27 July, 2010

Emery Eugene Higginbotham, January 21 1922 - July 27 2010

If you're old enough to remember when a Charleston musician and  "recitationist" named Buddy Starcher had a locally produced TV show on WCHS TV, then there's a good chance you saw my dad on TV. He was Buddy Starcher's guitar player before Starcher recorded a gold album and left Charleston for a larger TV market.

If you listened to WBES FM radio in the 80s and remember the catchy Boll Medical jingle that played in all Boll Medical radio ads back then, you heard one of my dad's best melodies. Boll Medical's GM, Chris Miller, had just fired their ad agency and placed me in charge of Boll Medical's advertising. Boll didn't have a jingle so I gave my dad a few simple phrases I wanted him to work into a jingle and hired him to write it. We sent his simple vocal and acoustic guitar "demo tape"  to a guy at WBEZ in Chicago who added keyboards, percussion and a female vocal and made "donut", end sing, open sing and full sing versions of it. Boll's customers and referral sources told us they found themselves singing along with it. That's jingle gold. 

If you learned to play guitar in St. Albans during or immediately after "the British invasion", there's a good chance you took guitar lessons from my dad. I still remember how dad's tiny after school guitar teaching business exploded in the 60s when simply every St. Albans boy (and a few of the girls) started bringing 45 RPM Beatles records and sheet music to my dad and asking him how to play stuff my dad didn't even consider music.

But I'll never forget when my dad's opinion of The Beatles changed forever. Someone brought him "Yesterday" and my dad dutifully starting learning it. 

"I hate to admit it" he said, "but those boys can write some music,” he told me. "I even had to learn a new chord".

Dad reacted similarly to "Penny Lane" and to other Beatles hits that his students brought him.

During the "British invasion" years dad's little home-based guitar lessons business outgrew our house  so dad rented a space on Grant Avenue next to old Doctor Brooks' dental practice and then spilled over into a third floor space on Main Street.

A few years later students started bringing dad stuff that really challenged his open-mindedness. I remember one day when I heard dad playing and re-playing the same Van Halen tape. When I went back to dad's "music room" I found him slumped over his guitar trying to figure out how Eddie Van Halen was playing a particularly unorthodox lick. Dad figured out the "hammer on/pull off/tapping" thing Van Halen made famous but dad didn't like the "alternative tunings" employed by Van Halen and other rockers. As far as dad was concerned, there was only one right way to tune a guitar and anything else was just guitar heresy and cheating. He felt the same way about capos.

"Real guitar players don't have to use capos,” my dad said every time he saw a capo. "Real guitar players learn how to play the same chord three to five different ways anywhere on the neck and don't need to use a capo."

Easy for dad to say since he could play just about anything with strings and frets. In addition to being a pretty good guitar player my dad played mandolin and banjo.

If the Charleston Gazette uses the old photo I sent them along with his obituary, you'll see him playing the double-necked Carvin he toted from gig to gig throughout much of my childhood. The bottom neck was a guitar; the top neck was a mandolin. Back in those days dad was playing with the Jules Micheaux Combo, which played pretty much everything - and dad liked to be versatile.

Twice in dad's guitar-teaching career he taught guitar atop other music-related businesses. he taught at Herbert Music Company on Main Street in St. albans for a while and then, after he retired from the Post Office, he taught in a space above The Fret and Fiddle, a used musical instrument store on Pennsylvania Ave. in St. Albans.

Dad didn't have any formal musical training but he could sight read pretty good and managed to write quite a few songs that got published by small music publishing companies. Throughout most of my childhood years dad worked for the Post Office by day and played music on the weekends. He played all the "animal clubs" - The Eagles Club, The Moose Lodge, The Elks Lodge, etc. - and he played for weddings and parties and political fundraisers. I remember once when my dad - a lifelong Democrat - played a Republican fundraiser and I basically accused him of hypocrisy. 

"Republican money spends as good as Democrat money" said my dad "and the more money they give to me the less they have to beat Democrats with at the polls".

