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What makes a great communicator? What separates the best from the rest? What is it about their persona or message that moves people and creates action?

I would suggest that it all starts with a mastery of and a comfort with the spoken word, along with the ability to express ideas clearly. I would also suggest that a high degree of sincerity and trustworthiness is likewise applicable. Finally, it’s always helpful to know what you’re talking about.

Here is a list of 10 people from the 20th and 21st Centuries whom I would suggest belong on any list of great communicators. They are in no particular order:

  1. John Wooden. One of the most decorated coaches of any sport, Wooden helped transform the lives of hundreds of young men that came into his basketball program at UCLA. He is remembered not only for winning 10 NCAA national championships in 12 years, but for the discipline he demanded from himself and his players.  Wooden was renowned for his short, simple inspirational messages to his players, including his “Pyramid of Success” book.
  2. Winston Churchill. At the onset of World War II, England was in very real danger of being invaded and overrun by the seemingly invincible Nazi war machine. Churchill inspired his island nation not only with his memorable, magnificent words, but with his stubborn determination and indomitable courage to repulse the Germans and see the war through to a successful conclusion. And in the end, he was the leader who prevailed.
  3. Billy Graham. This Southern evangelistic preacher has taken his uplifting message of the Gospel to the world’s masses, in the most literal of senses. Dr. Graham has spoken to and influenced millions of people, of different cultures and faiths, of all ages and backgrounds. He has been friend and counselor to presidents and paupers, and has often served as a steadying, comforting influence during times of national tragedy.
  4. Ronald Reagan. The 40th President of the United States was often referred to as The Great Communicator. A trained actor, Reagan served as Governor of California before seeking national elective office. His wit, humor, and insight were used to great effect in his speeches, and his personal charm played no small role in many of his legislative successes. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” is one of his more famous quotations.
  5. Jack Welch. One of the Captains of Industry, this Chairman and CEO of General Electric took his famous company to record levels of growth in revenue and profits. Welch’s messages were replete with references to the need for unremitting continuous improvement, and his successful Six Sigma initiative within GE was, among other processes, copied by many business leaders around the world. He earned a reputation for his brutal candor in meetings with executives.
  6. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Dr. King’s message of nonviolent social change brought to the American public’s consciousness the pressing need for equality of all people, regardless of race. Dr. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial has been elevated to one of the great pieces of oratory in American history. His ability to articulate the desires of minorities for social and economic justice, and the rightness of the cause, became the pivotal driver of the 1960s civil-rights movement.
  7. Walter Cronkite. Journalist Cronkite was often described during his days as evening news anchor at CBS as “the most trusted man in America.” From his nearly tearful reporting of the news of JFK’s assassination to his eventual description of the war in Vietnam as unwinnable, Cronkite served as a primary source of weekday news to millions of Americans. “And that’s the way it is,” was his trademark sign-off at the end of his newscast.
  8. Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister is a strong, passionate leader with an unwavering commitment to the survival and strength of the Jewish state. Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister born in Israel after the establishment of the state. His oratory skills are considerable, as is his ability to argue a point gracefully while pointing out the errors of those with whom he disagrees.
  9. Oprah Winfrey. According to some sources, media-icon Winfrey is the most influential woman in the world. Her self-improvement and self-help themes often characterize her talk-show content, much like group-therapy sessions. She has overcome adversity at many points in her storied life, and her often emotion-centered show content has dwelt with her many struggles.
  10. Mrs. Margaret Davis. My wonderful high school English teacher. She was simply the best. Do you have a memorable teacher you could add to this list?

 

Kelly Tough

September 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

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With all that’s going on in the world today, it’s worthwhile to take a moment to reflect upon and appreciate the struggle of a man who is tough, Kelly Tough actually, and who has been in the fight of his life. He has battled cancer and won, and he did it with a faith and bravery that those of us in good health can only hope we would exhibit were we to find ourselves in similar circumstances. He has been an inspiration to others throughout most of his adult life, but now he inspires in a different way. Now he inspires not as a high-profile professional athlete, but as a decent, caring, all-too-mortal human being who gets dealt a difficult hand and does his best to deal with it.

