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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Conferences as a business

I was speaking with my boss, Mary Ghikas, about the recent ALA conference in Orlando. She said some things I hadn't heard of or thought about before.

Many people, particularly their first time through an ALA conference, get totally overwhelmed, particularly if they find themselves traveling to a mix of programs and committee meetings. In that case, they find themselves dashing around a city in cabs or buses. They wonder, "Why can't we put everything in one place?"

The answer is pretty simple: we have way more concurrent meetings than most associations. While ALA works hard to get all the programs in the conference center (where there is a speaker, not just a discussion group or committee meeting), ALA typically has between 350-370 meetings going on at the same time. Nobody has a conference center that big, so we have to team up with hotels to get the necessary rooms. That adds costs, too, because hotels love to tack on charges for wifi, projectors, cords and cables, and so on. In fact, we find that it's not a bad rule of thumb to triple anything you check off on an AV list - because there will be inevitable staff charges on top of it.

Other associations tend to cluster their committee meetings on the first day: let's say a Saturday morning and afternoon. Then they're done: the official conference begins Saturday night, and then they're just booking a few larger program spaces. Everybody gets to attend programs instead of committee meetings. This makes not only for a cheaper cost to put on the conference, but far more shared experiences of the members.

To make that happen at ALA would take a couple of significant shifts: first, way more committee work would have to be done between conferences, probably electronically (conference calls and webinars). Second, ALA members would have to whittle back the number of committees they serve on. Right now, there's a general guideline of holding yourself to three. But then you can imagine the scheduling conflicts when everybody has three meetings not only scheduled against programs, but against each other.

This isn't to say that committees aren't important. They are. But they're also an expense that could be better managed. And that management might allow for conferences that were a little more fun and a little less frantic.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Email management

Working at the American Library Association (ALA) means being at the hub of all kinds of professional communications.

There is news: from Chicago, from the association, from states, from the nation, from the world.

I have stakeholders: library colleagues across the board, ALA members, my staff, other ALA staff members, ALA leadership; the publishing community (both established and emergent); the press and other media representatives; the society at large; an international community of librarians and journalists.

I have projects: internal database development, staff workflow restructuring, joint ALA office leadership development and training, growing new channels of thought leadership.

Wait a minute: no wonder I'm a little stressed!

My point: I've had to grow. Fast. Most of it has been fun and interesting. But there has been one key source of anxiety, the biggest bugaboo of my work life lately: the unending flood of email, and my struggle to stay on top of it. I'm pretty sure I dreamed about it last night. No doubt that's why I woke up today around 5 a.m. and started (mind)mapping the issues.

Here's the first thing I've learned: before I even go to work, every morning lately I pull out a little index card and write down the three to five things I really think I need to get done that day. My best efforts, my first efforts, go to those. It's helped.

Throughout the day, though, I'm dealing with all that email. Sometimes, it's an urgent notification. Sometimes, it's just me taking a break between the big stuff.

After 5 months of processing all this both consciously and unconsciously, I think I've come up with an email management model. It looks something like this.


Most of the time, hitting the delete button is absolutely the right thing to do. The mail doesn't apply to me. I already knew it. I can find it somewhere else.


The second issue requires me to take some action. Those actions seem to fall into the following categories:


I can respond in just a few moments or minutes. Someone sent me a comment; I send a comment back. Someone asks me for a link or a file; I click on an attachment. Maybe it's a little longer: I have to dig into some older files, do a little research. But it's still under 10-15 minutes, and the relationship justifies the time.

In both of these cases: it makes sense to just get it out of the way, rather than pass over it and hope I remember to come back. That way, it doesn't linger and eat away at my conscience.

Add to my running "To Do" list

Here's the way my brain works. I need a distinct list of the things I hope to get around to. If I put it on the calendar, and something disrupts me, I lose it. I just don't remember to move it to another day. Often, the whole point of an email is that I have to take some action by some time. So I extract that from the email, put it on my to do list, and delete the message. That way, all of my "stuff to do" is on one list, not scattered across multiple messages or calendars.


Or it could be something related to one of those larger projects. And here's the key: most of the time, the right answer is to take it OUT of Outlook (the email client of ALA). If I stay in Outlook, I'm focused on mail. That means I'm always losing sight of a project in the flood of new email. If I move to a project management tool, I focus on meaning and management. So I pop over to one of my other tools (lately, Dynalist [], an online outliner that is dead simple to use) to record the relevant information, and outline the next steps. Dynalist notes are quickly searchable and re-arrangeable. Then I can delete the email.


All I have to do is to take a meeting request and put it on my schedule. Accept, decline, hunt around for a date, and send an invite. Again, the goal is just to get it out of the Inbox.

Read later

Often, I get an Internet link that's kind of interesting. It might wind up being a URL in our IF newsletter. It might just be diverting. But I can usually figure that out in a paragraph or two, and just drag it out of my Inbox to a "later" folder. If I don't get to it, it doesn't matter.