Dad would also want me to mention the time he went to Nashville and recorded a few of his original songs. I was only about 12 at the time, I think, but I remember that I liked a tune he called "Dark Clouds". It was kind of bluesy and almost hit the top 40 - in Australia. Had his record broken the top 40 anywhere he would have had a decision to make: keep working at the Post Office and let his record career fend for itself or quit his "day job" and hit the road to promote the record. 

Some of my dad's friends and acquaintances may also remember that dad was a regular contributor to the Metro West supplement to the Charleston Newspapers for several years. His "remembrances" of growing up in the coalfields and going to war and playing music appeared on a regular basis next to his photo. People dad hadn't talked to since childhood found him as a result of those articles and he got a bang out of it. For him, his articles worked in the 90s like Facebook works for my generation.

About a year before dad died he nearly lost an eye to an aggressive, disfiguring cancer on his and then a few months after that he was hospitalized with congestive heart failure for about a month so when he succumbed to apparent heart failure early Tuesday morning July 27, 2010, "his death was not unexpected", to quote my mom. Years before his death he made arrangements to have his body donated to science so when he died in the emergency room at Thomas Memorial Hospital, the folks from Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University came to take his body. After med students have used my dad's body to learn human anatomy, his remains will be buried next to his sister's as he requested.

Emery Eugene Higginbotham is survived by his wife, Hester, by his brother, Troy, and by me, his only child.

26 July, 2010

Why We Expect Our President To Be Validator-In-Chief

My Kentucky Baptist correspondent, Darrell Cruse, says – and note the deliberate double negative – “A person can not not tell his story”.
If you like to listen to people as I do you’ll soon notice that most peoples’ “stories” can be summed up this way: “I’m not appreciated enough, I don’t get the credit I deserve, I don’t get any respect.”
Everywhere I go I hear people telling their stories and what they’re all saying if you listen closely is that they want to be validated. They want somebody to tell them how important they are, how smart they are, how right they are and how good they are.
We even expect politicians to validate us by not seeming to be too superior to us or too “other”. Even with his patrician pedigree and his Ivy League degrees, George W Bush made millions of plebeians feel validated. Rednecks everywhere wanted to have a beer with “W”. By contrast, our current president isn’t a very convincing Validator-In-Chief. He’s too black, too smart and too “other”. A redneck can’t imagine Obama having a beer with a redneck – but he can watch him having a beer on the White House lawn with Henry Louis Gates under circumstances that reinforce Obama’s “otherness”.
Had Obama been running against George W Bush, he couldn’t have won the 2008 election. We expect our presidents to validate us, to make us feel OK about our bigotries, our ignorance of the US Constitution and our closed-mindedness.
On one recent hot afternoon I overheard three conversations that support my thesis that what everybody is saying is “validate me”.
At the St. Albans Public Library I overheard a math tutor telling his friend he was even more qualified to teach Algebra than some smartass college professor who is certified in calculus, trigonometry and physics.
“Validate me. I count, too,” he was saying.
Later that day I heard an old woman telling stories to a friend. In every story she told, she was the heroin.
“Validate me, will somebody please validate me!” she seemed to be screaming.
At the Town Center mall I overheard a woman telling her friend how her volunteer work had gone unnoticed and unappreciated.
“Validate me!”
My Kentucky Baptist correspondent, Darrell, may remember a joke that Baptist preachers used to tell. They used to say you could offend the organ player by praising the piano player and you could offend the person who brought the petunias by forgetting to thank the person who brought the roses.
Those aren’t flowers on the dais. Those are invoices demanding payment for services rendered.
“Validate me!”
Armed with this insight into human nature, I face each day and each conversation with a choice. I can either offend the people I meet by not validating them or I can go ahead and offer them the validation they seek. It saves time and, if you’re running for office, it’ll help you get elected.  

22 July, 2010

Are You The Leader St. Albans WV Is Waiting For?

I plan to transfer ownership of my St. Albans WV Linkedin group to any group member who convinces me that he or she has a vision for St. Albans WV – both the city and the Linkedin group.

So far I’ve had no takers.

Let me tell you a little about why I started this group that I’m now trying to give it away.