His name is Jim Kelly.

You may remember that name. He is the former Buffalo Bills quarterback who was enshrined in 2002 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Kelly guided his team to 4 Super Bowls, and in 11 seasons in the NFL he passed for 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns. In 1994, I was fortunate enough to see Jim and his Bills face the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. Ironically, Jim played his college football at the University of Miami where Mark Richt, the current coach of my beloved University of Georgia Bulldogs, played backup quarterback to Kelly.

In 2013, Jim was diagnosed with cancer in his upper jaw. He had surgery and was pronounced cancer-free thereafter, only to have the cancer recur in March of this year. He then began a debilitating regimen of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, and his survival was anything but assured. But in late August, doctors announced that Jim was again without any trace of cancer.

Cancer isn’t the only tough blow Jim Kelly has endured. In 2005, Jim and his wife Jill lost their 8-year-old son Hunter to Krabbe disease. Kelly established the non-profit Hunter’s Hope to increase public awareness on behalf of Krabbe patients. As well, The Hunter James Kelly Research Institute was founded at the University of Buffalo in 2004 to study myelin and its diseases.

Professionally, the public Jim Kelly has always graciously dealt with the fact that his Buffalo Bills appeared in 4 Super Bowls without a victory. He would have preferred a different outcome—of course, he’s a fierce competitor—but the plain fact is that Kelly got his team into the sport’s biggest game 4 times. Not one and done; not twice; not even thrice. But 4 times! Similarly, some have scoffed at the fact that the Atlanta Braves won only 1 World Series in their 14 consecutive division titles. C’mon, man. How many pro athletes never get a chance at a single Super Bowl appearance or a postseason chance at a World Series? Kelly’s NFL career was one of achievement at a consistently high level, sustained over time, and well enough regarded to have earned him a place in the Hall of Fame.

Though I don’t know Jim personally, I am inspired by his dignity and his courage. Kelly Tough is his family motto and it’s no misnomer. My son and his family live in Buffalo and are friends with the Kellys. My grandson played quarterback in youth football for Jim’s brother Dan, and attended Jim’s football camp. There is a connection between Jim’s family and mine, a connection based upon friendship, faith, and, of course, football.

I’m pulling for Jim Kelly to remain cancer-free. He has a terrific family, the adoration of his cherished city of Buffalo, and plenty of work left with Hunter’s Hope. He has much to live for.

Way to go, Jim. Stay Kelly Tough. Stay an inspiration to so many of us. Stay Jim Kelly.

 

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An investigation led by a former U.S. Attorney has revealed that General Motors knew about a safety defect in its ignition switches for a full decade but did nothing to fix the problem. Thirteen people died in accidents related to the defect. This is the same General Motors that American taxpayers lost over $11 billion from the 2009 federal bailout. An issue of ethics or negligence? Or both?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has come under intense scrutiny after reports uncovered the deaths of dozens of veterans who died waiting for care. The VA has allegedly been manipulating data to meet performance goals, and the resultant payment of hundreds of thousands in bonuses reflects a systemic deterioration in the culture and performance of the organization charged with caring for the nation’s veterans.

News from Atlanta revealed that 35 teachers, principals, and other education leaders of Atlanta Public Schools have been charged with being part of a cheating ring where test sheets were altered or fabricated and test scores were inflated. It is one of the largest cheating scandals in U.S. history.

Lance Armstrong admits he cheated, lied, denied, and bullied during his career as a cyclist in which he was the winner of seven Tour de France titles. He has since been stripped of those titles.

The Internal Revenue Service has selected conservative political groups applying for tax-exempt status for additional scrutiny in what appears to be a partisan political use of the IRS. There is considerably more than a scintilla of evidence to make Americans rightfully uncomfortable with this dangerous abuse of power.

A search of the internet finds that there is no shortage of lists of the Most Corrupt, to include states, governors, congressman, cities, and companies. Americans are fast losing confidence in such long-standing institutions as federal and state governments, the press, the church, and business.

