Friday, February 21, 2020

Key Facilitative Skills: Eliciting Proposals that Sing

As a professional facilitator for more than three decades, I've had ample opportunity to observe which skills make the most difference. As a facilitation trainer the past 15 years, I've collected plenty of data about which lessons have been the most challenging for students to digest. Taken all together, I've decided to assemble a series of blog posts on the facilitation skills I consider to be both the hardest to master and the most potent for producing productive meetings. They will all bear the header Key Facilitation Skills and it's a distillation of where I believe the heavy lifting is done.

[I launched this series August 17, 2018, but lost momentum last summer—my previous entry was July 4, 2019—more than eight months ago. Now I'm back in the saddle.]

Here are the headlines of what I'll cover in this series:

I. Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy
II. Working Constructively with Emotions
III. Managing the Obstreperous
IV. Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horse Require
V. Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression
VI.Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations
VII. Walking the Feedback Talk
VIII. Sis Boom Bang
IX. Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement
X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous)
XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing
XII. Becoming Multi-tongued
XIII. Not Leaving Product on the Table
XIV. Sequencing Issues Productively
XV. Trusting the Force 
• • •
XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing  
Laws are like sausages, it is better to not see them being made.
        —Otto von Bismarck

For many, crafting agreements by consensus is an awkward grind, just as Otto suggests. However, Otto (I'm reasonably sure) never operated in a cooperative environment and that's the water I swim in. When done well (I'll explain how in a minute) there is an elegance about good agreements that transforms wieners into winners.

Believe in the Force (not in the forcing)
What you get is largely influenced by what you believe is possible. If you expect a slog, you may as well get the hip waders out. So the first order of business is to be able to imagine elegance—to trust the process. If you don't believe in magic, there won't be any.

Then you need to know how to invoke it. I take the view that there is always sufficient wisdom in the group to solve any problem. The facilitative challenge is creating a container in which the wisdom can emerge. That requires entering into problem solving with soft edges, where participants are confident that no one will be left behind; that no one will be pressured into saying "yes" when they are not peace with the proposed solution. 

Note that I am not promising that everyone will get everything they want—only that their input will be taken into account; that they will not be run over. This is not about being nice, or steering clear of saying hard things. There should be a known and accessible pathway for everyone to offer their input on topic.

[This almost certainly means multiple pathways, as one-size-fits-all approaches unwittingly favor some at the expense of others. For example, the default mode of engagement in most groups is open discussion. While this can be a powerful and efficient tool, it favors quick thinkers over slow thinkers and those who are comfortable speaking in front of large groups (say 8+) over those who would rather clean toilets or sort rotten potatoes. Thus, if you only offer open discussion, some voices will be lost will others are getting more air time than they should, skewing the results.]

Facilitators don't need to know the answer, they just need to be available for it. They need to listen well and encourage that in others. Crackerjack facilitators can accurately and concisely reflect back what's been said on a given topic. They strip out redundancies and boil it down to its essence, sharpening the conversation.

There are three main challenges to achieving elegance:

a) Navigating strong emotional input
As human beings we bring our emotions with us wherever we go. Even if feelings are expressly proscribed (or at least discouraged) they emerge anyway and if groups are not clear about how they'll work with them, groups tend to founder and lose their way in the presence of strong emotions. It doesn't feel safe and people tend to be distracted by the person in reaction, losing sight of the topic at hand and how the emotional response might illuminate the issue.

Further, when feelings are ignored, the group is left with one of two unsatisfactory choices: plowing ahead as if the feelings didn't emerge; or suspending the topic because it feels too chaotic, unsafe, or disrespectful to continue. In the former case, the atmosphere suddenly becomes more tense—the very opposite of the "soft edges" I spoke about earlier. In the latter, the topic is held hostage to the distress and it puts tremendous pressure on the person who expressed upset ("we were making progress until you lost your shit; now we have to wait").

Making a commitment to work with whatever feelings emerge on topic is a fork in the road. While it's not a simple skill to learn, and probably requires a fair amount of stretching for group members, the simple truth is that not doing so is crippling, and groups will never reach their potential for depth and authenticity without it. Oh they can still function—it is, after all, the norm in mainstream competitive, win/lose culture—but meetings will forever be susceptible to the slog that Otto predicted if you don't take that path. It's that foundational.

b) Navigating strong differences of opinion
Similar, but not the same as the prior point, is how groups respond when significant differences emerge about how to respond to significant issues—even when strong feelings are not part of the landscape. If you are a stakeholder on this issue (by which I mean you care about the outcome) you have been conditioned to fight to win. To be sure, this can look like many things: from manipulation to outright verbal combat; from cajoling and wheedling to emotional blackmail. What these techniques have in common is they are all combative and calculated to prevail over opposition. We have been taught this at an early age—it's either that or roll over and cede the role of alpha dog to others (which some do simply because being a combatant is too odious).

