Complicity in a Shared Work of the Imagination

Clayborn Temple

Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Steve Jones)

Last week I had the privilege of launching the National Trust’s National Treasure campaign for Clayborn Temple, a landmark in the history of the Civil Rights movement.  It was here where Memphis sanitation workers gathered in 1968 and decided to go on strike, marching with their “I Am a Man” signs that became a potent symbol for all that is at stake in the fight for equal justice.  Clayborn Temple was where the leadership of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed the strike from a local labor dispute into a national issue, effectively tying the sanitation workers’ cause with the national issues of economic justice and racism. It was to Memphis and Clayborn Temple that Dr. King was returning when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

To be in that sacred space with more than 150 Memphis residents, young African American poets and musicians, revered spiritual leaders who walked with the sanitation workers, preservationists of all ages, and current members of the workers’ union was an honor and a reminder of how the story of Clayborn Temple could be ripped from this weekend’s headlines.  We are still addressing the issues those sanitation workers and their supporters faced almost fifty years ago.  Preservation, remember, is not only about the past, but is also about today and the future.

It just so happened that I was reading a new book while traveling to and from Memphis.  Lewis Lapham’s Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy, covering America from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the 2016 election, has much to digest and ponder.  I’ll return to it more fully at some point in the future to explore Lapham’s contention that an acquaintance with history can serve as folly’s antidote.  But one of the opening essays related so closely to what had happened at Clayborn Temple that I quoted from it while in Memphis.

This 1992 essay is entitled Who and What Is American?  In response to the false construction that the American people share a common code of moral behavior and subscribe to identical theories of the true, the good, and the beautiful, Lapham writes,

The American equation rests on the habit of holding our fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they are exceptional (or famous, or beautiful, or rich) but simply because they are our fellow citizens.  If we abandon the sense of mutual respect, we abandon the premise as well as the machinery of the American enterprise.

I Am a Man.

What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.  My love of country follows from my love of its freedoms, not from my pride in its fleets or its armies or its gross national product.  Construed as a means and not an end, the Constitution stands as the premise for a narrative rather than a plan for an invasion or a monument.  The narrative was always plural—not one story but many stories….

If we indulge ourselves with evasions and the pleasures of telling lies, we speak to our fears and our weaknesses instead of to our courage and our strength.  We can speak plainly about our differences only if we know and value what we hold in common. (Emphasis mine)

I Am A Man

Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)

So much of the story at Clayborn Temple points to what it means to be American, and who gets to decide.  When we were there to celebrate that space and its rebirth last week, I felt we were doing the “shared work of the imagination” that is required if we are to ensure that our faith in the republic does not—to use another of Lapham’s memorable phrases—“degenerate from the strength of a conviction into the weakness of a sentiment.”

Have a good week.

More to come…


Observations from Home: The Silver Spring Day Off Edition

Bikes in Silver Spring

The flowering of bicycles in downtown Silver Spring

If you don’t read anything else in this post, go to the bottom and watch the last video.  Morgan James is beautiful and has a wonderful voice, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off the Tambourine Man.  He’ll bring you up, no matter how down you are.  And you’ll thank me for it.

Now, on to the rest of the post.

I seldom take a weekday off where I’m at home in Silver Spring.  Yet after working about 20 weekends in a row (perhaps I exaggerate), I decided to take today off and make it  a three-day weekend.  It was interesting to be around downtown Silver Spring and see the following:

Bikes are sprouting up everywhere one looks. First it was the Capital Bikeshare stations that arrived in downtown.  But in the last month, we’ve been inundated with the new dockless bikes, and today was the first time I walked around town and had the sense that they are EVERYWHERE!  (At least if you walk around the condo/apartment heavy downtown.)  They look beautiful (especially the LimeBike), but it will be interesting to see how they stand up to the winter in the capital region.  Nonetheless, I was standing next to the NOAA building and was able to capture in one glance a transportation planner or urbanist’s dream scene:  shiny new Metro trains rolling into the Silver Spring station, bus after bus pulling out of the transportation center, pedestrians, bicyclists, and—of course—cars (and more cars).

