Book Review: Fire in the Dawn

fire in the dawn cover

Justin Fike contacted me in the summer of 2009. It had been a little while since he’d graduated from Brown University and he was trying to decide whether or not to commit to being a writer. He had a book in process, but the vision was huge. It might end up being a trilogy, he thought, and it seemed like a lot of work. Could he really make it as a writer?

I did five coaching sessions with Justin (he’s given me permission to share that publicly) and he did decide to push on. Some time later, he asked me if I’d write a letter of recommendation for the Master’s in Creative Writing program at Oxford University. I felt a little under-qualified, but I did it. Justin got in, graduated… time went on… he still hadn’t finished that book.

Justin and I have been in touch ever since. In 2016, we met again at a conference in Thailand, and decided to write a series of action-adventure/comedy books called the Stetson Jeff Adventures. Our main character is a cross between any Chuck Norris character (he really only plays one guy, right?) and Forrest Gump, three books have been published and several more are drafted as I write this.

But that story he was working on in 2009 still wasn’t done, until this weekend Justin finally published Fire in the Dawn, the first book in his Twin Skies Trilogy.

I give you all this background just to say that sometimes people with huge ideas and lots of talent can take a LONG time to get that book out. This in itself commands my respect.

I have learned a lot from Justin about story beats: the aspect of writing that involves keeping the reader engaged, tools and techniques to make you want to turn the page. Justin is whiz-bang at this, and I have a feeling that by the time we’re done with 9 Stetson Jeff books and he finishes the rest of his Trilogy, he’s going to be at a level we’d have to call masterful. So here is my review:

Fire in the Dawn is set in a fantasy world similar to Medieval Japan. Justin taps into a deep knowledge and understanding of cultures to construct a world that feels real, with a political landscape that has treachery on every side. There are social and racial themes throughout that keeps you guessing about how his main character will be able to accomplish his goals, and intriguing alliances. Like any good fantasy story, there’s a bit of magic thrown in that refers to the power of qi but some deeper magic too.

All told, if you’re a reader of lots of fantasy lit, you’re going to love what Fike has done with the genre. He’s gotten away from the trolls, orcs, dragons and wizards, and done something exceptional, fresh, and exciting.  And if you’re not into the fantasy genre, that’s okay– Fire in the Dawn has a literary quality that’s appealing to a broader-than-fantasy-readers audience in a way that’s similar to how I experienced George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Justin’s work isn’t as gory and doesn’t have the perverse sexual violence of Martin’s Game of Thrones, nor does it have the same immense complexity of a cast of characters of hundreds you have to track, so it’s definitely lighter reading in several ways. The comparison is being made strictly based on the fact that it’s literary. Fike’s world has plenty of depth and texture to explore, and a certain amount of intrigue. He keeps the action moving, so you never bog down with lengthy explanations of the world. The first few chapters you may find yourself wondering what is going on, and where you are, so it will be helpful to refer to the map!  I’m eager to read the second book in the trilogy.

Also, check out that sweet cover art. Top notch professional work!

Justin’s promoting Fire in the Dawn on Amazon for free at the moment, but the promotion ends today, so get it now!

Also, if you’d like to check out the work that Justin and I have done together, here’s the link to The Stetson Jeff Adventures, Volume 1, which includes “Beatdown in Bangkok”, “Mayhem in Marrakesh”, and “Pandemonium in Paradise” plus a bonus short story, “A Very Stetson Christmas”, available in paperback and as an e-book.

New Release: Positive Cultural Impact

You’re leading a team: could be you and one child, or you and a sales team, or you and a massive corporation or nonprofit institution. In any case, you have a culture you want to build, values to instill. But how?

For the last few months I’ve been blogging less as I was working to refine a concept into a concise e-book which details my formula for making a positive cultural impact in the form of a cycle which I very creatively decided to call the Cultural Impact Cycle.

Graphic4

Last Friday I published this e-book, reasonably priced at $2.99 USD. Here’s the link: How to Make a Positive Cultural Impact.

In a recent discussion with a random stranger, I told the stranger I am a life coach.

“What do you teach people?” he asked.

“Coaches don’t teach… but I’m also a writer,” I said, and proceeded to give him the elevator version of the cycle and the book.

“So, it’s the simple things,” he said.

Yes… it’s simple. The concepts here aren’t complicated. It’s implementation that may be difficult… perhaps even challenging enough you’ll want to work on them with a coach.

There’s more to come. Soon I’ll have a video course available for purchase that includes a workbook and an online forum. In the meantime, you can check out the book itself, it’s a short read at 8,300 words.

Enjoy!