While some have learned to love the fight, mostly this energy leads to misery. Losers—and there are losers if it plays out in any of the forms I've described above—do not have a good time. They enjoy neither how they acted, nor the outcome. Those in the group who are not stakeholders (it's a rare topic where everyone is stakeholder) are dismayed that the group has been become fractured by the consideration, rather than unified, or drawn closer together. This not the experience they signed up for.

So the challenge for the facilitator is how be both authentic in eliciting the full breadth of preferences, while not allowing that to be fractioning. While few groups are so naive as to think that disagreements will never surface (what, after all, did you think diversity would yield?), that doesn't mean they have the skills to work with it deftly. It is the facilitator's job to receive disparate input with grace and curiosity, modeling for others an attitude they temporarily forgot they committed to in the heat of the moment.

There is typically a time early on when it's important to show to everyone's satisfaction that all viewpoints are tied to a reasonable interpretation of a common value—establishing legitimacy for taking that perspective to account. After that, it's a matter of exploring the group's best thinking about how to balance things. This is not about compromise (which is more or less an attempt to equalize loss); it's about finding the proposal that sings.

c) Advocacy creeping into problem solving
One of the most valuable insights I've gleaned from my decades of working with cooperative groups is the advantage of assiduously separating what I style Discussion phase from Problem-solving phase when working an issue. In the former, you are trying to flush out what a good response to the issue needs to take into account. In general, this entails explicitly identifying the common values in play. It is often useful to coarsely prioritize the list (which things do you have to have reflected in the solution, and which do you prefer to have there but there is some wiggle room around about how much you get). 

In this model, the group does not proceed to Problem-solving (the subsequent phase) until the Discussion is complete. You may think this is obvious, but it isn't. Most groups conflate these two phases—to their detriment. The Discussion phase is an expansive step. You are casting the net in search of a robust delineation of what should be taken into account. If someone feels compelled to make a passionate plea for they think is essential this is the place they can get a few minutes on the soap box making their pitch—where they can share with the group what they really think. Bring it on! To be clear, they only get to do this once, but this is the place for it. 

If the group (and by extension, the facilitator) is not disciplined about keeping potential solutions out of the Discussion, factors and proposed solutions get commingled and chaos obtains. How many times have you been in a meeting where someone mentions a concern—appropriate for Discussion—and it's immediately followed by a well-intended idea for coping with that concern—a proposed solution? When that happens you have one foot in Discussion and the other in Problem-solving. Are you inhaling or exhaling? Who knows? What kind of comments are you looking for now? You are wandering in the forest. That can be a lovely place to take a nature walk, but it's not good approach to tackling an issue. You want to be on a path, not lost in the trees.

In the latter, you are trying to figure out how best to balance the factors. This is a contractive phase. Your job here is to find the best balance point; the solution that bridges to all the factors. It is no longer appropriate to entertain advocacy. You do not benefit from hearing again why a factor matters. That ship has sailed and we already have it on the list. When done well, the facilitator has wrighted a new ship and invited everyone to board, where the group is asked to pull together in the search for elegance. If you have tug-of-war energy in this phase, you are failed to achieve the state of mind I'm talking about (in essence, everyone is not on the same ship). There should be soft edges now, where creativity can flourish. Where the magic can happen.

No Hot Dogs
As I head for the barn, here is a quote from a different statesman that offers an important insight:

Laws made by common consent must not be trampled on by individuals.
        —George Washington

Roughly translated, this means no grandstanding. No power plays.

The right to be heard (on topic) is directly tied to the responsibility to listen to and work respectfully with the input of others. All too often, outliers who are determined that their views be taking into account (which, unfortunately, tends to be confused with agreed with) conveniently sidestep this part of the equation. Savvy facilitators can't let them get away with such shenanigans. Proposal generating is a two-way street.

Repetition of personal preferences is rarely persuasive; it just ratchets up the tension, and inhibits creativity. To be sure, stubbornness can wear people down and ultimately result in capitulation, but that is by no means building elegance. There is no singing. When you find the sweet spot, there is a satisfying exhalation and a sense of grace. If you have a headache or your shoulder blades are tense, you're not there yet.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Inspiration of Inuit Consensus

In the world of intentional community, the most common form of decision-making is consensus. While it shows up in myriad flavors, almost all variations have the same root: a secular adaptation of the worship practice of the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers, who developed this in the 17th Century.

