Tag Archives: John Steinbeck

Are We a Nation Walking On Egg Shells? (At Work – and Everywhere Else?)

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless they were cold.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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There are some “impressions” that seem to be obvious everywhere you look.  Here is one of mine:  it feels like the whole country is walking on egg shells.

People with a job are worried about the health of their company or organization.  And even entire industries are worried about the health of their industry.  (Would you like to be an airline executive at the moment?  Or a coach on the Dallas Cowboys?)  And when a person is worried – when a company or organization is in a fragile state, or even an entire industry – then a person knows that his or her own job is in a fragile state, and that certain self-assuredness, that confidence, that “mojo” is lessened, and threatened.

So many people are walking on egg shells.

And these egg shells represent so much.  We have to please our boss, but our boss is worried about pleasing the next person up the chain.  And, as one person put it, the job of every boss these days seems to be the job of getting more work out of each worker, even finding ways to get more work out of fewer workers, so that the work force can be reduced.

Such a boss seems practically impossible to please.  And people don’t flourish with an “impossible to please” boss.

It is tough to feel secure in such an environment.

I don’t have any solutions.  But I think this:  if the people in your company are walking on egg shells all the time, they can’t do their best work.

Somebody needs to sweep up all these eggshells.

Rediscovering Steinbeck at the Mayeux Family Reunion

I just got back from our now annual family reunion in Natchitoches, Louisiana.  We talked, and ate, and talked, and ate…  You know the routine.  I ate gator, and shrimp, and brisket, and home-made ice cream (Yes, I went back for seconds thirds fourths.  I ate at least one full week’s worth of calories in about 36 hours).

I have quite a family – as we all do.  In our small circle late one evening (the others were in the house) we had a Colonel in the Air Force, a CEO of a fast growing company in Austin, an engineer, and a retired Government Scientist/Director of a Government Research facility – and me, the Dallas Book Guy.

So, you can imagine the conversations with such diversity of background.

At one point, the conversation drifted toward books.  The funniest guy in the circle is the Austin CEO – and he is so very funny!  (I missed those genes).  He was talking about a book that he was “supposed to read.”  He read it.  Did.not.like.it!  Oh, he thought the information was valuable.  He just wasn’t a fan of the style, or the amount of time/number of pages the author took to get to the point.  The sad part of that conversation is that I read the book, liked the book, presented it and raved about it.  So, I guess I enjoy books that take their time getting to the point.  (No, I will not tell you which book he was talking about!)

In the midst of the conversation, one of them asked me the “what’s the best book you’ve read in recent years?” question.  I did not hesitate – it was The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  The retired scientist perked up at that.  He had a look of surprise in his eyes, and got much more interested in the conversation.  He then launched into a far too brief description of Steinbeck as a writer.  He had quotes, tidbits.  They were wonderful!  Yes, he has read Steinbeck, many books by Steinbeck – and books about Steinbeck, and he introduced me to Steinbeck’s book Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, and he sent me home with his copy of this book, and a few of Steinbeck’s novels.

You see, I read The Grapes of Wrath as an “assignment” – I presented it at the Urban Engagement Book Club for CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries).  This book club focuses on issues of poverty and social justice, and The Grapes of Wrath provides insight on poverty in a truly unforgettable way.  Yes, I had “read” it when I was young, in school, many decades ago.  But to read it as an adult was quite a different experience.

So, I had to confess to my older brother that that was about it – I had never read anything else by Steinbeck.  I know the titles, had seen a movie or two (Cannery Row comes to mind), and my brother gave me one of those looks that only an older brother can give.  You know, the look that in a flash communicates “So, you’ve never read anything else by Steinbeck. And you consider yourself an educated man!”  Then he gave me a few Steinbeck volumes to bring home and read.

And, of course, he is right.  How could I have neglected Steinbeck?  And so many others.  A family reunion is a great place to bring you back down to earth.  And a place to remind me, “I’ve got to start reading novels!”

