Getting into Lincoln’s head–with help from Tibetan Buddhists

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first novel of George Saunders, an author who has created an impressive body of short fiction. It is said to be based on the seed of a true story, inspired by the fact that during the first year of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln endured the loss of his beloved young son, Willie. In his grief, the distraught President was said to have visited his crypt several times, at one point even lifting the little child’s body out of its coffin and holding it close to his own.

Saunders takes this bit of historical information and creates a sometimes comic, sometimes dramatic struggle for Willie’s soul in a place called the Bardo, a transitional state between death and rebirth in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

We are introduced to a host of dead souls, or to put it more carefully, souls who inhabit this strange territory in a state of denial that they are actually dead. In addition to being set in an unusual location, the novel has a very different structure The Bardo scenes are written as if they were a play, bringing to mind the cemetery scene in “Our Town”, in the form of lines of dialogue followed by the name of the character speaking it. And in the earth-bound scenes, such as the White House dinner the Lincolns held despite Willy’s illness, the story is told in the form of brief snippets taken from various historical accounts—diaries, letters, news reports, etc.

(One of these early “real life” chapters provides a series of conflicting statements about the sky on the night of that state dinner preceding Willie’s death, swinging from heartbreak to guilty laughter, as it becomes clear some of the descriptions were infused with after-the-fact melodrama/melancholy.)

As readers, we are still trying to adjust to this structure that mirrors the oddity of the novel’s setting, while seeking to understand how things work in the Bardo and why its inhabitants are there when Willie first appears there. Shocked at the sudden appearance of an eleven-year-old in their midst, this collection of characters is stunned to see the young boy’s father return to the crypt and witness the extent of his grief.

To be touched so lovingly, so fondly, as if one were still—

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hans vollman

As if one were still worthy of affection and respect?

It was cheering. It gave us hope.

the reverend everly Thomas

We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.

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And then, we are treated to this beautiful passage, one of my favorites (not involving Lincoln), in the book.

            Please do not misunderstand. We had been mothers, fathers. Had been husbands of many years, men of import, who had come here, that first day, accompanied by crowds so vast and sorrowful that, surging forward to hear the oration, they had damaged fences beyond repair. Had been young wives, diverted here during childbirth, our gentle qualities stripped from us by the naked pain of that circumstance, who left behind husbands so enamored of us, so tormented by the horror of those last moments (the notion that we had gone down that awful black hole pain-sundered from ourselves) that they had never loved again. Had been bulky men, quietly content, who, in our first youth, had come to grasp our own unremarkableness and had, cheerfully (as if bemusedly accepting a heavy burden), shifted our life’s focus; if we would not be great, we would be useful; would be rich, and kind, and thereby able to effect good: smiling, hands in pockets, watching the world we had subtly improved walking past (this empty dowry filled; that education secretly funded). Had been affable, joking servants, of whom our masters had grown fond for the cheering words we managed as they launched forth on days full of import. Had been grandmothers, tolerant and frank, recipients of certain dark secrets, who, by the quality of their unjudging listening, granted tacit forgiveness, and thus let in the sun. What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.

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The mystery of this place, as well as the rules that guide those who populate it, slowly become clearer to us. But the real story is how Lincoln will help to save Willie, to allow the young boy to do what the other denizens of the Bardo have not—move on.

And that is the heart of this novel. Within the universe he has created, in keeping with particular logic of the unusual setting he has chosen, Saunders does something special—he puts us in Lincoln’s head.

Saunders is seeking an imaginative truth, a means of charting the consciousness of man suffering from the loss of a beloved son and staggering under the weight of conducting a war that has already inflicted similar loss upon countless other American families. He dares to put us inside the mind of President Lincoln, to consider how he was able to come to grips with these twin tragedies and, ultimately, recreate the nation after finally confronting the long-delayed evil of slavery.

It is a courageous act, one that has created a powerful work of fiction that also offers insights into our history, while exploring what it means to be human.

