Friday, December 31, 2010

Mini-Review of "The Book of Tomorrow" by Cecelia Ahern - Much More Than "Chick Lit"!

Cecelia Ahern is the daughter of Ireland's former prime minister. She came to prominence in her own right with her NY Times Bestseller, "P.S. I Love You." Ahern continues her exceptional writing with her latest offering: "The Book of Tomorrow."

Following the death of her father, teenage protagonist, Tamara, moves with her almost catatonic mother from Dublin to a remote village that is the ancestral home. Bored out of her mind, she picks a book from the book mobile that serves her rural area. The book turns out to a magical blank diary that predicts the future one day at a time. Using this literary device, the author places Tamara in a number of situations in which she needs to choose whether to act to alter the future or accept what has been written as a "fait acccompli." Each character is beautifully depicted - Tamara, her two young love interests, the enigmatic nun, her secretive Aunt Rosaleen, and the mysterious person who lives across the road.

This is a clever and very engaging coming-of-age tale with several wonderful plot twists. It would be easy to dismiss this novel as "chick lit," but it is far more than that. This old man loved it.



Mini-Review of "Whom God Would Destroy" by Commander Pants

How could I not be intrigued about a novel written by someone who calls himself "Commander Pants." The novel deals with a variety of issues in a "novel" way: a vengeful God, the foibles of consumerism run amok, aliens, abuse of medication, psychiatry and mental illness. The cover of the book adds a nice fillip: "A novel about taking reality with a pillar of salt." That tells you just about everything you need to know about the author's sense of humor and sense of irreverence.

Dostoevsky, in the monumental Grand Inquisitor section of "The Brothers Karamazov," deals with the question of what would happen if Jesus came back to earth in human form. This book takes a slightly more twisted approach to the same line of inquiry. The result is a rollicking romp through Jeremy's impact on a world much in need of a Messiah. There is a bell - think of the Gold's horseradish commercials! -that plays a significant role throughout the narrative. There is a motley assemblage of characters, beginning with the over-the-top Yiddishisms of Mrs. Zeidel, the long-suffering widow who has the misfortune to live a floor below Abbey. Abbey has issues, some of which are being attended to by her "worker" - her "Outreach Counselor" Oliver. There are the denizens of The Peaceful Breeze Inn halfway house, described as the "last refuge of Ripley's lunatics, drug addicts and alcoholics." (Page 7) One of the most colorful of those residents is Doc, a Vietnam era vet who is still fighting multiple wars in his head. His psychiatrist, Dr. Smart, is trying to make sense of Doc's ravings about alien visitations while trying to find a therapeutic dose for the Prolixin that he has prescribed. Throw in a few more characters from Oliver's agency, a mysterious letter-to-the-editor that gets several pairs of knickers in a twist, a local access cable TV show hosted by Jeremy and you have the makings for a wild and crazy ride.

I do not want to give away too much of the plot, because it is delicious fun - as delicious as, say, "two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun"! That quotation will make sense to you as you near the novel's denouement.

Reading this book felt much like reading the good-humored blasphemies of Christopher Moore's "Lamb," or the innocent insanity of "A Confederacy of Dunces."

Here's how you will know if this book is for you. If you smile and nod knowingly when you read this quotation by Voltaire that adorns the first page of the novel, then you will be safe in ordering this book from Amazon:

"God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh."

Drink the Kool-Aid! Laugh -at the book and at yourself.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

An Absolute Must Read: "Drive - The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us" by Daniel H. Pink

Some books for me are "game changers." All of Malcolm Gladwell's books fall into this category: "Tipping Point," "Blink" and "Outliers." Frans Johansson's "The Medici Effect" prompted me to organize two leadership gatherings: The White Rhino Intersection and Intersection 2.0. Daniel Pink's latest book, "Drive," belongs in this same category. I love what Gladwell said about Pink's book: "I spent as much time thinking about what this book means as I did reading it." Well said; I have had the same response.

To regular readers of The White Rhino Report, Pink is no stranger. I wrote effusively about his earlier book, "A Whole New Mind."

Review of "A Whole New Mind"

I recently offered a link to a TED talk that summarizes the most salient points of "Drive."

Drive Video

Having been thoroughly mesmerized and intrigued by the "Drive" video, I wondered if I needed to read the book. I am glad I chose to take that additional step. The video serves as an excellent appetizer and introductory tool, but the main nutrient's can be found in the book.

Pink's genius is his ability to take previously published research from a variety of fields, synthesize and coordinate the data and present the findings to a lay audience in a way that does not "dumb down" the content or the significance of the discoveries. He takes the "what," and turns it into a powerful "so what?".

In discussing what motivates individuals and teams in almost any setting, Pink describes two types of motivation: Type X (extrinsic) and Type I (intrinsic).

