Sunday, March 27, 2011

Next week

Next week: David Brooks's The Social Animal.

Tell to Win

GUBER, PETER. Tell to Win. New York: Crown Business, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-307-58795-4. Pp. 255. $26.00.

Probably the most astute piece of wisdom I pulled from Guber's how-to-succeed book was not actually in the book, but one of the promotional blurbs on the back: "If anyone knows how to survive business, it's Peter. This book is a manual for that. It gives you the two keys to success--first, everything starts with a good story, and second, don't drop names (actually, Frank Sinatra told me that)". George Clooney's words. I can't tell if Guber and his publishers decided to include this quote because they have a sense of humor or because they're incredibly thick. I say this because at the beginning of the book is a glossary of sorts called "Voices". It includes, among others, sixteen CEOs, one mayor, one king, three former presidents (of the United States, South Africa and Cuba--can you guess which one?), and the fourteenth Dalai Lama. It also includes Michael Jackson, Magic Johnson, Gene Simmons, Alice Walker, Larry King, Tim Burton, Tom Cruise, George Lopez, Nora Roberts, Anderson Cooper, Carl Sagan, Muhammad Ali, Steven Spielberg, and Sidney Poitier. I don't know if Guber does much name-dropping in real life. He probably doesn't need to. But his tactic for convincing the reader to trust his authority is through compulsive name-dropping. As Guber tells us on page 15, "My personal and professional network spans a wide variety of industries and academic fields, and includes many of the most successful people in America". Shouldn't this be attributed, at least in part, to his success? And how, by the way, did he get to where he can say this?

The main problem with this book is that all of the examples Guber uses to demonstrate how he succeeded through story-telling date from after the man became a young studio chief, then a film producer, a CEO of Sony Entertainment, and now a professor and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group. That Guber might be successful in his ventures because he's a powerful and wealthy man and not because he's a so-so story teller never comes up. I say so-so because a number of times the stories he tells to win over investors or movie-makers are mediocre movies like Field of Dreams or the classic but dreadfully dull Lawrence of Arabia. My main complaint with the former is that it's fictional. Could a major business deal really come to fruition because someone remembered the plot of a mediocre baseball movie? (As Guber said to Dayton, Ohio's officials when convincing them to build a minor-league baseball field, "If we build it...they will come". Hey, those are the lines from the movie!) My complaint for the latter is that the story Guber told to his team was not the true story of T. E. Lawrence, but the movie based on these real events. This makes Guber's version twice removed from the original, historical events. Instead of speaking of the inspiring actions of T.E. Lawrence, Guber speaks of the inspiring actions of Peter O'Toole playing T.E. Lawrence.

Guber's prose is also part of the problem with Tell to Win's ultimate failure as an inspiration/informative work. The world the author inhabits is a world of superlatives: everyone's the most, the best, the hardest working, the greatest, the toughest. Worse, Guber's enthusiasm is most often forced and unconvincing. At one point, while dining at a Border Grill, Guber is regaled with this story about the Grill's owners' trip to Mexico: "'The [taco] stand was closed, but just for them [the owner] made this amazing stew of red beans and salsa...They spent the whole afternoon with this family in Mexico!' I felt as if I'd just had my own global culinary adventure without even leaving the table". To be honest, I found the story kind of uninteresting, if only because I'm hearing it from Guber, who heard it from a waiter, who heard it from his manager, the owner of the restaurant. The story wasn't told to inspire Guber to do anything but order the stew with beans and salsa. Maybe I would feel satisfied if I too could order the beans and salsa. But I wouldn't call this story particularly moving, especially not moving enough to transport me to Mexico.

Lastly, Guber employs preposterously awful metaphors that last for paragraphs and don't really correspond to the point he's trying to make. Here's is a metaphor he got from Jack Warner, founder of Warner Bros. when Guber was a young studio chief in the 1970s: "You're the zookeeper, and every single person that comes in the office comes with a monkey. That monkey is their problem. They're trying to leave it with you. Your job is to discover where the monkey is. They'll hide it, or dress it up, but remember you're the zookeeper. You've got to keep the place clean. So make sure when you walk them to the door, they've got their monkey by the hand. Don't let them leave without it. Don't let them come back until it's trained and they have solutions to their problem. Otherwise at the end of the day, you'll have an office full of screaming, jumping animals and monkey shit all over the floor". Laughably, a little further down the page, Guber writes, "The beauty of metaphors and analogies when used as story material is their economy". The metaphor about the monkeys and the zookeeper and the monkey shit seems to me anything but beautiful, economic, or, to be honest, relevant. What's more, the lesson Jack Warner was teaching young Guber was to ignore any problems that presented themselves to him. Let whoever has the problem fix it. Wouldn't that, technically that is, mean that the monkey shit would find itself somewhere else, if not in Guber's office? I don't work in a Hollywood studio, but I know enough that when my manager ignores all of his employee's problems, it lowers morale and leaves people terribly disgruntled. If someone goes to the manager with a problem, chances are they're coming to him as a last resort, as the only person who can solve the problem.

