Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Subject Tonight Is Love

Give yourself to love, if love is what you're after;
Open up your hearts to the tears and laughter,
And give yourself to love.


—from the chorus of Give Yourself to Love by Kate Wolf (1982)

I woke up yesterday morning with these lyrics on my lips… and with Susan Anderson lying next to me—the woman I have just given my heart to.

The Back Story
Susan and I met as classmates at Carleton College (1967-71) and first confessed a mutual interest in each other in 1970, but we were in other relationships at the time and didn't do anything about it—until this past month, when we tentatively started blowing on old coals and discovered, to our mutual delight, that there remained a considerable amount of banked heat. Today we have a merry little fire going.

There have been a couple other moments in the last 45 years where we checked in with each other, quietly affirming our continuing interest, yet we were never both available at the same time and it went no further. We've each been married once and played a significant role in the other's wedding (I was a bridegroom for her & Tony in 1979, and she had a speaking role in the ceremony that Ma'ikwe & I handcrafted in 2007), fully rooting for those relationships to last. Susan's marriage ended when Tony died of colon cancer in 2004; and my marriage tended when Ma'ikwe decided she'd had enough of me as her husband last February.

As I reflect on all the things that needed to come together in the right sequence for this tender flame to become so oxygenated—a seed that took 45 years to germinate—I'm shaking my head at the improbability of our story. Incredibly, we both hear the music and are ready to dance, with each other, at the same moment.

Nature Boy

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me:
"The greatest thing you'll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return"

—Nat King Cole (1948)

You may know this as the song chosen as the melancholy opening and closing of the movie Moulin Rouge (2001) that was sung by Ewan McGregor, encapsulating his desperate love for the character played by Nicole Kidman. Carol Swann (with whom I seriously explored partnership 15 years ago) offered to sing Nature Boy at my wedding in 2007. I told her the lyrics were excellent but the energy seemed unaligned with the up-tempo ceremony we desired. Not knowing how else to sing the song, she chose something else. While Carol's choice worked well (a musical improvisation of a Marge Piercy poem), I have not forgotten that Nature Boy, to paraphrase Robert Frost, was the song not taken.

Today, I've cycled back to the haunting truth of Nature Boy. Susan and I are in our mid-60s, which means the bulk of our living is behind us and the time remaining is uncertain. No one knows how much sand remains in their personal hourglass, and we have both lost contemporaries to death and illness—an inexorable trend that will only increase. 

Looking openly at where we are, we are not choosing to be careful; we are choosing love. Rather than wasting a moment on what might have been, we are choosing to dance with whatever sand we have left. We are choosing to be alive, and I'm all in.

He won't hurt you, will he?
This was a question recently posed to Susan by a couple of concerned friends, once they became aware that something was afoot (or afootsie, you might say). Not knowing anything of me, they are being protective of their friend, not wanting her to be taken advantage of—to get her heart opened and then broken.

While Susan and I have laughed at this—a choice that is artlessly easy when immersed in the first rush of a new relationship (who wants to be cautious when you're infectiously happy?), there remains truth in it, because you cannot fully open your heart without being vulnerable to incredible suffering if things later go awry. And you have to commit yourself to the rapids of love without certainty of where the rocks lie that can hole your canoe. There is risk.

Susan and I have both gone through the agony of loss and a broken heart, and yet are choosing to love again, with each other, because Kate Wolf and Nature Boy were both right and when you boil it all down, why would you choose anything else?

In these giddy early days we have little idea what this love means in terms of how our lives will intertwine going forward. All of those conversations are ahead of us. Yet our energy burns brightly and cleanly in this opening movement of our symphony—and that is sufficient to fuel our fire for quite a while.