I won’t share any quotes from those sections of the book, as they are special and deserve to be considered in the full context of their creation. But I will note that even in the middle of this profound meditation on grief and survival, Saunders maintains a light touch, giving us a chapter with the perspectives of some two dozen people, offering contradictory descriptions of the color of Lincoln’s eyes and descriptions of a countenance that inspired recollections ranging from “his smile was something most lovely” to “the homeliest man I ever saw.”

A fitting reminder that definitive answers to some questions can be as elusive in this world as they are in a place like the Bardo.




“Move Fast and Break Things”—Jonathan Taplin on the Randian mindset driving Silicon Valley and threatening American culture and democracy


About two months ago, in a piece about Jared Kushner and his unfortunate habit of taking meetings with dodgy Russians and then forgetting about them, Charlie Pierce mentioned a new book:

Required reading: Jonathan Taplin has led a very interesting life. For years, he managed The Band during that quintets most gloriously productive years. He then went into movie production and as a kind of all-purpose entertainment entrepreneur and troubleshooter. Since 2004, he’s taught at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. He has now produced a fascinating book entitled Move Fast and Break Things, which not only has some terrific inside stories about the end of The Band, but is a nuanced look at the downside of what is glibly tossed around as “disruption” by various cyber-messianic blowhards. Taplin is hunting big game; it is his contention that the giants of the cyberworld—from Google to Amazon—are threats to the fundamental foundations of democracy and that they also cement inequality into our systems in new and dangerous ways.

Hunting big game indeed. Taplin uses the rise of such digital behemoths as Google, Amazon, and Facebook to highlight what he calls “a massive reallocation of revenue from creators of content to owners of platforms.” But beyond the damage that shift is doing to artists and our broader culture, Taplin also raises the alarm about what it’s doing to our democracy.

Starting with a reminder of how the earliest digital networks were linked to the 60’s counterculture, Taplin goes on to suggest that “the original mission of the Internet was hijacked by a small group of right-wing radicals to whom the ideas of democracy and decentralization were anathema.” He focuses on Ayn Rand disciple and Silicon Valley heavyweight Peter Theil, the founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, and a gang of tech disruptors driven by an extreme libertarian philosophy best summed up by Thiel’s assertion that “competition is for losers.” (And, presumably, monopoly is for the Masters of the Universe.)

In decrying Thiels Randian ethical framework, Taplin raises an essential point:

Disruption of critical cultural infrastructure is only worthy if the replacement is more beneficial to society at large than the original institution was. For instance, has the wholesale destruction of the newspaper industry been followed by the establishment of a more reliable source of local and global news? Or has it just resulted in noise and confusion?

Taplin takes a deep dive into the role Google and Facebook played in crippling newspapers, first by creating a dramatic shift in where advertising dollars go (to their platforms) and then with Facebook’s efforts to dominate news content by being the main host for news articles rather than simply linking to news company sites. Similarly, he takes a hard look at Amazon’s near monopoly position in the distribution of ebooks and their continued dominance in ecommerce and how that crushes competition.

He’s a lot more generous with Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg than I am, holding out hope that the tech genius behind this ubiquitous social media platform is going to have to deal some of the consequences of the monster he has created—the privacy issues posed by the site’s data collection and the threat to the news media his brainchild poses.

I walked away from Facebook after the 2016 election, having grown tired of the actual “fake news” that was being peddled there—phony stories, gussied up to look like they came from a local TV or newspaper site, and shared by countless bot accounts to fire up the “Bernie bros” against Hilary Clinton or provide support for Donald Trump’s latest outrageous position. Zuckerberg’s initial refusal to take responsibility for the garbage being distributed through his platform annoyed me and I see no reason to waste time there dealing with people content to treat news trash as treasure worthy of the world’s attention.

In any case, Taplin’s book is an extremely valuable read that offers a compelling case that we’ve let pirates take over the Internet at a real cost to our country. He offers some thoughts on how to take it back and fight what he calls “a digital renaissance”, highlighting the City of Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board, a savvy public entity that decided to build a smart grid capable of providing affordable, lightning fast broadband and TV service. As a result, a city that “got screwed by globalization” has become a vibrant tech and start-up community.