I'm not sure for whom this book was written. Small businessmen and women I suppose. But it's hard to trust the success of a man who is, realistically, in the top .0001 percentile of successful people. I've learned from reading Peace from Broken Pieces and Tell to Win not to put too much confidence in self-help books, but at least Vanzant's was an interesting rags-to-riches story. Guber's is a riches-to-more-riches story, and it's not as fascinating as it might sound. All the Michael Jacksons and Bill Clintons in the world couldn't change that.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Auster piece

Remember when I said I wasn't going to do a post because I was working on a piece about Paul Auster? Well, I wasn't lying. Check it out at
Next week: Peter Guber's Tell to Win.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Peace from Broken Pieces

VANZANT, IYANLA. Peace from Broken Pieces. Carlsbad, California: SmileyBooks, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4019-2822-3. Pp. 309. $24.95.

Iyanla Vanzant's newest "self-help" book is subtitled "How to get through what you're going through." I'm not a big reader of the self-help genre, but I do know that this is really a memoir whose subtitle should have been "How I got through what I was going through". Which is not to say that Vanzant's story isn't awe-inspiring. The woman grew up in the most abject circumstances, experienced three failed marriages, and lost two of her four children. The comfort one gets from her book is knowing that life can't get much worse than Vanzant's does.

Peace from Broken Pieces recounts the trajectory of fortunes and misfortunes that befall the author, all of which ultimately lead to the tragedy of the death of Vanzant's daughter Gemmia at the age of 30 from colon cancer. Vanzant's narrative is strongest when her plights are most relatable, especially when she refrains from littering her story with bits of Christian/New Age-y/Yoruban wisdom concerning "life experiences" and "personality level" and "heart center". My interest and the book's potency flag when Vanzant veers away from memoir to these nonsensical platitudes: "When your life is going downhill, it doesn't get better just because you want it to. Nor can you will it to be better. Your life will only get better when you get better". Each chapter begins with something of this sort, seemingly thrown in to justify marketing this work as a self-help guide rather than an autobiography. I acknowledge that this is a marketing ploy--Vanzant is best known for her self-help books and motivational speaking--but it truly compromises the integrity of the work.

This work is also flawed in other ways. Many of the "broken pieces" in Vanzant's history are not truly tragic occurrences, but the result of her own short-sightedness, egotism, and, to be blunt, stupidity. She is the founder of Inner Visions International and the Inner Visions Institute for Spiritual Development. She hired her third husband, her daughter Gemmia, and Gemmia's partner Jimmy, as well as a group of women who form the core of fiercely loyal but cliquish group and it is to this institute that outsider women seek spiritual guidance. Several things go wrong because of this dynamic, which ultimately takes "conflict of interest" to a new stratosphere. I don't know much about anything but I do know one should never, EVER be the boss of one's partner, be he man or be she woman. When a woman works for her partner, it is a degrading experience; when a man works for his partner, it is emasculating. Not only does Eden, Vanzant's husband, work under his wife, he suffers the humiliation of his wife announcing on national television that she loves her husband even though he doesn't have any money. Well, they do have money, but she makes it clear, on Oprah's show no less, that it's really her money. When their marriage really begins to fall apart, both Vanzant and Eden rely on spiritual "visions" to serve as their guides through the rough. Unfortunately, their visions don't align at all: Vanzant believes they need to seek therapy; Eden believes in a temporary separation. Vanzant's reaction to her husband's vision is telling: "What spiritual authority are you relying on for your guidance?...I mean, when you get your guidance from the Holy Spirit, you have to test the Spirit by the Spirit. You have to make sure that what you are hearing is coming from the Holy Spirit and not just any spirit passing by on the way to McDonald's." The dismissal of her own husband's "vision" and the condescension she shows him are almost painful to read, but Vanzant shows no awareness of how she might be perceived as the asshole of the situation.