When, after a 20-year absence, I returned to St. Albans I noticed that the average St. Albans resident is pretty disengaged. The average St. Albans resident doesn’t know what’s going on at City Hall, doesn’t know what The St. Albans Partnership is, doesn’t know The Partnership’s constituent members, doesn’t know what any of those member orgs do and doesn’t care.

I also noticed that the handful of engaged citizens who might like to actually know what’s going on in town don’t have a single, central place they can go to get information. The “official” city of St. Albans website isn’t managed very well and isn’t updated often enough.

The St. Albans Partnership which, ostensibly, sees itself as the org that will become that central source of information and citizen engagement but, frankly, I’ve been very disappointed in their efforts. They haven’t tweeted since January and they have only 12 followers.

One of St. Albans’ council members agrees with me that St. Albans needs a single source of info – a website – where citizens can go to stay informed but disagrees with me on why we don’t already have it. The city council member blames it on citizen apathy.

I blame it on poor leadership. I blame St. Albans’ citizens’ apathy on decades of learned disengagement. Our quasi- and para-government orgs don’t do what they said they were going to do. Our city council members and mayors haven’t replaced the do-nothing volunteers with new volunteers who might actually do things, might actually have vision and new ideas.

Our titular leaders haven’t reached out to the one demographic that actually has a stake in the future of the town: our young people.

If our titular – “legitimate” - leaders were serious about making St. Albans a city that attracts and retains young minds there would be some young minds on the do-nothing committees that have been preventing real progress and real change for decades.

I always intended to transfer ownership of the St. Albans WV Linkedin group to someone with a better chance of uniting and informing the town than me. I was hoping that the mayor and city council members and other would-be movers and shakers would join the St. Albans WV Linkedin group and use it to inform, challenge and inspire the town to see itself as something besides an aging, declining bedroom community of Charleston whose best days are behind it and whose primary industry these days seems to be the illegal and dangerous manufacture of methamphetamine.

By the way, why is it that all the neighbors of the meth houses seem to know where the meth house are but the police don’t seem to know? I’ve been asked that question a hundred times since returning to St. Albans.

In other words, I was hoping that some elected officials – people with what management theory books call “legitimate power” – would join the group and start St. Albans talking about its future in a new way.

That hasn’t happened.

I was also hoping that internet-savvy young people would join the group and use it to tell their elected leaders what St. Albans has to do to attract and retain the creative class – and a different class of entrepreneurs than the meth cookers. 

That hasn’t happened, either.

Right now, the only thing St. Albans is positioned to attract is more meth dealers and, perhaps, a mention on the hit AMC network TV show, Breaking Bad, a show about a high school science teacher who becomes a huge meth cooker.

So I’m going to transfer ownership of the St. Albans WV Linkedin group to someone who has a convincing plan to inform St. Albans.

I’m also going to take this opportunity to ask would-be leaders to read some things. I want them to read the Spaces For People blog.

I want them to read the books of Richard Florida and other books about the creative class and why some towns attract them and why others repel them. I want would-be leaders to read Seth Godin’s wonderful little book on leadership, Tribes.

I was just telling my conservative correspondent that I might print up some bumper stickers and buttons that say, “Are you the leader St. Albans is waiting for?”

Higginbotham At Large publishes dissenting opinions but
Higginbotham At Large will publish no comments from “anonymous”, from company names, from organization names or from aliases (like screen names and CB handles). If you want to comment here you must be accountable for what you write as I am accountable for what I write.

21 July, 2010

The System's Not Broken: It's Serving The Interests Of Its Designer

Products are the result of systems that are perfectly designed to produce them. A system that produces tires will never produce soft, swirled ice cream unless that system is redesigned and reconfigured to produce swirled ice cream.

What’s true for manufactured goods like ice cream and tires is also true of our civic, social, governmental, advocacy and business organizations so if your organization isn’t producing the results it claims it wants to produce, the system must be redesigned. Read John Seddon’s Systems Thinking In The Public Sector or the books of Eliyahu Goldratt or Seeing Systems by Barry Oshry.