And here's where I got trapped. When you start a new job, you don't know what you'll have to know later. So you tend to save everything in Outlook, leaving it as part of a "maybe-I'll-need-this-later" pool. But Outlook doesn't really do searches very well, although it pretends to. And the sandpile grows and grows...

"Remember it" falls into three subsets:

Active email thread

Typically, this is short term. We're nailing down the content for next week's program. We're hammering out a pitch, presentation, or project. It makes sense to stash it in an Inbox subfolder, or even the main folder... as long as it only lasts a couple of days.

A note

There's a snippet of info that's good to tuck away. It gets filed, for me, in either SimpleNote (a quick, highly searchable notes database accessible from all my devices), or Dynalist (which is more about a work journal and project management notes).

A file

Intellectual Freedom folks tend to produce discrete Word documents. That might be a draft Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. It might be an academic research report. In either case, the smart thing to do is save it to my file system: either working files (my home drive), or permanent shared files (a network location). These are longer pieces worthy of saving, and become part of a working or permanent file system.

An archive

When the project or thread wraps up, I may not need it. But maybe, even probably, I'll need to go back and reconstruct something, or remember who was involved. Then I can archive the folder, and get it off of the daily dashboard.

And there you have it

  • Throw it away
  • Do it
  • Remember it
Of course, it may well be that in future weeks I'll see the folly of my ways yet again. But I will say this: today, I not only ended the day with nothing in that day's in-basket, I plowed back through 9 days earlier. I think I'm finally seeing how to handle an essential communications tool at this significantly higher volume.

Now I need to re-consider the taxonomy of my filing system. But that's another post.

And you?

This represents just one man's attempt to sort out this issue. What have you tried? What's more important: what's worked?

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Moving, again

Some of you know that I moved from Colorado to Chicago this year. It was January. Then, I discovered that I had moved not just next door to, but just above the main floor of a very popular, and very loud, dance club.

To be fair, most days of the week (Sunday-Wednesday) the apartment is very quiet. But it's also dark, pointing east toward a tiny box of brick between two skyscrapers into which little light falls.

But my landlords gave me a six month (as opposed to a full year) lease, and let me out a little early to move up from the first to the 16th floor. The new apartment has a pretty spectacular view of Lake Michigan. The new apartment is more expensive, of course, but I do like the Near North neighborhood. From my address, it's an 11 minute walk to work, and two blocks away from almost anything else.

So I've spent my day, in a leisurely way (I strolled to a terrific breakfast place in the morning, I walked along the shore this afternoon), preparing 12 boxes, 6 pieces of furniture, and a closet that won't take much time to clear. Tomorrow, I've hired some folks to help me swiftly move up my stuff to a new spot. The new apartment features hardwood floors (as opposed to my current industrial carpet), the same high bay windows (but with light and a view to the east, and even north windows, so the possibility of a cross breeze), and granite counter tops. We're still talking small (about 650 square feet), but in fact that's plenty of space for me.

Small is good, because in my 5.5 months here, I've begun to build up these little incomprehensible piles. We expand to fill the available space. I suspect, as with email, these collections are mostly insignificant. (Says the man who just got a notice that his email box is full.) But in my impatience to simplify and clarify, I do worry that I'm tossing things that I will one day wish I'd saved, or should have paid more attention to. Probably not. But if you sent me something I didn't respond to, mea cupla. Ping me again. I'm getting better at recognizing what matters. (This means, of course, that I may not have been so good before. That's on me, not you.)

Starting a new job, learning a new city, is both exciting and stressful. Working another change, so soon since the first move, is also exciting.

I have learned:
  • The American Library Association is populated by some of the smartest, most competent, and most passionate librarians I've ever met. I deeply appreciate getting to know them.
  • The work we do is vital. I mean that. These days, according to Pew's Lee Rainie, there are only three professions Americans still trust: firefighters, nurses, and librarians. My only claim to firefighting - Fahrenheit 451 aside - was running out the back stairs with a flaming wok (get it out of the house! I thought). But my mother was a nurse, so is one of my sisters, and I've worked as an orderly. These days, still, I'm a librarian. I'll say again: the work we do is important.
  • Chicago, despite the appalling 1,000-plus shootings this year alone, and a deep, continuing history of crime and corruption, is also home to some of the politest people in the world, even and heartbreakingly true of its panhandlers, and architecture that takes my breath away at least twice every single day. The city has problems. But it is alive.
  • Lake Michigan is alive. She has a spirit, and today, she was frolicking with winds from the NorthEast, which dropped the temperature some 20 degrees. Thank you. Lake Michigan and I started talking when I was 6-17 years old. It turns out we still have some things to say to each other. She knows more than I do. But she's been around longer, too. That business about where the winds come from is worth thinking about, too.
  • I have a lot to learn. One example: today, there was a terrorist shooting at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida. In a couple of weeks, Orlando, Florida is precisely where ALA is holding our next annual conference. This is such an intersection of issues - political, sexual, religious, professional - that it's hard to know where to start, or what to say. I would like to contribute to the discussion, not just mark territory, like a stray and incontinent dog. We need to move forward. We, librarians, need to make things better.
I have so many wonderful friends and helpers. Thank you for your time, your insights, your advice. Keep it coming!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Reflections of a Conscientious Objector

[What follows is the work of my friend and colleague Rick Ashton. It's a powerful story about a subject that isn't well known or talked about these days. But it's worth telling. I am very proud to "publish" it here.]