What's Hafiz Say About It?
The title for this essay is taken from a book of the collected love poems of the 14th Century Sufi poet, Hafiz, translated with care and verve by Daniel Ladinsky (1999). I will close with this fitting selection from that book:

Never Say It Is Not God
 
I taste what you taste. I know the kind of lyrics
your Soul most likes. I know which sounds will become
Resplendent in your mind and bring such pleasure
Your feet will jump and whirl.
When anything touches or enters your body
Never say it is not God, for He is
Just trying to get close.
I have no use for divine patience — my lips are always
Burning and everywhere. I am running from every corner
Of this world and sky wanting to kiss you;
I am every particle of dust and wheat — you and I
Are ground from His Own Body. I am rioting at your door;
I am spinning in midair like golden falling leaves
Trying to win your glance.
I am sweetly rolling against your walls and your shores
All night, even though you are asleep. I am singing from
The mouths of animals and birds honoring our
Beloved’s promise and need: to let
you know the Truth.
My dear, when anything touches or enters your body
Never say it is not God, for He and I are
Just trying to get close to you.
God and I are rushing
From every corner of existence, needing to say,
“We are yours.”

Monday, June 29, 2015

Crunchy Cons

I recently read Rod Dreher's 2006 book, Crunchy Cons, subtitled [take a deep breath] how Birkenstocked Berkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).

It's a breezy read, where the author pays a bit too much attention to being witty and not enough to being thorough, yet is worthwhile nonetheless. What do I mean by not thorough? Dreher complains about how mainstream conservatives leave no room in their firmament for his minority brand of politics—environmentally and socially conscious conservatives who do not bow down to the idol of commerce as the highest god—yet turns right around and commits the same error in neglecting to recognize people like me: a thoughtful liberal who has gotten off the consumer horse long before Dreher did and has already been frequenting all the same stops he visits in his cook's tour of the thoughtful conservative: slow food, organic farming, homeschooling, buying local, preserving beauty, emphasizing the primacy of relationships, and buying houses with front porches. Where Dreher believes that only organized religion can provide sufficient moral support to sustain the personal discipline necessary to be a true conservative, I observe, that's not all how I discovered and have maintained a lifestyle that's remarkably similar to the ideal he espouses. And "conservative" is not a label I gravitate toward at all.

Nonetheless, I think it's a valuable contribution to the larger political dialog that tends to be limited to the simplistic, knee-jerk sorting-everyone-into-one-of-two-camps mentality: a) liberal Democrats who are obsessed with sexual freedom, a large governmental safety net, and environmental sanity; or b) conservative Republicans who are staunch defenders of the free market, minimal gun laws, and national defense.
Dreher makes the case—and I agree— that there has to be something better. He articulates what he thinks a thoughtful conservative (as in someone who wants to conserve what's valuable in life) ought to believe in. The term "crunchy" in the book's title comes, as far as I can discern, from his pro-environment stance (conserving the Earth rather than embracing the more common Republican spin that God's creatures and creations are here principally for man to consume, carrying capacities be damned), which is often associated derisively with "crunchy granola types." Besides, it's alliterative (an aesthetic I appreciate).

So here's Dreher's ten point overview (in italics) with my commentary (in Roman). Much of it I like:

A Crunchy Con Manifesto

1. We are conservatives who stand outside the contemporary conservative mainstream. We like it here; the view is better, for we can see things that matter more clearly.

I agree both that Dreher's is a minority viewpoint, and that it's based on taking a longer view than is apparent in most conservatives (who gleeful discount the future by insisting on viewing it through the myopic lens of compound interest).

2. We believe that modern conservatism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

Amen, brother.

3. We affirm the superiority of the free market as an economic organizing principle, but believe the economy must be made to serve humanity's best interests, not the other way around. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

Though I'm not ready to swallow the large frog that Dreher begins with, I like where he croaks with it—everything that follows after the word but. When it comes to embracing the free market system, it is not apparent to me that Dreher has looked deeply enough at how free market capitalism is inimical to environmental sanity—which he says he embraces.

4. We believe that culture is more important than politics, and that neither America's wealth nor our liberties will long survive a culture that no longer lives by what Russell Kirk* identified as "the Permanent Things"—those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life, and which are taught by all the world's great wisdom traditions.

* [Kirk lived 1918-1994. His best known work was The Conservative Mind, published in 1953, tracing the roots of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition back to Edmund Burke.]

I'm good with this, and appreciate that Dreher has framed this in terms of "wisdom traditions" instead of "religious traditions."