Quaker Strand
Key to what we know today as secular consensus, was the pioneering work done by the Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society (MNS) in the '70s, under the guidance of Lawrence Scott, George and Lillian Willoughby, Bill Moyer, and George Lakey. They were dissatisfied with the response of mainstream Quakers to the Vietnam War, and formed MNS to develop the tools of nonviolent protest and organizing to effect revolutionary change—such as moving our culture from competitive to cooperative.

From that beginning, the work spread broadly among protest groups and intentional communities, which happened to be going through the Hippie-era growth surge at that time—also, in part, in response to the Vietnam War. Most of the communities that sprouted up then were a conscious rejection of mainstream politics and culture—but that didn't mean they were clear about what constituted a viable alternative. In that context, choosing to make decisions by consensus was a good fit, as it was completely different from what anyone had learned from student council days or from observing the practices of the US government (think Robert's Rules of Order, which is an adaptation of parliamentary procedure for non-legislative bodies).

Iroquois Strand
But the Quaker brand of consensus is just one version of what's out there. In addition there is the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee League, originally comprised of five Native American nations in the northeast: Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Seneca (the Tuscarora joined in 1722). The league and its practices were developed even earlier than the Quakers, somewhere in the range of the 1450-1660. 

Notably, each nation retained its identity and independence while agreeing to operate collectively as a single political entity, with a durable non-aggression pact among member tribes. This arrangement has been incredibly resilient (it continues today) and decisions are made by a brand of consensus that was uninfluenced by the Quakers.

Inuit Strand
Less well known is a third strand in the consensus braid: the practice of the Inuit, an indigenous people of the Arctic (they live in the north slope of Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and Denmark). While these peace-loving people have never been large in number (their population is about 150,000 today) they have endured for millennia in a harsh natural environment that few covet—which has undoubtedly contributed to their survival.

Taken all together, they refer to their culture as Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (a Scrabble bonanza that I have no idea how to pronounce). It is abbreviated IQ and translates roughly to "that which has long been known by Inuit." Within their IQ is the belief that decisions should be for the good and betterment of society. It stems from their hearts, and a commitment to use reasoning abilities based on the truths of Inuit culture and the desire to live in harmony. 

In 1999, the Canadian government established the new province of Nunavut, encompassing various portions of the Northwest Territories, the northern third of Quebec, and chunks of Labrador. Because the population of Nunavut is over 80 percent Inuit, IQ is predominant in how the provincial government was established. Here is Nunavut's official vision:

—Decision-making through discussion and consensus. Silence is part of the communication and does not necessarily signify agreement.

—Respecting others, maintaining relationships, and caring for people.

—Fostering good spirit by being open, welcoming, and inclusive.

—Serving and providing for family and/or community.

—Respect and care for the land, animals, and the environment.

—Working together for the common cause.

—Being innovative and resourceful.

Pretty impressive. As with the Iroquois, this cultural tradition was developed independently from the others.

Reflection about the Timeline
Take a look at this selective timeline for governing systems:

• Robert's Rules of Order—first published in 1876
• Quakers—mid-17th Century
• Haudenosaunee—mid 15th to mid-17th Century
• Inuit—pre-Christian Era

I find it incredibly uplifting that there have been multiple incidents of consensus arising among groups of people over the course of history and that these experiments in self-government have been successful over the span of centuries—much longer than Robert's Rules of Order has been in the field.

It's something to think about.

Friday, January 17, 2020

New Phrases

As any reader of my blog knows, words interest me a great deal. I am fascinated by how language evolves. It is semipermeable to change. On the one hand it resists it; on the other it allows it—if the tidal surge is sufficiently strong and persistent.

In recent years I've noticed the following handful of new entries have muscled their way into our contemporary vocabulary (please note that this is only a sampling—phrases and words that rose to the surface when I turned my attention to this phenomenon). In alphabetical order, I shine my bloglight on the following decad of freshly minted terms:

Meaning: calculation. The origin of this word is a specific mathematical process (invented by Newton and/or Leibniz—take your pick—in the late 17th Century) to study continuous rates of change. Bursting out of its scientific restraints, in modern parlance calculus is being used to indicate a complex, thoughtful assessment, flavored with a dash of sophistication and high-brow energy. 

Checks All the Boxes
Meaning: has completed due diligence, met all qualifications, or fulfilled all promises. This aligns with the image of a checklist on a clipboard, and is relatively easy to understand on first pass.

Double Down
Meaning: to stick with one's position in the face of criticism (the opposite of "backing down"). This is in contrast with "walking back" (see below). Instead of a retraction or apology, the initiator responds to feedback by repeating the claim—however spurious or unsubstantiated—often with antagonistic energy ("How dare you question my word!"). The consequence of doubling down is often a heating up.