MAY 27, 2016

I have told the story of the Vietnam War era and my part in it to many people who have heard it with blank expressions.  My children, my younger colleagues and acquaintances, and even my contemporaries have received my story as an object of antiquarian curiosity.  This has led to a certain reticence on my part.  I have become reluctant to experience the incomprehension and wonderment of my listeners.

Nevertheless, I hope the present telling will have a different reception.  While many of the particulars will be unfamiliar, I think most readers of this report will at least recognize the general outline.  I have included what may be an unwarranted level of detail because I may be the only member of the Class of 1967 who pursued conscientious objector status.  I hope to preserve at least a fragment of the small and largely forgotten niche I occupied.

On October 16, 1967, after several months of soul-searching and discussion, I submitted Selective Service Form 150, “Special Form for Conscientious Objector,” to my local draft board in Middletown, Ohio, seeking the 1-O classification.  I signed the required statement:

“I am, by reason of my religious training and belief, conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form and I am further conscientiously opposed to participation in noncombatant training and service in the Armed Forces.  I, therefore, claim exemption from both combatant and noncombatant training and service in the Armed Services.”

Thus began what seemed at the time to be a perilous adventure, even though half a century later, it looks more like an early life lesson in bureaucratic maneuvering.  It resulted in a two-year work assignment whose unexpected lessons became an important part of my life.  It shaped my religious understanding more strongly than a lifetime of church-going.

The initial task was to convince my draft board of the sincerity and validity of my convictions.  Reviewing my statement now, I am struck by its cool and dispassionate tone.  I recited my religious upbringing in the Presbyterian Church, enumerated my participation in various efforts toward peace and justice, and explained the circumstances under which I could support the use of force.  Although it does not convey much passion, the statement was as warm as I could make it at the time:

“Constantly aware of and responsive to the universal presence of the Supreme Being in myself and in others, I could not involve myself, either directly or indirectly, in the destruction of human life.  Killing another man or participating in the work of an army, whose main business is killing men, would involve a denial of the presence of the spirit in others, as well as a destruction of my own responsiveness to the spirit within me.  I could neither make that denial nor destroy that responsiveness.  My obligation to love, honor, and respect others because of the universal spirit in them and in me is superior to any other duty of which I am aware.”

These measured words do not begin to express the urgency or intensity of my feelings at the time.  Perhaps the formality of the process guided me into the college essay mode.  Or maybe this was how I habitually expressed myself after four years at Harvard.  In any event, I did the best I could with the materials at hand.

Because the Selective Service System placed strong emphasis on the institutional religious basis of a conscientious objector’s belief, I cited at length a recent policy pronouncement of the United Presbyterian Church USA:

“We of the Reformed tradition oppose systems of service which force an individual to act in opposition to the dictates of his conscience, informed by the mores of the society, ethical tradition, and the power of the Spirit.  Concern for reconciliation and justice is an essential attribute of our communion; and, although there be disagreement among us concerning the best means to these ends, we affirm the rights of conscientious individuals to express dissenting viewpoints.  Moreover, we respect the conscience of those not of our tradition who may hold to a humanitarian life view based on training and belief which does not necessarily include a belief in a Supreme Being.”

Along with my personal statement went an original and five copies of fourteen letters of reference, all attesting, in one way or another, that I was an honest person, sincere and reliable in my convictions.  These letters came from family members, Presbyterian clergy, Harvard roommates and friends, Dunster House resident tutors, and every other respectable person I could recruit.  Reading those letters now, I am struck by the generous willingness of many people to affirm their belief in my seriousness, even when they did not share my view.  This was most clearly stated by Francis P. Locke, the Harvard alumnus who had recruited me:

“Although I would not myself have conscientious objections to military service and although I happen to support Administration policy in this particular war, I deeply respect the view that Rick holds and the sincerity with which it is obvious to me he is setting it forth.”

Only one person that I contacted, a well-loved high school English teacher, did not respond positively to my request for a reference.  She did not respond at all.

A few days after submitting Form 150 to the draft board, I applied for a 2-S educational deferment as a graduate student in the Ph.D. program in history at Northwestern University.  The student deferment was routinely granted, extending through October 1968.

I was beginning to develop bureaucratic resourcefulness.  This was supported by members of the Midwest Committee on Draft Counseling, a network of volunteers in the Chicago area.  As many of our contemporaries learned to their sorrow, the Selective Service System, especially at the highly decentralized local board level, was anything but transparent, logical, or predictable.  Expert advice and assistance helped to pilot me through its unknown waters.

