Sunday, October 18, 2015

Reason to Celebrate

I try to respond to all emails that come in with due respect and attention. And I receive an average of 30 emails per day, even after Gmail's spam filter has done its fabulous work.

So it is that I do a little happy dance in my soul every time I whittle down my inbox until I can see all waiting messages on one screen, without scrolling.


~ emrys

Friday, October 16, 2015

Joint Efforts

I discovered quickly that in order to improve the quality of my (albeit amateur) surprise woodworking project, I would need not only a working planer, but also a working jointer. The shop owned by my generous benefactrix contains a commercial-grade jointer. However, a quick look at the blades revealed that, like the planer, it was desperately in need of a good sharpening.

In the process of testing it, I discovered that the shaft of the cutter head knocked horribly. An exploration followed, which revealed a missing set screw, damaged pulley, and several other irregularities requiring overhaul. So began my thorough education in the anatomy and physiology of the jointer.

I never had to deal with retaining rings before . . . and, in fact, still haven't invested in the right tool to manipulate them. I hacked my way through replacing these:

One of the benefits of taking my kids to the shop with me is having a dedicated camera crew: "Daddy, can we use your camera?" So they catch me in the midst of figuring out how properly to set the cutter head:

One glorious liability of having one's own camera crew is that they become bored with documentary film-making and turn the cameras on themselves:

And the crew goes exploring the hidden (and very dirty) recesses of the shop:

But in spite of the journalism going on around me, I got all the parts repaired and made the final adjustments to the jointer. It runs and cuts again, smooth as silk. And I know more than I ever imagined wanting to know about another shop tool.

And my daughter discovered that Bartleby will take a picture through the flesh of her finger. "Daddy, look! The flash makes my finger red!"

Trips to the shop involve all kinds of learning.

~ emrys

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Be a Leader: Stop It!

"Stop it!" That was Dr. Switzer's instruction to his client to help her get over her irrational fear. Every time the anxious thought crossed her mind, she was to remember: "Stop it!" The first step of returning to normal life was shutting up the lie.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford School of Business, says "Stop it!" to the leadership industry. His new book, Leadership BS (Harper Business, 2015), cries foul at the whole juggernaut of leadership training. Reflecting on the ubiquitous panoply of badly behaved leaders (think Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart, Anthony Wiener), miserable workplaces, and oppressed employees, Pfeffer stabs an accusatory finger at the roaring leadership industry.

"Stop it!" he says. Stop buying the ineffective horse-hockey peddled by the industry.

Don't let your leadership derive from inspiration. (It won't work.)

Don't be modest. (Successful leaders can't afford to be.)

Don't be authentic. (Whatever that means).

Don't worry about telling the truth. (The matter is more complex than that.)

Don't make trust your cornerstone. (No one is trustworthy.)

Look out for #1, because that's what everyone else is doing.

In his closing chapter, Pfeffer cites the legacy of Niccolo Machiavelli, an apt move given the thrust of the book. One edge of his thesis--the righteous edge--slices through the pablum of the inspirational leadership industry. He wants the leadership world to stop contributing to the deception that holding up cardinal virtues is anything more than wishful thinking that ruins careers. The other edge--the Machiavellian edge--cuts through the impression that the business world is anything but a shark tank. People are out for themselves, that's how it is: "Get over it" (p192). The sooner we realize that's how the world works, the sooner we can change things.

The subtitle of the book is Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. This suggestive phrase is what really enticed me to buy the book (though I must confess my attraction to a title with "BS" in it). Let's change the system so that leaders behave better, workplaces are more enjoyable, and employees have a greater sense of satisfaction. How do we do that?

The last paragraph of Pfeffer's book begins, "I'm not sure what will make a difference in the leadership crisis that cost leaders their careers and provide too many employees with enervating work environments" (p220). He just knows that what the current leadership industry provides is not doing the trick. But how to enact positive change is a mystery.

Leadership BS makes an excellent case for reframing our understanding of business leadership around verifiable research and common sense rather than naive inspirational fluff. The numerous stories of good leaders getting the shaft endeared me to Pfeffer's truth-telling cause. But his description of self-interest as the necessary platform for business culture, though perhaps true, does not leave this reader with much hope for better. Perhaps Pfeffer can't see a solution to the leadership crisis because, given his foundation, there isn't one.