"Type I behavior is a renewable resource. Think of Type X behavior as coal, and Type I behavior as the sun. For most of recent history, coal has been the cheapest, easiest, most efficient resource. But coal has two downsides. First, it produces nasty things like air pollution and greenhouse gases. Second, it's finite; getting more of it becomes increasingly difficult and expensive each year. Type X behavior is similar. An emphasis on rewards and punishments spews its own externalities. And 'if-then' motivators always grow more expensive. But Type I behavior, which is built around intrinsic motivation, draws on resources that are easily replenished and inflict little damage. It is the motivational equivalent of clean energy: inexpensive, safe to use, and endlessly renewable." (Page 80)

He goes on to describe what lies at the heart of Type I behavior and the underlying motivations. He issues what amounts to a manifesto for change.

"Ultimately, Type I behavior depends upon three nutrients: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Type I behavior is self-directed. It is devoted to becoming better and better at something that matters. and it connects that quest for excellence to a larger purpose. Some might dismiss notions like these as gooey and idealistic, but the science says otherwise. The science confirms that this sort of behavior is essential to being human - and that now, in a rapidly changing economy, it is also critical for professional, personal, and organizational success of any kind. So we have a choice. We can cling to a view of human motivation that is grounded more in old habits than in modern science. Or we can listen to the research, drag our business and personal practices into the twenty-first century, and craft a new operating system to help ourselves, our companies, and our world work a little better. It won't be easy. It won't happen overnight. So let's get started." (Pages 80-81)

As the author continues to sketch out the components of what he calls Motivation 3.0 - a large quantum leap beyond the traditional Motivation 2.0 that fueled the Industrial Revolution - he describes four aspects of autonomy.

"And what a few future-looking businesses are discovering is that one of these essential features is autonomy - in particular, autonomy over four aspects of work: what people do, when they do it, how they do it, and whom they do it with. As Atlassian's experience shows, Type I behavior emerges when people have autonomy over the four T's: their task, their time, their technique, and their team." (Pages 93-94)

In discussing the importance of "Purpose" as a factor in motivation, Pink's work comes close to the themes of the book "Half Time - Moving from Success to Significance," by Bob Buford, which I reviewed in this space a few months ago:

Review of "Half Time"

These themes are also resonant with Rick Warren's best-seller, "The Purpose Driven Life."

The demographic time bomb that is my generation of Baby Boomers presents an interesting dilemma and opportunity occasioned by our anticipated increased longevity.

"Upon comprehending that they could have another twenty-five years, sixty-year-old boomers look back twenty-five years - to when they were thirty-five - and a sudden thought clonks them on the side of the head. 'Wow. That sure happened fast,' they say. 'Will the next twenty-five years race by like that? If so, when I am going to do something that matters? When am I going to live my best life? When am I going to make a difference in the world?'

Those questions, which swirl through conversations taking place at boomer kitchen tables around the world, may sound touch-feely. But they're now occurring at a rate that is unprecedented in human civilization. Consider: Boomers are the largest demographic cohort in most western countries, as well as in places like Japan, Australia and New Zealand. . . In America alone, one hundred boomers turn sixty every thirteen minutes. When the cold front of demographics meets the warm front of unrealized dreams, the result will be a thunderstorm of purpose the likes of which the world has never seen." (Pages 132-133)

In my observation, the impact is even more dramatic than that which Pink describes. In my role as a career coach, life coach, recruiter and mentor to many emerging leaders, men and women are beginning to ask the "purpose question" at increasingly younger ages. This bodes well for our future, and will force companies to address this issue if they hope to survive and to attract and to retain top talent.

The purpose dynamic has another aspect to it. In the absence of working for a higher purpose, Type X high achievers - the classic "Type A" personalities - work longer and longer hours to achieve material success and promotion. The result is burnout and dissatisfaction.

"One of the reasons for anxiety and depression in the high attainers in that they're not having good relationships. They're busy making money and attending to themselves, and that means that there's less room in their lives for love and attention and caring and empathy and the things that truly count." (Page 144)

In the title of this review, I call this book a "Must Read," yet the book is not for everyone. I recommend it to you only if you meet the following criteria:

  • You are a life-long learner who is willing to learn new facts and to change your thinking and behavior in accordance with these new insights.
  • You are in a position of leadership - in a company, in the military, in a family, in a school, in an organization - in which you need to and desire to create an environment of work and learning that maximizes autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
  • You want to make a positive difference in the world and in the lives of those whom you influence.
If this is you, then order this book now, devour it, breath it, taste it, smell it, talk about it and live it. And then pass it on to the next generation of Type I leaders.

Enjoy the drive . . . and the journey!



Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Immediate Job Opportunities in Cambridge - Project Manager + Inside Sales/Market Research

A Kendall Square, Cambridge-based client company of mine is looking to hire immediately for two key roles.

