Friday, June 27, 2008

Deep Change: A Book Review

I’ve been in long meetings for the past few days. This review was written a few days ago. It’s my third review for Joy's “Summer Non-fiction Reading Challenge.” I have read four of the five books I’ve read for this challenge. For an insight into the “planned” part of my summer reading, click here. Tomorrow or sometime soon, I’ll write about meeting Father Elias Chacour (and I’ll post a picture). He’s the author of Blood Brothers, a book that I read 20 some years ago and it opened my eyes to the Palestinian issues.

Robert E. Quinn, Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within (San Francisco: Jossy-Bass, 1996), 236 pages.

We have a choice; we can change or we can experience slow death, according to Robert Quinn, a professor of business at the University of Michigan. In this book, Quinn discusses how individuals and organizations can bring about transformational changes that helps create excellence and alters the culture of organizations. It’s risky business to make “deep changes” as they are sweeping and irreversible. But such changes are also essential for survival. The leader who navigates such changes sails across unpredictable waters and must be somewhat of a maverick. The organization tries to make life predictable and systematic; deep change requires one “to build the bridge as you walk on it.” It’s more of a spiritual process, requiring faith and the commitment to do what one knows is right, even in the face of great opposition. The organization, the status quo, will always resist. Such a leader must be willing to maintain the course and to create a compelling vision to bring others along on the journey.

Quinn’s book has four basic sections. The first deals with the need for change. He then discusses personal change (with a valuable chapter on building integrity), changing the organization and then ending with a section on “Vision, Risk, and the Creation of Excellence.” In each section, he discusses both what is necessary for the organization and for the individual leader to be about if change is to be successful. At the end of each chapter are useful questions for the reader to ask about his or her life and the organizations that the reader belongs. I often spent more time pondering these questions than I spent reading the book as they tended to make the book more applicable to all sorts of settings.

As individuals who join organizations, we go through a transformation. At first, it’s all about what the organization can do for us in exchange for our competence. As our competence grows and we move deeper into the organization (or up a career level), we become managers. Here, our “competence” is still valuable, but one has to begin to also look out for the organization. Anywhere along the line, we might decide that change is too painful and opt for “peace and pay” as we wait to exit (or until retirement). Sometimes our competence even gets into the way of us seeing new ways of doing things (Quinn has a chapter on the Tyranny of Competence). Only a few are able to move on into the final stage and become “internally driven leaders.” These visionary leaders have the will to risk to bring about changes necessary for the long term survival of the company. They have a vision for which they are willing to die (or at least be fired over). Of course, just having a grand vision once isn’t enough. Transformation is a cycle that is repeated over and over in any organization.

I don’t read too many business books, but I found myself doing a lot of personal thinking as I read this book. It’s a valuable book and I recommend it.

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More Photos

I'm waiting for my flight at the airport. I haven't had much time to write or visit blogs lately... But that doesn't mean I haven't been out on the water, so I'll post a couple pictures from my paddling excursions this weekend. By the way, you don't want to get to close to swans! They tend to be territorial. Enjoy.

Friday, June 20, 2008

More North Carolina Photos

Busy, busy, busy. That describes my life since coming back from vacation. Partly, I’m so busy because I leave again on Tuesday for San Francisco (I have business in San Jose, but since I was renting a car and the flights were cheaper to SFO, I decided to fly into there). Afterwards, I have four extra days out there and plan to head up into the Sierras and over to my old stomping grounds around Virginia City, Nevada. I’m looking forward to the trip and seeing folks I haven’t seen in years. Since I’ve not had time for any new stories, I thought I’d share a few photos from my trip to North Carolina. Enjoy!
This shot was taken right after sunset (I missed it!) at Fort Fisher (read my previous blog entry). You're looking across the Cape Fear River at Sunny Point, a military ammunition shipping terminal. No smoking please.
This is Johnny Mercer's Pier at Wrightsville Beach. I shot the photo right before sunrise. Johnny Mercer's use to be a nice wooden pier that would rock with the waves, but a few hurricanes did it in and they replaced it with a concrete one that they charge you to walk on. I liked the wooden piers better; you now have to go to Carolina or Kure Beach to find one of them.
We had the beach all to ourselves! (Not really, this is Masonboro Island, you have to have a boat to get over to it so it is never crowded.
Another shot of Masonboro Island
Sunrise at Wrightsville Beach. It looks like those pelicans spent the night at a Comfort Inn.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Memories (and history): The Summer of 1966