The key to rebooting the promise of the Internet is decentralization and a break up of monopolies in the digital space. Whether that will actually happen is an open question in this post-Citizens United era, but it’s sure nice to see someone posing it.

Hello Wisconsin! On the Road with the Wisconsin Idea Seminar


A week-long bus trip around Wisconsin with some forty faculty and staff members from the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. All with the aim of learning about unique partnerships and collaborations between the university, organizations, and citizens that are helping make a difference throughout the state, while making good on the vision of Charles Van Hise.


It was Van Hise, a President of UW from 1903-1918, who is considered the source of the Wisconsin Idea. In a 1905 speech, he spoke of the ideal of a state university, asserting he would “never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state.”


The notion of UW’s commitment to public service, to influencing lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom or the campus, is not only the University’s mission, but a fundamental part of the state’s DNA. In my first week on the job at the Wisconsin School of Business, Governor Scott Walker announced his proposed $300M budget cut for the UW system, along with a stunning move that would have removed key elements of the Wisconsin Idea language from state law, stripping out references to service and truth for a diminished mission—“to meet the state’s workforce needs.” Thankfully, the sharp and immediate public outcry caused the Governor to reverse course.


So the Wisconsin Idea survived and the Wisconsin Idea Seminar rolls merrily along.


The seminar is annual affair, one that has endured for 30 years, a road trip of discovery and an opportunity for members of the campus community to come together, connect with colleagues, and explore real-world examples of the Wisconsin Idea in action.


We boarded the bus shortly after 8:00 a.m. on a Monday morning in mid May and set off for a short jaunt to Observatory Hill, where we took a walking tour of a part of campus that contains Ho-Chunk effigy mounds. We were guided by Tribal Preservation Officer Bill Quackenbush and Rebecca Comfort, who is the Interim American Indian Curriculum Services Consultant for the UW School of Education.


From there, it was off to the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, for a tour of the facility and a panel on collaborative efforts to protect crane species all over the globe. Then it was on to Trempealeau, to learn about the area’s architectural history, and on to Perrot State Park and the Little Bluff Mounds. After a lively dinner at the Trempealeau Hotel, we headed to the Radisson Hotel in La Crosse, to retire after a busy day and catch up on the news and our day’s emails.


(One of the best parts of this seminar was the opportunity to put aside our online activities and engage in some real-world connecting for an extended period of time.)


Each day of the trip offered an array of activities and learning opportunities, from the “bus talks” given by guests who hopped aboard at various points to talk about a particular topic, to the well-planned and well-thought-out at panel discussions and site visits. Among the highlights of the week:


  • Having the chance to learn about the La Farge Medical Clinic, a facility launched to provide much-needed birthing assistance to the fourth largest Amish population in the U.S. Dr. James Deline, the clinic’s founder, has been practicing rural medicine for decades there and is considered the “Albert Schweitzer” of the area.


  • Hearing from CapTImes columnist Bill Berry and retired DNR Statewide River Protection Coordinator Bob Martini about the “Evolving Stewardship of the Wisconsin River”. Martini may be retired, but that didn’t stop him from organizing a group of scientists and former DNR colleagues to serve as media spokespeople on conservation issues after a gag order was imposed on current DNR staffers.


  • A visit to Vincent High School in Milwaukee, a public high school seeking to become the state’s first agricultural high school. Against long odds, including recent administrative leadership changes and its status as the district’s “school of last resort”, Vincent High School is committed to doing something special—providing inner-city students a unique learning opportunity and meaningful career pathways.


As someone who grew up in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where we took great pride in being a commonwealth and not merely a state, the Wisconsin Idea has always appealed to me. Just as “commonwealth” suggests a commitment to the common weal, the notion that as a people, we are only as successful as the least among us, the Wisconsin Idea evokes a similar spirit.


We are all in this together. Despite decades of harmful political rhetoric, it is essential to remember that government is not the enemy. In a democracy, government is us. It can be effective, impactful, and a force for good. It can also be the opposite of those things. We decide.