My primary draft counselor was Gary Skinner, an associate pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Evanston, Illinois, who provided excellent guidance.  When the complications of my case began to outstrip his expertise, he accompanied me to see Alice Lynd, whose Quaker convictions and deep knowledge of the system provided an anchor for volunteers and registrants throughout the area.  She was a well-known figure in the anti-draft sector of the anti-war movement.  Her advice proved to be invaluable.

At the same time, there was school.  It was not a great time to be a graduate student at Northwestern.  President Johnson continued to escalate the war, civil rights efforts intensified, and student unrest disrupted a formerly quiet suburban campus.  Scholarly concentration was difficult to achieve.  Even the logistics of the university conspired against me.  My assigned desk in the stacks of the outdated Deering Library was located next to a restroom.  My work was accompanied by a day-long chorus of flushing toilets.  Nevertheless, I read the books, wrote the papers, argued in the seminars, and crawled over various hurdles toward the life of a history professor.

Then came 1968.  I volunteered on the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign, an exercise in chaos.  President Johnson withdrew from candidacy.  Martin Luther King was assassinated.  Rioting rocked Chicago.  Robert Kennedy was assassinated.  The Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey while Chicago police beat up the protestors outside.  Richard Nixon was elected.

From Local Board Number 10, Middletown, Ohio, came only silence until January 1969. The board informed me that it was considering my case.  It offered an opportunity to appear and explain why my request for 1-O conscientious objector status should be granted.   I was inclined to waive this meeting, cynically assuming in my 23-year-old wisdom that it was just a charade.  I clearly needed more schooling in the workings of bureaucracy.  Alice Lynd thought I should give the Selective Service System a chance.  It might operate correctly and grant me the requested classification, or it might commit an error so egregious that I would have good grounds for an appeal of the local board’s decision.  Lynd encouraged me to appear before the board, create a record of the proceedings, and submit that record for my file.  Since local draft boards were not required to employ a court stenographer or make any other detailed record of their meetings, this was the only available method for documentation.  I had learned from the clerk of my local board that the board, created in 1941, had never before received a request for conscientious objector status.  They might not know what to do.  So I prepared to go.  Conditioned by the give-and-take of the seminar room, I would try to remember and later write down everything that was said.

The meeting was set for January 28, 1969.  In Chicago I boarded an early-morning flight to Dayton.  We sat on the ramp at O’Hare airport for more than three and a half hours while an airplane that had slid from an icy ramp into the mud was cleared out of the way.  Finally arriving in the Dayton airport, I made a frantic phone call, rented a car, and covered the thirty miles to Middletown in twenty minutes.  I burst into the draft board office, more than an hour late for my appointment, to find the members of the board quietly steaming. 

As might be expected, the meeting did not go well.  In addition to questions on Presbyterian theology and policy and the origins and extent of my beliefs, board members wanted to know about my willingness to move away from my present residence to perform civilian alternative service.  The general tone of the conversation went something like this:

Board Member: Are you opposed to all wars, or just the Vietnam war?

Ashton: I am opposed to all wars I can conceive of.

Member: All wars?

Ashton: All wars.

Member: And when did you come to believe this?

Ashton: By August-September 1967, as I wrote in my application, I had come to this position.

Member: Don’t you think everybody is opposed to war?

Ashton: Yes.

Member: What would happen in this country if everybody refused to fight?

Ashton: We wouldn’t get into wars.

Member: What?

Ashton: We wouldn’t get into wars.

Member: What about World War II?  What would have happened?

Ashton: I don’t know.

Member: I’ll tell you what.  This country wouldn’t be here now, would it?

Ashton: I don’t know.  I suppose not.

And so on.  At the end of the meeting, I submitted a supplementary written statement with four additional letters of reference from Northwestern faculty and students.  I hurried off to write a near-verbatim transcript of the meeting, submitted for the file a few days later.  Although I was feeling a rising sense of panic and despair about the outcome of all this, I suppressed it with paperwork, the busy bureaucrat’s refuge in time of need.

On January 29, 1969, the board issued its decision, classifying me 1-A.  This triggered a formal appeal, scheduled for March 11.  Along with this came an opportunity to meet with the Government Appeals Agent.  The appeals agent was a local attorney, retained by the draft board to provide legal and procedural advice to the board and to individuals.  I was prepared to ignore this invitation, assuming that the appeals agent, as attorney for the board, would never be helpful to me.  Again, Alice Lynd patiently advised me to open all doors.  She also suggested that I arrange to have a character witness, not an attorney, accompany me to the personal appearance.