Are these ethical lapses a reflection of a corrupted and value-diminished culture? Only to a limited degree, in my opinion. Our capitalist system with its large sums of money has, and always will, attract criminals and rogues. Our nation is divided politically, and a win-at-all-costs mentality seems to exist. These issues are not unique to these times, however.

Have Americans become too cowardly or disinterested or disenfranchised to smoke out those of low ethics? I don’t believe so, as evidenced by the whistleblowers in the VA and other scandals.

Are the ethics problems seemingly so widespread in the public and private sectors that a feeling of powerlessness among ethical, law-abiding Americans has come to prevail? Perhaps, but Americans also know they have the power of the ballot box or the power of the consumer dollar.

So, are the ethical lapses in America the new normal, or is it just an aberration?

It’s an aberration, in my judgment. I suggest that the heart of the problem is an abject failure of American leadership. Our elected officials are viewed negatively in near-record levels. Our current president is on a pathway to being viewed as the most incompetent in the nation’s history. His credibility as a truthful, skillful executive barely registers any signs of life whatsoever. The person at the top in any government, business, or military organization sets the example. And it’s a better example this nation very badly needs, across the board.

Leadership may not solve all of America’s ethical problems, but an absence of leadership will certainly compound them.

 

Cruising in Alaska

June 23, 2014 — Leave a comment

Tail of a Humpback Whale in Frederick SoundMy wife and I were joined last month by my uncle and aunt (and several thousand others) on a cruise to Alaska. We boarded the Celebrity/Solstice in Seattle and spent a week in what can only be described as a grand adventure. The scenery was absolutely spectacular, and the quantities and assortment of fine foods was very near to being otherworldly. Speaking of otherworldly, I’m fairly certain that if I had been confronted with such a near-obscene array of good-looking food as a young, working-class Atlanta boy, I would have looked around for St. Peter to be sure I was where I thought I was.

Previously, my cruise log had only a single entry—aboard a U.S. Navy ship en route to mainland Japan from Okinawa (and then back) when I was a Marine in the 1970s. Nothing against Navy chow, but it could hardly compare to a Solstice spread and the impeccable service that accompanied it. It was also pleasant that on the Alaska cruise I was responsible for, and in charge of, exactly nothing. All I had to do was show up when and where my wife directed me. I do that well.

I can’t say that I’m suddenly a cruise convert, but I have to admit that sitting on our balcony and watching the deep-emerald islands and the rugged, snow-capped mountains pass in front of me was one of those matchless experiences that escapes adequate description. The big ship moved along effortlessly most of the time, and that small balcony became a place of solitude and reflection for me, even in the dark of night. Seeing a whale was also an exciting first.

The Alaskan towns we visited were quaint and interesting, but only for as long as my uncle and I could locate a saloon and get to know some of the locals. Seaplanes were everywhere, buzzing like mosquitoes, and if I go back I will take a tour on one. The fiord and glacier and blue ice were all breathtaking, but when you finally did breathe you were inhaling some of the freshest air on earth. The Alaskan wilderness, like the sea that borders it, is an awesome yet somewhat intimidating marvel. Its arresting beauty combined with its power and strength and timelessness makes a mortal human feel small and fragile in comparison. Nature is indeed forceful, and in its untouched, undiminished form, it is, again, indescribable.

Now I know why I’ve never heard anyone who has taken an Alaska cruise say anything but great things about their experience.

Add me to that list.

GeneralDavis2Gen. Raymond G. Davis, United States Marine Corps, is one of the more legendary figures in the fabled history of the Corps. He was a combat veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He was awarded virtually every decoration this nation can bestow for acts of gallantry, including the Medal of Honor. And he attained four-star rank when he was named Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps near the end of his illustrious career.

His Medal of Honor citation reads in part: “Always in the thick of the fighting Lt. Col. Davis led his battalion over 3 successive ridges in the deep snow in continuous attacks against the enemy and, constantly inspiring and encouraging his men throughout the night, brought his unit to a point within 1,500 yards of the surrounded rifle company by daybreak. Although knocked to the ground when a shell fragment struck his helmet and 2 bullets pierced his clothing, he arose and fought his way forward at the head of his men until he reached the isolated Marines.”