The marriage ultimately fails, but the worst involves Gemmia and Jimmy. Jimmy continued to work for Vanzant after he and Gemmia separated. Their relationship remained amicable, at first, and they shared dual custody of their daughter. When one of Gemmia's students at the institute confided that she was interested in Jimmy, Vanzant decided to bring it up during a group workshop, believing that the woman's feelings had not been acted upon. In front of Gemmia and the rest of the group, no less than three of Gemmia's students admitted to having had a relationship with Jimmy. Inadvertently, but still callously and wickedly, Vanzant has instantly turned what should have been a private dilemma, into a painfully public and humiliating one. Here's how Vanzant deals with the situation: "I called [Gemmia] to the microphone in the center of the floor. I asked her forgiveness for having aired this in such an impersonal way. I explained that one of the hazards of our working together was that I was first her immediate supervisor and then her mother...I had to treat her as if she were a student in the program, who had created an experience that was up for healing." To be honest I couldn't quite believe what I was reading. Gemmia had just learned that three of her own students had gotten involved with the man she had been with for more than fifteen years, and her mother asks her to stand in front of a microphone in front of a group of women, among whom are all three of her adversaries, and express her feelings. Instead of retreating, as I believe she should have, Vanzant further humiliates her daughter by refusing to acknowledge that for once she should let her daughter be her daughter, and not her underling.

After reading this awful passage, I decided that, though Vanzant is a strong and probably brilliant woman, she is the last woman from whom I would seek help. Peace from Broken Pieces is a captivating memoir, but a failure as a self-help book. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Heaven is for Real

BURPO, TODD with LYNN VINCENT. Heaven is for Real. Nashville : Thomas Nelson, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-8499-4615-8. Pp. 163. $16.99.

In 2003, Todd Burpo's three-year-old son Colton underwent life-saving surgery after his appendix burst and, during the years following this operation, went on describe his experience in heaven, where angels sang to him and he sat in Jesus's lap. The purpose of the book is to show to the world that, as the title states, heaven is real. I may be the only agnostic/atheist in the world who has now read this book. I had a hard time reading it with an open mind, if only because Lynn Vincent co-wrote Sarah Palin's memoir, Going Rogue.

It goes without saying that this is an unrelentingly conservative tale, infused with the nostalgia for old-fashioned America that can be both quaint and dangerous. Imperial, Nebraska, where the Burpos reside, has "only two thousand souls and zero traffic lights, it's the kind of town with more churches than banks, where farmers stream straight off the fields into the family-owned cafe at lunchtime, wearing Wolverine work boots, John Deere ball caps, and a pair of pliers for fence-mending hanging off their hips". Imperial is also 97.88% white. There are no lesbian couples. Gay men make up .2% of the population. The most common employment for women is that of secretary.

When Todd Burpo was faced with the possibility that he may have breast cancer, his reaction was that of shame, rather than fear ("a masectomy isn't exactly the manliest surgery in the world" and "I'm a guy. Guys do something"). When he learns that he doesn't have cancer, he claims "God had loved me with a little miracle".  As it turns out, his tissue sample had originally shown hyperplasia, commonly associated with benign tumors, not cancer. Similarly, when his son was suffering mysterious and frightening ailments, Burpo writes "The doctors would bring back test results, test results, test results. But no answers, only useless observations". What one learns early on in the book is that medicine and science are mostly irrelevant, or, at best, ineffectual. When the Burpos transferred their son to a larger medical facility in order to get more concrete answers, the doctor was out to lunch, even though they had called ahead. This does seem like unacceptable behavior, but now because one doctor put off the Burpos for the sake of a sandwich, all medical men  and men of science are deemed amoral. Colton does pull through, not thanks to the surgery, but thanks to the prayer chain at the church where Todd Burpo is the pastor. Even though the Burpos can't afford their son's medical bill, they still have to pay their weekly donation to the church ("God had just given our son back; there was no one were not going to give back to God"). According to the newly-healed, three-year-old Colton, "Jesus used Dr. O'Holleran to help fix me...You need to pay him". Dr. O'Holleran didn't fix Colton; Jesus and God did.

Several months later, Colton mentioned that he had actually seen Jesus when he had been operated on. What Colton Burpo experienced was a combination of a near-death-experience (or NDE) and an out-of-body-experience (or OBE). These are not, in fact, uncommon, and the symptoms are actually identical to what some people experience during other, non-life-threatening phenomena, such as seizures or G-LOC syndrome (acceleration-induced loss of consciousness). These symptoms include seeing bright lights, experiencing a floating sensation, imagining oneself in a beautiful place, euphoria, and interactions with both living and deceased friends and family. The psychologist Kenneth Ring mentions in Evelyn Elsaesser Valerin's book On the Other Side of Life, "There basically isn't a different between the experiences of believers and people who are skeptical about religion. The difference is primarily in the interpretation of the experience, but the essence of the NDE seems to be much the same for both" (88). Nor is the number of NDEs of religious versus non-religious people significantly different. NDEs are not exclusive to believers.

