What is (and was) Plow Creek?

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Plow Creek was just water flowing downhill. Land to the south, land to the north. One old farmhouse, hillsides covered with deciduous forests. Oak, maple, hickory, walnut, birch. The creek was too small for significant fish, no bass, rainbow trout or catfish, but minnows and occasionally crayfish were there. Shy animals. Skunks, possum, deer, coons, over-hunted, over-roadkilled. Cats and cows and pigs. Mice, both the field and the house versions. Songbirds in the morning. Cicadas at night. A whippoorwill in her nest.

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Somebody owned it. I don’t know who. They had farmed it, at least some of it, I guess. They got old and died. That’s what happens. Before them, somebody else farmed it, back to around 1834. Before them, Indians. Along with finding crawdads in the creek, you might find a knapped piece of flint: an arrowhead.

Then came the Jesus Freaks. People wearing a lot of brown and rust colored bell-bottom slacks and huge fashionable collars… but not because they were fancy dressers. Lots of thrift store finds. Plaids so bad they’d make a Scotsman blush. Unlike the hipsters of today, they were looking for ways to be cool after it was cool. It was the 1970s, and not entirely unlike M.L.K. Jr., these young people had a dream.  A dream of being the church of Jesus Christ in a different way. A counter-culture. What would really be cool, is if people really cared about each other instead of their clothes. Instead of their bank accounts or cars.

What would impress other people was not being out to impress anyone. Sharing what you had to the point of (nearly) doing away with ownership itself. Laying down your life for a friend, like Jesus said, and did. Instead of concerning yourself with ownership, you joined this weird group called Plow Creek Fellowship. And you sang: “Will you let me be your servant? … Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.”

The land owned the Indians, not the other way around. That’s how they thought about it.

The Jesus Freaks called Plow Creek a “Fellowship”. The land didn’t own the people, but the people lived in Fellowship. It meant more than “going to” church. It meant more than stewarding a chunk of topsoil together. It meant more than a shared meal. It meant more than games on the broad meadow. It meant so much more than any and all of that, so much more that nobody’s really been able to describe it. Some very good writers came along, living, writing, “fellowshipping”. Now, at the end, we very good writers write our blogs, but … the better you are at fellowshipping, the easier it is to be at a loss for words.

It’s telling that Creekers verbed the word fellowship. According, at least, to the WordPress spell-check function, “fellowship” isn’t a verb. I just learned this today. That’s how much this word, as a verb, was ingrained in my vocabulary. But as any Creeker knows, it wasn’t somethign you just joined. It was something one did, one lived, one became woven into.

The land owned the Indians.

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The Fellowship owned the Creekers. Or at least, the Creekers themselves didn’t own much. (If you’re an outsider, please understand: nobody was forcibly part of this thing. It was voluntary to the nth degree. This is more about that willing servant thing.)

Years came and years went, and for a variety of reasons, each as unique as the individual, people also came and went. Did some of them leave joyfully, and others wounded? Of course. Nobody stopped being human. But, when they left, they didn’t stop fellowshipping with each other, either. They met up with each other, in Iowa, or New Mexico, or Chicago, or Indiana or just anywhere. You couldn’t really un-weave yourself from the pattern. The Fellowship wove its own way into your life, and not just you into it. That’s why I say it’s not only something you did, but something you became. If you didn’t fellowship with the same people on the same land, you still felt hungry for it, sought it elsewhere.

You returned to the land. Sometimes. It owned you, too, not the way it owned the Indians, but… It was, in some ways, the most concrete representation of the Fellowship itself. Nobody had to be there for you to love walking the woods. You could be an extreme extrovert and spend hours with yourself and your memories and you’d still be fellowshipping down there at Plow Creek. Fellowshipping includes remembering. (Do this in remembrance of me.)

More years came and went. Many of the people had left the land. They continued to find each other. Technology blossomed, and with it, Facebook reminded people of their fellowshipping of long ago.

Fellowshipping became an acquired taste. Like people from France who know the flavor of the cheese in their home village, or of those truffles underground, maybe. You could leave this land and still be hungry for the fruit that grew up on it in those days.