Don’t be afraid to notice that your organization doesn’t seem to be doing any of the things it would be logical for it to do if it were really serious about achieving its stated goals and objectives. Don’t be afraid to notice that your organization has a lot of meetings, puts on a lot of events and puts a lot of happy talk on its website but isn’t any closer to achieving its stated goals than it was 5, 20 or 20 years ago when the organization was formed.

Many organizations read “systems” – really exist to serve interests other than the ones stated in its charter or website.

The Area Minister for a group of churches once sent me to meet with a dying church to see if I could show them how to increase attendance. The church’s stated goal was to reach its neighborhood with the gospel of Christ yet none of the church’s well-heeled middle-class and wealthy members lived in the neighborhood and the church was doing nothing whatsoever to reach its poor neighbors that lived within walking distance of the church. On Sunday mornings, the church’s tiny parking lot was overflowing with SUVs and luxury cars. The church was landlocked and there was nowhere to add parking so the only logical thing to do – especially since their stated goal was to “reach their neighborhood with the gospel of Christ” was to implement programs designed to evangelize the 500 or so poor people who lived within a 3-minute walk of the church. Long story short, the church chose to close rather than achieve their stated goal of reaching their poor neighbors with the gospel of Christ. The well-heeled members of this church joined churches where they could be with other well-heeled people. You see, they didn’t want to reach their poor neighbors with the gospel of Christ at all. Their real goal was to use church affiliation as a means of being with people they liked and could, perhaps, do business with.

Don’t be afraid to notice that your organization isn’t doing the things it would do if it were serious about achieving its stated goals. Don’t be afraid to speak up and say what you’ve noticed.

Don’t be afraid to notice that your organization – your system – is not producing the product its website says it’s trying to produce and that it will never produce that product until the system is redesigned. Don’t say “the system is broken”. No, the system is producing exactly what the system is designed to produce.

Don’t be afraid to ask yourself and your org’s leaders one simple question: “Why?” When your org plans an event that doesn’t seem to advance the org’s stated goal, ask why. When the org doesn’t do the things it would seem logical for it to do if it really wanted to reach its stated goal, ask why.

Many orgs exist not to actually achieve their stated goals but to provide a showcase for the org’s leaders or to provide what I call a “hunting and fishing license” to go out and advance their political or business interests under the guise of “effecting public policy” or “creating a better business climate” or even “reaching the neighborhood with the gospel of Christ”.

The system’s not broken. It’s functioning as designed. The system is serving the interests of its designer. If you don’t like the product you have to redesign the system that produces the product. 

Higginbotham At Large publishes dissenting opinions but
Higginbotham At Large will publish no comments from “anonymous”, from company names, from organization names or from aliases (like screen names and CB handles). If you want to comment here you must be accountable for what you write as I am accountable for what I write.

02 July, 2010

People With No Stake In The Future Should Not Be Planning The Futures Of People With A Stake