Project Manager

Manage multiple projects for exciting software outsourcing company - named to the Inc. 500 Fastest Growing Company list for the past 2 years. You will be working with client companies ranging from hot venture-backed start-ups to companies like Fidelity. The company prides itself in helping its clients to move "from vision to value."

Ideal candidate:

  • 2-5 years experience
  • Knowledge of project management systems
  • Extremely well-organized
  • Background in computer science a plus, but "this person must like people more than they like computers!"
Inside sales/Market research

Qualifying prospects for exciting software outsourcing company - named to the Inc. 500 Fastest Growing Company list for the past 2 years. You will be working with client companies ranging from hot venture-backed start-ups to companies like Fidelity. The company prides itself in helping its clients to move "from vision to value."

Ideal candidate:

  • Comfortable on the phone building relationships and qualifying prospective client companies for projects as large as $2M.
  • Able to manage time and organize and track data and feedback from prospect calls
  • Confident and able to be the "Voice of the company" when talking with prospects.

Competitive compensation for both positions, and opportunities for career progression within this fast-growing company.

Pass along this information to others in your network who may be qualified and interested.

Qualified candidates, contact Al Chase -

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review of "The Best Old Movies for Families - a Guide for Watching Together" by Ty Burr

A while ago, I had a chance to have coffee with Ty Burr, movie critic for the Boston Globe. Ty very kindly gave me a copy of his book, "The Best Old Movies for Families." I have enjoyed making my way slowly through the book, reliving old favorite movies and learning about others I have not yet seen, but am adding to my Netflix queue.

Ty uses his two daughters and their friends' reactions to certain old movies as baselines for knowing how best to guide parents on which movies are appropriate for which age and which type of kid. The book is arranged so that the movies are presented in several ways. First, they are categorized by the best age at which to introduce a child to this particular movie - toddler, tweener or teenager. Then films are presented by their genre - Comedy, Drama, Musicals, Action, Adventure, Westerns,Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Foreign-language. Finally, there is a section on actors and directors.

Ty Burr's love for film comes across loud and clear - and in living color! It is also clear that he has managed to pass along that love for cinema to his daughters - and to some of their friends. He begins the book with a marvelous story about his daughter's birthday party:

"I knew we had passed some twisted point of no return when Eliza announced that she wanted to have a Katherine Hepburn party. With a screening of "Bringing Up Baby." For her ninth birthday.

My wife, Lori, and I tried to dissuade her. Maybe our daughter could gladly sit through a fifth viewing of the screwball comedy classic, but how many of her schoolmates would make it through their first, conditioned as they were to color, brightness, "Shrek"? Eliza was unmoved: It was her birthday, and she argued convincingly for the constitutional right to choose her won party theme.

So out the invitations went, featuring a photo of Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story," that Eliza personally cut out and pasted on. And in came the calls from parents. To my chagrin, most of them were convinced that her father the fancy-pants movie critic had put her up to it (on a stack of the collected work of Wong Kar-Wai, I did no such thing), but their more pressing concern, which we shared, was that their child would get bored, wander off, play with knives. My wife and I assured them we were laying out a table next to the screening room, filled with books and pencil-based activities to divert those kids oppressed by the very notion of black-and-white cinematography.

The books were never opened, the pencils never used. We took a half-hour intermission for cake, but when I asked if the group was ready to restart the movie, there was a unanimous roar of assent, and we picked up again with that marvelous forest-of-Arden sequence where Kate, playing flibbertigibbet heiress Susan Vance, leads Cary Grant's nerd zoologist David Huxley through the nighttime wilds of Greenwich, Connecticut. At one point Susan breaks a high heel and teeters up and down, burbling in delight, 'Look, David, I was born on a hill. I was born on the side of a hill.' and the moment feels so spontaneous, so magically free, it can make your hair stand on end. (In fact, the bit was mischievously improvised by Hepburn after the 1938 equivalent of a wardrobe malfunction.) The kids had never seen anything like it: It felt more unscripted, more real than anything twenty-first-century kid culture feeds them, up to and including reality TV.

When the parents showed up to collect their children, five minutes remained - Grant was still stuck in the jail cell with Hepburn dragging the wild leopard through the door - and eighteen kids sat mesmerized and giggling. The moms and dads were astounded. They shouldn't have been, nor should Lori or I.

