Darkest Hour: Reflections on Leadership and Words

I love going to the movies, but I don’t do it much these days. I feel like I should spend the time with the characters in my head, rather than with someone else’s characters on a screen. But this past weekend, friends and I went to see Darkest Hour about Winston Churchill’s early weeks as Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1940. The basic conflict is between Churchill who wants to fight Nazi Germany to the bitter end and others in the Conservative Party who want to negotiate peace. As the military news grows more dismal, Churchill is torn. He hates the idea of seeking a truce with Hitler, but (despite his famous V sign) he wonders if victory is possible.

Even though we know what happened—how the British army is rescued at Dunkirk—the tension in the movie is gripping. The acting was great and the relationships depicted between the characters realistic. I found myself caught up in the drama as if the fate of the Western World were truly at stake—which it was.

Married Love, statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill located in Kansas City, MO

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill carried the film, but I also enjoyed Kristin Scott Thomas in the part of his wife Clementine. The movie portrayed their support of each other throughout his long political career. There is a statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill in Kansas City called “Married Love,” and locals here have often scoffed at the notion of honoring Winston Churchill for his role as a husband, rather than as a politician or author. But after seeing how Oldman and Thomas played the couple in Darkest Hour, I can almost see the reason for the statue.

I also liked the character of Churchill’s secretary, played by Lily James. I assume this is a mostly fictional or composite character, but her role allowed the film to show a human side of Churchill beyond his curmudgeonly, cigar-smoking, alcohol-imbibing persona. I wouldn’t call him charming, but he was compassionate toward her, after his initial blow-up that almost caused her to quit.

I watched this film in part as a study in leadership. While few leaders are as eccentric as Churchill, his power with words and his focus on pursuing right as he defined it (despite failures of his instincts in the past) are aspects of leadership to which every leader should aspire.

Although the film contains one scene of Churchill relating to common Britishers, for the most part it focuses on the political intrigue that complicated his early days as Prime Minister. It was the rivalries within the Conservative Party along with the menace in Germany that caused Britain’s darkest hour—which was most likely Churchill’s personal darkest hour as well.

The movie depicts Lord Halifax (played by Stephen Dillane) as the political rival most antagonistic to Churchill. Yet even Halifax has reasons for disagreeing with Churchill. While history proved Halifax’s desire to seek a truce with Hitler wrong, the film makes clear that at the time it was quite possible he would be right. We root for Churchill’s desire to preserve liberty and democratic ideals, but we feel the possibility he might not prevail, and therefore have some sympathy for Halifax.

And at the end, Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup), who had been booted out as Prime Minister for his appeasement of Hitler, admits that it is a poor leader who cannot change his mind. He finally supports Churchill after scheming against him for months.

The film also depicted the relationship between King George VI (played by Ben Mendelsohn) and Churchill. Both represented British traditions—the monarchy and Parliament—and they developed from mutual distrust (and even distaste) to respect. Neither man had anyone else with whom confiding was comfortable, yet Great Britain’s future rested on their shoulders. Every leader needs someone to serve as sounding board, and perhaps these men found it in each other.

Darkest Hour also shows another aspect of leadership worth remembering—the importance of leaders telling the truth. Early in the film, Churchill lies in his radio address to the British people about the military situation in Europe. King George reprimands him for this. But Churchill is redeemed when he calls on the British people to overcome the enemy at hand, to fight to the end. And, of course, we know they do.

I had watched Dunkirk a few months ago, which depicted the travails of the soldiers on the beach awaiting rescue as well as the heroic efforts of the civilian fleet that rescued them. While that film did a good job of showing the horrors of war and in humanizing the bravery of both troops and civilian boatowners, I found Darkest Hour much more compelling. Darkest Hour did a better job of describing the stakes for Britain and the Western World in the early days of World War II. There are viewers who disagree with me and prefer Dunkirk to Darkest Hour. But hearing Churchill’s rhetoric brought tears to my eyes.