Because I am a systems thinker, I know that outcomes of any kind are the products of systems that are perfectly designed to produce those products and that those systems, unless altered, will always and only produce the same results. That's why I can say with authority that if you’ve recently been elected or appointed to a position of titular leadership in an organization that hasn’t done anything in decades, it’s not an honor it’s an insult and an indictment. You were elected because the do-nothing organization knew they could count on you to prevent, not promote, positive change. Why? Because the last thing do-nothing organizations want is positive change so they perpetuate and guarantee their culture of backwards thinking by passing the cold, charred, flameless torch of leadership to those who won’t show them up, those who can be counted on to get nothing done. Your election or appointment was exactly the outcome the system is designed to produce. You are the same kind of dud the system has been producing for decades and will continue to produce unless the system is changed. The fact that nobody changes it is proof that the keepers and protectors of the system want the system to produce duds like you.
In towns whose tax base and population are declining, new leadership is suffocated in the crib through exclusion from programs, organizational leadership and committee membership. The last thing an existing leader wants is to share power, glory, credit, recognition or influence with someone else so potential leaders are at first ignored and, later, if they seem to be getting some traction, attacked by the current titular leadership. (See my 26 July 2009 review of Tribes by Seth Godin).
Most of the time where you see a whole town that has been declining for decades, all the existing orgs in that town from City Hall to the Rotary Club to The Chamber of Commerce and even the Regional development Authority are co-conspirators in the town’s demise. The rank and file members of those orgs can’t be depended on to elect real leaders because they haven’t see any real leadership in their lifetime so they don’t know what leadership looks like. Sometimes this inability to discern preventers of leadership from real leaders is so pervasive that an entire town loses its ability to even elect a capable mayor or city council.
When a town or a region has raised an entire generation of people who don’t know that their so-called leaders are fools or impostors, new organizations sometimes spring up promising to bring change. But these organizations can’t transform their communities without changing the culture of low expectations and aspirations that the current leadership has fostered.
If you’re serious about changing your community, you first have to identify the people who feel disenfranchised and ignored by the titular leadership – the mayor, the city council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary, the Regional development Authority. These disenfranchised people are the largest single interest group in any town. Inform them, get them thinking about the future of your community and, together, you can transform the community.
Don't waste your time trying to win over the existing leaders. The existing leaders see capable young leadership as a threat to the status quo and to their natural human tendency to enshrine the past and defend past decisions.
If your town's civic orgs don't get anything done and won't give you a "seat at the table" find the disenfranchised majority and enfranchise them. Start a new organization. Start a movement.
Second, you have to identify and empower people who really have a stake in the future of your town, people who would like to raise a family or start a business in your town. Forgive me for being blunt but in the kind of backwards, small towns I’m thinking of, the older folks who run the town couldn’t care less about the future of the town. They’re retired, their businesses have been sold or closed, their children left years ago and their grandchildren will be making a life somewhere else. Chances are, if you live in a town that is losing businesses, losing population, losing its young people and losing its future, your town is run by people who have no stake in its future, people whose opposition to progress has more to do with ego than with principle, more to do with validating its past than with creating its future.
It doesn’t make any sense to entrust the future of your community to people who have no stake in your town’s future. Expose the civic and political leaders who have no stake in the decisions they make about your future.
And while you may begin the community culture change through organizations like Charleston Area Alliance or through new orgs like Create West Virginia, if you really want to change your community, you eventually need to elect Congress members, governors, legislators, mayors, regional development people, city council members and other leaders who actually have a stake in its future - people with kids to raise or businesses to start or educations to acquire. The change from a do-nothing, fall behind state or community to a vibrant state or community can’t happen if the reigns of political power are still held by people who don’t know why we should be laying down conduit and high speed fiber and don’t understand why Starbucks is not about coffee as much as its about creating democratic meeting places where people share ideas.
These people who “get” conduit and democratic meeting places are easy to find. They are your young people. I’m talking about young couples who need a good place to educate and raise their kids and young entrepreneurs who need a community capable of retaining and attracting the talent they will need to grow their businesses.
As I said in my 22 January 2010 post about economic development, your community may only be one Steve Jobs or one Sergey Brin away from giving birth to a company (or an industry) that will transform your region but if you drive away all the young thinkers and inventors and entrepreneurs, you may be driving away the next Google or Apple.
Maybe the inventor who can perfect the electric car lives in your town. Will he or she stay or will he or she leave?
Some of my regular readers may think this is a strange position for a “Boomer activist” like me to take. My regular readers may have expected me to say that leadership should be in the hands of people with years of experience and wisdom. No not unless those experienced, wise leaders have a stake in the future. Leadership should be in the hands of people with the greatest stake in your town’s future no matter what age they may be. A few of those people will be Boomers like me but most of them will be much younger.
To change the culture of a community you have to change the conversation of that community. Do you want to change the culture? Start a new conversation. Create a document that you can print out and put on windshields, stick behind storm doors and hand to young adults you see in your daily walk. Your document might say:
"Is your community creating the kind of business, education, cultural, social and lifestyle in which the next Sergey Brin or Steve Jobs could be nourished and the next Google or Apple grown? If not, why not?"
Or your document might say, "Think of a talented person who left your community and has no plans to ever come back. Why did he or she leave and what would we have to do to get him and people like him to come raise a family or start a business here?"
If you put your name and your contact information on that document I'll bet some of the disenfranchised and some of the voiceless young adults whose futures are being planned by people who have no stake in it will contact you and ask you what you plan to do.
If they do, start a movement. Start an organization of those with a stake.And even if you don't have a plan, you've planted a seed of change. You've changed the culture a little bit just by changing the conversation from "How can we raise money for this year's stupid parade?" to "How can we make our town the kind of place where a young inventor or entrepreneur would want to build the next Apple?"
Your future was being planned by others since before you were conceived. After conception, your first 9 months was a case of gestation without representation. Somewhere between the womb and the tomb, shouldn't your future be decided when you're in the room?
Higginbotham At Large is happy to publish dissenting - even insulting - comments but Higginbotham At Large will no longer publish anonymous or pseudonymous comments or comments from readers who hide behind the name of an organization, a company or one of those silly "CB handles".