So, thanks to my family – especially this one brother.  He’s the real book guy.  I’m just a pretender.

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Here’s a brief excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath, which I included in my handout for my presentation:

The decay spreads over the state, and the sweet smell is a great sorrow on the land.  Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce.  Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten.  And the failure hangs over the State like a great sorrow.
The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all.  Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground.  The people come from miles to take the fruit, but this could not be…  And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit.  A million people hungry, needing the fruit – and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains.
And the smell of rot fills the country.
…Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out.
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation.  There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize.  There is a failure here that topples all our success.  The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit.  And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange.  And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed.  And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is a growing wrath.  In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Book Lists to Ponder – More Titles to Add to Your “One of These Days” Reading Stack

I don’t read much fiction.  I should – I know.  But I don’t.  But, one of these days…

Anyway, here are some books lists for book lovers.  Many of the titles are fiction.  Some are non-fiction.  So many books, so little time…

From Esquire:

The Reading List: 10 Essential Books for Life
Manhood, America, sports, politics, sex. These are the subjects men should know — and these are the authors who can teach you.

and

The 75 Books Every Man Should Read (this one includes The Grapes of Wrath — if you have never read it, or, if you only read it after it was assigned years ago in school, it’s time!)…
An unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published. How many have you read?

and, a list of books by women authors that every man should read…

250 Books By Women All Men Should Read (this one includes Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; if you’ve never read Dillard, it’s past time! – check out her The Writing Life; it’s not just about writing)…
with this introductory paragraph:

Esquire made reposted a slide show of 75 books all men should read. The books are mostly fantastic and the headline phrasing didn’t much bug us. After all, Esquire is a men’s magazine and has always been marketed as such. The problem was that the list was all male writers, save for lone lady Flannery O’Connor. This really does imply that men don’t/can’t/shouldn’t read women and we were pretty sure that wasn’t the case among readers. We were also sure that part of the editorial reason for making such a list this way was to generate a response, so here it is. Over Memorial Day weekend we asked Joyland readers, editors, and contributors to come up with a list of 75 Books By Women All Men Should Read. We received over 250 suggestions in two hours. We think the below is a seriously devastating list of great books all men should read. Thank you everyone who took part via Facebook and Twitter. We had to format many different kinds of responses so let us know if we made a mistake with your selections. Also please, keep the talk going in the comments and everywhere else. — Emily Schultz and Brian Joseph Davis, publishers of Joyland

 

A Suggested Reading List For Those Interested In Issues of Social Justice And Poverty

Karl Krayer and I will soon complete our 13th full year of hosting the First Friday Book Synopsis.  At each of our monthly meetings, Karl and I each present a synopsis of a best selling business book.

For nearly half that time, I have also presented synopses every month for the Urban Engagement Book Club for CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries).  And just as people ask me about the best/most important business books, people also ask me about the best/most important social justice & poverty books.

Let me state the obvious – reading one book helps you a little, but reading a series of books, covering an important arena, builds a body of knowledge, and helps you know how to think, and then, what to do.

If social justice and poverty concern you, here’s a short list of books to put in your reading stack.  Read these, and you will begin to build that body of knowledge.

 

Read this book A comment, or two
How to get started…  Start here! The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 

 

Yes, that The Grapes of Wrath (1939).  Just to grasp the human struggle of severe poverty.  Everyone should read this in their adult years!
To understand the plight of the working poor Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich went “undercover” before Undercover Boss was ever conceived.
To go a little deeper into the plight of the working poor The Working Poor: (Invisible in America) by David K. Shipler Shipler is a Pulitzer Prize winner – and this is gripping, and sad.
To think about unequal education The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol Or – read his earlier book, Savage Inequalities.  Actually, read this one first…
So, what to do How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein Comprehensive – helpful, useful!

To build optimism

The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems by Richard T. Pascale, Jerry Sternin, Monique Sternin

Some encouraging success stories.  The Sternins were used as a success story in the book Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

 

Of course, there are many worthy, valuable books not listed here.  If you compiled your own list, it would be different.  But I think this is a pretty good list to start with.