–Adam G. Fleming

Positive Cultural Impact (A Formula)

The following is an excerpt from a longer e-book I’m working on which should be published by the end of May, 2017:

If you are a leader who wants to make a positive cultural impact, you’ll need to manage your energy and focus your consumption so that you can leverage time differently. With the time you free up, you need to exercise your empathetic and creative muscles so that when the time comes to re-articulate values to your team or community, you’ll be able to do so with excellence. This is the formula for positive cultural impact.

For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to focus on why you need both empathy and creativity working in tandem, like iron and carbon coming together to form steel. The coming e-book will give people handles on how to do it.

Empathy without creativity results in a message that gets you less attention and lower retention. Think of this as sermonizing without excellence in storytelling. For example, a recent blog by Michele Perry in praise of the film “The Shack” notes that “…many Christian films miss the point of being films and are actually thinly veiled sermons that dismantle whatever creative effectiveness their story line might have had.” In context of my theme, Michele has pointed out that whatever empathy Christian filmmakers (previous to The Shack) may have had, (I have no doubt that their hearts ache for humans to find our Way,) has been compromised by poor storytelling, favoring empathy above creativity rather than melding the two. I have not yet gone to watch The Shack, perhaps because I’ve become wary of films branded as “Christian” for exactly the reason she pointed out. In fact, most of those films fail to get my attention. I won’t go see them. Fortunately for The Shack, reviews like Michele’s are going to buoy it along, and I’m now interested in seeing it.

Now let’s consider the flip side. What if your attempt to impact culture is heavily weighted toward creativity but has little sense of empathy? It’s no surprise to anyone that artists are interested in influencing culture; their motives may be rooted in empathy or something more self-serving, for example, fame or self-glorification. In the Modern Art movement, artists began speaking to an ever-narrowing, increasingly esoteric group of elites. Most of my friends scorned artists like Thomas Kinkade throughout our twenties, but as I’ve thought further about his work, I realize that his idea was to communicate to a much broader audience who wanted to look at something pleasant, welcoming, relaxing and inviting, images of cottages where they could imagine themselves at peace. And Kinkade cared about people who wanted that. Those same people never felt that Modern and Postmodern artists cared one whit about whether or not they “got it.” Kinkade’s commercial success was looked down upon by the elite postmodern highbrow gallery artists, but out of a certain empathy he spoke to a broader audience, using a great deal of creativity in the process, and earned both attention and a certain level of retention, too. Here’s a blog that’s a couple years old, but was published three years after his death at age 54, noting that his signed and numbered lithographs are likely to continue increasing in value. Long term, that remains to be seen, and monetary value is only one way of measuring retention. Another way to look at it is that if the monetary value is going up, that means people are keeping their lithographs — which means they’re either speculating, or they genuinely continue to appreciate his message and the values his work spoke about. Some might put his work in the same camp as those cheesy Christian movies which do a poor job of storytelling, but the truth is that Kinkade was a masterful painter whose technique may have been formulaic, but whose storytelling moved a generation of people to buy his paintings when other painters struggled to get any attention. (And when it comes to formulaic storytelling, Hollywood is all about that, so formulas are not a problem. Experimenters can search for new formulas, but there’s nothing wrong with using a recipe whether you’re baking chocolate-chip cookies or telling a story.)

I know, that’s a lot about art, and may mislead you to think that you will have to make a movie like The Shack or paint like Kinkade to make a positive cultural impact in your family, on your team at work, in your nonprofit organization. Not so. Use what you have, both exercising and building the muscles you have for empathy, and also those for creativity, so that your message will be driven by caring for others and delivered in a way they can appreciate, enjoy and remember for a long time.

Going back to the iron and carbon makes steel analogy, a good steel is both stronger and more flexible than either of its two main parts. The fusion of empathy and creativity will give your leadership both strength and flexibility, too.

Soon I’ll be releasing a how to course online, complete with a longer e-book, videos, a workbook, and a place for community.

Note — if you’re in the Goshen, Indiana area and would like to sit in on the live audience  video taping of the course instruction, that will be happening at Art House on April 18 at 7 PM, and is free for the public to attend.

Second note — if you’d like to get a copy of this e-book when it’s done, please email me at adam.fleming.lifecoach@gmail.com, reference this blog post, and I’ll put you on the email list for a FREE copy!

 

Should I tip my ride-share driver?

Here I come in my Lambo with Godzilla, trailing flames. In my other life as a super-hero, I drive at night on weekends for a popular ride-sharing platform, keeping regular citizens safe from their worst enemy– themselves. The platforms say “no tipping” as a policy, and while I may have some vested interest in this, here are a few reasons why you should be prepared to tip your driver. I’ll also give you some suggestions, er, tips, for how much is appropriate.