I woke up, having been asleep in the backseat with my head pressed against the window, as we crossed the Brunswick River, a back channel of the Cape Fear. South of the bridge, the river was clogged with hundreds of Liberty Ships left over from the Second World War. Silhouetted against the night sky, the silent ships assumed a ghostly appearance. Mom told us her Daddy had help build some of those ships back during the war. She’d had even started school when her dad left the tobacco farm and moved her family to Wilmington to become a welder with the newly established North Carolina Shipbuilding Company. They’d moved down with her uncle and his family, and because of housing shortages, the two families shared a house. As America was heading to war, thousands of families were leaving the farms and moving into the coastal cities to take positions in the shipyards. Mom and her family spent four years in Wilmington, just a few blocks from the river. We’d later look for the house in a neighborhood that had fallen into decay, but it was no longer there. A year or so later, the site of her childhood house was covered under an embankment for the new Cape Fear River Bridge.

Passing the Brunswick River, the highway runs across a dirt causeway through the wetlands on the backside of Eagle Island. As the city comes into view, the highway turns north and cuts in front of the bow of the battleship North Carolina, permanently moored across the river from Wilmington, its silent 16 inch guns keeping a vigil. After passing the battleship, the road climbs over a drawbridge across the Cape Fear River.

“Daddy, I can smell the ocean.” I said as we crested the bridge.

:”I don’t think so,” he said, “we’re ten miles from there.”

“But I can taste the salt,” I insisted. And I could taste the salt as I licked my lips, although I never again could taste it again from there, even though I tried many times.

After crossing the Cape Fear, and some old dry docks, the highway turns back east and we cross the Northeast Cape Fear, which oddly enough is much wider than the main channel. The long bridge supported by wooden pilings, sways with traffic. Until the new Cape Fear River Bridge opened a few years later, cutting out both of the bridges we have crossed this night, my mom would complain about this bridge. The center of its span opened, allowing for ships and barges to go up river, primarily to Ideal Cement and to the lumber yards along the river’s bank.

After crossing the bridge, we turn onto 3rd Street and head south, into town, crossing the yards for the Atlantic Coast Line. The railroad had begun in the early 19th Century as the Wilmington and Weldon and, during the Civil War was known as the lifeline of the Confederacy as it linked the last port open to the South with General Lee’s army in Virginia. By the early 20th Century, the railroad consisted of extensive lines spreading from Virginia to Florida. Although it had been headquartered in Wilmington for decades, the Coastline moved its headquarters to Jacksonville, Florida in 1961. In another year after this night, the line would merge with its rival, the Seaboard Air Lines, to form Seaboard Coastline. Today, it’s part of CSX Transportation.

We continue on down 3rd Street, past the courthouse, and turn east on Market Street, at the statue of George Davis, the Confederacy’s Secretary of State. We take Market Street a ways, turning into a motel. I’d never stayed in a motel before; on our trips, we’d mostly be visiting family or camping. On a few occasions, we stayed in a rental house on the beach. This was a treat, staying in a motel and the three of us in the backseat were excited to see that they had a pool. It was already closed for the evening and we were crushed to learn that we were going to be leaving early the next morning in order to get to our new home before the moving truck arrived.

We were moving from Petersburg, Virginia to Wilmington, North Carolina. I can’t say I was happy about the move. I was leaving behind friends and a neighborhood I loved and for a month or so my nights I’d been filled with dreams of jellyfish and sharks and hurricanes. I’d seen the movie “Flipper” and afterwards my Dad asked if it wouldn’t be nice to live near the water. Although the thought of a pet porpoise was appealing, the hurricane in the movie served as a reminder that bad things come from the sea… In ways, I should have been a Hebrew, celebrating the flowing waters of a river, but maintaining of fear of wide open bodies of water, seeing them as the reservoir of evil.

We were not the first to travel from Petersburg to Wilmington. A little over a century earlier, the two cities fate was closely tied together. General Grant, after failing to take the Confederacy capital with a frontal attack, swung his army southward, to Petersburg, our former home, with the hope to cut the rail lines running to Richmond. For nine months, the two armies fought it out, with some of the battles taking place over land that would become our neighborhood a century later. On Christmas 1864, an attempt was made to capture the Fort Fisher, the citadel guarding the mouth of the Cape Fear and thereby cutting off imported supplies for the Confederate army. The first attacked failed. It could have been a complete rout that would have created serious losses for the North, had it not been for the unwillingness of the southern Commander for the Lower Cape Fear defenses to pursue the attack. The Commander, General Braxton Bragg had the invading army surrounded at their beachhead. Bragg’s appointment to the Lower Cape Fear defenses had been made that fall by the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, over the objections of both General Lee and the Governor of North Carolina. During and after the war, even though he wore gray, it was often joked that Bragg was the North’s best general. It’s ironic that today, one of the world’s largest military bases, Fort Bragg, located 100 miles west of Wilmington, bears his name.