When one works on a college campus, particularly this one, it is easy—amidst the almost daily barrage of troubling news about U.S. politics and what seems to be a relentless assault on science and expertise—to feel under siege. But embarking on a bus trip with a large group of colleagues and re-connecting with the incredible stories of people doing important work throughout the state and their collaborations with the UW, well…that can make you feel like part of something special, something worth fighting for.


The Wisconsin Idea Seminar is an inspirational opportunity and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to be a part of it.

Mania, Creativity, and Living with Illness


Early last March, I read a piece in the New York Times Book Review section and decided to pick up a book I might not otherwise have paid much attention too.

It was Kay Refield Jamison’s “Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character.” It was not so much a biography as a “psychological account” of the great poet’s life, a life spend wrestling with the demons of manic depression.

Jamison brings a unique perspective to the work, not only as a professor of psychiatry and expert on mood disorders, but as someone who suffers from manic depression herself, and wrote about it in a best-selling memoir called “An Unquiet Mind”. (That is now on my list of reads for the summer.)

I didn’t know much about Lowell or his work, but Jamison brings both the man and the artist to life in a quite wonderful way. She makes clear early on that she believes he was ill-served by the author of a biography of Lowell who spent much time with him before his death, only to write a fairly scathing portrait of the man and the damage he did to those around him, without showing much sensitivity to the challenges Lowell faced in dealing with an illness that often led him to episodes of manic behavior that hurt those he cared about and left him feeling ashamed of himself.

More than just a chronological description of his life, this book provides context for his illness, exploring the history of treatments of manic depression and probing the links between manic episodes and creative expression. Jamison also delves into the issue of character—making a strong case that it was an incredible act of will for Lowell to continue to pick up the pieces of his life after a manic episode (and the inevitable depression that followed) and to get back to the fundamentals of living and working.

It is a fascinating book, with healthy doses of his poetry, interviews with family and friends who remained loyal to him through the years. It may not be typical summer beach reading, but it’s well worth the time.

The Lingering Question Around the United Debacle— How Did Dr. Dao Get Back on the Plane?


As a public relations person, it’s hard to imagine how United could have botched their response to crisis that hit last week when video of a United Express passenger being forcibly removed from a flight went viral and clogged our social media feeds.

Having police violently drag a paid customer from a flight that the airline had overbooked was a bad look. And it only got worse when United’s CEO tried to pretend no video existed of the incident and issued tone-deaf and disturbingly Orwellian statement apologizing only for having to “re-accommodate” some passengers.

(Of course, the best part may be the odd decision by someone within the Chicago Police Department to release a statement shortly after the story caught fire online expressing support for the forcible removal, referring to the customer being “belligerent” and suffering injuries only because “he fell”. The Chicago PD wasn’t even involved in this. It was the Chicago Aviation Police, a completely separate entity. Do elements within the Chicago PD now consider themselves experts on police abuse and brutality, willing to weigh in and offer their analysis on episodes of police violence now?)

But there is a lingering question I have yet to see answered and it raises even more trouble issues for United—how did a bloody and quite disoriented Dr. Dao manage to get back on the plane after his initial removal? Another video that went viral not long after the incident shows Dr. Dao, with blood and cuts around his mouth, jogging up the aisle of the plane, heading to the back, and saying, “I want to go home. I want to go home.”

How does a supposedly belligerent passenger, forcibly removed after airline officials called security, apparently because his seat was vitally needed, end up back on the plane?

Did the police officials bring him somewhere only to have a responsible adult look at them and ask, “What’s going on here? What did you do? Let him get back on the plane.”

Or did he manage to somehow elude police and make it back to the plane from wherever he was initially taken?

Other passengers on the plane were clearly upset about the way Dr. Dao was treated, crying out and making statements during his removal. Whose idea was it to let this clearly upset and injured man back on the plane to get fellow passengers worked up all over again?

And what does it say about security around this and other United flights?