This time I did not rely on an airline.  I drove to Ohio a day in advance.  When I met with William Rathman, the Government Appeals Agent, he mentioned that he had a master’s degree in government from Harvard.  We reviewed my file.  He wrote his brief report, recommending that the board grant me the requested classification.  He indicated that he would argue against the local board if it became necessary to appeal their decision to the state board.  He gave the report to me to hand-deliver to the board’s clerk with the suggestion that she inform the board of his recommendations.

In the draft board’s outer office, I connected with Robert Clark, the minister of St. Luke United Presbyterian Church, the congregation in which I had grown up.  He had agreed to accompany me, even though there was no guarantee that he would be allowed to sit in or speak.  He mentioned that he had chatted with Mr. Rathman, the appeals agent, at the Rotary Club lunch earlier that day.  Mr. Rathman had told him not to worry, but this did not do much to ease my anxiety.

The second meeting was quite different from the first.  The board allowed Mr. Clark to accompany me into the session.  The first issue was a member’s demand to see inside my briefcase, where he suspected I was hiding a tape recorder.  Had there been a surreptitious recording device, I am sure my goose would have been cooked.  But the near-verbatim account of the earlier meeting had rattled the board.  There was indeed no tape recorder, but the awareness that their words would be reported did seem to dampen their spirits. 

Most of the discussion was between board members and Mr. Clark.  They quizzed him on Presbyterian theology and policy, and he held his own.  They hardly spoke to me.  After about twenty minutes, they adjourned the discussion.

Within a few days, to my surprise and relief, notice of the board’s decision to grant the requested 1-O classification arrived in the mail.  But there was no opportunity for celebration.  The board clerk quickly went to work, making sure that I met all the administrative requirements for civilian alternative service.  Almost any job that might plausibly contribute to the national health or well-being would have qualified, as long as it was more than fifty miles distant from Evanston, Illinois.  The clerk delegated to me the task of finding a suitable job and getting it approved.  I proceeded on.

Reflecting on the process, whose active phase lasted less than three months, I am struck by the isolation within which it occurred.  Although opposition to the draft and the war is sometimes remembered as a mass movement, I had no colleagues, no cohort, no fellow conscientious objectors with whom I could claim solidarity.  My support from two members of the Midwest Committee on Draft Counseling was real and effective, but it had no connection with anyone who was having the same experience as mine.  No one mistreated or lied to me, and everyone seemed to be playing by the rules.  I am obliged to acknowledge that the system, such as it was, actually worked.

My few chance encounters with other conscientious objectors over the years have tended to confirm this notion.  Middle-class white men from educated liberal backgrounds, they have no real horror stories to tell.

Having secured the coveted status, I now had to act upon it, even though other big things were competing for my attention.  In early April 1969, I completed my oral and written examinations and was admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. at Northwestern.  Six weeks later, I began working as an orderly in the operating room at Bethesda Hospital in Cincinnati.  With many family members in southwest Ohio, my wife Marcia and I thought Cincinnati would be a reasonable location.  The two years spent in alternative service, May 1969 to May1971, were personally mundane.  Out in the big world, there was the Nixon-Kissinger escalation of the war, the moon landing, Woodstock, but none of this had any personal impact.  A job, a marriage, and the birth of our first child kept me from worrying much about other things.

After the dramatic war-related anxiety of Harvard and Northwestern and the tense engagement with my draft board, everyday life in Cincinnati offered no excitement.  We lived in an ordinary lower-middle-class white neighborhood.  On the job at Bethesda Hospital, my religious and political views were unpopular, but, to my surprise, I was not persecuted for them.  My bosses and co-workers were not much interested in my opinions, even though I was clearly identified as one of Spiro Agnew’s Effete Snobs for Peace.  During an operation, the surgeon might chat with the anesthesiologist about golf, the stock market, or even the condition of the patient, but never about the war, the draft, or local or national politics.  No one else was invited into the conversation.

Yet there was a current of unease, occasioned by my anomalous position in the hospital hierarchy.  For the first time in my life, I began to see and understand more clearly a world structured by race, sex, and class.

At the top of the medical pyramid were the educated white men, the doctors.  They commanded the reserved parking spots, the smoking lounge off the locker room (yes, even in 1970, some physicians smoked), and many other forms of deference to their power.  If their first names were known, they were never used, only “Dr. Smith.”

The nurses, trained professional white women, ranked just below the physicians.  Except for the youngest among them, nurses too lacked first names.  They enforced the hierarchy.  My supervisor, Mrs. Allen, certainly knew her place.  She might occasionally challenge one of the younger surgeons about the schedule, the equipment, or his disrespectful treatment of her staff, but she almost always deferred to the doctors.  She compensated for this by urgently bossing everyone else around.  Other nurses adopted the same style. 

Below the nurses ranked a mixed group.  The black women who worked as surgical technicians were at the top.  They were followed in no clear order by other technicians, clerks, aides, orderlies, and custodians, white and black, male and female.  These workers, among whom I was numbered, had only first names or nicknames, and we took orders from doctors and nurses, willy-nilly.  Someone gave me the nickname “Ranger,” derived from the children’s nature magazine “Ranger Rick,” but I did not have a clear identity to go with it.