The North tried again to capture Fort Fisher in January 1865. This time, Bragg had an additional 5,000 troops of Hoke’s brigade that Lee had sent from Petersburg to Wilmington in order to keep the port open. Again, Bragg’s inaction (although Hoke shared some of the blame), allowed a large Union army to land north of Fort Fisher. Then, after the most intense naval bombardment in naval history (a record that I think survived till the Second World War), a two prong attack was made on the fort. The first attack failed, but the second broke through the Confederates lines and Fort Fisher fell on January 15, 1865. A month later, Wilmington itself fell, the last battle being fought in the pine woods a few miles east of our new home. I’d learn these details years later.

We got up early the next morning and ate a bowl of cereal for breakfast before driving to our new home, some ten miles away. We arrived right before the moving van. Immediately the men began hauling in boxes as we kids ran around checking out our rooms. Unlike in Petersburg, where we lived in an established neighborhood, surrounded by houses, here there were only seven houses on a mile and a half long. In the middle of the lot, surrounded by longleaf pines, sat a brick ranch-style house which I would live in till I moved out while in college. My parents still live there, although the house has undergone two remodeling and has drastically increased in size. We worked hard that day and in the afternoon, after the truck had been unloaded, Dad had us pile into the car for our first trip to Wrightsville Beach.

We’d arrived at our new home just a few weeks before school was to start, but those weeks seemed to drag on forever. There were no kids to play with in the neighborhood (something that would change in a few years as hundreds of homes were built in the neighborhood). We played mostly with each other. My brother had a toy cannon that fired a plastic balls. We would pretend the carport was a pirate ship, and with the canon blazing while we picked off sailors on the opposing ship with the wooden rifles Dad had made each of us. We fought through the seas, pretending we were Blackbeard or Steven Bonnet, both of whom had sailed the waters around the Cape Fear and supposedly buried treasure in the shifting sands of the Carolina coast. In the afternoons, when Dad came home from work, we’d head to the beach.

Finally September came and we were rushed out of bed early in the morning and taken to Bradley Creek Elementary School. Mom made sure we knew which school bus was ours (#6, an orange snub-nosed bus). After the opening day, my brother, sister and I would meet the bus down on the loop road for the long and winding ride to school. Miss Freeman was my teacher.

When I was home the other week, my dad had me go through some old photos. I found a picture of my fourth grade class and it got me thinking about our move to Wilmington in the summer of 1966, when I was nine years old. Click on the photo to enlarge it. Can you pick me out? And, in case anyone is geographically smart and wondering why we were moving to Wilmington from Petersburg and coming in from the west on US 74/76 instead of from the north on US 117, the reason is that my brother, sister and I had been staying with our grandparents for a few weeks while my parents got everything packed up in Petersburg and found a home in Wilmington.

For a story about the Civil War in my Petersburg neighborhood, click here.
For another story about 1966 and the birth of my brother, click here.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks: A Book Review

This is my second book in Maggie’s Summer Southern Reading Challenge. Click here to learn more about my summer reading plans.

Greg Bottoms, Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks: Stories (New York: Context Books, 2001), 216 pages, no pictures.

When I came across the title of this book, I knew I had to read it. I wanted to make sure that one of the stories weren’t an unauthorized biography of me! I couldn’t be so lucky.

This is a fine collection of 13 short stories by a young southern author from Virginia. A number of these stories are essays about real people an events such as the title story which is about Breece D’J Pancake, a young promising writer and graduate from the University of Virginia (Bottom’s alma mater), and who committed suicide. Another is about an obscure artist receiving what he took as a call from God to create a work depicting the final judgment. Another is about the author’s great-grandfather, who was baptized a second time at the age of three in 1902. He slipped from the preacher’s (his father) hand and thought to have drowned. They were all mourning and when it turned out he wasn’t dead, people too it as a sign. The boy grew up into a man and becomes a “lying, hypocritical, womanizing preacher.”

There are many themes that run through this collection: death, love, violence, abandonment, suicide, hopeless, poverty, drugs, race and religion. A sense of loss and a Kafkaesque helplessness fill most of the characters. Several of the stories remind me of Jack Kerouac’s search for his father. In a way, these stories are like those of Richard Ford, but removed from the American West and into the mid-Atlantic region (they mostly take place in Virginia, with North Carolina and Washington DC receiving token mentions).

I love the way Bottoms explores a relationship between a man and woman, hinting what will happen to the two of them later in the relationship as he describes them infatuated with each other in the present moment. I also enjoyed his last story, where the “hero” is a fat homeless man. Most of these stories are a pleasure to read. Many of them made me thankful, some made me wonder why I’ve been so blessed.