There is no question that Churchill was a man of words—written words and spoken words, words that inspired his nation and the world. In fact, Churchill made most of his income from writing books and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” His speeches to Parliament are some of the most rousing moments in the movie.

One friend who went to the movie with me decided to read Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which is a four-volume history covering the almost 1900-year period from Caesar’s invasions of Britain to the beginning of the First World War. I’m not that motivated to study British history, but I learned a lot in the two hours I spent watching Darkest Hour. And I appreciated the opportunity to be inspired by a great leader in the midst of desperate circumstances.

What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently?

Why I Don’t Wish Friends Happy Birthday on Facebook

Another year has begun, and with it another round of birthdays. And another round of deciding which birthdays will I acknowledge, and which will I ignore.

Kids get recognized—that’s a given. (Or it should be.) My younger nieces and nephews will get a card and a gift. The recognition may come late, but until they’re in their teens somewhere, they’ll receive some form of acknowledgment from me that they are growing up. One group of youngsters has a cluster of birthdays—they’ll all get their presents in the same mailing. Another niece has a birthday right after Christmas. She’s the only one guaranteed to get an early gift—I put in it the Christmas box. But they all get something.

And until they’re of the age of reason, they’ll probably get a token gift when their siblings have birthdays also. If only to minimize the squabbles their parents have to deal with.

Adults are another matter. I have a list of family birthdays, and my siblings and their spouses get cards. Ditto on my husband’s side of the family. Grown-up nieces and nephews probably get cards. Most years. When I remember. I do get laxer as people age and family ties weaken.

But what do I do about friends?

My mother was very good about sending all her friends birthday cards. She was a more regular customer of Hallmark than I was—and I worked for the greeting card company and got my cards at a discount. She shopped at least once a month for cards for the next few weeks, wrote a long newsy letter to each person, and got the cards to her friends and relations on time.

One of the worst symptoms of her Alzheimer’s for me was when she started forgetting to send cards. My father tried to take over for family birthdays, but among my saddest birthdays was the year neither of them remembered the occasion.

Weeks later, my father said to me, “I forgot your birthday, didn’t I?”

Yes, he had.

And then a year or two later, he wasn’t there to remember it at all. A sadder birthday yet.

When I worked in Human Resources at Hallmark, I sent many, many birthday cards. And company anniversary cards.

I hadn’t realized that recognizing such occasions was one of the obligations of Human Resources managers, but I quickly embraced the habit. My administrative assistants kept lists of employees with upcoming celebrations, and I sent cards to the people I knew. They deserved that recognition—an opportunity to say congratulations and to thank them for the work they did. I enjoyed writing those cards.

Now I am retired. No more lists of colleagues’ birthdays and anniversaries. No more stock of note cards in the supply cabinet.

But there is Facebook. Facebook tells me when many of my friends have birthdays.

What should I do?

Somehow, it feels disloyal to Hallmark to simply type “Happy Birthday” on someone’s social media wall. If I don’t go to the effort of finding an appropriate card, writing a personal message, addressing the card and mailing it, does it really count?

So I usually choose to ignore the reminder from Facebook. And to ignore all the other birthday wishes my friends are receiving. I don’t post my own birthday, so my friends won’t be placed in a similar quandary.

If Facebook is the only way I have of contacting someone, then I might chime in. I rationalize that if that is the only method I have of recognizing the occasion, the convenience and minimal thought it takes is acceptable. But otherwise, it feels too trite.

So don’t take it personally if I ignore you. In my own way, I am preserving tradition.

Yet many of my Hallmark friends appear to disagree with me. I see them commenting on birthdays left and right, regardless of the impact to Hallmark’s bottom line when they do not send cards. Or maybe they’re sending cards also.

Of course, my position is somewhat silly. I’m not sending cards or writing on Facebook walls—I’m ignoring the occasion altogether. Right or wrong, that’s the position I’ve taken. At least I recognize my hypocrisy.