An educated white man but not a physician, I was an anomaly.  My job title and personal characteristics did not match.  Although I was certainly not the first person to perform civilian alternative service in the operating room, I did not fit the expectation.  Previous conscientious objectors had been Mennonite farm boys from central Ohio.  They fit easily into the low-skilled ranks, and their attitudes and beliefs were at least as conservative as those of the Cincinnatians with whom they worked. 

During my first months on the job, the feeling of dissonance and the occasional verbal abuse seemed more personal than religiously or politically-based.  I was more likely to hear a jeering “professor” or “college boy” than “draft-dodger” or “communist.”   While this was certainly not intolerable, it was sufficient to focus my attention on a solution.

The obvious answer was the work itself.  It was, after all, serious business.  Although the people working in the operating room did not talk about it much, we were saving lives, repairing broken bodies, and fighting to make things better for the patients we touched.   Ultimately, this was what counted.

  Having been promoted from orderly to operating room technician via on-the-job training, I decided to become good at my job, a valuable member of the working group.  This was a rewarding experience.  It became the basis of a strategy I employed throughout my work life.  Even in a fundamentally unfriendly environment, the person who shows up, pays attention, keeps in touch, and maintains a cheerful demeanor can be successful.  The operating room provided lessons in leadership and teamwork that later helped me through many a challenging time.

In Bethesda’s old-fashioned Blue Cross hospital environment, there were no resident physicians in training, no medical students, and no high-tech tools or monitoring equipment.  A portable x-ray machine was the fanciest device in the operating room.  For most major operations, only five or six people were present: surgeon; hospital-employee physician working as the surgeon’s assistant; anesthesiologist; technician working as scrub nurse; technician circulating to provide instruments and supplies; and nurse/supervisor doing paperwork and managing communications.  In order to complete three to five substantial procedures in a work day, this small team had to function well.  Each person must pay full attention and perform in the assigned role without hesitation or error.  Each person must anticipate and respond to the actions of all the others.  This was not just a matter of organizational convenience.  It also served the patient by minimizing trauma, bleeding, and time under anesthesia.  Even though the patient might be called “the ten o-clock hernia,” not “Mr. Miller,” the team worked for his benefit.

When surgical teamwork was at its best, it produced the detached feeling that psychologists have described as “flow.”  Time seemed to be suspended.  Spoken communication was largely unnecessary.  As my skills as a scrub nurse developed, I developed a personal work measure.  I tried to hit the surgeon’s palm with next required instrument without any verbal prompt from him, every time.  When I managed to achieve that through an entire two-hour gall bladder operation, I was definitely in the flow.  It often appeared that other team members were functioning in a similar way.

The best surgeons were team leaders who understood this dynamic and made good use of it.  They won the respect of all the players by calling people by name, thanking people, praising good work, and using “we,” not “I.”  When problems or complications arose, they remained focused, issued clear directions, and accepted responsibility.  And they did not forget about the person on the table. 

On those rare occasions when a patient died in the operating room, the most effective surgical leaders cemented the team by owning the failure themselves.  After one hopeless case, the traumatic death of a man whose motorcycle had plunged through a barbed-wire fence, the surgeon thanked the team for its efforts and apologized for his inability to stop the patient’s bleeding.  Then he went out into the waiting room and said “I’m sorry” to the man’s family.  This was a leader whose team would go all-out to support him.

At the other end of the scale was the surgeon who cursed the blood bank clerk while his very sick patient slipped away.  Then he directed a nurse to deliver the bad news by phoning the patient’s family in the waiting room.  During the remainder of my two years, I never heard a positive word about him.  People who worked on his cases seemed to have less energy, to move a bit more slowly.

At later stages of my working life, I have thought about those small teams and those surgeon leaders in good times and bad.  When I have been tempted to dodge or redirect the responsibility for some failure, the remembered facial expressions of my operating room co-workers remind me: own the blame.  This unexpected lesson remains the most valuable remnant of my work experience as a conscientious objector.

In more immediate terms, the two-year detour off the career path dramatically changed my professional prospects.  I returned to academic life, spent two more years completing the Ph.D., and tried to find a job as a college history teacher.  By 1973, when I finished my degree, employment prospects had deteriorated badly.  That fact, coupled with the recognition that I did not really enjoy performing before a classroom full of bored adolescents, cut off my future as a historian.  So I moved sideways, progressed, and started on a rewarding forty-year public service career in the library world.  I have no regrets.

Recently my thoughts about conscientious objection have become more complex.  Claims of religion-based exemptions from general laws not related to military service have driven this.  Some employers have raised religious objections to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer-provided health insurance include coverage for contraceptive services.  Some businesses and some public officials have claimed religious grounds for denying services connected with same-sex marriage.  Some state legislatures have passed so-called “freedom of religion” laws to validate these positions.