Ride-sharing platforms are an interesting blend of free-market agorism (libertarianism) and raw, unabated, greed-driven capitalism. They fight against the legal system to allow anyone to turn their car into a business. They say it isn’t a cab and part of their argument could be founded upon the fact that nobody’s really making more than expenses. If they have to, in court, they could demonstrate that, I’m sure of it. The South Bend airport features a motto that “there’s no stopping an idea whose time has come” and ride-sharing has arrived. People want it. It’s not going away.

In that way, you’re really “sharing” the car, as if it was a carpool. But we all know it isn’t a carpool. It’s rare that I pick up a rider who just happens to be going my way. I’m not out at 2 A.M. to just have fun or to find someone going my way who will help cover some of my expense. I’m there to make money. But the platform pays enough to cover expenses, and that’s about it. What this means is I can make my car payment and take care of the vehicle, then write it all off, and that’s about all I get. Which is great. For now…

The way I figure it, the profit’s all in tips. If I drive 30 miles in an hour and get $15 for it, that’s covering my expenses. If I was charging you cash, I’d be asking for $30/hour. Even that’s break-even money if we’re zipping along a highway doing 60-plus mph for that entire hour.

Here’s my tipping suggestion. Carry some singles, and always give your driver a minimum of $2. A lot of riders in my market go only a mile or two. Might not sound like a big deal, but I can only do about five of those in an hour, since it almost always takes ten minutes to go complete a pickup, and deliver them a mile away, if not a little more. The longest part of the trip is often waiting for them to get in the car after I’ve arrived. Be ready to go and communicate your location clearly. (last weekend, when I requested a more accurate location, a rider texted me that they were “outside” and I replied that “‘outside’ is a very big place”.) At normal (non-premium) rates at that distance, I’m grossing $2-3 per ride, and that’s $10-15 in a really busy hour. I drove about 17 full hours last weekend, and only two of those hours paid out more than $22.

Add $1-2 if you’re in the car over ten minutes, or five bucks if you ride over twenty minutes to a half hour. A longer ride, say 45 minutes, you may want to consider $10. Remember, your driver has expenses to come pick you up, which may be equal or greater than the expense of taking you somewhere (that all depends how remote you are and how far you go). Either way there’s no compensation from the platform for going somewhere to make a pickup, which is not a big deal if the driver is five minutes away and you ride for 45 minutes, but it’s a big deal if you take a short ride. Five short rides in an hour means almost half of that hour is uncompensated.

Pay attention to how long it takes your driver to arrive. They are not dawdling. If it takes more than ten minutes, it means they’ve probably spent $2-5 to come get you. If you then take a short ride (under ten minutes) it’s almost certainly a loss for the driver. That means you’re what I call “remote”, and you may want to consider increasing your tip appropriately, another $2.

I know that the whole idea of ride-sharing is you don’t have to carry cash, and it’s nice that you aren’t obligated to tip, but until the platforms significantly increase how much they pay the drivers, it’s the right thing to do … and it will keep good drivers in business.

What I mean by good drivers is this: people who are conscientious and take pride to do their work well. Once the ride-share platforms begin to attract only the lowest level workers, people who can’t do math and realize they’re losing money; people who don’t care about you getting where you need to be in a safe, efficient manner, you’re not going to get much in the way of great service, either. Tipping will keep good drivers on the road. Tipping will make this a job people want to have, not just a job people do because it’s the only thing available to them.

Don’t let a driver tell you they won’t accept tips. They are taught to say that. Insist, and believe me, they will accept it. Leave $2 on the seat if you must. They will not throw it away.

Consider being ready to tip a larger amount in the event that you get excellent service. There are ways people can go above and beyond. They sit in a drive-through with you for ten minutes? Yes, the meter is running, but the pay for time only isn’t much. You can offer to buy tacos, and your driver may accept, but cash is king. They help you load something heavy into the car? They get you somewhere in the nick of time? What’s it worth to be treated like family to you?

Should you tip if prices are surging? I’m a little ambiguous on that. If it’s at 1.5 x, maybe yes. If it’s over 2 x, maybe not. Or maybe you should figure that it helps compensate for the hour or two that driver sat, doing nothing, just to be available when things got hot and you suddenly needed a ride. If that driver is your super-hero of the moment, then compensate accordingly.

He’s more afraid of you

Late Saturday night becomes Sunday morning. It’s about 3:45 A.M. I pull into McDonald’s on Michigan, south end of South Bend. I order a six-piece Chicken McNuggets. I think about a McFlurry, but it’s too many calories.