Perhaps changing the culture with which Pfeffer has become exasperated will not happen because of a magic technique, business plan, or organizational structure. Perhaps it will come from changing the definition of success It struck me that Pfeffer runs in, and writes about, circles of leaders who make salaries with six or seven figures and have a capital "C" and "O" in their titles. When success is defined by a title that starts with "Chief" and an exorbitant income, then perhaps the business philosophy of an Italian Prince is inevitable. (And one is left to wonder whether medieval Florence had a higher or lower employee satisfaction than current U.S. businesses.)

Does "getting real" about leadership woes mean giving up hope for good leaders and good business?

(By the way, one can view the fabulous performance of Bob Newhart as Dr. Switzer on youtube at

~ emrys

Friday, October 02, 2015

Real Fairy Tales: Hans Christian Andersen

If you sit through all the credits after the film Frozen, you will read the statement that Disney's latest princess blockbuster is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Snow-Queen." I know that Disney has mastered the art of seducing twenty-first century viewers; but Andersen wrote in the late nineteenth century. I wondered: Just how much of Andersen's story was preserved in the adventures of Elsa and Anna?

Barnes & Noble sells a hardcover tome entitled Classic Fairy Tales (2012) which, though not stated to be "complete," is a thorough 697-page collection of Anderesen's fanciful stories. Reading through them all is a journey often strange (as mice questing to make "Soup From a Sausage Peg"), sometimes witty (as the lesson about pride in "The Emperor's New Clothes"), and occasionally laborious (as the drawn-out plot of "The Marsh King's Daughter"). The style, translated from nineteenth-century Denmark, quite reasonably takes some getting used to. But once the reader falls in with Andersen's cadence, his writing is easily followed.

Disney fairy-tales these are not. The vast majority of Andersen's tales do not end in a "happily ever after." Take, for instance, "The Little Mermaid." Instead of Disney's nuptial sail into a regal sunset, Andersen paints a painful scene of noble suicide, with a strange metaphysical twist. Like so many other Andersen tales, the denouement is death (as in the famous "The Little Match Girl" and less famous "Story from the Sand Hills"), inviting the reader to consider her own mortality and eternal destiny. Rather than lifting up redemption in the form of human love and romantic free-will, Andersen's stories reflect on death as the universal human experience, then point to the Christian message of eternal life.

What makes these "fairy tales" is not their optimism about mortal life but rather their insistence that beyond the thin veil of human experience is another world. Animals can reason and talk like humans (as in "The Story of the Year"); metal and stone objects have personalities (as in "The Money Pig," reminiscent of Disney's Toy Story); the commonest items may be magical (as in "The Galoshes of Fortune"). A glimpse through the gossamer curtain is a journey into the depths of reality, whose fathoms give insight into human dealings on the mundane surface.

That journey into a different, wondrous world may be the thread that stitches all of Andersen's tales together. To read his stories one must be ready to go the distance in imagination, or sometimes in plain geography. Many of the tales read like the fireside embellishments of a well-traveled uncle, mystifying young listeners with his adventures abroad. From a few of the yarns one might even be able to knit cogent maps (as in "The Ice Maiden," a zigzag narrative through the crags of Switzerland). Another world--through the veil or just down the road--waits to be discovered, if only one will risk danger, misfortune, and death to experience it.

Success and happy endings are God's reserve to grant or keep, according to Andersen. Only adventure for adventure's sake, travel for learning's sake, and suffering for wisdom's sake await the one who crosses familiar bounds. But even acknowledging the shadow behind the curtain, reading these classic tales might still inspire the twenty-first century reader to pierce the veils of life and discover the wonders beyond.

Andersen's Snow Queen is a chilling metaphysical kidnapper, nothing like the misunderstood Princess Elsa of Frozen fame. Kay and Gerda, the heroes of Andersen's original, do live happily ever after, but only because of the invocation of Jesus in pious verse. The ice-witch remains an unexplained phantom, beyond understanding or control. And perhaps this alteration of the tale is most telling for us. The enemies of the Disney tale are misguided parents, mistaken siblings, and a misogynist prince--human elements overcome by human love. Gone are Andersen's fairy depths, in which dwell forces beyond our ken and control.

Disney has mastered the art of seducing us with the pleasant diversion we have come to expect. But by giving up the dark depths of Andersen's fairy world, perhaps we lose what is most important in his tales: the haunting mystery and transcendent wonder waiting just behind the curtain.

~ emrys