Great film making trumps all other considerations. This is even more true if you're nine and every movie still feels like the first you've ever seen." (Pages 3-4)

Still early in the book, Burr makes an excellent point about teaching kids to have a historical perspective through learning to love old movies:

"With any luck, my daughters will be able to go through life lacking that fear of old movies - and, much more to the point, old culture - that keeps so many children and their parents locked in an eternal, ahistorical Now. The only way to comprehend Now, of course, is to understand Then. More than almost any other art form, movies show the way back." (Page 12)

In his final essay on the enduring relevance of black-and-white films in a colorized world, Burr waxes philosophical:

"I'm sympathetic to Eliza, even as I recognize the dangers and seductions of a silvery world where everyone dresses beautifully and says exactly the right thing. When the virus hit during my adolescence - when I saw the late-night airing of "Duck Soup" and started haunting Boston's old-movie revival houses and buying up books with titles like "They Had Faces Then," and "The Parade's Gone By" - it was with a clear sense that this cave of Aristotelian shadows was different from the polyester early '70s I was living in. Better, too: easier, more direct. You cold understand it, and you knew when and most likely how it was going to end. The enjoyment was in the journey." (Page 359)

We are a movie-loving and movie-making family. So, I look forward to sharing this book with my sons and my grandchildren.



Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Smooth Transition from Captain to Caffeine - Andrew Russo's Story

My friend, Andrew Russo, has made a fascinating transition from his role as a U.S. Army Captain to one of budding entrepreneur. Knowing that his story may serve as an inspiration to others who are in the midst of - or contemplating - a similar transition, I asked him to share with readers of The White Rhino Report some of that story. While I feel he is much too generous in crediting me with the small amount of encouragement I have been able to offer along the way, I am pleased to offer his story as one that should warm your heart on this cold New England winter day - almost like a hot shot of espresso!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The journey from soldier to civilian is, at times, a strenuous one. Leaving active service was both a time of immense excitement and one of enormous uncertainty. With each step taken towards the gates along Yadkin Road at Fort Bragg, the path seemed to fork in infinite directions. I contemplated the moment in 2009 when I officially became Mr. Russo over a cup of coffee in a Boston suburb. My questions were many, my answers were few, but my primary concern was to tackle one of the most difficult questions many of us face: What to do with my life? Luckily, Dr. Al Chase was there to help me answer it.

Transitioning can be a struggle that many veterans face after separating, he explained, and the answer on how best to approach it is not an easy one to find. However, he believed that I was asking the wrong questions and needed to shift focus. I then explained how I had stumbled into a job that neither excited nor challenged me and, most importantly, failed to satisfy my craving for knowledge. At first, I focused on seeking his advice concerning how to approach aspects of this new career. Dr. Chase sat for a moment and nodded before posing an interesting question to me. “You are a lifelong learner Andrew,” he began, “so what do you want to learn?” I replied that I have always had an interest in three things, history, cigars, and coffee, and that my passion lay with them. He blinked and grinned before leaning in and asking rhetorically, “So you know what you love, why aren’t you working at that then?”

The statement was so simple, and yet so powerful. Our discussion moved steadily forward as I nodded and began debating hypothetical scenarios with increasing enthusiasm. After we parted ways and I collected my thoughts, our conversation filled me with an incredible sense of motivation. For the next six months, I flooded myself with tasks created by that simple question. The words rekindled my desire to pursue a life revolving around what I loved to do and not a life learning to love what I do.

For those of you that know Dr. Al Chase, the result of such a five minute discussion with the “White Rhino” is an explosion of energy that sends you sprinting towards your goal and breaking down all barriers in the way. It is, as one colleague put it, “The White Rhino Effect.” Dr. Al Chase’s simple statement truly changed my direction and led me to research, develop, and now launch a coffee venture inspired by the history I love and, hopefully, leading to the cigars I enjoy. He continues to inspire me with ideas, offers words of encouragement. We still meet for the occasional sit down to ensure that the path I have taken is proving rewarding. For that, I am truly thankful.

Andrew M. Russo

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Andrew is a former US Army Officer who served 4 years of active duty in the 3rd BN, 27th FAR (HIMARS) at Fort Bragg, NC. He currently works for another veteran at Red Barn Coffee Roasters and will be launching his own coffee venture, Minuteman Coffee & Espresso, in the Spring of 2011.

Stay tuned for an update when Andrew launches Minuteman Coffee & Espresso in the spring.


On the Red Line: Old School - In the Best Sense of That Term

When I walked towards the Red Line station in Wollaston this morning, the weather was "New England brisk" - the mercury hovering somewhere in the teens. As I was waiting for the train that would carry me to my office in Kendall Square, I found myself standing beside a distinguished looking gentleman whom I immediately recognized as Francis X. Bellotti, former Lt. Governor and Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and father of Norfolk County Sheriff, Michael Bellotti. The venerable statesman was attired in a very stylish suede blazer - with no outer garment to keep him warm. He seemed quite comfortable - someone who has lived here in Boston long enough to be inured to the vagaries of our winter weather. Attorney Bellotti was heading to his office at the law firm of Mintz, Levin, et al. While riding the train, he was engrossed in a novel. We have spoken before, so it was easy to pick up the thread of conversation.

"I recently met one of your sons."

"Which one? I have five sons and seven daughters!"

"Your son Michael"

"The Sheriff!"