Coffee shops are everywhere. Where there are bicycles and canyons of condos and apartments (say, along East West Highway downtown), there will be coffee shops.  When you have the largest concentration of Ethiopian residents in the metro region, you can also be pretty certain that it will be good coffee. While we have the standard chains, Silver Spring has some terrific independent shops.  Today, while out walking, I went to Kefa Cafe (one of the city’s institutions) for a morning coffee and chat with Abebe. Always a pleasure.  In the afternoon, I strolled up to the Bump ‘n Grind, along the aforementioned East West Highway condo canyon.  There was a class underway in one portion of this hip shop, which is also a vinyl record store.  Ah…the Revenge of Analog!

The Fillmore

The Fillmore, Silver Spring

Finally!  The Fillmore has an act I recognize!  Ever since The Fillmore opened in downtown Silver Spring, I’ve been waiting for an act that I recognize.  I get that this isn’t a venue for folks my age (yes, I was hoping for the Birchmere North), but it would be nice to see a name on the marquee every now and then that I recognize.  I’m just not that into “Death from Above” or “Elevation Worship.”

Well, it finally happened.

Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox is coming to the Fillmore on November 26th!  Not familiar with Postmodern Jukebox? Well, neither was I until a few months ago when I stumbled across their fantastic video of All About That Bass.  At 31 million (and counting) views, they have a ways to go to get to Meghan Trainor’s 2 billion views (can that be right?!)  But I prefer the Postmodern Jukebox version.

The home page for Postmodern Jukebox describes their work as “Gramophone Music in a Smartphone World” and that’s a perfect description.  If you’re like me, you’ll get sucked into their wonderful videos (and then the spinoffs of their wonderful musicians, like singer Morgan James, who does a terrific version of the Beatles Come Together with a great trash can drummer.  You have to watch it to believe it.)

So last night, I found Morgan James singing I Really Don’t Care with Postmodern Jukebox.  As wonderful as she is, you won’t be able to take your eyes of The Tambourine Guy.  Trust me…you want to watch this one!

If I knew that Morgan James AND The Tambourine would be part of the show in Silver Spring, I would be there!

Nice day in downtown.

More to come…


The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

The Revenge of Analog

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax

I recently finished David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog:  Real Things and Why They MatterAppropriately, I bought my hard-back copy in that most analog of places—Portland, Oregon’s Powell’s City of Books—the nation’s largest independent bookstore.

Sax, a business journalist from Canada, posits that “while digital technology has certainly made life easier, the analog technologies of old can make life more rich and substantial.”  He argues that in today’s digital world, analog is making a surprising comeback.  What are those analog technologies?  Notebooks and paper.  Vinyl records.  Film.  Board games.  (Vintage Game Night at the Woodrow Wilson House, anyone?) He also looks at the comeback of analog “ideas” in areas such as printing, retailing, and education.

Some of Sax’s examples strike me as first-world games of the highly educated. However, as I thought about the tactile nature of the pages as I read, I realized that he had an important point about the impact of real things in our lives. About two years ago I stopped purchasing e-books and have returned to buying books to read during my commute to-and-from work each day. (Sax quotes a twelfth-century Judaic scholar in saying, “Make books your treasure and bookshelves your gardens of delight.”)  We still subscribe to the New York Times home edition, in part, because my 24-year-old son wants to do the Times crossword puzzle with paper and ink (his grandfather would be proud) and Candice enjoys reading from a “real” newspaper.  One commentator noted that analog technologies such as newspapers allow us to have a feeling of finishing a task, whereas digital news feeds and links never seem to end.

At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I work, we are all about real things. Real places. And why they matter.