5. A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.

I am wholly on board with the need for a major shift in how we think of a healthy economy, moving away from relying on throughput as the main way we test for robustness (GNP) to one that rewards the conservation of resources (achieving the greatest good with the least consumption). You might look at economist Herman Daly's, Steady-State Economics (1977), for a thorough treatment of this concept.

6. A good rule of thumb: Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global  and New and Abstract.

You the man, Rod.

7. Appreciation of aesthetic quality —that is, beauty—is not a luxury, but key to the good life.

While I think this principle is a slippery one to hold (given that much of beauty is individually defined), I like insisting that it should have a seat at the main table.

8. The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.

I take this to be a call for each of us to develop our own moral compass, followed by an admonition to not let the fickleness of pop culture deflect the needle. While I'm good with this as a general warning, I don't believe that all truth and wisdom has already been discovered and is adequately described. I don't believe that the proper role of modern humans is simply to cleave to the North Star of ancient wisdom. I think it's worthwhile to keep panning for gold in the streams of contemporary thought. For example, in my lifetime there has been an amazing amount of progress in how society thinks about race, gender, sexual orientation, and right relationship to the environment. These are not trivial shifts, and it behooves us to be open to the possibility of profundity emerging from the dross of fad.

9. We share Kirk's conviction that "the best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o' evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths… The institution most essential to conserve is the family."

I'm uneasy here. Right off the top, Dreher's pro-natalist position sends chills up my spine. How can a thinking person (remember his brave claim about seeing better in point #1?) not see the train wreck between population growth and environmental degradation? Any arguments about needing to outbreed the heathens contains the same fatal flaws as the discredited nuclear policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (which, not coincidentally, bore the acronym MAD). We need a lot more babies in the world about the same as we need a lot more nuclear weapons.

Beyond that, I'm nervous about each parent being the conservator of ancient truths because it promotes closed-mindedness—which the world is already plagued with in ample amounts without further encouragement. Upon closer inspection, a fair number of ancient truths are culturally specific rather than universal (for example, contrast the plurality of Native American cosmologies with one-size-fits-all Christian cosmology). Thus, there can be awkwardness (read jihads) over which "wisdoms" are true. This can be a real goat fuck.

Finally, I'm uneasy defining family—the implication being nuclear family—as the fundamental unit of cultural construction. If (and it's possible that Dreher is OK with this, though that's not the way his book reads) we stretch the sense of family to include the concepts of extended family and even families of adults not related by blood or marriage—with which I am thoroughly familiar as a result of having immersed myself in the world of intentional community—then I'm OK. Having raised my two kids in the family-of-friends intentional community of Sandhill Farm you cannot tell me that that wasn't an excellent way to do it, so I object to Dreher's narrow-mindedness unless it embraces my experience as an option in this vein.

10. Politics and economics will not save us. If we are to be saved at all, it will be through living faithfully by the Permanent Things, preserving these ancient truths in the choices we make in everyday life. In this sense, to conserve is to create anew.

I'm fully on board with the opening sentence, then I get uneasy again. One of the fundamental lessons that comes out of my community experience is that we (as in healthy society) need to be more focused on Relationship as the prime directive, rather than Truth—and I expressly mean relationships across party lines, rather than relationships among allies as we strive to become a more effective united front against the unwashed. 

That said, Dreher's book is actually a mixed bag in this regard. While this tenth conservative insight speaks solely of Truth (which makes me squirm), his book is full of anecdotes that make clear his care and feeding of Relationships (which calms me down)—even to the point of repeatedly crossing the aisle to make common cause with neighbors and acquaintances with whom he shares some precious aspects of the good life, though not all. Bully for him.

• • •
Taken all together, there is much to celebrate and be inspired by in the rich stew that Dreher has served up (with organic ingredients). I'm just not swallowing the whole bowlful.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Heart Goals and Hearth Coals

When my wife announced last February that she no longer wanted to be my wife, I went into a tailspin. It was not what I wanted to hear and it triggered a lot of grieving.

Even though I knew that I would still be able to carry with me the results of the personal work I had done in an attempt to make the marriage work, that seemed a very slim silver lining at the time. Mostly I just felt the loss.