What do you think? Would you rather have me type Happy Birthday so you know I’m thinking of you? Or shall I continue to ignore Facebook and preserve a tradition I generally do not follow?

Random Photos: Ironing

With my ironing board from Santa, circa 1959

Despite an early exposure to ironing (Santa left me an ironing board when I was just a toddler), I have never liked it. In fact, I’ve done whatever I could to avoid it.

I’ve owned an iron since I was married, but I didn’t buy an ironing board until sometime after I had two kids. I remember buying it, thinking everyone should have an ironing board, but knowing I didn’t really want one. A towel spread out on a bed or counter had always been adequate.

Theresa ironing, November 25, 1977

What brought this topic to mind was finding a picture of myself ironing a shirt the day before my wedding. I found an envelope of snapshots taken the weekend of our marriage. I know I’ve seen some of these pictures before, but I had totally forgotten them. I didn’t remember the photo of me ironing.

There are only two times in my life that I have agreed to iron my husband’s shirt—and only once that I actually did it. That was the day before we were married, Friday, November 25, 1977.

At the rehearsal dinner, fiance in dress shirt I’d ironed

He said he needed his dress shirt ironed before we went to the rehearsal dinner. So I agreed to do it. This photo was taken in my parents’ basement, where I set up my mother’s ironing board and went at it.

I must have done an acceptable job, because he wore the shirt to the rehearsal dinner.

The other time I agreed to iron his shirt was Friday, May 10, 1985. How do I remember that date? Well, the day is memorable for many reasons.

I had spent that week in an executive development program in Lawrence, Kansas, with other managers and professionals at Hallmark Cards. I left Lawrence about noon on May 10, 1985, to go to my obstetrician’s office. I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. After I got home, I called my husband to let him know I’d made it back. We were scheduled to go to a social event sponsored by his law firm that evening. He asked me to iron his shirt. I sighed, but said I would.

Then I went into the family room to lie down on the couch. After all, I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and had an evening event to attend. And a shirt to iron.

As I lay on the couch resting, my water broke. Contractions started immediately.

I called my husband again and told him I would not be ironing his shirt.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because we’re having a baby tonight instead.”

What will you do to get out of ironing (or other detested tasks)?

Sick Days in Retirement: If a Woman Sneezes at Home, Does Anyone Hear?

This is a self-pity post. I’ve had a cold or the flu for the last week, and I’ve been miserable. If the news reports of the flu epidemic are true, then many other people out there are sick also, and many are sicker than I am. But at the moment, I’m pitying myself, not others.

I got my flu shot, so I shouldn’t be sick. I breezed through Christmas without any exposure (that I knew of) to illness.

But on New Year’s Eve I awoke with a scratchy throat. For the next two days, I didn’t feel well, but I didn’t think it was too bad. I kept up with my normal activities, even going to the gym on Tuesday. I took some cold medicine to help me sleep, but I figured the flu shot would do its thing and I would improve quickly.

This isn’t me, but I have a blue robe like this that I’ve been spending a lot of time in.

Then Wednesday hit. Congestion. Coughing. Fatigue. The proverbial freight train slammed into my body, and I didn’t want to move.

Ditto Thursday. And Friday, though Friday was a little better than Thursday. And Saturday a little better still.

Nevertheless, since my gym visit Tuesday, I haven’t left the house, and I don’t plan to until a meeting scheduled this coming Tuesday.

It has been a long time since I was sick enough to decide to cancel all non-home-based activities for a week.

Of course, while I was working, I generally couldn’t cancel everything. I never took a full week off for illness in twenty-seven years of corporate life. I don’t think I ever took more than two days. There were too many bosses and judges putting meetings on my calendar and imposing non-negotiable deadlines, too many people requiring input and output from me. Too much peer pressure to keep going strong even after the freight train struck.