I’ve even had a revelation about my move to a paperless office, which I made two years ago.  Frankly, I’m not sure it has made me more productive. In discussing the revenge of analog in digital companies, Sax writes:

“One of the great promises of the information age was that advancements in communication technology would result in increased productivity.  Studies have shown that has not occurred, but most people don’t need academic data to realize this.  They simply need to look at the e-mails piling up in their inbox, at the texts pinging away on their phone…to understand that any technology built with the promise of productivity has the real potential to deliver an inverse result.

What some technology companies have done in response to this is limit technology itself.  At Percolate, a New York (software) company…(they) banned all digital devices from company meetings.  Noah Brier, Percolate’s cofounder and CEO, said the rule arose because he consistently sat in meetings where one person spoke and everyone else pretended to listen while they responded to emails or texted.  Not only was this rude, but the distraction increased the length of meetings drastically.  Once Percolate banned devices, the results were instantaneous. ‘It just makes it so people are actually paying attention.  Meetings are shorter and more useful.’”

Bill McKibben, the founder of, notes in a review that Sax quoted a time-management expert as saying, “’You can waste time with all kinds of stuff, but the digital world provides a lot of opportunity to waste a lot of time.’ A notebook’s selling point is that you can’t use it to look up stock futures or to swipe right or to play solitaire. It concentrates, not dissipates, the mind. What if Picasso had had Snapchat? What if Hemingway had spent half the afternoon writing Yelp reviews of his favorite bars?”

You may notice that I’ve begun showing up at some meetings without my computer in tow, and with a simple notebook and pen. (I haven’t made the complete break, I have to admit.) A retreat exercise helped drive the points about attention and productivity home for me, and started my shift even before reading Sax’s book.  We don’t have to be Luddites, but I like to think about how the “real places” we work to save in our communities can remind us how rich and substantial a better balance with technology can have in many different aspects of our lives.


I’ve always loved journals – my journal from my Rome sabbatical on the right and my current journal on the left, with my tools of the trade. Very analog!

Have a good week.

More to come…


The Coming of Winter (Part 2)

No Baseball

No Baseball…until February

I’ve had a few days to stew on the Nats Game 5 loss to the Cubs…enough to see the Cubs completely tank against the Dodgers, who are now headed to the World Series.  All “Joe Maddon is a genius” comments have to be walked back a bit after some of the ways his team played in the NLCS.

Nonetheless, the Cubs were there and the Nats weren’t.

Let’s get to a few things about the Nats and that Game 5 loss, and then I’ll turn to thinking a bit about the games this week (and the games ahead).

First, if you want to read sharp commentary on the Nationals, go to the blog Nationals Baseball.  Harper regularly provides the best clear-eyed and unsentimental analysis of this ball club (so much better than the Washington Post crew), and the comments are first-rate (how often do you read that on the internet?).  Read his Game 5 analysis at the link above when you get the chance.  Much of what I’d say, especially about how bad Matt Wieters was in that series (and much of the year), can be found there.

Second, Dusty really did get out-managed again in the playoffs. Using the same line-up for five games…who does that in the playoffs?  Winning managers maximize their team’s strengths game-by-game.  Jayson Werth is old, you don’t play him out of loyalty.  Matt Wieters was terrible. Gio is a head case and should NEVER start a critical game. Michael A. Taylor was the only player tearing the hide off the ball all series, and you leave him batting 8th! Zimmerman, who had a great year, is a head case when batting 4th behind Harper against the Cubs. Why would you bat him there?  I could go on-and-on…but go to the blog above.  Harper has a longer and better list.

I’m now okay with Dusty not being rehired for 2018, but when are we going to start talking about Mike Rizzo’s role in this “can’t get out of the first round” mess?  Who gave this club the absolutely worst bullpen in baseball for the first half of the year and tried to talk as if it was no problem?  How many games were lost and how many starters lost sure-fire wins because of that crew? We’re supposed to cheer Rizzo’s trade-deadline acquisitions, but remember who got us into this mess in the first place.  Who keeps making bad decisions with his managers? Who never got a decent starter after Joe Ross went down? And yes, I think the Lerners bear blame for low-balling the salaries of their managers.