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sense of Place Contest

I’ve been so busy since getting back home last weekend. I have stories to tell and book reviews to write (at the very least, I"ll write reviews for The Journey of Crazy Horse and Sentimental, Brokenhearted Rednecks). But I’m so tired by the end of the day. I’ve been in meetings every night this week—tonight I was at a contentious school board meeting, last night I was with construction managers and the meeting dragged on to nearly 10 o’clock. Needless to say, I’ve not had a lot of time to write or even do the 3WW… But I really want to win an autograph copy of Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound (which comes highly recommended, so I am going to again enter Maggie’s “sense of place” contest). The rules are to pick a passage out of book that qualifies for the Southern Reading Challenge and then choose a picture that illustrates it. This was an easy assignment as I’ve just returned from my parent’s, and while there I took a lot of photographs of longleaf pines. I’m posting to two pictures to illustrate two quotes from Janisse Ray’s book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. The first shot shows the crown of the trees (and if you look closely you’ll see a large number of green cones on them). The second shows the trees thick bark along with a scar on a tree. It’s not unusual to see these scars long after the trees were tapped for turpentine (this tree was probably tapped 75 years ago).

"The trees grow spaced so far apart in pine savannas, sunshine bathing the ground, that you can see forever; they are much grassland as forest. The limbs of longleaf pine are gray and scaly and drape as the trees matures, and its needles are very long, up to seventeen inches, like a piano player’s fingers, and held upright at ends of the limbs, like a bride holds her bouquet. In 1791, naturalist and explorer William Bartram, in his Travels, called the Southern pinelands a “vast forest of the most stately pine trees that can be imagined.” (page 66)

"Pine plantations dishearten God. In them he aches for blooming things, and he misses the sun trickling through the tree crowns, and he pines for the crawling, spotted, scale-backed, bushy-tailed, leaf-hopping, chattering creatures. Most of all he misses the bright-winged, singing beings he cast as angels…. "(page 125)

In this last quote, Ray refers to the pine plantations (normally of loblolly or slash pine) that have replaced nearly 98% of the longleaf pine in the Southeast. The longleaf cannot survive a clear-cut, and when trees are cut, “tree-farmers” often replace them with other types of pines, with different bark and a thicker canopy. This replacement of pince has caused a loss of habitat for birds that like to nest within the bark and cavities of the longleaf pines as well as animals and plants that flourish under the thinly veiled canopy of the longleaf.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Premature Fourth of July Fireworks

I’ve been home for less than 48 hours and it has been anything but settling. Bands of severe storms have crossed Lake Michigan providing wonderful shows of lightning that plays havoc with our electrical grid. In addition, these storms brought with them a deluge. In the early hours on Sunday morning, the skies open and in a couple of hours we received over five inches of rain. Yesterday, we got another inch or so. We’ve been spared the hail. Late yesterday evening, we lost power again—and it was off till 2 AM. It came on long enough for me to awake to the running of the bathroom fan. I got up and started to turn off lights.

I was in the kitchen, just a few minutes after the power was restored when I saw the fireworks display of the year. I heard a buzzing sound and the walls begin to reflect a red, yellow and blue glow. As I turned around, I heard a bang and saw a fireball that was higher than the trees (which are probably 60 feet tall). Then things buzzed again and another fireball and all was black. I grabbed a flashlight, slipped on flipflops and walked out the back door to see if there was a fire. From the driveway, I caught a glimpse of down power line at the property edge and I froze (not wanting to walk closer in wet grass!) Luckily the cell phone system was working and I called 911. While talking to them, a policeman arrived (he’d seen the explosion from a mile away and had thought something had blown up. It turned out a limb had fallen over a 4800 volt transmission line, knocking out the substation and sending the town further into the darkness. My power finally came back on around 11 AM this morning (there are benefits to living near the hospital). Downtown and my office is still in darkness and others, especially those in rural areas, may have to wait to Tuesday or Wednesday before their power is restored.

Before the line of storms rolled through yesterday, I’d planned to post a story about the beach… that’ll have to wait. I sure wish I could have gotten a photograph of that electrical show last night, but at the time, as I ducked, taking photos was the last thing on my mind. But here are two photos from the beach. The first is of sunrise behind a cloud bank off Wrightsville beach, another of me lounging in a warm tidal pool on Masonboro Island.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood: A Book Review

I’m in North Carolina, enjoying the beach and living without internet access… Currently, I’m sitting in a coffee shop accessing their wifi. I’ll be home on Saturday and will try to catch up with everyone’s blog. While I was in Georgia, I read this book and yesterday morning wrote a review of it. This is my first review for Maggie’s Summer Southern Reading Challenge.

Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (Minneapolis: Milkweed, 1999), 285 pages, a few pictures.

A few chapters into this book, Janisse Ray spins a tale about an epic battle between lightning and the long leaf pine. Millions of years ago, the pine moved onto land owned by lightning. They fought for control of the land, lightning hurling its bolts of electricity and the pine developing coping mechanisms till finally the pine was able to thrive in the land and depended on the lightning and the fires it spawned for its own survival. It’s a legend fitting for a girl whose father spun creation stories. According to her father, Janisse Ray was found lying in pine straw, under palmettos, late afternoon one February in 1962. Her father found her as he was searching for his sheep, as it was lambing time and one ewe was missing. Listening for the bleating of the ewe, he and his wife heard her infant cry. Each of her siblings had their own creation stories, one being discovered in the cabbage patch, another in a grapevine and the last under a huckleberry bush. Growing up in such a family, Janisse learned the art of storytelling from masters of the craft.

Janisse Ray grew up in rural South Georgia, in a junkyard along Highway 1. Her parents loved their children, but her father could also be strict, boarding on abusive. Like his father and grandfather before him, he also carried the seeds for mental illness. But he was devoted to his children and was a man who could do most anything. He had a big heart and would always lend a hand. Her mother was devoted to her father, standing by him as he spent time in a mental hospital, and working hard to care for and keep the family feed. Although she acknowledges their flaws, Janisse has great respect for both of her parents.

From her father, Janisse learned to respect all living things. Her father loved life and was against unnecessary killing, including capital punishment and abortion. Once, when his children were with a neighbor kid who had killed a turtle, he lectured the boy about what he’d done and sent him home. Then he gave each of his kids a whippin’ for allowing the abuse to happen. Her father also took his religion serious. After listening to Bishop Johnson on the radio (her father had gotten rid of the TV before Janisse was born), he drove to Philadelphia to meet the man. Thereafter, his family became the only whites in an Apostolic Church in Brunswick, Georgia. One family tradition was for each member to share a verse of scripture after the prayer and before the meal. The kids all vied for the shortest verse of scripture (Jesus wept), but one day when her granddad was eating with the family, he goaded their father with the rhyme, “Jesus wept, Moses slept, Peter went a fishin’”. Being members of an Apostolic Pentecostal church, there was great emphasis on being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, something Janisse didn’t want because she didn’t want anything uncontrollable filling her.

Living in a junk yard without a television and attending a black church separated Janisse and her sibling from other kids. She writes about the shame of being different, but also with pride about her family and the way they loved each other. She tells of bringing home a boyfriend from college, whom she tried to prepare for where they lived, but who was so shocked he broke up with her after the trip.

Her father also talked about great adventures, but never carried them out. When Janisse was in high school, he started talking about taking a float trip down the Altamaha River. Janisse decided this would be on thing they’d do and one Saturday, the two of them along with a neighbor and a brother, set off for a two day trip which included floating through the night. It was an adventure that redeemed her father’s early misadventure on the river. When Janisse was an infant, her father built a boat and took the family down the river. He ran the boat over a log which ripped a hole in the bottom of the boat, sinking it. Wearing a lifejacket, Janisse bobbed down the river till her father rescued her.

This book is more than a memoir. Sprinkled between the stories of growing up, the author informs us about cracker culture and how it became an adaption of Celtic culture in the Southeast, with cornmeal replacing oats. She discusses the unique dialect of the region, most of which seems normal to me! (Of her list, I often catch myself saying these: “whar for where, pizen for poison, young-uns for young ones, fixing for getting ready to, along with odd verb constructions like they growed up and the use of the double negative.” [82-3]) In addition to a culture that is disappearing, she also provides insight into the endangered habitat within the region, especially the longleaf pine and wire grass. She has a passion for saving this endangered environment. (See my earlier review of Looking for Longleaf)

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is a love story. By expressing love and awe for creation as well as for her parents, Ray acknowledges who she is and the importance that place and family plays in her life. With her pen (and in the shadow of her father), she writes to defend nature from those who see it only as an opportunity for short term gain. I enjoyed this book and recommend it. I, too, grew up in a similar environment (but not a junkyard). Longleaf pines still populate my parents’ yard and with a bit of looking one still can find carnivorous plants in the wood areas nearby (including the venus flytrap which doesn’t grow in Southeastern Georgia). This book takes us through the author’s early years in college. I look forward to reading her second book, about returning home after college and graduate school in Montana.

For summer travels and reading plans, click here.
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.