How did you get there? Maybe you were young. Maybe you were lonely or hurting. Maybe you were just unsatisfied with what the American Dream had offered you, but once you found Plow Creek, you realized that your personal American Dream meant fellowshipping. 

People didn’t stop fellowshipping. 

But they did leave that land, and went to other places. Looking as they went for some sort of significance in life. Connection. Meaningful relationships. Other bits of land to care for. Other bits of humanity to love.

And then there was a remnant, elderly super-fellowshippers. People steeped in fellowship like tea, the creek flowing with this essence, no longer water. And, there was a church, too. People still joined the church, and fellowshipped with each other. But, they joined in a new way, and not in the same way, and the old way of life couldn’t be carried on. And the remnant, those steeped in the meadow like mint in the sun, they went down the river. Their lives complete at something around four-score years, more or less, they went to be with the old farmer whose name was forgotten, who used to live here, and the Indians, and with Jesus in Heaven. Perhaps some of those field mice are there, too. Where they are fellowshipping at this very moment without obstacles, without traps set for the mice. The true utopian society, they have up there. Remember what I said about how they didn’t leave and stop fellowshipping? That goes for those who left in a coffin, too.

One of the other writers said that Plow Creek is dying. No doubt this is how she feels.

Yes, Plow Creek’s legal entity is dissolving. Somebody else will use the land. Those who chose fellowship over ownership will  now have to go somewhere else, and that hurts.

It has been a luxury to be free to go back to the land, to the Creek. I was about 23 when I found my first arrowhead, that would have been 1997, 20 years ago. Our family had moved on, 10 years earlier, but I was back, I don’t remember why exactly, but probably just to fellowship for a few hours. The Indians had probably been gone for 163 years or more.img_4142

 

What will happen next? Who knows for sure? In another 163 years, a mere eight generations, yes, let’s say it’s the year 2180: someone will drop by in their flying car or spaceship, and they will find something one of us left. Perhaps the head of a broken hoe in the strawberry fields. The empty shotgun shell of the last Creeker-approved venison kill. Or, someone will come along and buy some of that acreage, or all of it, or the whole flippin’ county around it, and they’ll invite some friends to live with them and try to be unified and harmonious and be each other’s servant and have the grace to let you be my servant, and fail at it all, and try again and pray together. We can hope, anyway. We can hope that, because, although Plow Creek as we knew it, as we know it is dying…

Fellowshipping is not.

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The picture above wasn’t taken at Plow Creek. This is me fellowshipping with my wife Megan, in Thailand last February. We’re keeping the dream alive. No matter where we go.

 

How little things can get big results

I recently fielded a call from an international client; my wife and I do marriage coaching for the couple together.* They are on a retainer that’s paid annually. It’s a rather large chunk of money out of their pocket at one shot. This month, when the invoice for the next year arrived, the husband and wife had a discussion about it. What’s the value of paying a big chunk of money to talk with old friends? Of course we keep the discussions focused on them; my wife and I are not burdening them with concerns about the problems in our lives. Like any good coaching conversation we stay focused on what they need to do to maximize their growth and impact in the culture where they serve. It’s much more about them than it is about us. It’s slightly unusual in the sense that they are a little more likely to ask us what’s going on in our lives, but even then we try to keep our sharing abbreviated so we can make sure to focus on them.

So my friend called me. He wanted to acknowledge that it was a lot of money, but then began to highlight a variety of reasons why they were continuing a professional relationship with us, their old friends. 1) The fee holds them accountable to show up. 2) They could have a similar conversation with other old friends, but would they? It would be easy to schedule a call with some other friends, but it would also be easy for one of them to postpone (I almost never postpone a scheduled call. It would have to be an emergency. I show up and do my job!) Once a conversation gets postponed for a month, it’s easy to go three and then six months without talking. 3) We’ve known them a long time and I’ve been to visit them, so I’m one of a very few people who has been alongside them for a week in their cultural context, meeting many of the people who are key players in their life. 4) We worked together a few months back on an issue that was causing a variety of problems in their family life.   A certain level of detail is necessary here. The couple is a missionary couple, but they aren’t exclusively attending one congregation for worship every Sunday; they work with leaders from several churches so they move around. Essentially the issue had to do with when they decided which church they would attend: would they decide on Sunday morning where they were going, or earlier, like Friday evening? Deciding at the last minute was causing some friction in their own family. They came up with a solution and decided they’d work at making this weekly decision two days ahead.

