Lincoln presided over a troublesome mix of self-serving patriots.

There is some humor, I suppose, in seeing just how often the word “leak” appears in those first fifty pages I’ve managed to read thus far. It gives the appearance that our greatest, most enduring success is the dubious ability to sacrifice our integrity to the power of betrayal on spec that we will personally gain from our clandestine endeavors; statesmen or civil servants turned spy in the hopes of brokering a lucrative book deal.

I am a slow reader at any time and pathetically slower when wading through a book of this type. My delay is bound up in self-analysis, comparing my own misadventures in career advancement to that of others, like the men who comprised Lincoln’s Lieutenants. Though retired, I subscribe to the maxim that you are never too old to learn, the value of which can be found in the corollary thought that you are never too old to consult, especially for a fee.

Absorbing 800 pages is a daunting task and will no doubt provide the context for writing future web log messages. But lesson number one, if this does prove to be a series – even one of irregular posting – can be found in Sear’s assessment, which provides the title for this piece. Even in the midst of the type of divisive chaos Washington seems to thrive on, command makes the difference, and a capable, unyielding commander like lee or Grant makes all the difference. Onward to Appomattox!

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A Prayer for Survivors

The tragic events of this past week are of the kind that always brings to mind the haunting words “Well, you really got me this time. And the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive.” They come from the Emmylou Harris song, “Boulder to Birmingham”, co-written by Bill Danoff for Harris’ 1975 album, Pieces of the Sky. It is an expression of grief over the death of her partner, Gram Parsons, and says what many of us have experienced after a similar heart-breaking, soul-numbing loss; the hardest part is the aftermath of being the survivor. The families of shooting victims and sailors lost in a nautical collision know this only too well.

The common response from the non-assailed is that their thoughts and prayers go with us. It is a message intoned by newscasters, politicians using the occasion as a favorable sound bite, and even the people of our closest personal acquaintance in lieu of having a solution for a circumstance they cannot amend or ever understand. But in a society where belief in a transcendent being of any theological description is openly ridiculed, and the decline of faith-based communities celebrated, one has to wonder who such prayers are being addressed to and of what benefit could they possibly be when their origin and destination are in the emptiness of a cosmos devoid of design, purpose or meaning?

Our tendency is to use platitudes when confronted with despair. Lacking the formality of being identified by chapter and verse, they nevertheless carry some weight if only in the relief of having spoken our piece with a time-honored sense of authority such soothing bromides can bring. But if the truth be told, time does not heal. It may anesthetize us to our injury, but the chronological distance it provides does not carry with it an antidote for our misery. If anything, time is the true concept by which we measure our pain.

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School’s Out

Graduation ceremonies started in earnest on Friday and continued on through the weekend with the requisite graduation parties in evidence as you drove through any of the neighborhoods in the surrounding communities where I live. Of my own elementary and secondary education experiences I can only say I hated school for the most part and couldn’t wait for graduation day to arrive, when I thought I would finally be free at last.

Somewhere in my youthful scholastic development the joy of kindergarten gradually diminished as each grade level required a greater effort on my part for learning to read, write, do math problems, and remain silent and seated during class time. I was by nature not equipped to do any of these things and there was a growing awareness, as well as an associated resentment, of the little girls of my acquaintance who always did better with these things than I did. Girls, after all, were known to me to be inferior to boys as clearly demonstrated on the playground, where all the most important things of life took place. It was, for me, about the only place where I could excel. And when not the designated captain of a team, I was usually first pick and lived large my chance at playground immortality.

Ironically, for someone of my anti-school mindset, I have managed to save nearly every one of my report cards and class photos beginning with Mrs. Lyons kindergarten class in Torrance, CA and ending with my high school graduating class of 1968. The one major loss from my collection is my high school yearbooks, which ignobly perished in a basement flood several years ago.

I can think of a few bright spots in my scholastic career, mostly with friends doing non-scholastic things of which our parents were never aware. And there are a few teachers, whose encouragement along the way proved to be very beneficial to me but not always understood or adequately appreciated by me at the time. The standout in my memory of things was my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Loretta Emigh (her last name being pronounced as Amy, which is coincidentally my daughter’s first name).

Included here is her first assessment of me at the end of the first quarter of the school year attesting to my inability to function in a quiet, focused manner. But I never drew any harsh rebuke from her. I do recall her looking at me one time with a wide-eyed expression of mock exasperation because of something I had said. The only word she said was my last name. And if it is possible to enjoy being singled out for having done something stupid, it was in that moment when my heart melted in adoration of both her beauty and her gentleness in dealing with me. My behavior changed as witnessed by her handwritten comment on my second quarter report card, telling my parents that “Philip (I was going by my middle name then) has shown much improvement in attitude and is making better use of his time.” Little wonder. The crush I had on my sixth grade teacher prompted me to do my best to please her.