To be sure, being less reactive (a specific area that I've worked on in counseling the last two years) was of immediate benefit. Instead if spinning my wheels unproductively in anger (at my partner walking away unilaterally), I moved through that, and I didn't get mired in shame at having failed to make the marriage work. I was centered enough to just let the grief and sadness wash over me. I didn't try to push it away or box it up; I just rode the rapids in a swamped canoe.

As the pain subsided, I started taking stock of where I was and where I wanted to be.

Question #1: Did I still want a partner? 

Yes!

Question #2: Was this urgent? 

No; I would wait for a good fit.

Question #3: What's a "good fit"?

Two weeks ago I came up with the following list of non-negotiables. I want a partner:
o  Who wants me (and welcomes my wanting her).
o  Who respects the work I do.
o  Who maintains her sense of self (and does not submerge her life into mine, nor expect me to submerge mine into hers).
o  Who will let me know when something seems off between us.
o  Who hangs in there to work out tensions and differences.

I've known for a long time that I needed to pair with a strong woman; someone who would not be knocked off center by my large bow wave. There have been moments in the past where I was not careful about that, and it didn't work well.

Question #4: What do I mean by "strong"?

Slowly, I've come to understand that strong comes in many flavors. In the past I've looked for a partner who was strong in the same ways I was: as a social change agent, a public speaker, an author, an organizer. But now, as a sadder but wiser man of 65, I can see nuance I had missed before. Instead of a firebrand (like me) I can find complementary strength in a keeper of the hearth; someone in whom the coals of home are enduring, though not incandescent. I don't need a mirror or a doppelganger if I have a partner with whom we create a whole (as opposed to a woman who, like me, can create a hole—with incisive body-piercing analysis that exposes the unworkable status quo).

In short, I could seek a synergistic relationship, instead of synonymous one. (Mind you, I am offering this analysis as a journal of my journey; not necessarily as a blueprint for others. Caveat emptor. What credentials do I have, after all, for advising others in this regard?)

Question #5: To what extent should I prioritize home in my search for partner?

In the wreckage of my marriage I also lost my home. It was a double blow. Having lived in the same zip code for 41 years I gradually developed a deep connection to place that turned out, to my surprise, to have powerful spiritual dimensions. I have come to know something of the sacred through connection to hearth and place.

This has been a complicated choreography for me. As someone who has dedicated his life to the exploration and promotion of community and cooperative culture, my calling requires that I'm on the road half the time—talking and teaching about community even as I'm not at home to enjoy it. With one foot at home and the other on the road, I was only partly in either, which strains the bonds of relationship that are the very lifeblood of community. It's been a longstanding dilemma. Home is at once a base of operation (a secure platform from which to engage with the world) and a refuge and sanctuary (which affords me much-needed renewal and groundedness).

So it's in that context that I'm unexpectedly starting over, trying simultaneously to reestablish home and to climb back on the partnership horse. For the last four decades home has been my North Star, with partnerships orbiting around its solidity, or budding from it. Now however, both elements have slipped their moorings at the same time and I'm adrift.

It's intriguing in this time of fluidity to shift how I think about my search—to contemplate a partnership that offers hearth as well as heart: to seek these two cornerstone elements as a pair. While I'm holding very different cards today than I was a year ago, there is still plenty of room for playing my hand well. Perhaps, it occurs to me now, I'll find the Queen of Hearts in the fireplace, instead of in the places of fire where I am wont to look.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On Being Out of Touch

Last Saturday I was at a potluck celebrating someone's 50th birthday (my first social event as a NC resident). Joe, Maria, and I all went. At one point in the evening, I sat next to Maria and spontaneously started giving her a foot massage. She hadn't asked for one, but she was grateful to receive one.

Later, on the drive home, we compared notes about the party and Joe reported being asked by a friend of all three of ours if Joe and Maria are polyamorous (open to having other lovers). Taking this in, Maria and I wondered where that question came from. Maria speculated that perhaps the friend was really asking if Joe, Maria, and Laird were a threesome. (We're not, but we could see how the question might arise: we're close friends, we have considerable affection for each other, and now we live together.)

For my part, I thought about the foot rub.