Helping people do little things so that their family life runs smoother has broader implications. In this case, after recapping all the reasons they were going to continue working with me for another year, my friend said, “Remember Joe*?” (*name changed)

“Sure, he was the young guy who … ” I recalled what I knew of Joe.

“Yeah, well, Joe has a lot of leadership potential, but we realized he hasn’t been going to church anywhere. Once we disciplined ourselves to make plans on Friday instead of Sunday morning, I began to call Joe and invite him to come with us. He finally responded with ‘Yes!’ and I got to take him with me for the first time in almost a year!”

So a little thing that seemed like it was an internal, family issue, ended up being a major piece of encouraging a young leader … helping them do their job, putting together a piece that helps them fulfill their stated mission.

Stories like that gets me excited about doing what I do.

*The information in this post is shared with permission from the client. Normally my client conversations are confidential; I don’t share anything, even success stories, without permission.

 

 

 

Book Review: Fire in the Dawn

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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.

Positive Action on The Via Negativa

Or: How to prepare for the inevitable surprise.

For context, here are two thoughts on the “via negativa” or the Negative Way.

The via negativa is a concept from the Orthodox tradition of doing theology by talking about what God is not. It’s like Michelangelo carving away all the block of marble that is not David. It’s a subtractive-sculptural theological idea.

Extrapolating, Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes an heuristic or rule of thumb that if you need more than one reason to do something, that probably means you shouldn’t do it — you’re trying to convince yourself. You need a single, clear reason. Not a stack of them. Consider:

“We’ve each found a friend here; we’re in love,” versus “Well, she’s cute, and her parents like me, and they have money, and we grew up in the same town and we know the same people, and my parents think she’s from a respectable family, and besides all that, oops, now she’s pregnant and I’m 90% sure I’m the dad, and…”

Which of these people exploring marriage is headed for success?

I’ve been thinking about the ideas a close friend has been sharing with me. She notes a variety of indicators highlighted by various denizens of the Internet that point toward impending doom. Perhaps in the near future. For an example, what would happen if the oceans rise due to climate change. Now these denizens (such a cool word, denizens) suggest that a ninth planet or brown star that plays do-ce-do with our sun every 3600 years or so may be coming around for the first time since the Deluge of Noah.

If some of the denizens are correct this means that the ocean levels may rise rapidly, rather than gradually; in fact, causing the ice caps to melt so fast that before the end of the year the seas could rise 700 to 800 feet worldwide. Like, on September 23, 2017 or something. What percentage of the world’s population would be displaced? 90%? 95%?

I’m not here to mock these reports. I’ve taken a cursory look at some of the videos my informant has been watching, and it looks like there’s a possibility there’s this brown star (hard to see in telescopes, you need astrophysicists who can observe how the star’s gravitational pull is impacting visible bodies around them) is indeed approaching us with a heat wave unlike anything we can remember.

If that happens it would be what our friend Taleb calls a “black swan event”. I believe in this: Black Swan Events do happen. I take it at face value that they have happened and they will happen again. This is why I don’t mock the prophets. I’m open minded to the possibility that catastrophe could strike this year.

In any case, for those who believe, it raises the question: should we all move to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, (where supposedly even those in the know re: sea levels at the US Navy is directing their retirees to go, sorry I don’t have links to all the videos and blogs that claim these sorts of things) stash some fresh water in bottles, and brace for the worst?

The thing about belief is that true belief spurs you to action, so when you’ve read and seen enough, you do have to ask yourself, what are you going to do about it? This is the case for any number of religious writings you might read, and it’s the case with doomsday prophecies, too. True believers act. Interested parties sit and observe.

Now let’s back off a bit and get back to the theory that goes beyond sea level and climate change issues. I’m not ready to move to Arkansas; I want to speak in more general terms about our attitudes toward action.