01 July, 2010

How Our "Love" Of Pets Is Causing Animal Suffering And How Doing "Nothing" Can Reduce Animal Suffering

Help prevent animal cruelty by doing nothing. Yes, that’s right, sometimes you can do good by just doing nothing. The “nothing”, in this case, is to not replace your aging pet when he or she dies. And if you're thinking of getting a pet, don't. Let me explain.

Depending on whose numbers you believe, 5 million or more “pets” or “companion animals” – dogs and cats mostly – are euthanized each year in the US. Major animal welfare groups like the ASPCA and HSUS spend millions on programs to promote spaying and neutering of pets and shelter animals. As they should.

But spaying and neutering cats and dogs is only part of the solution. You and millions of other Americans have to do nothing.

Animal welfare groups lobby for legislation to outlaw puppy mills. As they should. But outlawing puppy mills is only part of the solution. You and millions of Americans have to do nothing.

Yes we should outlaw puppy mills and we should spay and neuter our own pets and, when we get the chance, “strays” we feed, but until millions of Americans do nothing to increase the demand for pets, puppy mills will continue to breed poor, hapless female dogs literally to death and will continue to pack puppies on top of one another in wire cages and our shelters will continue to kill millions of excess, unwanted animals every year.

When your kids ask for a puppy or a kitten, tell them it's unnatural for cats and dogs to live with humans and explain to them that the demand for pets causes suffering. Change the culture first in your own home.

That’s why you and millions of other Americans who claim to “love” dogs and cats need to do nothing. You need to do nothing to increase the demand for pets. You need to do nothing that would artificially inflate the numbers of abandoned, “stray” and otherwise unwanted animals.

That’s right, do nothing. Don’t buy a dog or a cat from a pet store because, when you do, you literally finance the puppy mill business. And you artificially increase the pet population while your county animal shelter is killing unwanted pets they would have gladly given you for the cost of spay/neuter. Don't buy a dog because you're lonely. Go on a date instead. Join a club. Volunteer at the shelter. But don't indulge your selfish desire to own an animal. If you indulge your selfish impulses then the first time your new pet is an inconvenience to you you'll be one of those people who drops off the animal at the shelter because it peed on your carpet or chewed your couch.

It’s our demand for pets, our so-called “love” of cats and dogs that causes most of their suffering.

Yes, there are things you should do to stop pet overpopulation and its resultant animal suffering. Write a letter to your mayor, your county commission, your governor, your congressman and tell them that you support laws against puppy mills.

Write a check to HSUS or ASPCA and to your local shelter to help them with the costs of spaying and neutering unwanted pets.

But don’t forget to do nothing to increase the demand for pets. If millions of Americans do nothing to increase demand, puppy mills can’t get rich breeding female dogs to death and cramming puppies into wire cages. If you do nothing to increase demand for cats and dogs, pet stores won’t sell them. If you do nothing to increase demand for dogs ands cats, your local animal shelter won’t have to kills thousands of animals every year.

The suffering caused to animals by our selfish demand for pets is not unlike the crime caused by our demand for drugs. If americans stop demanding drugs, there will be very few drug-related crimes. If Americans stop demanding pets, fewer animals will be bred to death, crammed into wire cages and abandoned to fend for themselves on the streets.