I believe this is derived from gambling argot. In most casino games of blackjack, for instance, when the bettor's two dealt cards add to eleven and the dealer does not have blackjack, the bettor is allowed to face their cards, to double their bet and and to receive one more card, usually delivered face down. This is action is styled "doubling down."

Dumpster Fire
Meaning: across the board disaster. It may not be life-threatening, but we're talking about major disorganization, serious underperformance, and sharp disappointment. Think acute embarrassment. There may not be anything (much) that's salvageable.

Meaning: the denial of one person's experience by another—in particular, men denying the experience of women, though the term could be applied across any gender mix. This has surfaced strongly in the Me, Too context, when a women levels charges of sexual misconduct against a man and he denies it, claiming either that the encounter never happened or was consensual.

This term is derived from the Oscar-nominated 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, in which Boyer tries to convince his wife (Bergman) that she's going crazy by subtly, purposefully denying her reality. 

Hot Mess
Meaning: an unwelcome, awkward situation that recently manifested and requires immediate attention. I suspect the origin is a steaming pile of shit (as in puppy's present on the carpet), but that's just a guess. In any event, it's an image that this phrase invariable evokes for me.

OK, Boomer
Meaning: this is a dismissive rejoinder made by younger people when responding to someone in the Boomer generation (born in years 1946-64, which translates to those aged 56-74 today) who comes across as dismissive of the statements or interests of those younger than themselves. The flavor of this is that the speaker is too self-absorbed or is condescending of those with less life experience. (Just because you're old, doesn't mean you're wise; and the corollary—being young doesn't mean you're callow or a lightweight).

Meaning: this is a man explaining something to others—prototypically a women, but the recipient can be any gender—in a condescending or patronizing way, perhaps without checking to see if the recipient wanted or needed the explanation. On top of that the explanation may not be accurate. The root of this is the dubious assumption that men naturally know best, resulting in this particular flavor of arrogance.

Smell Test
Meaning: intuitive first take. It is generally much more difficult to persuade someone to your ideas if your proposition fails the smell test.

Walk Back
Meaning: to stand down on a prior claim or statement. While this may result from solitary reflection, it most often occurs in the face of blow back from supporters, or the realization that the speaker misspoke. Perhaps the speaker overreacted; perhaps they were indulging in bluster and got caught out. Or perhaps the speaker was more honest than they meant to be, and is scrambling to rebury the truth. Oops! (We're seeing quite a bit of that now in the Trump impeachment circus, as the administration scrambles to recover from the President being caught with his hand in the Ukrainian cookie jar.)

• • •
I find words and phrases to be endlessly fascinating.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Bedlam 2019

As it's time again to replace calendars around the house, that's my cue to offer up my annual summary of where I slept last year, and what I was up to when I wandered away from the head waters of Lake Superior. 

I refer to this report as "bedlam" because: a) I'm on the road a lot and have a quixotic (and hopefully entertaining) distribution of sleeping arrangements; b) some think that my travel schedule is prima facie evidence of mental imbalance; and c) I have a congenital propensity for word play.

Here are the highlights of where I was when the lights went out each night, along with my musing about trends and what it all means.

o  As usual, I slept at home most often—229 nights, or 63% of the time. That's up slightly from the year before. That said, this past year there were 28 nights that I was home and Susan wasn't, mainly because she became a new grandmother in August and she had a number of trips to Denver, both for the birth watch (of Nico!) and to lend a hand during the crazy, sleep-deprived early month's of her daughter's adventures in mothering. I'm confident there will be more Susan-only forays to the Mile High City in 2020. Susan's delighted to be grandma and she's stoked to hold Nico as often as possible.

o  I stayed with clients only 36 nights last year, which is a sharp decline from 67 the year before. While I expect this number to bounce back up this year, we'll see.

o  I visited with family (either mine or Susan's) 33 nights in 2019, up a tad from 2018. I find that as I get older, I look more for opportunities to spend time with family, as one is never sure which visit will be the last (and what kind of excuse is it to say that you chose to recaulk the basement storm windows or read a good book instead of seeing siblings?).

o  I slept overnight with friends a modest 15 times (double the year before, yet still well below the high water mark of 42 in 2015).

o  In midwinter I once again succumbed briefly to a respiratory setback (both pneumonia and influenza—a double whammy), requiring three nights in the local hospital (where I caught up on college basketball just prior to March Madness).

o  While I no longer attend as many events as I once did, I participated in the biennial national Cohousing Conference in Portland last spring, the triennial International Communal Studies Association Conference near Hudson NY in July, and a board meeting of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions later the same month. These gatherings were a delightful mixture of seeing old friends and offering presentations, accounting for seven nights away from home all together.

