A breath of new heights

Despite growing up in the flat country of the Midwest, I’ve always been attracted to heights. The top of the tree in our backyard was mine alone. I remember taking the speedy express elevator to the top of the Carew Tower in downtown Cincinnati as a child and looking down on the ant-like people on the streets far below. And mountains have always loomed large in my imagination, later abetted by a few early visits to the Appalachians in Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. I even backpacked a week on the Appalachian Trail at age 12 as a Boy Scout with my primitive-camping troop.

By the time I returned to Indiana in the mid-’70s, I had also lived in the Allegheny foothills to the west of the Catskills in New York state as well as the Poconos in eastern Pennsylvania. I’d even ventured into New Hampshire to climb Mount Washington, the highest point in the Northeast. I thought I had a familiarity with mountains.

The paperback cover …

My next upheaval sent me west. The drive across the Great Plains and Rockies was a revelation, and the entry into the environs of my new employment came frankly as a shock. Neither my wife nor I was prepared for the arid, open desert where nearly everything, including its famed apple orchards, required irrigation. Forefront in my mind was Swami Lakshmy’s observation from her first visit to India, that every place she visited had its own unique vibration.

And yes, there were mountains, including the barren heights defining our valley as well as the eastern flank of the Cascade Range to our west and glacier-clad Mount Adams looking down on us from 50 miles away.

As I adjusted to the realities, everything was filled with wonder I came to love, as you will see in my novel Nearly Canaan, which started out being more about the distinct landscape than about fully considered characters.

My employment situation, meanwhile, provided its own fodder for what would emerge as Hometown News back in the Rust Belt. I never wanted to leave Pacific Northwest, for sure, but a new publisher at the newspaper made the situation intolerable. As I bailed out, along with the most of the rest of the management team, I entered a difficult period that added much to the newspaper tale, plus a divorce and broken engagement.

It’s always hard to come down from a mountain. A part yearns to hang there forever.

Death takes a big toll on a family firm

A huge challenge to family-owned businesses arises in the passing of one generation to another. The unanticipated death of the patriarch or matriarch in his or her prime can wreak havoc on the company, even if inheritance tax liabilities aren’t overwhelming. Sometimes the heir apparent isn’t the best option, not all of the heirs want to be part of the operation, or bitter rivalries emerge. Getting through the fourth generation, with a spreading number of family members and interests, can determine the fate of the enterprise. As I saw in the newspaper industry, most nameplates sold out to media chains at this point, losing much of their underlying local connection in the process.

Do you know of any businesses that fit this description? 

Why didn’t I become an academic?

The second of my three times of stepping out of the news business came when Vincent and Elinor Ostrom invited me to return to Indiana to become the social sciences editor in their new Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. Vincent had been a wonderful mentor through my undergrad years, and the opportunity to work with them again was truly exciting. Besides, I was newly married and the move would allow my wife to continue with her college studies. It was a pretty heady undertaking all around.

We settled in at the edge of town, pretty much as I describe in Nearly Canaan. But having Indiana show up so much already in my fiction – Daffodil Uprising and What’s Left, especially – as I revisited this stage in my life, I looked around for a landscape with similar features and people, which I was surprised to find arising in the Ozarks. Now you know. In full candor, I have to admit I’ve never been in Arkansas or that swath of Missouri, even though my mother was born in St. Louis.

Two important things emerged for me personally during this sojourn. First was my shift from yoga to Quaker as my spiritual path. Second was my emergence as a poet, largely through a lively off-campus circle that was surprisingly free of academic influence. As a research associate, I could borrow books from the graduate library for unlimited periods, and so I had a shelf of small-press chapbooks at hand – what a luxury! And my interludes in the renowned Lilly rare-book library remain treasured, where I handled rare editions of Samuel Johnson’s Ramblers (1750-52, including a few coffee stains and pencil marks, presumably from their first readers) and Audubon’s original luxurious prints (all birds presented life-size, as if stunningly pressed into the pages) and fine-arts broadsides of Gary Snyder’s poems from the 1950s onward.

I found the academic life to be much to my liking. I’ve been asked since why I didn’t go on to graduate school and a professorial direction. My answers are muffled, beginning with the personal finance situation and the glut of doctorates already looking for tenure, at least in my fields of interest. I would have chafed at the internal politics, naturally. And then I came across Snyder’s reason for not continuing his own post-graduate degrees (at Indiana, when he made the decision) – he realized he could be a good professor or a good poet, but not both. I would later arrive at something similar when it came to the management track I pursued through the first half of my journalism career, as you’ll see.

Those of us in the Workshop had barely celebrated our getting the second phase of our major grant renewed, meaning I’d be staying in Bloomington another four years, when we were hit with the devasting news that the amount had been drastically slashed during an unanticipated realignment of the federal agency’s priorities. What it meant for me and my wife was packing up and moving on again.

The next opening felt like a ticket to Heaven.

Oh, brother! Watch out when he’s bossy

When a family-owned business has two siblings at the helm, how effectively they resolve conflicts – or ignore them – is crucial. As one well-known New England brother has said, he learned that family was more important than always being right. In their case, it worked. They even became TV stars in their ads. I suppose there were other corrective mechanisms behind the scenes or ones that would kick in later. We’ll see the biz school case study in time, no doubt. On the other hand, differences can also lead to lawsuits, the breakup of the company, even its sale to rivals, perhaps followed by a longstanding refusal to speak to each other. We’ve also seen those headlines.

Do you know of any businesses like this? 

Yeah, yeah, yeah, what do I know? Like I’m an expert on anything?

Through the period of my life right after college, I kept relocating every year-and-a-half to a new job and location. The shock provided more grist for my writing than I would have anticipated, but not the time to digest it.  Each round, I was just getting settled when I was interrupted and uprooted. That set me in four different states over six years at the beginning, followed by three more over the next ten. Altogether, that added up to 11 mailing addresses in seven states before I packed pack up for New England. No matter how adventurous I might find adjusting to the new environments, it was ultimately stressful. There were days I hardly knew where I was waking up. More emotionally difficult has been the way friendships fade over such distances.

As a writer who was also tackling the demands of a new job, I had little time to digest the fresh material, much less revise it, either as poetry or prose, especially if I wanted to dig beneath the surface.

As for my love life?

It’s a wonder I didn’t go loco.

How does the rest of the family face up to the challenge?

Family-run businesses present their own unique operating models.

Under the ideal version, the members have an understanding of each other and their mission along with a loyalty that’s unrivaled. The business is part of their identity. Each member of the family understands his or her abilities and place in the enterprise. Often, they learned the operation from childhood on, starting at entry level. For their employees, however, that can come at the price of exclusion and upward mobility.

Sometimes the organization is headed by a patriarch or matriarch with the authority to make and enforce difficult decisions. In this model resentments and perceived sleights can mount over the years before erupting. Or the family head may no longer fit the kind of executive the company needs at a particular stage of its growth; a founder, for instance, may have technical expertise but not the people skills for marketing or adapting to a changing market.

What have you seen or experienced?