So I think of taking sick days as a luxury. As a self-employed writer and community volunteer, I can decide for myself whether my presence at meetings is necessary or whether the risk of infecting others outweighs the contributions I could bring to a discussion. I can be self-pitying, and no one can chastise me.

Not me either. This woman looks how I feel, but I don’t have a teddy bear to keep me company.

But the ability to take sick days also means I’m expendable. No one relies on me for anything that can’t be postponed. Even my husband could manage to feed himself if I didn’t fix dinner (though I have been doing that through my illness).

I’m fortunate that I am currently at a point in my writing project that takes very little creativity. I’m doing a final polish on Forever Mine, which doesn’t require much more than the ability to spot typos. I’m pretty good at that, and even my fog-filled brain can handle that mindless activity.

Still, I wonder if I will regret this lost week, if it will set the tone for the coming year. And, in my self-pitying mode, I wonder who besides myself would care if I don’t meet my self-imposed goals.

When have you wallowed in self-pity? What got you out of it?

Bowl Game: Another Road Trip from Hell

I wrote about one road trip from hell—a 2007 trip to New Orleans for my daughter’s law school graduation that involved Southern heat without air conditioning, floods, and a broken bone (mine). Over New Year’s weekend from 2009 crossing over to 2010, I took another road trip from hell—this one to Houston.

The planning began a few weeks earlier, when we learned that the University of Missouri football team would be playing Navy on December 31, 2009, in the Texas Bowl in Houston. Wouldn’t it be great, someone suggested, if my husband and I took his mother to see the game? She is an avid Mizzou fan, and my husband is an alum of the Naval Academy. It seemed to others that these alliances would lead to a good time being had by all.

Well, it might have been a good time, if either my husband or I liked football. I grew up watching football games on television with my father and brothers—that was all there was to do on weekends during my childhood. I understand the rudiments of the game. One team of big, burly men tries to get the slippery, odd-shaped ball across the goal line while the other team of big, burly men tries to stop them. The players fall down a lot. Flags on the field are bad, unless they are timed strategically to magically transform fifteen minutes into an hour.

One problem with football is that it is played when the weather is cold. I managed to never attend a football game during high school, and only passed through the stands briefly during one game at college. I don’t like being outside in the cold—at least hockey is played inside.

My husband was forced to attend football games when he was a student at the Naval Academy. In uniform. And often marching. He didn’t mind marching, but he didn’t care about the football games themselves, and he did not follow his alma mater’s standings after he graduated. People would ask him about the Army/Navy game, and he had no clue when it was or who had won.

Nevertheless, on December 30, 2009, we found ourselves on I-35 South driving from Kansas City to Houston. I was retired by then, but my husband was still practicing law, and he wanted to make a quick trip of it. So we planned to make the drive in one day.

The three of us—husband, his mother, and me—left our house in her car at 8:00 am. We arrived in Houston at 11:00 pm. Fifteen hours on the road, which alone made it a trip from hell. My husband and I don’t do well on long car trips together, not when there is any time pressure involved. He stops too frequently and drives too slowly for my taste. And his mother travels faster than I do.

I had anticipated we would arrive at our hotel around 9:00 pm, but by Oklahoma City it was clear we wouldn’t make that. We ate dinner somewhere around Dallas (which we reached during rush hour) and still had hours to go. But we got there and went straight to bed.

The Texas Bowl itself was on December 31, 2009, which was a cold day for Houston. As a Navy alum, my husband had tickets to a Navy tailgate party where we ate lunch, then we found our seats in the stadium. It was colder than I had anticipated, and I spent quite a bit of time in the concession area where I could warm up.

Surprisingly, once the game started, my husband got interested and rooted for Navy. His mother, of course, rooted for Mizzou. Navy won decisively—35 to 13. The Mizzou players seemed as uninvolved in the game as I was, while Navy displayed a solid, workmanlike approach to scoring. However pleased my husband was by the result, his mother was about twice as disappointed. Since the trip was a present for her, it would have been nice if she had seen her team win.