o  Despite fewer consulting gigs last year, I was cleverly able to retain my Select Plus status with Amtrak (buying an upgrade to sleeper car accommodations on my final trip of the year put me over the top). I spent a robust 37 nights on the train, up 20% from the year before. Two of those choo choo journeys were pleasure trips with Susan.

o  I slept in a hotel paid for by myself only six times in 2018: three nights while vacationing with Susan, and three nights at the ICSA Conference. I purposely try to keep this number small. It's far more interesting staying with family, friends, and clients—which I manage to do almost a quarter of the time. (In my line of work—itinerant process consultant—a hidden benefit is the wealth of opportunities I have to see friends and family around the edges of my paid work.)

o  For a mere 10 nights last year I slept on couches (seven nights of which the couch folded out into a double bed). The rest of the time I had a real bed (excepting the reclining coach seats on Amtrak overnight trains). Having now reached the august status of septuagenarian—and living with a hinky back, courtesy of my multiple myeloma—I'm happy to forego air mattresses in my declining years and my reclining nights.

o  Over the course of my peregrinations last year I planted my feet, lay my head, or rolled my suitcase through 16 states and one province—which are exactly the same North American statistics as the previous year. In 2020 there will be more, if for no other reason than Susan and I will be vacationing across Canada (from Vancouver to Quebec City) in late April/early May. 

On the front end we'll enjoy first-class accommodations aboard Via train #2, The Canadien, rumbling for four days from the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway to Toronto. After sampling museums and bistros in Canada's largest city, we'll continue east in search of Three Pines, the fictional Brigadoonish village featured in Louise Penny's murder mystery series, centered around Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, augmented by a sterling cast of oddball personalities in supporting roles. Even if we don't find it, we'll have fun looking.

I hope you have fun lined up in 2020 as well.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

There's No Place Like Home

Last week Susan and I attended a local production of the Wizard of Oz. Toward the end of the show, we witnessed Dorothy, acting on the guidance of Glinda, figure out how to return to Kansas. All she needed to do was close her eyes and click the heels of her ruby slippers three times while chanting the magic words, "There's no place like home." Voila! I-70.

It's Christmas Eve and I was reminded of Dorothy's lesson yesterday in a surprising way. This is a time of ritual, when many of us set aside business as usual for a fortnight, to celebrate family, friends, and relationship to the divine. One the ways we do that is through food—in particular, traditional dishes or libations. Perhaps tied to ethnic heritage. Perhaps linked to an old-time family favorite. Perhaps something clipped years ago from a newspaper food column.

In my case that includes plum pudding, a steamed English dessert featuring plenty of dried fruit in a thick, sweet batter, and served with hard sauce (powdered sugar worked into butter until your wrist falls off) and a warmed up sugary bechamel laced with bourbon. You can feel your fillings dissolve when you eat it. The roots of this dish go back to Aunt Hennie, my mother's homesteading older sister.

[To give you an idea of how far back this particular recipe goes, it's often called "suet pudding," after what used to be its most prized ingredient: beef fat. Back a century or more, people craved calories—of course, they still do in less developed and overpopulated countries today—and nothing delivers like fat. In my modern adaptation I substitute butter, but this dessert has never been a good choice for dieters.]

In the fruit department, my recipe calls for raisins, currants, figs, candied orange peel, and citron. While I've never had any trouble in the past (I've made this pudding many times) I was frustrated this past week in my attempts to locate orange peel and citron. I struck out at three grocery stores as well as at a hoity-toity gourmet food emporium. It turns out to be easier these days to find sriracha, hoisin sauce, or wasabi peas than candied fruit. Who knew?

Thus, I returned home yesterday evening empty handed after my final forays in the hunt for orange peel, resigned to my fate: I would need to substitute or do without. How about candied pineapple and dried cherries? As I was mulling this over, Susan decided to take a look at what we had squirreled away on the top shelf of one of our kitchen cupboards—you know, the shelf you need a step stool to access and have forgotten what you have up there.

When what to my wondering eyes did appear
But miniature containers of holiday cheer.

I'm talking about a pint of candied cherries and a small stash of orange peel. Hallelujah! 

Dorothy was right. There's no place like home.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

It's Snow Miracle—It's Community

The last 48 hours Susan and I had some pretty interesting travel moments, especially for a couple of 70-year-old geezers.

Each day started before dawn (no sleeping in for us)…

We awoke in Las Vegas, where we were winding up a Thanksgiving Weekend with my kids and grandkids. While the rest of the house slept in, we piled our bags into the trunk of our rental car and tootled over to McCarran amidst light traffic and under fair skies. Dropping off the car went smoothly and we were at our gates in plenty of time. (I said "gates" because we were not flying on the same plane. I bought a one-way ticket much earlier than Susan because it was the tail end of a 23-day trip that included stops in Eugene OR and Spokane WA. 

