Saturday, July 26, 2014

Five Days In London

Do you ever run across difficult people?  That's a rhetorical question because the answer is, of course you do.  Hopefully not too many. I recently took a continuing education course that included exercises in conflict resolution...exercises which, quite frankly, worked in theory but in the real world, forgedaboudit.  Rather than making me frustrated, the real world experience made me ponder the "why" of conflict.  There is always a why; and, if we don't answer that question resolution never happens, the conflict festers, and people hold onto resentment.  The "why" is also the nexus to leadership.

In the most extreme cases, as we can unhappily see every day in the news, "why" can lead to violence, subjugation, and hatred that can last for decades, generations, eons, forever... last so long that the participants can no longer remember the why.  Sometimes the why is a misreading of religious beliefs.  Sometimes the why is a grab for land, power and the wealth that power brings.  But in a more prosaic setting, the why can simply represent a person who feels powerless and unappreciated, or is unhappy with life and envious of someone else.  People are such complicated creatures.  Perhaps that is why dogs are universally loved.

The course also attempted to teach management and leadership skills.  It was this part of the course with which I took greatest issue.  I do not believe leadership can be easily taught, unless perhaps from a very early age.  One may desire the trappings of leadership, including having a loud voice and big presence, and whatever percs come with the job, but still be clueless when it comes to successfully getting people to follow.  Others can lead effortlessly.  I think they are pretty much born to it, although there are certainly exceptions.

Along this vein (yes, I am going to segue into a book) I have been reading Five Days In London:  May 1940 by historian John Lukacs.  May 24 to May 28, 1940 were perhaps the darkest and most crucial days of World War II. They were undoubtedly the most decisive days of the war upon which not only the fate and future of Britain, Europe and the world teetered, but the course of the 20th century itself.

Hitler was winning the war; Churchill was new to the job, having risen to the office of Prime Minister on May 10 following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain.  Out of the gate he did not exactly inspire confidence.  Many people in his own party thought Churchill to be impetuous and hot-headed; those in the opposing party reviled him.  And although a child of the aristocracy, born to wealth and privilege, he could act in a way which made him appear coarse to his peers.

During those urgent five days in May 1940, Churchill's War Cabinet debated whether to negotiate with Hitler or continue to fight on, despite the gloomy outlook.  Hitler was never closer to achieving his goals than during the hours of those days.  And his goals were nothing less than mastery over all of Europe and the annihilation of any group he considered unworthy of existence.  Luckily, he was up against Churchill who never vacillated in his determination that Britain would never give up, regardless of a defeat at Dunkirk, regardless of the fall of Calais.

There are always debates over who should be given the distinction of "Most Important Personage" of an age.  At the end of the year in 1999, Charles Krauthammer wrote:  "It is just a parlor game, but since it only plays once every hundred years, it is hard to resist. Person of the Century? Time magazine offered Albert Einstein, an interesting and solid choice. Unfortunately, it is wrong. The only possible answer is Winston Churchill."  Krauthammer makes the argument that without Churchill being in the right place at the right time, Britain would have capitulated.  It is hard to argue with his reasoning. And equally hard to dispute that we would be looking at the world through a much different prism today without him.

On June 4, 1940 Churchill spoke to the House of Commons:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender....
Yeah.  I'd follow that leader.  He knew and understood his "why."  He was passionate about his why and the why was the source of his strength.

Difficult people?  I would say that Churchill went toe to toe with the worst.   Leadership?  He didn't need a "how to" manual.  And as for conflict resolution, it was a long, hard road but he helped make it happen.  I don't know if we grow that type of leader anymore.  Perhaps he or she is out there waiting to be tested.  Waiting for the right place and right time.  Perhaps there is another giant in the wings, ready for the exact moment when the world needs one.  Perhaps the time is now.  We can only hope.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

All The Light We Cannot See

I read a lot of books.  It has always been a passion in my life.  Many of those books are very good; some are great.  But every once in a while a book will come my way and nothing less than the adjective "magnificent" will do it justice.

How I came to hear about All The Light We Cannot See I really can't remember.  I wasn't familiar with its author, Anthony Doerr.  I knew nothing of the impressive number of prizes he has won for his writing.  Someone must have made a suggestion, given a hint, that settled in my subconscious.  I don't know who to thank; but, if it was you I owe you big time.  It was somewhere around page 80 when I knew, really knew, I held something very special in my hands.

I bought the book in May the day after its publication date and from what I had heard from my now forgotten source, I had every expectation that it would be "good."  It certainly started out that way:


At dusk they pour from the sky.  They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses.  Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles.  Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say.  Depart immediately into open country.
The tide climbs.  The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous.  On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars. 
And with that beginning Doerr slowly peels back his beautifully conceived story petal by petal.  It is written in what an English major would call "non-linear narrative" in that the story unfolds not in chronological order but is deconstructed and then put back together.  In the hands of an artist with the heart of a poet and the technical skill of an rocket scientist, it works.  It works brilliantly.

Doerr opens his narrative on August 7, 1944, when the Germans launch their last big offensive in Normandy, but he weaves in and out of the past.  At the center of the story is Marie-Laure, who lives with her father in Paris near the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, where he works.  She has been blind since the age of six.  When the Nazis occupy Paris, they flee to Saint-Malo to live with Marie-Laure's reclusive uncle Etienne:
Water surrounds the city on four sides.  Its link to the rest of France is tenuous:  a causeway, a bridge, a spit of sand.  We are Malouins first, say the people of Saint-Malo.  Bretons next.  French if there's anything left over.
Three hundred miles northeast of Paris, Werner Pfenning is growing up in Essen, Germany.  He is small for his age and the milky-whiteness of his hair "stops people in their tracks."  Werner is also a genius when it comes to radios...magnetism, electricity, circuits, induction, conduction.  These are his special gifts and they are very valuable to The Third Reich.  Just the sort of boy they can use.  Or is he?

Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel was a gemologist before the war; his particular gift was for diamonds.  There are rumors that the fuhrer has begun to prepare a wish list of precious objects to be gathered from all over Europe and Russia.

The capitulation of France is only weeks past, and already he has seen things he did not dream he would see in six lifetimes.  A seventeenth-century globe as big around as a small car, with rubies to mark volcanoes, sapphires clustered around the poles, and diamonds for world capitals....Where the police confiscated these treasures and from whom, he does not ask.
But von Rumpel has only one true obsession:  The Sea of Flames.

The earth shifts, shrugs, stretches.  One year, one day, one hour, a great upflow of magma gathers a seam of crystals and drives it toward the surface, mile after burning mile; it cools inside a huge, smoking xenolith of kimberlite, and there it waits.  Century after century.  Rain, wind, cubic miles of ice.  Bedrock becomes boulders, boulders become stones; the ice retreats, a lake forms, and galaxies of freshwater clams flap their million shells at the sun and close and die and the lake seeps away....Until another year, another day, another hour, when a storm claws one particular stone out of a canyon and sends it into a clattering flow of alluvium, where eventually it finds, one evening, the attention of a prince who knows what he is looking for.

Marie-Laure, Werner, von Rumpel, the Sea of Flames:  slowly and steadily Doerr weaves them together in an expertly crafted and stunningly beautiful, seamless cloth.  Like a literary version of Ravel's symphony Bolero, it is gently relentless in its tempo.

I predict this for you:  it is a novel that you will find impossible to forget;  it will not leave you.  As one review said, "[I]t makes you think forever differently about the big things - love, fear, cruelty, kindness, the countless facets of the human heart."