And can the Nationals get a hitting coach next year who can teach situational hitting.  Trea Turner was so overmatched, but all the Nats were swinging for the fences and hitting into the teeth of shifts when the situation called for a different approach.

For some good things, this was Strasburg’s year and he had a stellar playoff series.  Game 4 was about as good as one can pitch in an elimination game.  Watching the Nats for the first half of the season (except for the bullpen explosions) was great fun, especially after Anthony Rendon took off.  The second half was too much coasting, as the N.L. East is so bad, and that may have hurt them in the playoffs. It would be nice to come in hot.

Enough of this rambling.  Now for the three (for one more day) teams left.

Jose Altuve is great.  Last night, after taking the series to 3-3 against the Yankees, he goes on national television and says, “I freaking LOVE Justin Verlander.”  With Altuve and Curry, short guys are taking over the world!

Aaron Judge is a freak…but he seems like a nice freak.  I really don’t like the Yankees and I hope they lose tonight, but this kid is having such an amazing rookie season that you just have to root for him.  All rise, indeed!

The Dodgers look very much like the real deal, and I’ll be surprised if anyone can beat them in the World Series.  Stranger things have happened, but they’re my team now.  I’m going over to the Dark Side with my Claire!

Claire at a Dodgers Game

Claire (center) at a Dodgers game…she knows how to pick ’em

More to come…


Attitudes Aren’t Taught, They’re Caught

Mary Dixie and George Brown

My grandparents: Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and George Alma Brown

Attitudes are important in so many aspects of work and life.  Some people complain because there are thorns on roses, while others praise thorns for having roses among them. My grandmother, who I quote frequently, use to say that “Some folks are born in the objective mood.”  Grandmother did not have a lot of patience with people who were always complaining and objecting to what others did.  Both she and my Grandfather—and their son, my father—always had a positive outlook and attitude toward people.

In David McCullough’s The American Spirit, he speaks of the impact our attitudes have on others.  “Everyone who’s ever lived,” he notes, “has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, or hindered by others.”  He then quotes Margaret McFarland, a professor of child psychology, who says that “attitudes aren’t taught, they’re caught.”  Speaking of teachers, McCullough notes that “if the teacher has enthusiasm for the subject at hand, the student catches that.”  McFarland adds, “Show them what you love.”

Last week I spent time at three of the National Trust’s New York-area historic sites—The Glass House, Lyndhurst, and Kykuit.  All three have seen recent increases in important metrics like attendance, revenue, grants, programming, and media mentions. The evolution of those three sites toward more relevance with their local communities and the nation at large was the subject of a discussion with our trustees.  I would suggest that one of the most important changes that has taken place at each of these landmarks is that of attitude. Given a forward-looking vision and the permission to bring new ideas to the forefront, the staff and volunteer enthusiasm for “showing what you love” comes through in spades at each of these special places.  Our trustees and guests saw that on display all weekend.

Each of us can be a teacher.  And each of us can help others catch an enthusiastic attitude about the things we love.

Have a good week.

More to come…


Winter Has Come

No Baseball

No Baseball…until February

Well, that will leave a bruise.

I’m at a board meeting for work, so will have to wait until later for a longer reflection on the Nats 2017 campaign, but oh my…the bad taste from that last game is going to linger for a while.  I was sitting in the only television room in the place, watching the game alone until 1 o’clock in the morning.  At least I resisted the temptation to pull out a beer or have a glass of wine to drown my sorrows.

Gio does his Gio thing and melts down under pressure.  Max and Wieters pick the worst possible time to play sandlot ball.  Dusty’s loyalty bites us in the behind.  Harp isn’t always Mr. Clutch.  Instant replay can be correct and yet wrong for the game.

Oh…and for those Chicago Cubs fans who are itching to tell you how your team blew it…you’ve now become just like the insufferable Red Sox and Yankees fans.  Is that what you really want?  Memo to self…if the Nats ever do win a first round series in the playoffs or more, don’t gloat.  It is just a game. Behave like the Royals fans did during their recent run of excellence, and just thank the baseball gods that you got to have some fun.