I enticed Susan into joining me in Vegas only after my trip was in place, and she got the best deal on a round-trip ticket with Delta. I was flying Sun Country. While the flights were both nonstop and were scheduled to take off and arrive a mere 30 minutes apart, that's not how it worked out. Susan's plane was early into MSP, while my flight was substantially delayed out of McCarran—first because the equipment was late from a prior flight and then a cargo door light malfunctioned, necessitating a trip back to the terminal to get it fixed. In all, we landed 1.75 hours late, which meant we'd missed our schedule shuttle to Duluth.

But it turned out that didn't matter much, because all shuttles to Duluth had been canceled due to our home town being blasted by 20 inches of snow sculpted by 40 mph winds—the ninth worst blizzard in the city's history. Yikes!

Fortunately, Susan was busy using her unexpected layover at the airport well. After finding out the bad news about our shuttle, she rebooked for a morning shuttle (the snow had stopped in Duluth midday and the shuttle folks were optimistic about being able to get through on Monday). She also responded to a fortuitous text inquiry from Ray (partner of Elsie, her college roommate and lifelong friend) who was curious how our travels were going. They live in Minneapolis, and when they found out we were stranded promptly invited us to dinner and to stay the night—chauffeur service to and from the airport thrown in at no additional charge. Talk about tripping on a tree root and landing in clover!

So Sunday ended well, if not in the city we meant to be in.

After getting fortified with mugs of strong coffee, Ray drove us to the airport, arriving 10 minutes before the scheduled shuttle departure. While we got underway a bit late and the driving was noticeably slower than usual in order to safely negotiate the marginal road conditions, we arrived safely in Duluth circa 10:45 am.

The main push to get back home was for me to keep a monthly date with my oncologist and to receive infusion therapy as part of the regimen that keeps my multiple myeloma at bay. Monday was my one day to accomplish that (because I was loath to shorten my family visit in Vegas, and needed to take a train east Tuesday morning to be on location to start a facilitation training Thursday evening). In short, my time in Duluth was tightly choreographed, and I was already in trouble. By virtue of having spent Sunday night in Minneapolis, there was no way I was going to be able to keep my 9 am date with my oncologist.

Thus, I was on the phone to my hospital (St Luke's) during the shuttle ride north, trying to negotiate a later slot in the day so that I could still leave town Tuesday morning. While same-day rescheduling is usually impossible, others were struggling with weather delays also, which worked in my favor. My doctor had 23 appointments queued up for Monday, but there were eight no-shows, which unexpectedly provided me with a precious afternoon make-up slot—if I could get there by 12:30 pm to do my blood work.

While we were optimistic about that schedule when we first hit Duluth, it turned out that we were the very last stop—there were five deliveries before ours—and that ate 30 minutes. Susan had left the car in the shuttle parking lot Nov 26, so that it would be there waiting for us upon our return. While that plan looked solid when the ground was bare, we found our Subaru Legacy buried in 20 inches of snow with no lanes plowed out near it. Ugh! Now what?

The silver lining was that there was another customer who just had her vehicle shoveled out and was ready to depart when Susan recognized her as a former member of her church, and asked if she could drop me off at St Luke's on her way home. Sure, she said. She'd be happy to be our angel of mercy. While I left Susan to figure out how to extract the car, I jumped into Alison's Prius and away we went like a red rat, trying to solve the maze of which streets had been plowed and which hadn't—and which plowed streets had enough clearance that we could negotiate the snow pan. It was exciting and circuitous but I was delivered to St Luke's at 12:20—10 minutes to spare. Whew!

While I spent the next seven hours in the hospital (blood draw, doctor visit, infusion therapy), Susan performed miracles in the open air. First she nudged the folks at the shuttle place to locate a plow to clear a path near her car while she and an underemployed shuttle driver dug out the vehicle. Then she connected with our dear friend Nat (who had been dog sitting Lucie in our absence) to retrieve our retriever. 

Amazingly she got all of that done just as I was wrapping up at St Luke's, so she swung by the hospital and collected me. After Lucie got through with her effusive slobbery greeting (she missed me!) we stopped at a nearby grocery for essential vittles and headed home, not knowing what we'd find. 

We had been advised by a neighbor to approach our back alley from the uphill side (the access on the downhill side had not been plowed), where one lane had been cleared by the concerted efforts of neighbors with snowblowers (there's no telling when the city would get to it). Not only was the snow blown away, so were we. When we sashayed down to our garage we discovered that our parking pad had been cleared as well and there was even a path to our back door one shovel-width wide! We were tired and cranky after a long day, and suddenly we were enveloped in love.

Lucie waltzed in through the back door, we unloaded the car, and we were home. Hurray!