This has been a mess for United and they deserve all the abuse that is being hurled at them now, if only because their decision to call security, let them cut loose, and then try to act like nothing untoward happened is disgraceful. But they need to take a long, hard look not only at the way they treat customers, but how this situation quickly unraveled and led to a series of God-awful decisions, not only on the flight, but in the corporate offices of United. They need a top-to-bottom evaluation of their decision-making processes.

Oh, and one more thing…according to the Daily Mail, United failed to properly return the luggage that Dr. Dao and his wife left on the plane. Nice to see United can handle both the epic fails and the run-of-the-mill screw-ups. They’ve got all the bases covered!

Book Brief: Michael Chabon’s “Moonglow”


If you grew up watching the original episodes of Saturday Night Live, as I did, you might remember a bit that actually ended up on the first SNL album—a commercial for a product called “Shimmer” that was both a floor wax and a dessert topping.

I couldn’t help think of that while reading Michael Chabon’s latest book, “Moonglow”. It’s described as a “novel” on the title page, only to be referred to by the narrator later as a “memoir” (a narrator who just happens to be a guy named Michael), and still later labeled as a “a pack of lies”.

At one point, Michael’s grandfather calls it a mishmash. He should know, as the story we are told in “Moonglow” is that of his life, and the life of his beloved and troubled wife.

“Anyway, it’s a pretty good story,” I said. “You have to admit.”

“Yeah?” He crumpled up the Kleenex, having dispatched the solitary tear. “You can have it. I’m giving it to you. After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not this mishmash I’m making you. Start with the night I was born. March second, 1915. There was a lunar eclipse that night, you know what that is?” 

“When the earth’s shadow falls across the Moon.”

“Very significant. I’m sure it’s a perfect metaphor for something. Start with that.”

“Kind of trite,” I said. 

He threw the Kleenex at my head.

“Make it mean something.” For all the playfulness and sleight of hand around the issue of fiction vs. real life in “Moonglow”, I think Chabon is quite content to present his grandfather’s story as a mishmash, for the very reason it is a meaningful mishmash. One that involves the likes of Wild Bill Donovan and Wernher von Braun. One that brings some degree of clarity and understanding to a family that lived with secrets and silences.

The fact is life doesn’t always make sense. Things don’t always come about in our lives as the result of a natural order. Sometimes in life, a mishmash is what we get. Being able to recognize that, celebrate it, and make art of it is the gift Chabon has given us with this wonderful book.

Navigating Chaos: Lessons abound as businesses grapple with unexpected challenges in Trump Era

imagesA CEO’s poorly timed tweet leads to a Twitter campaign that leads 200,000 customers to delete the company’s app from their phones.

An iconic motorcycle manufacturer sees the President pull out of a planned visit to their Wisconsin facility when company officials express concern about a protest that could mar the event.

Ninety-seven American firms, including some technology giants, sign on to an amicus brief denouncing President Trump’s executive order on immigration.

A new administration in the White House with a distinctly different approach to governing has left many people nervous about what may come next. It also has American companies jittery, wondering how to operate in a divided political environment and fearful they’ll be caught in the crossfire the next time a controversial issue explodes in the media.

There are ways to navigate the chaos caused by a White House with a fondness for sweeping executive orders, denouncing critics in late-night tweets, and framing policy discussions in “us against them” terms. The actions of Uber, Harley-Davidson, and dozens of other firms speaking out against a travel ban targeting immigration provide some important insights on how to avoid crisis situations in the Age of Trump and respond to challenges in a nimble manner that can protect your business brand.

Be Extra Careful on Social Media

When the Trump administration signed its controversial travel ban on a Friday afternoon, the time usually preferred by politicians for dumping bad news or decisions they don’t want scrutinized, it led to an immediate firestorm of protests at airports across the country. The day after the executive order hit, cabbies working JFK Airport in New York City launched a one-hour strike, halting service to highlight their support for the protests.

Uber immediately tweeted it would halt its surge pricing at a time when demand for a lift to or from the airport was expected to intensify. The move was seen by critics as a way to break the strike and profit off the slowdown in service. Within an hour, it led to the creation of a hashtag campaign on Twitter, urging customers of the service to #DeleteUber, dumping the popular app from their cell phones. It worked and Uber’s been scrambling since to unwind this debacle.