Winter (and more) to come…


Surviving in a Golden Age of Sycophancy

Who knew, but apparently we are living in a golden age of sycophancy.  Flattery.  Brown-nosing.  By whatever name it goes by, we’re talking about sucking up.

Over a 40-year career, I’ve had a number of bosses.  On the exceptional-to-bad continuum, I’ve seen both ends, and a lot in between.  But I’ve been fortunate in that only one regularly sought out flattery from those who worked in the organization. Most good managers and senior executives see through obsequious behavior.  Colleagues see someone excessively playing up to a manager and roll their eyes (if they are charitable) or share their thoughts with others around the water cooler (if they are less than charitable).

No Flattery Zone

No Flattery Zone

There’s a better way:  learn how to manage up.

As I have suggested to my team at work, building a strong, professional relationship with your manager has nothing to do with sycophancy.  It has everything to do with doing your job and being the type of valued colleague who understands and supports a wider vision beyond one functional area or program.  Communication that assumes good intent is key. Strong staff at every level leverage their boss’s communications profile to help him/her do their job better. In the process, managers learn to speak more effectively on behalf of the agenda you and your team are pursuing. And I do want to acknowledge that there are “bad” bosses, who don’t respond to management (of any type) and who abuse their position of power.  When faced with that type of situation, a different response is necessary.

However, assuming you are working with a decent boss who wants you to succeed, here are three tips on managing up that I’ve learned over four decades which you may find helpful:

  • First, in your communications, position your colleagues and teams for success.  Excessive focus on your personal accomplishments is not only off-putting, but it really doesn’t help your boss, who is judged on the success of teams and projects, not individuals. We all succeed because a wide range of people support our work. Let your boss know that you understand this basic fact of life.
  • Second, if you want to keep your boss out of the details of your work, providing regular updates will give him/her a rising comfort level and confidence that the job is being handled. If s/he is always in the dark, they lose confidence in (and sleep over) your work.  Updates don’t always have to be face-to-face, and you should develop an understanding with your boss on how s/he likes to receive information.  It may be something as simple as a two sentence email as a FYI, that includes a “no need to reply” note.  If you do this consistently, your boss will probably let you know if the flow of information is appropriate. Also, when my bosses have reported to someone else (such as the CEO or the board of trustees), I have always let him/her know when I’m having a conversation or working with their boss. It is a simple courtesy, and it also ensures that when the CEO or trustee brings it up to my boss (as will often happen), s/he can speak from  a base of knowledge and not be blind-sided.
  • Finally, be a problem solver, not just a problem identifier. Think of what you are asking your boss to do (instead of sending an email asking your boss to essentially Google something for you.  That happens more than you would realize.)  Speak in terms of solutions and don’t work as if it is the job of your boss to fix your problems or do your work.  Even if your proposed solution is not ultimately adopted, your manager will appreciate that you have taken the time to think through approaches to handling the issue at hand.  I like the format of “what, so what, now what” that Scott Eblin suggests in his book The Next Level:
    • What:  What issue needs to be addressed or considered?
    • So what:  What are the implications of this issue that make it worthy of consideration?  Why am I bringing this to your level, as opposed to fixing it myself?
    • Now what:  What needs to be done next about this issue?  What action/support do I need from you for the proposed solution (which may range from an email response I’ve drafted, to an offer to make a call to a partner, to a fully formed plan)?  What milestones should you look for in terms of progress?

When an organization is flat, managers—by nature—have a very wide scope of responsibility.  Flattering them doesn’t accomplish much. But focusing on how you can help him/her do a better job is critical to success.  So don’t suck up.  Manage up!

Have a good week.

More to come…


P.S. – By the way, if you want to write and tell me this is the most helpful blog post you’ve ever received, I won’t charge it against your flattery account (he says with tongue planted firmly in his cheek)!