“Please pull around to the first window.” There is a car ahead of me. I wait behind, my window still down. Fresh spring air wakes me up for that forty-minute drive home.

Footsteps rushing at my car. Startled, I jerk my head to the left as a kid screeches to a halt. He is maybe seventeen or twenty, has a little mustache. He recognizes immediately that he made me jump; he saw the surprise on my face.

“Whoa, no, no,” he says as he throws his hands out to the side, “Look, I ain’t got no gun or nothin’, look, see?” Puts his hands behind his head as though I’ve arrested him. Panic on his face. Approach the wrong car that way and he’s maybe dead right now, and he knows it. “No, I’m not… I just, I’m hungry, I wanted to ask, could you get me just like a chicken sandwich or somthin’. I’m not, look, I’m sorry. I just…” Sweats at nearly half-mast, hoodie not really enough for the cold. It’s April 3 and we somehow had a mini-blizzard that decorated the daffodils, the roads are icy tonight. Lots of accidents out there. “I’m hungry you know? I don’t get my paycheck til Friday, and, anyway I’m not homeless. Well, mostly not.” Kid needs to just ask for the sandwich and shut up, let me draw my inferences. He doesn’t even know how to beg, and that’s clear more by the way he rushed my car than anything else. He’s new to this. Paycheck? Friday? I sort of doubt it.

“Hey kid, you gotta be careful. Come on, walk up here with me.” I roll up to the window, ask the lady to add a chicken sandwich. It’s under $2. At these prices anybody can afford to eat this shit, can’t they? But not this kid. He’s not anybody.

Over at Notre Dame the kids about his age go to the bars and blow hundreds in a night. This kid could buy dozens of hoodies at Wal-Mart for the price of a single black party dress the young ladies wear, shivering, colder than he is, with their legs exposed, but unconcerned about what they will eat and where they will sleep, clothed to impress, not to survive. Those kids are anybody, they are somebody, when they want a chicken sandwich they just get one.

The other McDonald’s employee comes up and tells the girl who took my order, just loud enough for me to hear, “we’re not supposed to serve walk-ups, that’s how we got robbed the one time,” but I am there, so I instruct the kid to walk up ahead into the parking lot and I’ll meet him there.

Later I realize that kids like this are like little animals, like a fang-less garter snake or a bunny in a cage, hearts beating two-hundred times per minute, and when you are a little kid and nervous about touching the pet, your parents tell you, “he’s more scared of you than you are of him,” and it gives you courage to reach out and touch the thing and you find that it is smooth or furry and not bad at all. Just scared, just like you. Human, really, in that way.

Why do we go back to being afraid of people as adults? Because they make sudden movements? Because they don’t look safe? Because they dress funny? Because they’re nocturnal?

No, I think it’s because we have some sort of cognitive dissonance between the rhetoric that “our nation is founded on equality and the public education system making it possible for anyone to succeed,” versus the reality that there are lots of people who don’t have jack squat, zilch, a big X, for opportunities. That’s what scares us. It means we’re all closer to the bottom than we care to admit, because until this moment we preferred to believe there is no bottom. And we’re afraid of people because we’ve forgotten that when it comes to those who are at the bottom, usually they’re more afraid of us than we are of them. The Psalmist said “the Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27) But we fear the bottom.

I give him a sandwich and he is Jesus, I have given Jesus a sandwich, and so now that I am on the upside of the deal, not at the bottom, only encountering it briefly, and somehow I think I’m in a position to advise, I’m no longer afraid. So I tell him “be careful out there, don’t scare people so much, you could get hurt,” because that is what I always tell Jesus. I, too, am closer to the bottom than I care to admit, and I am very, very tired when I get home.

 

Peace (Thailand #4 – ish)

We’ve been working hard to set up an entire room full of artwork. I think the team that has been stressing to overcome jet lag and install the gallery is ready for the conference to begin. I don’t mean that everything is installed yet (and we only have a few hours left) but I mean in the sense that we are ready for the peace of mind that comes with saying “It has begun.” In fact, several of us will be adding to the art or working throughout the conference, but it’s a bit like starting a race. You train and train, you warm up (jogging) but you wait for the starter’s gun just so you can run some more. And then, after the initial adrenaline rush, you settle into a moment of peace. There is serenity in the journey. Somewhere between the preparations and the finish line is that time when you say “we have now begun to really run.” And we are ready for that moment, even if not all the work is quite in place.