First, the problem with recognizing and even believing that Black Swan Events do and will happen, is that by definition there is no way to know how to prepare for them. But I have one suggestion I hope will help.

While it may look like the arrow on your compass is headed in the same direction, I think there’s immense value in the paradigm shift that we ought to move towards things in our lives we hope will be positive as a result of our newfound beliefs, rather than away from things that will be negative. They may seem to be one and the same. The problem with fleeing danger rather than running towards hope is that we end up looking over our shoulder. Like Lot’s Wife in Genesis, we end up a Pillar of Salt. We end up as a stalagmite casualty of focusing on the wrong thing. Now you might argue that Lot’s wife looked back not because she was afraid of what was following her, but because she desired to return to what was known. I’m not sure the story is clear on that point.

In any case, you can’t move towards the most positive thing unless you’re willing to give up what is known. In some ways that means moving towards the positive in spite of our fear of the unknown.

Fleeing danger which we suppose will come tomorrow or in September or early next year, is perhaps not a good enough single reason for doing something. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get out of the road when a  car is coming. You can see the car coming, so move. I’m also not saying you should make your bed in the roadway just because a car isn’t coming at the moment. Pitching a tent in the street because it’s 3 AM and nobody’s coming isn’t wise, because you haven’t headed towards a positive spot.

Whatever you believe about the world ending or God or the latest diet, move towards what’s healthy, it’s a much better way to think about where you’re going: say “I want to be healthy,” rather than staying away from sugar just because you’re afraid of diabetes coming to get you.

Here’s the really helpful bit: Practicing this in your life will also be the best way to prepare for a Black Swan Event, because when the Event arrives (and it will), your mentality will already be this:

“Where’s the opportunity in this unexpected chaos which is forming a new normal? Where is the one place where chaos is not?

You won’t be wishing you could just return to the old normal, because you only need the one reason to move ahead: “Where’s the opportunity?” You won’t try to make something like America “great again” implying that it was best some time ago. (The President and his followers haven’t gotten the picture. They want to run from the negative, hoping they can recapture a positive which has receded like a hairline back into bald history. Instead of seeking opportunities in renewable energy, let’s get those coal miners working, etc.)

By taking the positive approach, using the via negativa and finding opportunity where chaos is not, you’ll be trying to make things greater than they ever were. Even if if the oceans rise 800 feet.

(And if they do, our house could be oceanfront property, because our city is at 801 feet elevation! Sounds like opportunity knocking at my door — or lapping at my sidewalk. Positive action: stock some suntan lotion and a cotton candy machine, and get ready for a lot of campers.)

 

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.

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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

It’s the Little Things

I was talking with a random stranger the other day. He found out I was a coach and asked me what I teach, which is not what coaches do. But I am working on putting together a class on how to make a positive cultural impact, so I told him about that — what I think are the core things people need to do to operate at their peak performance, and what they need to do to bring greater empathy and creativity to the world.

I didn’t have long to lay it out there, but before he moved on, he thought for a second. Then he said, “So, it’s the little things?”

Yes. It’s the little things.

What that means, as I think about it more, is that we’re all very close to it. We only need to do the little things to go from living a normal life to an extraordinary life. Why is that? It doesn’t take a lot to get beyond the ordinary. It will take being intentional and consistent. There is some effort required. But the things themselves are little.

I’ll keep talking about them, because I intend to be consistent with this message.

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!

 

Shifting Cultural Tectonic Plates: Baseball

I’m passionate about culture. Peter Drucker said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and as a life coach one of my favorite places for curiosity during exploration mode with my clients revolves around the cultures they are navigating.

I’m also passionate about baseball, and it provides a lot of interesting insights into our national culture.

Baseball’s a slow game. I get that some people just don’t get why you’d want to watch a guy squint at another guy for ten seconds before deciding to play a game of catch with him. Frankly when it comes to watching sports on TV almost nothing is slower than football (though this accusation is seldom made), and soccer is faster than either baseball or football, while hockey is faster yet. What people say is slow really isn’t (soccer) and what people say is fast really isn’t (football) so it really just comes down to what you appreciate. I appreciate baseball, even if it doesn’t have the same breakneck action as hockey.