The temperature that night in Korea was 30 degrees below zero. He rescued his Marines and opened up a critical mountain pass.

When I was a Basic School student at Quantico, Virginia as a Marine second lieutenant in 1970, Gen. Davis attended a formal dinner for our class, by tradition referred to as Mess Night. I knew of his exploits in combat, and I saw the Medal of Honor around his neck and the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and numerous other decorations on his chest. He was soft-spoken, of average height and build, but he had the unmistakable presence and aura that great leaders exude, all without a trace of vanity or condescension.

When I mentioned to Gen. Davis that I was from his home state of Georgia, he asked what school I had attended. I knew the general had graduated from Georgia Tech, and when I mentioned that I had attended his school’s chief rival, he smiled and said, “Ah, a Georgia Bulldog.”

The years passed, and I now wish that I had arranged to visit him before his death in 2003, at age 88. I could have taken along the three novels I’ve written and we could have talked about the football fortunes of Georgia and Georgia Tech. And I’m sure we would have talked about the Marine Corps. What a rich wellspring of Marine history he would have been.

Thank you, Gen. Davis, for the remarkable service you rendered this nation in its times of need. You will forever be remembered by your fellow Marines.

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I’ve been contemplating a new book idea. In my most recent novel Dare Not Blink, the protagonist Dave Paige is a young business executive who by and large behaves ethically and honorably, even when he’s faced with a nasty power struggle within his own firm. Paige isn’t perfect by any means, but he does understand that there is a relationship between integrity and trustworthiness, and he attaches great worth to that relationship. His colleagues can count on Paige to do the right thing, even when others around him are playing by looser, more accommodating rules, if indeed they play by any rules at all.

So, for my new book I’m considering a sequel to Dare Not Blink and having my guy Dave Paige run for public office. Wouldn’t it be a refreshing change to have someone elected to high office who tells the unvarnished truth and is thereby trusted by the American public for doing so? Even if it’s fiction?

Considering what we currently have in our elected officials, values like integrity and trustworthiness are largely fictitious anyway. So why not have my already larger-than-life fictional character come to the rescue of an entire nation which now places precious little of its abiding trust in government. Who knows? The new book might even become a blockbuster bestseller.

So, instead of Paige’s Laws of Business we could now have Paige’s Tenets of Good Governance (or some such). Here might be a few of his entries:

  • I will not lead from the rear. As a matter of practical fact, it can’t be done anyway.
  • Liars will be summarily terminated from my administration. My own lying will be an impeachable offense. Throughout government, I will smoke out those of low integrity and boot them to the curb.
  • I will not make vague threats about “consequences” and then do nothing.
  • I will direct and then ensure that the politicization of any federal agency resulting in the unwarranted harassment of any American citizen will result in the immediate transfer of the agency head (and any accomplices) to the Bureau of Prisons to await trail and the booking of a room therein.
  • I am a businessman and as such I will create jobs and get Americans back to work again.
  • I will balance the federal budget and keep it balanced throughout my term.
  • I will represent all Americans.
  • I will remind the world of what President John F. Kennedy said, “On the presidential coat of arms, the American eagle holds in his right talon the olive branch, while in his left he holds a bundle of arrows. We intend to give equal attention to both.”
  • I will give equal attention to both.

Man, I do love fiction.

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Has creative writing sparked an interest in you that you can no longer ignore? Are you attracted to the art of transforming an idea into a vibrant, coherent, imaginative stream of well-chosen words? Do you have the motivation to grow and to learn, the drive to push yourself to improve each day, and the mettle to take a shot at success when the risk of rejection might be lurking on the other side? If you can answer Yes to the foregoing, then the challenge and rewards of creative writing await you.