After basking in the alpenglow of our good neighbors' ministrations for about 10 minutes, I got back up and did trip accounting, opened mail, sharpened my pencil (there are always crosswords out there needing attention), changed dirty clothes for clean ones in my suitcase, swapped out read books for unread ones, notified family and close friends of our safe arrival, and plopped into bed about 11 pm. It took all of about five minutes to pass into a sound sleep.

Susan's iPhone went off alarming early at 3:30 am. While we did that on purpose, it was still jarring. For the first few seconds I had no idea where I was. Then I remembered (if this is Tuesday it must be Duluth), and popped out of bed, got dressed and finished assembling my travel gear. We were in the car by 3:45 and at the pick-up spot by 4:05. The shuttle was on time at 4:15, and back I went south—less than 18 hours after we'd arrived from the other direction. I felt like the end of a giant yo-yo.

Today, thankfully, has been easy so far (knock on something with cellulose). While it's only noon and I have to make a train connection in Chicago—never a sure thing—the eastbound Empire Builder auspiciously arrived early into St Paul (I thought I'd faint). We're still on time halfway to the Windy City, and the vast majority of the snow is north of us now as we rumble through the Wisconsin Dells.

• • •
Aside from the sheer joy of reading about the harrowing travel adventures that people survive, it occurred to me how much this story is a testament to Community Where You Are, a concept that the Fellowship for Intentional Community adopted as part of its mission in 2005. 

Over the years I've noted with interest how my dedication to community building has remained steadfast though I am less and less attached to any particular form. From a commitment to income-sharing that started in 1974, I got involved on the ground floor with FIC in 1987, which promoted intentional communities of all stripes. My position there became the springboard from which I expanded my thinking to embrace Community Where You Are.

Then my reality followed. I left the income-sharing of Sandhill Farm in 2013 for the non-income-sharing ecovillage of Dancing Rabbit. After my marriage dissolved in 2015, I left northeast Missouri to live in a cooperative house in Chapel Hill NC with two facilitation friends. After only six months there I left NC for Duluth, to live with Susan, who was thoroughly integrated in a traditional neighborhood of single family middle class residences.

How much community can there be in such a neighborhood? Take a look at our driveway and the path to our back door.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Lessons from a Founding Father

A couple weeks back a friend loaned me their copy of David McCullough's biography, John Adams, offering insights into the life and times of our second PresidentIt's a 650-page monster that was published in 2001, and I just finished it.

There were several aspects of the story that have lingered with me:

Power and Corruption
On the one hand, John Adams—the primary focus of the book—stood out as an exemplar of Puritan ethics. He was a hard worker and lived an agrarian life in Braintree, an outer southern suburb of Boston at the time (today, of course, it's a stop on the T). Money was always a bit tight, but he never shirked from answering the call to public service. He did it as a patriot, and never particularly gained financially from his decades in service.

You get to see how being in public service meant wearing the shirt with a bullseye on it—where you are sure to be mistreated and mischaracterized both by the press and by your fellow politicians. For Adams it went with the territory and he mostly suffered in silence or shrugged it off.

Others, including contemporary notables Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and even Thomas Jefferson, found it more difficult to resist the seductive song of the Lorilei: coveting personal power—to the point where that was more compelling than doing what was best for the nation.

Of course, the story that power corrupts is a very old one, and continues to this day. While our Founding Fathers were remarkable people acting at a special moment in time, they mostly had the same feet of clay as the rest of us. What stood out was that Adams is portrayed as someone who was singularly resistant to the siren call of power. In my view he is all the more worth honoring for that achievement. It's damn hard to do.

Party Politics
In the 1770s Americans sorted themselves into one of two political camps: Loyalists (those reluctant to separate from England) and Patriots (those who thought it was high time to cut ties with the monarchy of George III).

Once the Declaration of Independence was signed the die was cast and Patriots (of various stripes) filled out the Continental Congress and the lead-up to the creation of the US Constitution in 1787. (Of course, the greatest accomplish in the intervening years was General Washington's ability—with French support—to ultimately defeat the British mercenaries on the field of battle, allowing the American Revolution to continue.) Unanimity, however, was a chimera, and didn't last long. To Adams' dismay, two parties quickly coalesced: the Federalists (pro-British) squared off against the Republicans (pro-French). 

Because Adams favored a strong central government he was assigned a Federalist label and was falsely accused of wanting the US government to be a monarchy—something he had no interest in at all. In fact, Adams was the main author of the Constitution.

Epistolary Relationships
I'm old enough to remember being taught penmanship in school… and then being expected to use it. In this day of emojis and instant messaging most people don't even communicate in complete sentences any more, and who hand writes a letter?