It was during that second quarter of the year, when we all started noticing changes in her. There were times, when for no apparent reason, she would ask us all to sit quietly at our desks and work on our assignment, while she lowered her head to rest on her folded arms upon her desk for extended periods of time. This was followed by a succession of substitute teachers during the days Mrs. Emigh was absent, followed by the shocking news that we were going to get a new teacher for the remainder of the school year. Not long after, one of my classmates – a girl whose mother was “in the know” – let us know in whispered tones that Mrs. Emigh was pregnant. So whether she was having difficulties which prevented her from being with us or the powers-that-be decided to shield us from the sight of a young woman being transformed by the child being nourished within her, we never learned. What I do know, and have written documentation proving, is that my grades and behavior plummeted in keeping with the disappointment I felt in having lost a much favored champion. Her replacement was no match for the patient kindness I reveled in during the few months of Mrs. Emigh’s tenure.

The high point of being a sixth grader at that time was the week we went to camp. This being Southern California it was just a few hours’ drive to be up in the mountains, which surrounded the LA Basin. The specific location of our campground is totally lost to me, but I remember it as a nice, comfortable facility, where we did all the usual craft making, hiking and nature talks that comprise an educational, outdoor program. Best of all, however, was that Mrs. Emigh was able to join us. She looked no different from when we saw her last and I did not question the lack of a change in her appearance. The miracle of her presence required no explanation.

We were sitting around after lunch one day, waiting for the next activity to begin, when she asked our class to sing for the camp staff one of the songs she had previously taught us. It amuses me now to think back on how enthusiastically I participated in celebrating the:

White coral bells upon a slender stalk.

Lilies of the Valley line my garden walk.

Oh, don’t you wish that you could hear them ring?

That will happen only when the faeries sing.

We were children and that was considered to be an uplifting chorus, designed to complement our sweet and tender natures.

School has long since been out for me. But obviously it has not been forgotten. I can only hope that the kids making the current transition from local school to college or career have the cause and capacity for a sentimental reflection on someone who did their best to help them through the regimented structure of a public education. I had one and am grateful for the opportunity to admit to a youthful infatuation, which had a lasting impact on me, if only in exchanging Amy for Emigh, when naming my child.

Mrs. Loretta Emigh
1961

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An Old Message for a New Day

“Peace! Be still!”

These are the words once spoken by a young Hebrew teacher in response to the seeming threat of emanate death at the hands of a horrendous storm. The occasion was his crossing a lake in a small boat manned by his disciples, some of whom were experienced fishermen. And yet, despite their years of labor on this very sane lake, the magnitude of what assailed them was terrifying to the point of absolute despair. The teacher’s words reduced the squall to a placid scene, but his rebuke of the natural elements may have been equally intended to calm the emotional ones within the hearts and minds of those who were attempting to become the proponents of a new faith based on an intransigent history and traditions.

Not long after he would try to comfort them again by imparting an awareness that he was leaving them his peace; this peace with the power to render every storm a serene sanctuary for the soul. He chided them with the words to never let their hearts be troubled (like the waters on the lake which had formerly terrified them) and to never be afraid (as they were – justifiably from a strictly human perspective – when believing they were about to disappear forever beneath the surface of the water). Two thousand years later we are still trying to retain that sense of peace, which transcends our understanding.

Current events seem to always interfere with our pursuit of happiness. Those who were advocating for this new faith endured relentless persecution in the embedded conflicts of a multi-cultural society, which masked its intolerance under the spurious claims of a Pax Romana. One faction of this new faith fostered a five-point plan for their own peace of mind as they tried to bridge what they valued about the old ways with the hope of the new.

Point one: Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith. They knew that what they were pursuing was a relationship, not an adherence to an impersonal code of laws. They sought to place themselves in close proximity to a father figure they could not see, but felt with the sincere desire of a child for a loving parent.

Point two: Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Despite the undeniable evidence of the conflicts and threats surrounding them, hope wasto reign supreme as their motivation for how they would live in the midst of social chaos. Their trust was in the father, who defined hope for them and proved himself faithful through making the greatest of all sacrifices on their behalf.