Offhand I’d guess we have about nine to twelve people exhibiting some visual work, (several of whom are not attending, and so we have a team of people installing for them via instructions), and a musical team of seven (I count sound guys) and lots of other creativity beginning to flow. Megan leaned over to me and said, “This is becoming an arts conference. But I guess that is the point.” Well, not entirely. But the arts are becoming more and more a part of how we live and breath in a world where we work cross-culturally. Languages lose something in translation, but image can gain communicativeness, as can melody.

Thailand is a great place to be at peace. This sovereign nation resisted colonialism due to a strong monarchy, and there is room for rest here. We are already feeling it, and yet in some ways we still wait for that to be wholly unleashed.

It takes some work to be at peace with being an artist. The value of the arts is much discussed during this time, but becoming established if still elusive.

It turns out I’ll be painting. I’m going to primarily use words, and I don’t have to worry much about color. Thematically there’s a lot of black and white work here, with reds. I can paint that way. I’m content to have a 4×8 panel to work on, and ran my concepts by Megan. There are things I wish I was doing; for example I love to sing but have not done it with a team for so long that it’s not on anyone’s radar. But with blogging, photojournalism, and now a painting to execute plus lots of opportunities to listen to people quietly and ask them questions, I’m at peace with my role. You can’t do everything, and I’m doing a lot. I like to DO stuff, but to be at peace, BEING is the key.

I’m bringing that edge to my painting, as you’ll see.

I’ll start with something that looks pretty abstract. Letters.

Want to join in? Okay, here’s what goes at the top of my canvas:

AAEEFGGHILLLNOOPRSSSUUVX,

AAAAABCEGILMMNRRSSTTUY.

Just letters? We shall see.

There’s more, but all shall be revealed in due time. The starter’s gun is about to bang, and then, we’re off. We’ll settle in, we’ll be at peace, we’ll rest together.

Guns in America: A metaphor for your organization’s culture

I watched all 12+ minutes of President Obama’s speech on the shooting in Oregon. The only thing I disagree with (and this is a nuance) is that it’s a “political choice”. Nope. It’s a cultural choice. One of my favorite quotes is “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Peter Drucker). Politics — using the strategy of changing laws to attempt to deliver a desired result — will ONLY be driven by a change in culture. I think he addressed that in a roundabout way, and his evident emotion and sickness at heart push us toward a question: do we desire cultural change in this area? I have to say this is the best speech I’ve ever heard him give. It’s been a long time since he really inspired me. Thanks, Obama. No… wait. Seriously. Thank you, Mr. President Obama, for reminding us that we should be upset by this, that we should not accept it as routine. (Why has it become routine that when we thank our President the initial assumption is that we’re being sarcastic? — Er, that’s for another blog another day.)

I don’t have answers for gun laws. I hope that people want change. Strategy could go through a variety of iterations before we get it right, but we won’t even really begin to try until there’s a fundamental, tectonic shift in the culture, where the geological plates in the culture shift away from conflict, and instead of those plates shoving against each other, one side shoving guns and violence up on a pedestal high as the Rockies, they shift back (so that “Every mountain shall be made low”) to a great, smooth plains, a place of reasoning together whether we own a gun or not. We have allowed something to sell us an idea of liberty in the place of safety, and we have eaten the meal and the after-dinner mint is … sour.

We all have things in the culture of our organization/workplace/field which have become routine but aren’t right. Thank God they don’t have literal, physical casualties. However, they can have pretty long-lasting impact on a lot of people, they can end up sending people away, leaving them spiritually or emotionally battered and bloody, and why? Because we want to hang on to some old way of thinking, some pattern that is getting justified the same way some say “well, we need more guns to protect us from bad guys with guns!” (We have forgotten that Jesus said “only God is good” and so in our cultural mindset we are ALWAYS the good guys).

For myself, this came to a head in a particular area in the culture of my family. Seven years of lean thinking put us in a position where we have the same issue and struggle every few months. Like the President said, unless something changes, history tells him he’s going to have to go make a similar statement about grieving families before his tenure is up. Same thing in our culture.

Change the rules all you want: if the culture doesn’t change at a more fundamental level, you’re just shifting stuff around, shifting blame, most likely.

So with our situation, we went outside and placed stones of remembrance in the yard. We marked those seven years of lean thinking and prayed. We drew a line in the sand in some way, spiritually, culturally, and I am ready to make changes so that I don’t have to go back to the podium again and say, well, 2016 has been the 8th lean year … No. It’s time for a fat one. It’s time to recognize that the issue has been cultural, and at least in this family I set 50% of the cultural tone. I’m the one who gets to change. I’m the one who has to step back and allow the valleys to be exulted and the hills made low, so that the Glory of the Lord can shine among us.