I vividly recall Bellotti running for governor against John Volpe - when I was just beginning high school! I checked his bio after I arrived at my office to see if my memory was correct; it was. Lt. Governor Bellotti graduated from Tufts University the year that I was born. He is 87 years old - still commuting to work, still keeping his mind fresh by reading, still physically vigorous enough to face the New England winter clad only in his suede jacket. This is a picture of what I would like my life to look like if I attain such an octogenarian stage in life - except I hope to have a book (or a Kindle) in one hand and a tennis racket in the other as I ride the Red Line to my office.

Buon Natale, Governor. Long life to you, and blessings to you and your family.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Another Gem from Kenneth Blanchard, with Colleen Barrett: "Lead with LUV - A Different Way to Create Real Success"

Many of us cut our management and leadership teeth of Ken Blanchard's "The One Minute Manager." That little book put him on my radar screen. Since the overwhelming success of that bestseller, he has continued to write, to consult and to study leadership. In his latest collaboration, he has teamed with Colleen Barrett, President Emeritus of Southwest Airlines, to write "Lead with LUV - A Different Way to Create Real Success."

I really enjoyed this book, and found in it much to ponder and to share. I will be giving away multiple copies of this little gem. I find it interesting that in much of my reading about leadership recently - whether the focus be leadership in the military or in the business world, the topics of "love" and "servant leadership" keep popping up. Clearly, there is a strong movement away from the "Theory X" approach to managing people.

I love the succinct definition of leadership with which the authors begin: "Anytime you seek to influence the thinking, behavior, or development of people in their personal or professional lives, you are taking on the role of a leader." (Page 5)

The format of the book is that Blanchard and Barrett have a protracted conversation about the nature of leadership and how Colleen executed her leadership roles at Southwest. In an early interchange, they are discussing the importance of celebrating positive achievements.

Ken Blanchard: "That's why I think you and I are soul mates, Colleen, because that's one of my core beliefs, too. If someone said to me, 'Ken, from now on you can't teach anything you have taught or written about in the past except one thing; what do you want to hold onto?' I know exactly what it would be. I would want to continue to share the belief that the key to developing people and creating great organizations is to catch people doing things right and accentuate the positive by praising them." (Page 8)

Conversely, the authors talk about taking a loving and constructive approach to correcting inappropriate or sub-optimal performance. In contrast, they caricature the "seagull manager": "Do you fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on people, and then fly out? Or do you deal with people in a straight and loving way as soon as you observe inappropriate behavior?" (Page 12)

I am also seeing a positive trend in the direction of leaders being willing to be both transparent and vulnerable with those in their organization and beyond. The authors address this trait with a pithy quotation: "People admire your strengths, but they respect your honesty regarding your vulnerability." (Page 106)

This is a book well worth reading and passing on to others in your organization or network. You will LUV it!


Peter Gammons and "The Best American Sports Writing of 2010"

When I saw that Peter Gammons was the guest editor for "The Best American Sports Writing - 2010," I knew I had to read this compilation of the best of the best. I have long been a fan of Gammons. His writing is always intriguing, and the personal conversations I have had with him over the years have always yielded nuggets of gold and insight. So, I knew his editorial eye would pick only those sports writing pieces worth reading.

As I made my way around the base paths of this 400 page compendium, it also became clear that Gammons had an agenda in selecting the pieces for this year's collection; several of the articles tackle the topic of the NFL's intransigence in addressing the issue of post-concussion syndrome. Malcolm Gladwell's piece, "Offensive Play," addresses the issue, Skip Hollansworth's article "(Still) Life" deals with a devastating football injury. In addition, we have Jeanne Marie Laskas writing "This Is Your Brain on Football," and Robert Sanchez offering "This Is Ted Johnson's Brain." Finally, Dan Le Betard gives us "Life Throws Bernie Kosar for a Loss," another tale of a failed ex-NFL player.

The collection is not all doom and gloom. There is a fascinating story about Dick Fosbury, the Olympic champion for the Mexico City Olympics who introduced the world to the "Fosbury Flop." The article is entitled "The Revolutionary," by Richard Hoffer.

Having grown up watching Bobby Orr's magic show on ice, I was intrigued with the two ways that Orr's presence is felt in this book. There is S.L. Price's article, "The Ever Elusive, Always Inscrutable, and Still Incomparable Booby Orr." In his Introduction, Peter Gammons offers this poignant vignette from his own personal encounter with Orr. Gammons was rehabilitating from a stroke that he suffered a few years ago.