Point three: Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds. Points one and two being internal, creating a mindset on which to base their actions, point three was the natural outcome of their faith and hope. It produced a desire to exhibit the self-sacrificing love demonstrated for them by their father and found in the Greek word agape. The result was the subsequent provision of good deeds for the benefit others, even those who were spiteful and threatening in their behavior.

Point four: Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing. This is a simple recognition of the need we have for community and the strength we derive from being with our own. It has its own challenges of trying to maintain unity among an array of individuals, the difficulty of which is acknowledged here by the departure of some from the comfort and security of a fellowship with a loving father at its center.

Point five: Let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. We are mortal. We are frail. We are vulnerable to every fear in the lexicon of human phobias. Encouragement is a viable antidote to the despair that can overtake any one of us, placing a premium on avoiding the trap of being one alone. Equally important is the concept of there being a goal, a Day of deliverance, which puts into perspective the transitory nature of our sorrows.

This is likely a poor outline of something as profound as the topic of survival in a violent world. But it is supposed to show that the answer is not in a monastic withdrawal or any other form of walled isolation. The peace that surpasses all understanding has an amazing capacity for thriving in the face of terrific opposition, hence its transcendence of human logic based on empirical knowledge.

Peace! It is possible in the midst of any storm.

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What We Allow

Several years ago I was asked a rather startling question by a close friend. The surprise was not in the content per se, but in my own confusion about what was meant. She wanted to know if I realized how many strangers I allowed into my home each day with messages of which I could not wholly approve. To be honest, I could not think of anyone who came to my home each day, let alone strangers with sullied messages, hence my confusion about the point and the purpose of the question.

The follow-up to her question was the statement that she and her husband had decided to get rid of their television set. It was the offending vehicle by which programs, and more appropriately an array of suspect commercials, allowed those people we did not personally know to enter our homes with promises and affirmations of a happier life if we bought their products or imitated their lifestyles. My friend’s concern for the well-being of her children did get my attention. Our families were very similar, the proverbial nuclear kind of husband, wife and two kids. But I was not motivated to take quite the same action as our counterparts did.

I do need to credit this encounter as being the start of what became something of a family institution for us. We did opt to curtail the amount of TV time our kids consumed and to be more involved in selecting the programs to watch. The morning kid’s shows on the PBS station received our personal version of the good housekeeping seal of approval. But in the evenings, after dinner, we substituted TV watching by reading a book together, which mostly means me reading and the others listening. The inspiration for doing this was in part a revival of something I had enjoyed as a child, when my grade school teachers employed the strategy of reading to us after our lunch recess as a means to calm us down before getting into the next round of formal instruction.

The enjoyment I received from the sound of the teacher’s voice carrying us all on an imaginary adventure through the escapades of children our own age was something I wanted to share with my own kids. And so what we allowed as a replacement to TV time was a commercial free experience filled with the type of engaging content selected for its positive messages in keeping with our faith and values. We began with what we knew, the Chronicles of Narnia and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books being favorites. But we were aided and abetted in our efforts by the serendipitous discovery of a library book, written by a couple of teachers, listing the most often recommended books by their peers. Their reviews of each title helped us to select the ones we felt most suitable for our reading program and it saw us through several years of family story time, which ended only when our children established their independence through choosing their own careers and making their own homes. At the last my daughter and I – the sole survivors of this long-term experiment – made it through the Lord of the Rings trilogy with a marvelous sense of a shared accomplishment.

My reason for looking back on what we allowed for the nurturing of our children is my disheartening impression of where we are as a nation today. I see it expressed in the content of news reports based on suppositions, which are then given the status of being proof of another’s debased character and cause for the kind of replacement we call impeachment. Hand gestures, sleeping habits, and posture are the acceptable evidence for the things which are not seen and can only be guessed at with prejudicial vehemence. Add to this the never ending sharing on Facebook of messages of dubious origin conceived with a warlike mindset against respect and decency and it leaves me sorrowing over how small we have allowed ourselves to become.

It is hard for me to discover anyone whose words these days are meant to be inspirational in achieving a transcendent goal of mutual benefit. And so I would like to end this message with the words of someone who once did inspire us in this way. I heard them spoken, of all things through the technological wonder of our old black and white TV set, at an age when I was also hearing those wonderful stories meant to calm us after an exhilarating game of kickball.  They were spoken by a young man with a good sense of history and the ability to extend a call describing for us what we were to allow. They were spoken at his presidential inauguration on January 20, 1961. Someone, please, find the means to motivate us in this way again.

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom–symbolizing an end as well as a beginning–signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

“This much we pledge–and more.”