Much of McCollough's work is interlarded with snippets of primary source material in the form of actual correspondence. This is especially true in the portraits he develops of John Adams, Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, as so much if what we know about them comes from private letters—rather than from media reports or public documents. Adams spent a large portion of a typical day carrying on an active correspondence with friends and peers. 

As I am drawn to expressing myself in writing, it appealed to me to know that so did Adams. Though I do it almost exclusively through email today, I used to type letters (circa 1975-90) and before that I wrote by hand (in fact, I still take meeting notes by hand). So I can relate to Adams' epistolary discipline.

When Adams was elected President in 1796, the largest city in the US was Philadelphia, with around 55,000 people—which is less than one percent of the number who reside today in the metropolitan area of the City of Brotherly Love. Think of that.

It's amazing to contemplate how well the Constitution has served us given that the country today would have been impossible to envision when it was drafted more than two centuries ago. I am shaking my head at the school of thought among jurists who are styled strict constructionists—who believe that the best we can do is interpret what the Founding Fathers meant in 1787, and stalwartly resist any efforts to reinterpret law situationally, as culture and mores evolve. Are you kidding me? 

The US Constitution was (and is) an experiment in government by representative democracy, and there is no evidence whatsoever that the Founding Fathers considered themselves infallible or didn't think that changes could be made as times warranted. Good thinking didn't end with the Founding Fathers, and I'm convinced that John Adams would have a good laugh, perhaps over a gill of hard cider, if he knew that Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh were working so diligently to interpret his long dead intentions.

The Long View
There were a number of principles that Adams held dear and that are worth highlighting today:

—Wars are incredibly expensive, and to be avoided if at all possible.

—America cannot trust Europe to hold American interests close. England will always be more concerned with France and France will be more concerned with England. America is just a pawn to either. While the value if this insight is diminished in concert with the decline of the British Empire, the rise of America as a world power, and the expansion of the world stage, if we substitute Russia and China for England and France we have a workable principle still.

—The polar star for people in public service should not be what is best for oneself or for one's party, but what is best for the country in the long run. Amen.

—Human nature is such that good people frequently succumb to the temptation to abuse power in pursuit of personal gain. Don't be surprised.

The Power of a Loving Partnership Between Equals
Abigail Adams was a strong woman well before the time when women were allowed to be strong. (Not that there isn't still work to do here, but we've come a long way, baby.) Abigail and John spent a large fraction of their long marriage living apart (she didn't accompany him on his first tour of duty as an American envoy to Europe prior to independence, and often stayed in Braintree to manage their farm while he was a public servant. In addition to his work on the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he played a central role in the Continental Congress that ultimately produced the US Constitution, he served as Washington's Vice President for eight years (1789-1797), and then was in the top spot himself for one term. It wasn't until 1801 that he retired from public life, after 30 years in one saddle or another.

The compelling thing is that Abigail "got it" about public service and personal sacrifice for the good of the country. And John got it about the preciousness of having a partner who got him (especially when many of his political contemporaries wanted to crawl up his back to advance their careers). While John's private correspondence (and Abigail's also, for that matter) contained many instances of their venting frustrations, he largely refrained from carrying on public feuds (oh where is such forbearance today with a President who exhibits no self-discipline about indulging in the corrosive habit of knee-jerk, caustic tweeting).

[Trump supporters who find his raw statements refreshing for their candor, conveniently turn a blind eye to their vicious, divisive, and self-serving nature.]

They were an amazing and inspirational couple. Refreshingly, there did not appear to be any sexual scandal associated with Adams. Abigail (and the judicious application of abstinence) was enough for John.

His Dance with Jefferson
Last, I enjoyed the book for its in-depth examination of Adams' longstanding and complex relationship with Thomas Jefferson, his contemporary to the point where they both died on the same day: July 4, 1826 (I'm telling you folks, you can't make this kind of thing up—they died exactly on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a seminal document that Jefferson drafted and Adams floor managed through the Continental Congress. Wowzers.)

Jefferson and Adams had a powerful, friendship that evolved over the course of decades, and that survived their markedly divergent political views (where Adams was a Federalist, favoring a strong Union and close ties with England; Jefferson preferred a confederation and was inspired by the spirit of the French Revolution) and different styles of political action (where Adams was direct to the point of being blunt; Jefferson was indirect and often preferred working through intermediaries on the front lines while he positioned himself above the fray, pottering around at Monticello).

Despite their differences in substance and style they remained true friends as two voracious readers who energetically discussed various features of their experiment in democracy. Jefferson was the more elegant writer, while Adams was the more talented administrator (his constitutional skills and ability to take the long view were legendary). In the end, the US was lucky to have two such lions both on the ground, fearlessly getting the job done in the chaos of the American Revolution.