On New Year’s Day, we played tourist at the Johnson Space Center, the U.S.S. Texas, and the San Jacinto Memorial. I enjoyed learning something of Texas history, but wished I had brought a heavier coat as I shivered in the wind.

We ended the day at a pizza joint somewhere near our hotel—the only restaurant we could find open on the holiday. That’s when the trip turned to hell. As with the New Orleans trip, I seemed to be the weak link in our family chain.

I became deathly ill that night—upset stomach, shakes and chills. Whether it was the pizza or a virus, I have no idea. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. I just know I felt bad. Too sick to eat, too sick to drive, too sick to do anything but moan.

Regardless how I felt, I had to endure a fifteen-hour car ride back home on January 2, 2010. I curled up in the back seat and tried to ignore everything—the conversation, the terrain, the world. All I ate that day was hot tea and a couple of saltines.

About Wichita, we hit a snowstorm. We had heavy snow all the way from Wichita to Kansas City—a three- hour drive in the dark. Every time a truck went by it threw snow across our windshield.

Once again, our travels ended about 11:00 pm, when we arrived at our house. At least by then I was feeling better.

And I’m happy to report that this was the last road trip from hell I’ve made. There was the time in 2013 that I drove my daughter from Vancouver, B.C., to Seattle after she broke her leg. But that was a shorter trip, and I wasn’t the one suffering.

When was your last road trip from hell?

Happy New Year!

Here’s a link to my January 1, 2018, newsletter. I send this out monthly with updates on my writing. I hope you’ll check it out. If you like it, I hope you’ll subscribe (if you haven’t already). I provide different content in the newsletter than on this blog, so there are reasons to follow both.

This month, the newsletter announces the launch date for my next novel, Forever Mine.

I hope your 2018 begins well and improves through the year.

Happy New Year!

The Charles Preuss Maps of the Oregon Trail

In Lead Me Home, and again in my about-to-be-published novel Forever Mine, I make frequent mention of what my characters call “the Frémont maps.” In fact, these maps were created by Charles Preuss, a German cartographer who accompanied John Frémont on his explorations of the West in 1842 and 1843. The maps were first published in Frémont’s reports to Congress in 1845 and 1846, so my fictional characters could have obtained copies by early 1847.

Preuss’s seven maps are available online

On the 1842 expedition, Frémont, Preuss and their companions followed what would become the main route to Oregon—along the Platte River through what is now Nebraska and Wyoming, crossing to the Sweetwater River, then to South Pass where they crossed the Continental Divide, and then searching for the Snake River, which they followed as far as the Columbia River. Preuss’s maps stop at Fort Walla Walla, where the Snake joins the Columbia. That’s where the 1842 Frémont expedition turned around.

Preuss created seven maps depicting their travels on the 1842 trek. These were later published with Frémont’s report to Congress, and the maps became guideposts for many travelers to Oregon.

Here is the first of Preuss’s maps, showing the trail from Westport to the Little Blue River in Kansas, where the emigrants headed north toward the Platte.

I used the Preuss maps extensively in my research about the Oregon Trail. I often triangulated Preuss’s maps, pioneer journals, and Google Maps to decide where to have my fictional wagon train camp each night along the way. I had to be realistic in how far oxen-pulled wagons could travel (compared to the lighter Frémont convoy), and I had to make sure I thought about what changes to the terrain might have occurred between the 1840s and when Google’s satellite images were prepared. Many of the rivers have been dammed in the intervening 170+ years.

Here is an image from Google Maps reflecting my research into where my wagon train camped in Missouri and Kansas. This private Google Map shows all the waypoints I identified along the trail. I used this as a guide for where to place the emigrants each night of their journey.

Writers, what are some of the unusual research techniques you’ve used?