"We sometimes lose sight of the fact that the men and women who perform these feats are really like us. They are human. How many millions of copies of the picture of Bobby Orr flying through the air have been sold? That is the seen performing genius of an artist. Yet when I was transferred from Brigham and Women's Hospital to a room in the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Cape and Islands as I recovered from a severe aneurysm, I found Bobby Orr, being who he is, lying on my bed . . . S.L. Price gets Bobby Orr right: the greatest player who ever put on skates, the man who was sitting on a sick man's hospital bed, ready to greet him and help jump-start his rehab with his smile; the man who sits in the stands at Cape Cod League baseball games and thanks every kid who asks him for his autograph. Every one." (Page xxvi, xxiii)

This holiday season, treat yourself or another sports fan to the gift of this wonderful collection.



Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mini-Review of "The Book of Tomorrow" by Cecelia Ahern - Much More Than "Chick Lit"!

Cecelia Ahern is the daughter of Ireland's former prime minister. She came to prominence in her own right with her NY Times Bestseller, "P.S. I Love You." Ahern continues her exceptional writing with her latest offering: "The Book of Tomorrow."

Following the death of her father, teenage protagonist, Tamara, moves with her almost catatonic mother from Dublin to a remote village that is the family's ancestral home. Bored out of her mind, she picks a book from the book mobile that serves her rural area. The book turns out to be a magical blank diary that predicts the future one day at a time. Using this literary device, the author places Tamara in a number of situations in which she needs to choose whether to act to alter the future or merely accept what has been written as a "fait acccompli." Each character is beautifully depicted - Tamara, her two young love interests, the enigmatic nun, her secretive Aunt Rosaleen, and the mysterious person who lives across the road.

This is a clever and very engaging coming-of-age tale with several wonderful plot twists. It would be easy to dismiss this novel as "chick lit," but it is far more than that. This old man loved it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Wisdom from Daniel Pink - Three Tips from "The Dragonfly Effect"

As we look for ways to add more meaning to our holiday celebrations, more and more of my friends and colleagues are eschewing the old game of running up credit card bills and giving lots of meaningless gifts. The church that I attend is leading us through "Advent Conspiracy - Spend Less and Give More."

A recent Blog posting by author Daniel Pink offers these practical bits of advice from the book "The Dragonfly Effect" by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith.

Three Tips from The Dragonfly Effect

1. Spend money in a way that increases happiness.

Money does correlate with happiness, surprisingly. But not in ways that people predict. In a study conducted by Liz Dunn, Dana Aknin, and Mike Norton, researchers gave two groups of people either $20 or $5, and told them to spend it on themselves or others by 5pm that day. When reached that evening, those who spent the money on themselves bought things like coffee and food, while those who gave money to others reported spending it on things like gifts for their siblings or donations to the homeless. The researchers found that regardless of the amount, the group that spent their money on others reported significantly higher levels of happiness than the group that spent the money on themselves. There was no difference in happiness between those who spent $5 or $20, suggesting that it is not how much money you spend, but how you spend it, that boosts the spirits.

Here is the worrisome part, though. In a follow up study, the researchers gave two groups of people the same four conditions — asking them what they believe would make them happier. The results showed that people predicted that $20 would make them happier than $5, and that spending it on themselves would make them happier than spending it on others.

People overestimate the buzz they get from doing something nice for themselves — and underestimate the benefit they get by doing good for others. Evolutionarily wired to be pro-social, we actually relish giving. But the decisions we often make are not consistent with what actually makes us happy. Money may be one key to happiness, but our instincts are often misaligned about how to actually spend it. Spend on others or for others.

Convinced? Here are some things to try for yourself: Visit and lead a campaign among your friends to raise money to drill drinking water wells in Africa. 100% of the money your raise will go toward that purpose and just $20 can provide clean water to someone for 20 years. You could also give a microloan gift certificate to support entrepreneurs from third world countries; or you might purchase a pair of TOMS Shoes, and they will match your shoe purchase with a donation of pair of shoes for someone in need.

2. Consider how you are spending your time.

Our misguided spending decisions fail us, but money itself might also be part of the problem. A growing number of studies show that simply thinking about money fosters behaviors that are misaligned with happiness. Studies have shown that the mere mention of money leads individuals to be less likely to help others, donate to charity, or socialize with friends and family — behaviors that are tied to personal happiness. Although correcting how we spend our money is likely to lead us closer to the holy grail of happiness, we might get even further with a consideration of our other resource -– time.

So if you want to make a change this holiday season, consider not just who you are spending time with -– but also what activities you do with your time. One simple way to guide your decision about how to spend your time is to ask yourself the question, “Is what I’m doing right now going to be of lasting value to me or to others?” This simple question nudges you to behave in ways that more clearly map onto what will really make you happy. As one example, considering visiting to request a cheek swab. They will send you a small kit, you swab your cheek, send it back in and you will be added to the National Bone Marrow Registry, which increases the chance that you might be able to save the life of another individual. With new technology, bone marrow transfers are non-invasive and painless and similar to simply giving blood – an afternoon of one’s time and the opportunity to give hope to another. The ability to make a big change is often no more than a few keystrokes away -– all you have to do is take the time to make the click.