Uber CEO Travis Kalanick quit his position on a Presidential business advisory board and announced the company would donate $3 million to a legal defense fund for drivers needing immigration and translation services. Good moves in response to a crisis, but steps that would not have been necessary if Uber hadn’t waded into the news cycle with a ham-fisted attempt to get some free publicity during the crisis. There was no good reason to throw out a tweet that could hardly be interpreted as anything but an attempt to undermine the protests and profit off a courageous decision by cab drivers to stand up for immigration.

An active and effective presence on social media means moving at the speed of the platform—which is fast. But it also requires knowing when to put the brakes on, understanding that in times when emotions run high and people are sharing up-to-the-minute news on Twitter, comments and statements can be misinterpreted and your ability to control your messaging can disappear. A missed opportunity is better than a high-profile stumble that antagonizes your customers.

You Don’t Have to Go Whole Hog


Harley-Davidson managed to sidestep a serious crisis when the backlash to Trump’s executive order on immigration threatened to damage the motorcycle manufacturer’s brand. The Midwest firm is located in a purple state, one that Trump unexpectedly won. Getting sucked into an early term controversy swirling around the new administration in Washington was not something Harley executives were looking for.

But that’s exactly how it played out. On the heels of the immigration crisis, the White House was planning to send the President on the road, to sign a new executive order or two aimed at improving America’s business climate. What looked like a great opportunity for Harley-Davidson to serve as a backdrop to a Presidential effort to improve American manufacturing was now shaping up to be an event that was going to tie the company to an ongoing political crisis involving cries of executive overreach.

Word of a planned protest caused Harley executives to approach the White House and, according to the latest media accounts, Trump administration officials pulled the plug on the visit. Instead, Harley-Davidson officials traveled to Washington for a photo op and meeting to discuss manufacturing issues.

That’s about as good an outcome as Harley-Davidson could have hoped for—not playing a central role in an event that was sure to feature questions about the heated protests surrounding the President’s travel ban, but taking part in a meeting that could be positioned as focusing on jobs and reviving American manufacturing. Harley-Davidson’s leadership team was nimble enough to understand the bad optics of hosting a Presidential visit that was going to be met by local protests and to settle for a very workable (and much less damaging) Plan B—a visit by corporate executives to the White House to discuss a topic that is central to their business.

Don’t Be Afraid to Lead

Nearly one hundred companies have signed on to an amicus brief, filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, designed to block President Trump’s executive order on immigration. The group includes many technology firms and some very well-known companies—Facebook, Google, Intel, Apple, Netflix, Levi Stauss & Co., Uber, Airbnb, and Chobani.

The court filing makes a powerful argument about the role of immigrants in American life, their contributions to innovation, and their importance in the growth and development of “some of the country’s most innovative and iconic companies”.

Tom O’Guinn, a professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business has made the case that companies sometimes need to get ahead of issues and identify themselves with a cause they consider important. In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio last month, he stated;

“What marketers want is to create brand loyalty and brand loyalty isn’t just repeat purchases. It’s where you form an emotional bond that changes how you process information. Most companies now believe you are better off to take a stand to make 10 million people really happy with you and create long-term loyalty than to take no stand and have 50 million feel neutral about you.”

In the case of dealing with a new President, it may seem counterintuitive for executives to take this kind of action now, essentially putting themselves in the crosshairs of a White House that has not been shy about attacking critics. But on an issue that is central to the operations of these companies—being able to recruit a diverse, talented workforce from around the globe—engagement can have a powerful impact. And if they believe a significant number of their customers will understand their position, all the more reason to step into the debate and take a stand.

The first weeks of the Trump administration have been a maelstrom of activity and controversy. Companies need to understand that this kind of chaos creates danger and can lead to unintended outcomes. It can also create opportunities to send effective messages that will build brand loyalty and positively impact the bottom line.