Although it was done fully clothed (well, Maria took her sandals off) in the middle of a well-lit living room, a lot of people automatically link touch with intimacy, and intimacy with sex. I think that chain of association is a societal train wreck.

It's my belief that we humans are hard-wired to crave touch from others of our species. This starts in infancy (there's solid scientific evidence on the importance of touch to the health and development of babies) and continues through adolescence, right through our senior years. Unfortunately, in a society confused about what constitutes appropriate sexual mores, we've fallen out of touch with the concept of healthy touch. 

In fact, the signals have been all over the map just in my lifetime, which spans this illuminating range of successful television comedies, all of which were contextualized in social commentary about the times in which they were produced: all the way from Father Knows Best (1954-60) to Sex in the City (1998-2004), with All in the Family (1971-79) as a wickedly ambiguous intergenerational bridge in between. 

As we've been wandering in the wilderness, touch has taken a lot of inappropriate hits—in no small part because a lot of women have been hit upon through inappropriate touch.

The problem, I maintain, is not the dangers of touch, so much as it's the taboo around talking openly about sexuality (sniggering in the locker room doesn't count) and what constitutes appropriate boundaries. Instead of an informed dialog, people have to guess what's going on, what it's OK to explore, how to discuss problems, and even how to discover their own sexual identity. It's a mess.

Further complicating this conversation is that sexual abuse is a very real and pervasive problem, though one that's far more linked to runaway power than it is to runaway touch. 

Let's be clear. Touching is a natural, integral part of lovemaking and sexual/sensual expression. But it's way more than that, including supporting, healing, relaxing, connecting, and assuring—all of which can be wholly asexual and essential to receive in regular doses. It's disastrous that we've carelessly condemned the innocent because it's sometimes associated with the questionable. 

Wouldn't it better to teach our children: a) to discern the difference; and b) that sex is a normal, healthy human function that can be misused? Wouldn't it be better if the baseline assumption is that when someone touches your arm or gives you a hug that it's simply someone trying to be caring, rather than carrying (a torch for carnal knowledge)? I'm not advocating naiveté; I'm advocating for an assumption of benign intent until a different line is crossed (such as patting someone's butt or nuzzling their neck uninvited).

Inhibiting touch of all kinds in social settings (for heaven sakes it might lead to dancing) is a spectacularly ineffective method of curbing sexual misdeeds. In effect, all it accomplishes is driving sex into dark corners (or back seats), while leaving in its wake a touch-starved society. We have to find a way to do better, or risk remaining out of touch.

Meanwhile, would you hand me your other foot? It feels like I've massaged the first one enough.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Upper Limits of Consensus

A reader posted this comment in response to On Being a Fundamentalist, my blog of June 17:

What about larger groups and communities? I think of consensus as working well in smaller, focused groups. Could a group of a hundred or more use consensus to make decisions?

That's a good question. I don't have much experience with groups larger than about 60-75, but I know consensus can work at that size. Beyond that you're pushing against certain limits that are worth exploring:

A. Sensory Limits
In particular, there are questions about how well participants can hear and see each other. You obviously have to be able to receive information in order to be able to work with it.

As the group gets larger it gets harder to hear across the circle. Of course the acoustics of the room are also a factor, but even under ideal architectural conditions you need to account for the possibility of compromised hearing, the incidence of which increases greatly once you have members north of 50. And it's more than just getting the words right; it's also getting the tone and inflection right, as those have meaning as well and are part of the richness of live communication.

While the Occupy Movement did some notable work three-four years ago, where they used human amplification to have the speaker's words repeated to people outside of hearing distance, that's a stretch to sustain on a regular basis. The most common solution, by far, is using a PA system to amplify voices. The technology of this is sufficiently sophisticated these days that you can even get a system where the sound gets directly transmitted to people's hearing aids. Pretty nifty.