3. Share your story.

The power of social media lies in the power to share your message–and inspire infectious action as a result. Consider the story of Carolee Hazard, who started her organization The 93 Dollar Club after a chance encounter at the grocery store. Carolee noticed that the woman checking out ahead of her had lost her wallet, and Carolee offered to pay her $207 grocery bill. The next day, she received a check from the woman she had helped, but for $300 — $93 more than the grocery bill. Uncertain about what to do with the money, she published the story on Facebook. A friend then suggested she donate it to charity, and Carolee gave the money to her local Food Bank, updating her Facebook status with the news. Within a day, inspired by Carolee’s generosity, over a dozen of her Facebook friends had joined in to help. And as they spread the message, donations of $93 flooded in, and the project quickly grew. As a result of Carolee’s single, simple act of kindness shared across the web, The 93 Dollar Club has since raised over $100,000, providing over 220,000 meals at the food bank – ranging in donations from just 93 cents all the way up to $9,300.

One small act -– whether it be online or off — can have a ripple effect and lead to significant change. For visuals and stories of random acts of kindness visit How Good Grows. You can also share your story on Yahoo, VolunteerMatch or Those stories will grow and infect others.

In the lead-up to the holidays we often find ourselves caught up in buying gifts and finding the best sales; but consider going into this holiday season with an eye towards systematically giving back. As Khalil Gibran said, “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” Enact The Dragonfly Effect this season and be empowered not by your purchases, but by the value you give back to the people and causes that matter most.

Review of "Luka and the Fire of Life" by Salmon Rushdie

I have known the name and story of Salmon Rushdie ever since he wrote and published "The Satanic Verses," but I had not taken the time to read him until I became aware of "Luka and the Fire of Life." What a marvelous little book. Reading it filled me with delight.

Rushdie has dedicated this book to his second son, much as he had dedicated "Haroun and the Sea Stories" to his oldest son. This present tale involves a family - father, mother and two sons - that seems to be a fictionalized version of Rushdie's own family. Luka pronounces a curse on a circus ringmaster who has been abusing the circus animals. He is astonished to discover that he has magic powers and the curse has actually worked. In retaliation, the ring master places a counter-curse of Luka's father, who falls into a deep sleep from which he seems to be drifting away into nothingness. Luka learns that the only way to save his father's life and return him to the land of the living, is to venture into the Magic World and steal the Fire of Life. And so begins his series of adventures - and misadventures.

I could picture Rushdie having fun writing this tale and reading it to his son. The book will delight children with its rich characters and constant pitting of good versus evil. It will also delight adults who will notice Rushdie's abundant use of literary allusions and tipping of his hat to countless familiar fairy tales and books of adventure. I will offer a partial list of the literary tributes he pays, but I eventually stopped counting them because there was a steady stream of them. Rushdie offers a nod of appreciation and recognition to "The Phantom Toll Booth," "Alice and Wonderland," Jason and the Argonauts, countless Disney tales, Arlo Guthrie, 1001 Arabian Nights, Sherlock Holmes, "Back to the Future," Shakespeare and the traditional Protestant hymnal!

Rushdie gives us his philosophy of storytelling and his love of using language whimsically as a plaything when he speaks to us through the voice of the chief antagonist - a harbinger of death called "Nobodaddy":

"'But that's just a story' said Luka faintly.

'Just a story?' echoed Nobodaddy in what sounded like genuine horror. 'Only a tale?' My ears must be deceiving me. Surely, young whippersnapper, you can't have made such a foolish remark. After all, you yourself are a little Drip from the Ocean of Notions, a short Blurt from the Shah of Blah. You of all boys should know that Man is a storytelling Animal, and that in stories are his identity, his meaning, and his lifeblood. Do rats tell tales? Do porpoises have narrative purposes? Do elephants elephantisize? You know as well as I do that they do not. Man alone burns with book." (Page 36)

Luka - and I suspect Rushdie's real second-born son - is enamored of video games. So the narrative of this tale is told as if Luka is traveling through many levels of a living, three-and-four-dimensional video game. He rings a bell to "save his progress" after every successful task his been completed.

This book is a veritable compendium of pop culture. Within the framework of fun and phantasmagoria, Rushdie also manages to address a serious topic. He leads us through a very serious contemplation of the nature and the power of imagination, story and fantasy in our lives and in our society.

Read this book for yourself - and read it to your kids and grand kids.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The A.R.T. Presents "The Blue Flower" - A Noble and Musically Gorgeous Experiment

The Boston and Cambridge theater crowd was out in force last night at the A.R.T.'s Loeb Theater for the official opening of "The Blue Flower." Artistic Director, Diane Paulus, continues to experiment boldly with new works and re-imagined works. "The Blue Flower" is the latest offering from the laboratory of her collaborative mind. The results are are mixed blessing, but I applaud her courage and her commitment to promote and encourage new artists and to reach out to new theater audiences.