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Music Transcendent

Two years ago I wrote about a childhood experience in which the black and white television set my parents allowed me to keep in my bedroom (the new color TV taking pride of place in our den) provided a late night religious encounter with the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Wedged in between the final news cast of the day and the start of the all-night movies, Ms. Jackson would deliver a hymn in a style totally foreign to my young ears, yet as captivating as anything I had ever heard.

I have often joked about being raised on the back row of the church sanctuary. This was not a reflection of my mother’s aversion to taking a more prominent place in the congregation. But with me in tow she dare not sit where there would be anyone behind us to see my antics. So we sat where no one could ever see me restlessly squirm through an interminable Baptist worship service. My mother’s assessment of me as being like a worm in hot ashes was fairly accurate. But what was hidden beneath my non-stop desire to be outside playing was the fact that I was absorbing the music be it sung by choir, congregation or guest soloists. I never learned all the words to those songs, but I felt the mood applied to them and enjoyed their entertainment value, which most sermons could not deliver. Hearing Ms. Jackson sing each night through the magic of our Philco TV, however, was different. I could not have described it to you then and feel inadequate to do so for you now other than to say it was spiritually transcendent like no other music in my limited repertoire of dispassionate listening.

Since those days I have migrated through various music genres as I have aged, always finding someone whose interpretation of songs could please my current musical sensibilities. Living in Southern California during the 60s and 70s names like Ricky Nelson, the Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles tended to dominate my song list with companionable add-ons like Joni Mitchell and Simon and Garfunkle giving music a more cerebral elegance. Their participation elevated my appreciation for the marriage of words and music, but nothing of this ever approached the spiritual amplitude of my nights listening to Mahalia Jackson.

In recent years I have had the pleasure of working with a wide variety of musical artists who can be gathered under the umbrella of Americana music. This is by virtue of being one of the organizers of the annual Gandy Dancer music festival. One of the surprising aspects of that experience is that having a hands-on role in the business side of the festival through negotiating contracts, arranging accommodations and transportation, coordinating performance schedules with other festival activities, and hosting the green room amenities brought me into close personal contact with the performers. Meeting them and taking an interest in them personally added to my awareness of the instrumental and vocal talents they each brought to our event, adding to the audience’s perception of what the festival was all about. The intricacy with which all these facets combined to bring depth and identity to one event was intriguing and exhilarating for me. I am grateful for having been part of it for its first ten years and would not disparage it for anything. But there has been that certain element lacking for me, which once knew the doctrine of transformational singing through those black and white televised performances of decades past.

Thankfully, on the eighth day, God created the internet.

I seem to have come full circle with the new technology that allows me to sit alone at night and look at a computer monitor not unlike our old Philco TV screen in size and yet blessed with the twin capabilities of delivering the content of my choice and in color. It has found me enthralled once again with a singer, whose voice does more than transmit songs. She makes sound transcendent. And this time not knowing all of the words being sung has nothing to do with my inattentive initiatives and everything to do with the fact that many of them are sung in a language other than English.

My new angel of music is Sissel Kyrkjebo, a Norwegian singer, whose songs on any topic serve to be revelatory of her own nature; an artist with grace singing in her heart to her Creator. The first of her songs I accessed on the internet were in English, Going Home being one of my early favorites. But I learned to expand my own horizons by accessing her songs performed in her native Norwegian, as well as those performed in Swedish, German, Danish and French. In some cases they have become new favorites as they have caused me to appreciate the beauty of the voice as an instrument by removing the temptation to concentrate on the words to the exclusion of the tones which resonate in the soul and cannot be spoken.

To test me on this just do an internet search for Sissel Kyrkjebo – Koppangen and select the version that shows a still image of her leaning her cheek upon her hand. This is a Swedish song that is so soul-stirring you will find that you don’t need words to understand the sentiment. It has a long violin lead, so wait for it. Her voice is textured by the eternal verities of heaven.

There is nothing on the surface that would automatically cause us to make the comparison between Sissel and Mahalia Jackson. It is the sense of awe they can induce in those of us who are willing bystanders, which unites them across time and culture and language as having a gift which sets them apart from their Top-40 contemporaries.

When I wrote of Ms. Jackson I described the barren sound stage on which her televised appearances were recorded. The only prop was a backlight, creating the impression that a window into heaven was opened so that God and the angels could hear her voice and delight in its ministry of admiration. Of Sissel, whose many recorded performances take place in vivid color before live audiences, I would simply say that when she sings, the angels are envious.

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