What I should mention before I go into Colton's NDE is that the Burpo household is a deeply religious one. Todd Burpo is the pastor of the Crossroad Wesleyan Church in Imperial. Both he and his wife got their Bachelors at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. Every night they read their children a Bible story and listen to their children say their prayers. They tell their children what to pray for "not only to build their faith, but also because praying for others is a way to develop a heart for needs outside your own". It only seems natural that Colton would have a religious NDE, especially as one learns how few choices his parents have presented him.  When he begins to describe Jesus to his father, the possibility that what he saw might reflect what he was familiar with does not come up. According to four-year-old Colton, Jesus has a horse, but he only tells his father this after he had "spied a plastic horse among his toys and held it up for me to look at it".

According to Colton Burpo, "[Jesus's] clothes were white, but it was purple from here to here". I believe that Colton could have described any color of clothes; his father would find supporting proof for it in the Bible or the Scriptures. "In Scripture, purple is the color of kings. A verse from the gospel of Mark flashed through my mind: 'His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them'". What Burpo failed to find out is that many children have seen Jesus during their own NDEs. One girl said she saw "Jesus wearing a red hat and having a round belly like Santa Claus" (M.L. Morse and P. Perry, Transformed by the Light). Another boy said "Jesus had a black flowing cape...'I remember his hands, they were soft, but they didn't bleed like the picture on the wall". (Cherie Sutherland, "'Trailing the Clouds of Glory': The Near-Death Experiences of Western Children and Teens" from Handbook of Near-Death Experiences). Of course, not all NDEs involve Jesus. Examples mentioned in Penny Sartori's Near-Death Experiences of Hospitalized Intensive Care Patients include those of Chinese victims of an earthquake in Tang Shan, who described "feelings of peace and euphoria," but no "'Being of Light,' religious figures or being taken to another realm." Similarly, "In Thai NDEs, the most prevalent component was the presence of Yamatoots; messengers of Yama, the God of Death, whose purpose was to take the person to Yama's office, in the depths of hell, to be judged or to inform them of their impending death". If Colton had seen Jesus wearing a black cape, or in the form of Santa Clause, wouldn't his father have found a way to align his son's experience with Scripture? When Colton tells his father he was in heaven for three minutes, his father "marveled at his answer". But what if he had said a second, an hour, or a hundred years? Wouldn't any amount of time have been equally marvelous?

Over the yeas following Colton's NDE, every time he and his family stumbled across an image of Jesus, they would ask him "What about this one? Is that what Jesus looked like?" Because none corresponded with Colton's Jesus, they eventually start asking him "What's wrong with this one?" In 2006, the Burpos were introduced to the story of Akiane Kramarik, a twelve-year-old girl who began seeing Jesus when she was four-year-old. Her mother was an atheist (although what her father or her grandparents are is conveniently left out) and her home had no television. Her visions of Jesus, assumedly, were unprecedented. Of course, this is based on the assumption that a child, growing up in Idaho no less, would not have had any access to religious imagery outside of her parents' home or television, an assumption that is grossly misleading. Nevertheless, Akiane began painting what she saw in her visions, notably paintings of Jesus. Todd found one of these paintings while he was surfing the internet in the basement. His son was upstairs and Todd decided to call him down and to witness his reaction. Colton stared at the painting and said, "Dad, that one's right."

There was a horse named Clever Hans who was believed to be able to do arithmetic but in 1907 the psychologist Oskar Pfungst proved that Clever Hans was not, in fact, good at arithmetic. He was good at reading body language, responding to his trainer's physical cues, cues that the trainer himself was unaware of giving. It is because of the Clever Hans effect that Colton would have a greater chance of recognizing Akiane's painting of Jesus as opposed to any other. For one thing, he was seeing this painting under entirely different circumstances than the others: with the others, he and his parents would randomly come across a painting of Jesus in a Christian bookstore or elsewhere and they would casually quiz him. In this case, he was at home, on a different floor than his father, who indicated urgency when he called his son down to see Akiane's painting. On top of this, Todd Burpo was introduced to Akiane's story through a friend who said that Akiane and Colton had similar experiences with Jesus. Lastly, Akiane and Colton are contemporaries, ages 12 and 7 respectively, from the same area of the same country, if not the same state. Their idea of Jesus looking the way he does (shorter haircut, a trimmed beard, of almost mixed race), is not coincidental, nor should it be inconsequential.

NDEs are universal phenomena that have become more common as medical science brings more and more people back from the brink of death. These experiences are deeply embedded in one's religious and cultural beliefs. It is a grave mistake to use an NDE as proof of anything other than the power of the human brain in times of crises.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Next week

In order to not read Donald Rumsfeld's 830+ page memoir, Known and Unknown, I didn't read it.
Next week: Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent's Heaven is for Real.