"The Blue Flower" first germinated in the fertile minds of a Beverly couple, Jim and Ruth Bauer. Along the way, the seedling was watered, fertilized and pruned by a growing team of collaborators who have helped it to try to come to full bloom in its present incarnation at the A.R.T. Iconic Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz brought the nascent show to the attention of Diane Paulus, and the germ of the idea for the current production was planted. Schwartz, who signed on as a producer for the show, was in the audience last night, looking very much the proud papa. Schwartz knows a thing or two about musical theater, having written Godspell, Pippin, Children of Eden, Wicked, and other shows and film scores. I caught up with him during intermission and had the following exchange:

Al Chase: "I am sure that people must thrust things in front of you all the time and ask you to look at their work. What was it about this show that grabbed your attention and made you want to become involved?"

Schwartz: "The music! I fell in love with the music the very first time I heard it in an ASCAP Musical Theater Workshop that I am involved with in New York."

Al Chase: "The Author's Notes describe the music as 'Kurt Weill going tête à tête with Hank Williams."

Schwartz: "We also refer to it as 'Sturm n' Twang'!

Al Chase: "How much influence have you had in shaping the show beyond the musical skeleton around which it has been formed?"

Schwartz: "Very little, actually. The Director, Will Pomerantz, has worked closely with Jim and Ruth to shape the show, adding elements along the way as the show has grown. I have added some minor suggestions for moving pieces around to make them more clear in telling the story."

Ah, yes - the music. The music is gorgeous. It is beautifully written, flawlessly performed and spectacularly orchestrated and played by a band of musicians who are the unsung heroes of this show. They are so integral to the presentation of this musical that they deserve to be mentioned individually. This is a motley crew of instruments not usually found in a theater pit - or in this case, on stage as part of the set. The Weimarband consists of: Mark Rubinstein who conducts from the piano, Peter Bufano accordion, Patrick Carmichael, drums and percussion, Steve Latt guitar, Douglas Quint, bassoon, Mike Rivard bass, Emleigh Vandiver cello and John Widgren pedal steel guitar. The overall sound of the show is arrestingly beautiful and fits the Weimar Republic - Dadaist tone of the show itself.

Discerning audience members became aware as soon as they opened their programs that this would not be just another routine evening at the theater. The opening page that lists the creative team is repeated on the next page, translated into "Maxperanto" - the personal language spoken by the protagonist, expressionist artist, Max Bauer. Max is played by Daniel Jenkins, whose singing voice is mesmerizing in its beauty and ability to tell a story through song. (In reading through the Playbill, I realized that I had seen and heard him a number of years ago when he played Huck Finn in Broadway's "Big River.")

The rest of the cast is equally strong, with Meghan McGeary as Hannah, Tom Nelis is the Fairytale Man (Narrator), Lucas Kavner as Franz, Teal Wicks as Maria and Connor Christiansen and Paul Shafer playing all the rest of the supporting roles.

I liked this show, and will probably return to see it again. But my approbation is conditional. I love the music and the attempt to weave around the music a credible tale. It felt last night as if the work of perfecting the story is still unfinished. This is an ambitious show - with lots of "high concept" layered upon the accessible music. There are complex and sometimes arcane themes that involve commentary on the nature of language and communication, the horrors of war, the ennui of the Belle Epoch giving way to the excesses of the Weimar Republic, the evanescent nature of relationships, the interplay between images - painted and motion picture - and the things they represent. There is also a recurring motif involving horses, the significance of which I did not totally comprehend. In other words, as a fairly sentient member of the audience, I felt I had to work a bit too hard to make sense of it all.

Because of the artistic choices made to represent the ethos of the Weimar era, there is a deliberate attempt to strip the show of traditional chronological narrative. The result was an attendant stripping away of the normal emotional cues that allow an audience to know how they should be feeling and identifying with the characters. I found myself unmoved when death raised its ugly head - and I wished that I could have felt moved. The buzz among audience members - during intermission and after the show - was very positive and enthusiastic, yet the audience had a hard time knowing when to clap for song that should have evoked wild applause. I take this phenomenon as evidence of the lack of emotional cues from the flow of the narrative.

One of the main characters is a fictionalized Marie Curie. One image that lingers in my mind is Madame Curie standing downstage right in her laboratory, pouring elements from beaker to test tube and back again. That image shall stand for me as a metaphor for this show in its current form. The show feels like a chemistry experiment that needs a little more refinement - another round of distillation - to remove the lingering impurities. All the right elements are there, they just need to have some more changes made in the valances so they bind together more cohesively. I am hopeful that the experiment will continue to be refined. I applaud all of the creative team and the performers. I encourage you to come and visit this living laboratory and this bud of a musical while it continues to struggle to come to full flower.