The below suggestions might be worthwhile as you begin charting your course:

• Capture your ideas. Keep a notepad handy to write down your observations. Worthwhile ideas can present themselves at any given moment. You may find that fresh material comes to you in the dead of night, or early morning, or perhaps as you’re driving or riding as a passenger. Inspiration can’t always be predicted or manipulated, so stay ready.

• Paint pictures with words. Instead of writing about a character involved in a motorcycle accident, describe the smell of the slick, wet pavement, the length and violence of the skid, the panic of the character as he/she realizes that control has been lost and some degree of unpleasantness now awaits. Don’t just tell, show. There’s a potential reader on the other end of your creation, so provide enough sustenance to keep that reader involved and turning the pages.

• Unleash your imagination. Your characters can become whomever or whatever you so desire. The scenes are yours to devise, the plot yours to construct. The story develops from an idea into a short story or novel based upon the power of your own imagination. You can make your main character larger than life, strong and determined, heroic yet flawed. It’s your choice. And don’t be afraid to take risks. Since it’s your story, your creation, tell it like you want it.

• Write every day. Writing is an acquired skill, and thus should be diligently practiced. The skill development, discipline, and dedication necessary to become an effective writer require continuous practice. It’s not always easy, but your writing should improve over time if you write, write, and keep writing.

Learn from others. Your writing style should be your own. But you can learn from reading the works of other writers. Read an array of material, from poetry to novels to blogs to journals of opinion. It’s okay to borrow from others, but you’ll need to develop a comfort with your own voice and words.

• Have fun. Make your characters come alive. Discover the unanticipated twists and turns that the writing process often takes once you have begun. And by all means enjoy yourself. It will reflect in your writing.

So, find your voice. Learn and practice your craft. Read, write, and write some more. You’ll be pleased when you find the high satisfaction that creative writing offers.

Good luck and good writing!

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There is an interesting movement afoot originating from Northwestern University’s football team and its efforts to unionize, which a Chicago NLRB ruling has now supported. The issue of players’ receiving pay is apparently not primary to such other concerns as guaranteed scholarships and post-eligibility health costs for football-related injuries. The NCAA has made its position clear that it does not consider college football players to be employees. And undoubtedly Northwestern will appeal the decision. The business of college football is big and complicated, and growing bigger and more complicated every day.

Nonetheless, the landscape of college athletics—and especially college football—appears headed toward a transformation. Forbes reported that the Top 25 preseason college football teams for the 2011-2012 season had revenues of $1.24 billion and expenses of $562 million. High-end coaches’ salaries have risen over the past 15 years from $1 million to $7 million annually. Coordinators salaries have now reached the equivalent of mid-level CEOs. There are specific rules regarding the changing of schools for athletes; generally no such rules exist for coaches except in regard to contractual buyouts.

College football is a money-driven business with huge television deals, lucrative merchandise sales, post-season incentives, and on-campus facilities improvements in what is essentially a race for the biggest, most glamorous, most influential digs to assist in recruitment. Football is the unmistakable driver, with basketball a distant second, in providing the funds necessary to support it and the other intercollegiate sports, both men’s and women’s. And it is football that brings the droves of fans into the stadiums after making the requisite contributions and buying the tickets to see their beloved teams in action.

College football is not simply an extracurricular activity, it is a business that is run as a business. It generates billions and has the incessant pressure to win and grow and extend its brand. Coaches (CEOs) must succeed quickly or be banished. Fan bases (customers) are vocal and demanding. Other schools (competitors) are carefully watched for even the slightest evidence of advantage and/or innovation. Add to this the potentially shrinking base of players as parents begin to nudge their sons away from football toward sports with less likelihood for concussion injuries, and the pressure intensifies all the more.

When it comes to the players, I haven’t come to view them as exploited. They are receiving an education in exchange for their services. To be sure, they invest huge amounts of time and effort in their sport, and very few ever make it to the NFL. From what I can gather, however, most are generally satisfied. That’s not to say it couldn’t be made better. I’m in favor of their being paid a stipend that would give them enough money to dine out or attend a movie or concert. Nothing extravagant, say $500 per month for football players, less for other sports. Pay for it out of merchandise sales and endorsement deals. And make it consistent across all schools so that bidding contests for recruits can (ostensibly) be avoided. More fundamental fairness toward the players would be a good thing.