My first reaction to these forms of conscientious objection has been, like that of most liberals, disdainful.  I consider them a travesty, a perversion of Christianity, a parody of the meaning of the First Amendment.  Once I finish spluttering, however, I am forced to ask how these claims are different from my own conscientious objection to military service.  If individual conscience supersedes the law in one case, why not in the other?  In the words of Pope Francis, originally spoken in a vastly different context, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?”

Judgment of others’ beliefs aside, I am grateful for my role and my experience as a conscientious objector.  If I had not been challenged to define and defend my faith fifty years ago, I doubt that I would be a practicing Christian today.  That effort to explain myself, as cold and stilted as it now seems, forced me to inject a human dimension, the presence of the Spirit in all people, into my thinking.  That, above all else, is where my faith still rests.  Amen.

Rick Ashton wrote this essay for a report on the Vietnam War era organized by a group of his Harvard College classmates for their 50th reunion in 2017.  It is posted with his permission.  Ashton's library work life, 1974-2016, included service as director of the public libraries of Allen County (IN), Denver (C0), and Downers Grove (IL).

Monday, March 14, 2016

Breaking in the new kid

Starting a new job is humbling. I used to be the founder of a well-respected library district where I knew (almost) everybody and everything. Now I'm the new guy in an association where I sometimes forget which floor my boss is on.

The late Missy Shock, a very insightful training coordinator I hired for Douglas County Libraries many years ago, told it like this: we go from unconsciously incompetent (we don't know that we don't know), to consciously incompetent (OMG, I know NOTHING), to consciously competent (OK, I need to do this, then that), to unconsciously competent (you're done with the task before you realize you started).

My own phases as the new director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) have gone more like this:
  • exhilaration. What fun to learn! New city, new building, new people, new issues. It was thrilling. This lasted about four weeks.
  • humiliation. "I know I've asked this before, possibly twice, but how do I..." "In the 293 emails I got in the last hour, you asked me, and I meant to respond, but ..." This painfully conscious incompetence lasted another three weeks. And has not gone away entirely. ALA is a complex organization, and the OIF deals with a LOT of stuff.
  • modest achievement. I did something right today. I did three things right this week. I begin to grasp a larger pattern... And that brings me up to the 10th week, today.
One of the continuing issues is something I'll call the OIF "house style." I work with some very smart people. As they zoom through their days, they copy me in on our business. A vital piece of that is member support: sometimes librarians find themselves in a tight spot. They holler for help. We help them.

At other times, we respond to other constituents: Intellectual Freedom Committee members, Freedom to Read Foundation board members, internal ALA colleagues, external media. Consistently, my staff follows a format something like this:
  • here are the relevant links to definitive legal cases.
  • here are the relevant links to previous ALA/OIF policy decisions.
  • here are the best practices for folks in your situation.
My small staff (5 people!) cranks all this out in great volume, with great focus, and on often very tight deadlines. It really is impressive, and exemplifies the best kind of academic rigor. We at the OIF cite our sources, remember precedent, gather the good, and give it back to our members and communities.

I find that this does differ from my own style. As a newspaper columnist for a quarter of a century, I tried to be a little more approachable, more ruminative, more conversational.

As is the case with most relationships, I suspect both of us (me and OIF) will adjust. I'll work to get smarter about the extraordinary depth of resources in our office, and point to them with precision. My staff will maybe get a little less formal, and a little more emotionally nuanced.

But I suspect that I need to do more changing than they do. I have been given the chance to look at a much larger world than I knew. I have a lot to learn. The good news: I have good teachers.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

SmartDown II

I encountered the first version of SmartDown, written in C+, version 1.0) in November of 2014. It was a minimal, "Zen" writing application. That is, the screen was very stripped down: the top had a sandwich menu, window controls and nothing else; the middle was a pleasant faint grey background and a darker text; and there was a line at the bottom of the screen with a character and line count, and a toggle between editing and preview. Hover your mouse over the character count, and get a word and sentence count.

Markdown editors are all pretty much the same: simple text with a handful of markdown symbols to control formatting. What distinguished SmartDown was that it also offered "folding" - the ability to "collapse" or conceal text under a "#" heading.

In short, it was a clean, fast, quickly learned writing application that allowed for the creation and manipulation of complex documents. At the end, the text could be exported or copied as html or rtf.

There were a few oddities in SmartDown: changing preferences required the direct editing of a configuration file. It showed on-screen symbols for soft returns (which could be toggled, but again required config file editing). Minimizing the app moved it to the lower right taskbar area, rather than the more typical task bar icon. Hitting Home and End took you to the beginning and end of a paragraph rather than the onscreen line.

But I liked it. And in June of 2015, I bought it for $19.99.

Now I'm looking at the trial version of SmartDown II (version 0.8.2). It has been completely rewritten in C#. It remains a very capable markdown editor. But many things have changed.

Key changes

On my Windows laptop, SmartDown II takes longer to load than the original - about three times longer. But that's not surprising for a beta.