What’s happening now, the way the plates are shifting in the cultural geology, is that they’re trying to speed baseball up. MLB is discussing putting a man on 2nd base to begin any extra inning.

Here’s what I think: we have a culture where we’re always rushing to get one thing done asap so we can get to the next thing we have to do asap. Baseball has an opportunity to be a respite from that pace of life. Baseball never ends in a tie (that would be un-American!) but it doesn’t have a way to end the game after 13 innings, either. There’s no shoot-out like hockey and soccer have implemented after a regulation and over-time periods. There’s no “home run derby” to finish it off. You just keep playing. We all know that, of course. It’s not that I have a problem with specific rules changes like the no-pitch intentional walk  coming into play this year; in fact it’s not any specific rule change as such (Should the NL do away with pitchers batting?). My problem is with the shifting cultural assumption that we need this thing we call baseball to be faster.

As a culture we need some things to help us change up our pace (see what I did there?). The imbalance caused by taking in an activity, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon, when we don’t really know exactly when we’ll be home, is a healthy sort of imbalance. It allows us to break our normal routine of rushing, and sit back and enjoy what’s in front of us.

It’s very Taoist. It’s in the moment. The pitch comes, split second decision, swing or hold.

For everyone else, the past and future swirls around the players. It’s story-oriented; listen to the broadcasters talk about the way it used to be, remember the guy who used to sit behind the bullpen and eat six Chicago-style hot dogs every night? And of course the sports talk radio guys love to speculate about the future, who will trade for that guy before the deadline, who might win the division.

But the cultural aficionado understands that it’s about being in the moment. So it shouldn’t matter if the game is fast or slow, over in two hours or stretched out to seventeen innings.

We need to be aware of the way that our culture is shifting, in our business, or organization. If the culture shifts it’s because values are shifting, perhaps from the larger culture outside (as the larger culture is now influencing the micro-culture that baseball is.) And sometimes the push and pull that cultures outside the one you care about are exerting on your culture are worth resisting. So resist them! Culture eats strategy for breakfast — don’t assume that you don’t exert any control over what your culture looks like, or will become. If you need to be a purist for a certain value, stick to your guns.

 

Plow Creek Foss Memorial

I was at Plow Creek Farm last weekend; my old stomping grounds. Sunday morning I went down to the valley. I’m on my way to Thailand in a week, and the conference theme there is “crossing over”. So I’ve been thinking about how the Israelites “Crossed over” the Jordan, stacking stones as they did so, in memorial. I wanted to go down and make a cairn at Plow Creek to memorialize Rich Foss, who also “crossed over” last week. My favorite shot is above. You can’t tell how small the cairn is from that photo. Well, it’s all about perspective! Sometimes the things that were small seemed big. Sometimes the things that were big seem smaller later. Relationships aren’t about whether a person is big or small, just about whether you are close to them or far away. Intimate to them, or not. Your perspective on how big they are really comes from your proximity to their heart, and not at all to any measure of fame they have attained. There are, therefore, no big people. There’s no such thing as a big shot. Only humans who know how to be intimate, gentle, compassionate, and kind, to those they know well and live with, and friendly to everyone else they meet…  and there are humans who don’t. Rich knew.

Rich knew.

Rich Foss knew how to love people and so he will be a sorely missed influence in my life. Rich was a mentor to me, asked me to carry on the work of his nonprofit, Evergreen Leaders, and was a major influence in giving myself permission to call myself a writer, and to do the hard work of writing a novel. Rich wrote one novel in his life, Jonas and Sally. It’s beautiful, poetic prose, sold a fairly high number of copies, and it is out of print. I found a copy of it a few weeks ago in a used bookstore in Pennsylvania for $1 and bought it.  I often sell them alongside my own books, so I’m on the lookout for copies. I’m surprised to find that I’ve already written more books than he did… but I’m not surprised to feel that none of them are quite as good. Which is, of course, a matter of opinion. You might like my books better. Who knows?