There will still be cheaters; alas, there will always be the cheaters. And when the cheaters win big, there will also be the emulators. What to do with the cheaters? Kick them out of any conference or national championship opportunities for, say, ten years. And fine them 10% of their revenues for the same amount of time. They can pay the penalty or drop football and start cheating at lacrosse.

If the big bucks finally drive the fairness and integrity out of college football, then the inevitable transformation will change the game in a dramatic way. Unions can then do for college football what they’ve done for Detroit. And who knows, the Fighting Irish might one day be outsourced to Dublin or Bangalore or some such. It will be a different game, if indeed there is any game at all. Who’s to say the NFL wouldn’t then create its own professional minor-league system, akin to the baseball model.

Nothing personal, mind you.

It’s just business.

Who is the band member who is also the most affecting, authoritative lead guitarist of all time? Who has the most memorable opening guitar riffs that cause an instantaneous recognition of a song? Who can mesmerize a crowd with his playing and stage presence (perhaps together with an off-stage persona to match)?

In short, who is the best, most recognizable, most powerful “guitar engine” that propelled his band and helped drive it to greatness?

In an informal poll of family and friends, there were a number of strong candidates advanced. Eddie Van Halen, Dave Matthews, Lindsay Buckingham, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Duane Allman, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, and Carlos Santana were all band guitarists of great skill and notoriety. All would certainly fulfill the “engine” criterion. And without a doubt all could bring a swooning concert crowd to its feet.

As good as they all are, they’re not the best. Not by a long shot, folks.

The best all-time band guitarist is none other than Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Yep, the ole English pirate himself.

But wasn’t Keith on the Ark with Noah, you ask?

No, but part of my reasoning behind Keith’s selection is that he has been a major part of a long and distinguished body of work (along, of course, with Mick and the others). They’ve lasted so long because they’ve continued to connect with listeners and audiences after all these fifty years. And there are all the great songs that have become so ingrained in our culture. That’s the point. You wouldn’t expect the greatest band guitarist to come from, say, Whitesnake, would you? (Sorry, that was a diss, I know. My bad. Throw ‘em a bone, er rat . . . sorry again.)

Think of Keith’s opening licks from Start Me Up, Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Women, Midnight Rambler, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and the immortal Satisfaction, which in 2004 Rolling Stones magazine placed second on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. While Keith isn’t the greatest guitarist ever, he is the musician who powered one of the greatest bands ever. Still does, as a matter of fact. Throw him a bone.

All-time band, all-time songs, all-time guitarist. That’s Keith Richards.

There, you have my choice.

Who is yours?

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Last Thursday, February 27, 2014, I had an author interview on The Kevin Zimmerman Show on the Authors First Radio Network.

A recording of the interview can be heard at this link http://www.artistfirst.com/Zimmerman.htm.

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Kevin Zimmerman

Kevin and I talked about my novels Dare Not Blink and Shall Never See So Much, and we also spoke of the splendid men and women in our U.S. Armed Forces. Kevin’s listening audience is heavily represented by military personnel, and it was a special honor to be able to tell our service members how much I appreciate what they are doing. It’s obvious that the members of the military hold a special place in Kevin’s heart, as they do mine, and it was worthwhile to be able to tell them so.

Kevin is not only an excellent interviewer and host, he is also a retired soldier and American hero in his own right. He is a two-time recipient of the Soldier’s Medal, the highest award given by Congress for an act of bravery while our nation is not in declared war. Recently, his book A Time For Everything; The Kevin Zimmerman Story, Second edition became a permanent part of American history by being accepted into the library and archives of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. In June 2012, the book became a permanent part of U.S. military history by being accepted into the archives of the U.S. Army Medical Department Museum.

Not only am I pleased to have been a guest on Kevin’s show, but I’m especially grateful that I can now claim him as a friend.

My thanks also to friend and fellow author Doug Dahlgren, whose The Son series has been well received, for connecting Kevin and myself.