Once it does load, the differences are immediately apparent: now three panes are displayed. On the left is a directory window. Load a folder, and "snippets" - file name, date, and the first three lines of text - show up. The center pane still has a sandwich menu on the top; the character count has been replaced with a word count. That's far more convenient for writing, although hovering still gives a few more statistics. There are two more controls on the bottom. On the lower left is a toggle to either reveal or hide the snippet pane. Moreover, the snippet panel can be adjusted by dragging its border - much as with a spreadsheet column. On the lower right, another toggle lets you access various functions (spellcheck, line number, word wrap, highlight, layout, template, and preview). Preview - the html conversion of markdown - can be turned off, shown as the constant third pane, or shown as a separate window. While displayed on the screen, however, you cannot resize it, or the center pane to the right.

What works

The snippet pane not only allows a more convenient way to work with multiple files (although only one at a time), it also shows a navigation of the currently loaded file. That is, it shows the headers, and lets you jump around the file by clicking on them. The snippets pane works as a nice way to assemble things from smaller documents. However, I haven't yet found a way to drag them around within the pane. So snippets can be combined and rearranged within an editor pane, but not within the snippets or file pane.

When you highlight text, SDII now offers some pop-up one-click formatting guides (bold, italics, header, links, footnotes, etc.).


On occasion, I get a white cursor blob, a graphic glitch that hangs around on screen even when I move the cursor away. Pressing a Return after it tends to make it go away. [Follow-up: not a bug, a feature. This highlights two spaces.]

Sometimes, using the cursor to move up or down causes a line number to flash on the top right of the screen. That's useless and annoying.

Spellchecking: the red underlining starts immediately and only ends when you get to a punctuation mark. That's irritating, too: it means that most of the time you're typing, there's a red squiggle appearing and disappearing on screen - the opposite of distraction-free. So I turn it off. [Right now, you have to do this not through the preferences menu, but through the pop-up on the lower right corner of the main screen.]

The highlight paragraph mode, at least in the standard display, whites out and underlines everything else, although that may be because I was fiddling with foreground and background defaults. So that gets turned off, too.

Preferences are a little mysterious: you're not always changing what you think you're changing. But that could be just the learning curve. Meanwhile, it might be handy to have a "reset defaults."

On occasion, there's a lag in the preview display. Sometimes, when I add a new paragraph (especially as a list), the rightmost pane toggles to a huge font, then settles back down.

Moving through the editor pane doesn't move through the preview pane; they scroll separately. That's probably more a design feature than a glitch, but it seems to me to require excessive scrolling.


Nonetheless, SmartDown II looks promising. The developer, Ric, clearly is putting a lot of careful time and attention into the product, and it shows. I'll probably buy this one, too! [I did. Keep the talent happy.] Meanwhile, back to fooling around with it....

Saturday, February 13, 2016


I spoke to my sister, Mary, today. She lives up west of Waukegan, where we were raised. But as a young woman she lived in Chicago, probably not too far from where I live now. I like the layout here very much. My one-bedroom apartment features a bay window in the living room. But those windows look out on a brick courtyard. Even on bright days, there just isn't much sunshine in the place. Or even outside of my apartment. I remarked that my apartment doesn't have a lot of light.

"The city," said my sister, "is dark." It is. Chicago's big shoulders cast long shadows.

This weekend, it's cold, too. Early this morning, I got a weather text about chill factor. It would be, I was informed, -20 degrees. Wear a hat! Wear gloves! OR DIE. (Well, no. But 30 minute exposures might well result in frostbite, said my app.)

On the one hand, it's all true. It was cold. Despite my amazing Russian hat (bought in Red Square, Moscow), my uber-warm long coat (a gift from Suzanne), my EYES were cold.

On the other hand, it was sunny. A blue sky, not much wind. And I found myself walking quite comfortably from old Union Station to my apartment near State and Division. It wasn't that bad.

Chicago, let me be perfectly clear, is a far harsher environment than Colorado. It just is, a result of this mid-continental climate. Colorado may be harsh for a morning or afternoon, even, VERY rarely, for a day. But 85% of the time, it's bright and balmy. Sub-zero temperatures are REALLY rare.

But Chicago as a built environment is remarkable. I found myself repeatedly beguiled today by its history and views. It is FAR more diverse than Colorado. I love the mix here of languages, skin tones, food choices, accents, and architecture.

So here are a few shots from the day.

high backed benches almost bare
at Union Station

[Note: in fact, Union Station pushes some 48,000 people a day through its doors. But the "melancholia" is more about remembering a time when "Union Station" meant both a strong endorsement of the Labor Movement, and a far more elegant mindset about transportation. Look at the SCALE of this building!]

Could we be any more orange?

A fascination with water and bridges.


Dunno if you can make it out, but the top of the center skyscraper frames just space.

I just like the lines and shadows.

And that's the view from my walkabout today.