Where will People Work? — reflections and excerpts, The Atlantic’s How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America by Don Peck.

In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.
(From The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck)

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Where will people work?

This is what keeps me awake at night, in regards to our country and our overall economic health.

Though there is some, but much less, worry for the college-educated among us, with skills that are needed in the new economy, and with the ability to keep learning new skills, and, equally important, to be a true self-starter, nimble, ready to change, the greater worry is for the others — the lesser educated.  These others are definitely having the most difficulty.

I’ve written about this before, especially in this post:  What I’m Not Reading – and why I’m bothered by it (should companies focus, much more, on nurturing jobs?) I hope you will consider reading it.

But this post is about a quite disturbing article.  In the latest The Atlantic, there is a serious attempt to tackle this question:  How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America by Don Peck.

I don’t usually provide the lengthy excerpts that I will provide here – but I felt I needed to give you enough to let the article speak.  In my opinion, this is the challenge in our era!  I hope you read the entire article.  Here are the excerpts:

The Great Recession may be over, but this era of high joblessness is probably just beginning. Before it ends, it will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men. It could cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a despair not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years to come…

There is unemployment, a brief and relatively routine transitional state that results from the rise and fall of companies in any economy, and there is unemployment—chronic, all-consuming. The former is a necessary lubricant in any engine of economic growth. The latter is a pestilence that slowly eats away at people, families, and, if it spreads widely enough, the fabric of society. Indeed, history suggests that it is perhaps society’s most noxious ill…

IN HER CLASSIC SOCIOLOGY of the Depression, The Unemployed Man and His Family, Mirra Komarovsky vividly describes how joblessness strained—and in many cases fundamentally altered—family relationships in the 1930s. During 1935 and 1936, Komarovsky and her research team interviewed the members of 59 white middle-class families in which the husband and father had been out of work for at least a year. Her research revealed deep psychological wounds. “It is awful to be old and discarded at 40,” said one father. “A man is not a man without work.” Another said plainly, “During the depression I lost something. Maybe you call it self-respect, but in losing it I also lost the respect of my children, and I am afraid I am losing my wife.” Noted one woman of her husband, “I still love him, but he doesn’t seem as ‘big’ a man.”

Especially in middle-aged men, long accustomed to the routine of the office or factory, unemployment seems to produce a crippling disorientation. At a series of workshops for the unemployed that I attended around Philadelphia last fall, the participants were overwhelmingly male, and the men in particular described the erosion of their identities, the isolation of being jobless, and the indignities of downward mobility…

IN HIS 1996 BOOK, When Work Disappears, the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson connected the loss of jobs from inner cities in the 1970s to the many social ills that cropped up after that. “The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness,” he wrote,are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty. A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighborhood in which many people are poor and jobless. Many of today’s problems in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods—crime, family dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organization, and so on—are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work…

“The point I want to emphasize,” Wilson said, “is that we should brace ourselves.”

In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, the economic historian Benjamin Friedman argues that both inside and outside the U.S., lengthy periods of economic stagnation or decline have almost always left society more mean-spirited and less inclusive, and have usually stopped or reversed the advance of rights and freedoms. A high level of national wealth, Friedman writes, “is no bar to a society’s retreat into rigidity and intolerance once enough of its citizens lose the sense that they are getting ahead.” When material progress falters, Friedman concludes, people become more jealous of their status relative to others. Anti-immigrant sentiment typically increases, as does conflict between races and classes; concern for the poor tends to decline…

We are living through a slow-motion social catastrophe, one that could stain our culture and weaken our nation for many, many years to come. We have a civic—and indeed a moral—responsibility to do everything in our power to stop it now, before it gets even worse.

I think business leaders and managers and thinkers need to put their best thinking caps on, and ask – what can we as individuals, and what can our companies, do to tackle this challenge?