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So many Plow Creek kids grew up being really great at hoops. I stunk. I don’t know how I can call myself a Hoosier and hold my head high. Indiana has this big thing about basketball but it’s huge in rural Illinois too. Several of the kids I grew up with ended up playing college basketball and winning state championships in high school. Rich Foss’ son played for Colgate University. I think he made it to the NCAA tournament one year. My guess is that if he wanted to he could still dunk on this rim. I could barely reach it with my camera, that’s how much ups I’ve got.

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Somebody beat me to the creek, post-ice storm. They must have thrown these three rocks on the ice to see if it was safe to cross over. When they did it, it was. By the time I got there Sunday, not so much. I didn’t try to get to the north bank. Even though Dave Stahnke loaned me a warm pair of boots, I didn’t want a soaking. While I was there I got to hear the ice; deep, groaning, creaking sounds of water, in solid state, splitting up. I watched as a huge section calved.

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I made this little cairn on the ice. The stones were smaller than I remembered, as everything at Plow Creek is, and there were few enough of them sticking out of the bank. I had to bang most of them out of the frozen ground with another rock. It was slow, and quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to get to build a huge cairn, certainly not one that did justice to how big of a big shot Rich was. Everything seemed underwhelming when you stepped back, but taking a good angle I could still get some interesting shots. Something intimate, with stones, ice and brown grass.

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Here’s an interesting accidental shot. Sometimes what we think is the focus is really the background in life. Maybe for you what I’m talking about in this blog is painting the background for what you’re really dealing with. Or maybe there’s something coming into focus that I’m not even thinking about as I write it.

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From this view you can see the barn. We used to play in the loft. Behind the trees just beyond the barn is where the creek runs, so the other shots (above) were taken in the creek bed behind the barn that you can’t see, because it’s lower, obviously. To the left you can see the North Bluff, which has been gradually eroding into the creek for millions of years, since I was, like, five.

I thought it was interesting that this trailer claims Plow Creek Farm has delivered local berries, produce and beef since 1978. I asked some of the folks my parents’ age what they remembered about when Plow Creek began to sell produce. They reminisced about how the first gardens were planted in difficult soil, clay, on the top of the hill, and they located the garden there initially because “it was close to the house, and besides there was plenty of sun” rather than planting in good soil. They were suburban kids who had to teach themselves to farm while living communally. I knew they started the community in 72 or 73. It makes sense now that it took them 4-5 years to get to the point where people would come buy their produce. It’s hard to imagine my mom and dad and all these other folks who used to farm this land not knowing where to put a garden. I guess the beauty of our twenties is that we’re stupid, and we’re beginning to know it, but our kids don’t know it yet. We get a period of life where we can grow and learn without our kids holding it against us. To them, we are simply big shots.

I also heard a great story from my Dad I had never heard before. Once he shot a stray cat (sorry, animal lovers, on farms you sometimes have to keep the population down) and the neighbor came over a few days later, wondering if anyone had seen his cat. Dad said, yeah, I shot a stray, but it doesn’t fit your description so I don’t think it was yours. The neighbor came back a few days later and dug up the cat Dad shot. Well, it was his cat. I joked with dad that of course the cat he shot didn’t fit the same description; the neighbor’s description was of a lively, warm, purring cat, while the one Dad shot was lifeless, cold … Dad said he felt really bad and offered the neighbor his pick of a litter of kittens, but he didn’t want any of them. I guess sometimes you only want the cat you had.

Death is an unacceptable event. Any substitute offered in its aftermath is anathema to us for a time. Our desires for the good things we had are set in stone, cataloged rock by rock in our memory, cemented down as a pillar. We don’t want different good things. We want what we loved. We don’t want to develop new intimacies. It’s hard to break in a new pair of shoes. It’s a pain to learn a new operating system, language, code, code of ethics, culture, route to the grocery store, new flavor of food. We have to learn to communicate again in new ways, which takes energy we don’t have. Death is an unacceptable event.

What happens to us: one day, the ice breaks up, and even our cairns get washed away in the spring flood, all our memories of the old earth are gone, as clouds in new heavens come drifting along. The season will change, the water will be warm and pure, and we’ll all cross over to the north bank, climb the bluff, pick the blueberries and tell each other stories: perhaps with the old rhythms, but under brighter skies. Rich will be there too and I know exactly how he will be laughing.