As a professional facilitator, I encounter an increasing number of groups of 40+ members that regularly rely on an amplifier and microphone to help members hear. While I think this is mostly good, there are some complications to take into account:

—You tend to need at least two microphones and maybe three to make this work, otherwise there's a constant time lag to move the microphone around. 
—Multiple mics means runners, which means the facilitation support team needs to grow in size, taking more people out of the conversation.
—You have to be careful that the mics don't get too near the amp to avoid squealing feedback.
—It usually takes a while for participants to get the rhythm of turning the mics on and off, and holding them an appropriate distance from their mouth.
 —For those who struggle feeling safe or comfortable speaking in large groups at all, adding a microphone compounds the issue: it's too much like a performance—about which they have anxiety independent of any nervousness about what they have to say. 
—Depending on the quality and location of the amp, augmented sound can sometimes be more difficult to hear than unaided voices.

Switching over to sight, sometimes eyesight degrades with age, just as hearing does (and sometimes participants forget to bring their glasses). Some of this can be addressed by giving careful thought to chair alignment that supports good sight lines, avoiding back lighting, and securing decent illumination in the meeting space.

The key things to protect are the ability to see adequately any visual aids (such as power point projections or flip chart pages) and to see people faces and body language, as there is considerable nuance conveyed through non-verbal expressions.

B. Squeezed Air Time
With more people in the meeting, it's a mathematical surety that there will be less time for each participant to speak.

Thus, great care must be exercised in determining what topics come before the plenary, and how to structure the consideration so that they're handled efficiently, as well as inclusively. In general, larger numbers translates into fewer topics that can be covered in the same amount of time.

The other dial available to groups for adjustment is increasing the volume of delegation—pushing more work down to managers and committees, so that less needs to be handled in plenary. You might reasonably require subgroups to make decisions in open sessions by consensus, where the number of participants will be a good bit smaller than in plenaries.

C. Participant Discipline
Just as larger numbers put pressure on agenda planners to be on the ball, there will be pressure on participants to be that much better disciplined about when to speak. I advise that the Participant's Mantra be: What does the group need to hear from me on this topic at this time?

That sentence contains a wealth of checkpoints where a thoughtful participant might realize that it's prudent to refrain from speaking, because the thing they thought to say is not on topic or at the right place in the conversation. If group members get proficient at applying that set of screens I believe they can accomplish a lot even with high number turnouts. [For more on the mantra, see Consensus as an Unnatural Act.]

D. Representative Consensus
Last, it's worth considering what can be done with the concept of representational decision-making, where the final authority is no longer the group as a whole, but rather a special enclave comprised of representatives.

Some interesting work was done in this regard in the context of the anti-nuclear demonstrations of the '70s and '80s (such as the Clamshell Alliance). As I understand it, the fundamental political unit was the affinity group, which everyone at the demonstration had an affiliation with. I'm not sure what the size parameters were for affinity groups, but I'm guessing it was something in the 12-18 range: small enough that everyone could be heard, yet large enough to have a decent diversity of viewpoints. 

Each affinity group would select a representative to the decision-making council, and that person would be authorized to speak for the affinity group and make decisions that would be binding on it. In turn, the council of reps would make decisions by consensus.

While I don't know of an intentional community today that works with this form of government (there are not that many groups with 100+ members), there is an interesting variation underway now at Dancing Rabbit (Rutledge MO). That community made the switch two years ago to a Village Council in anticipation of getting too large for all-skate plenaries (the community, an ecovillage, aspires to a final size of 500-1000). 

In DR's configuration there are seven councilors with staggered two-year terms. There is a careful election process once a year where the whole community discusses slates of candidates to fill all the vacancies (councilors are permitted to succeed themselves once and then must step down), and then the slates that emerge from that consideration are voted on by all members in good standing, using instant run-off voting. The Village Council makes all of its decisions by consensus and all councilors are expected to represent the best interests of the entire community, not just to speak for a subgroup constituency within the village.

As Dancing Rabbit only has around 50 adult members now, they aren't yet pushing the triple digit ceiling that I was suggesting might be something of an upper limit for day-in-day-out consensus. Also, having lived there recently (November 2013-June 2015), I'm aware of some interest among members in tinkering with the Village Council set up. While it's too early to tell how well this concept will function for larger groups that want to maintain a spirit of consensus, this is a work in progress that's well worth tracking.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On Being a Fundamentalist

A couple weeks ago I was attending the National Cohousing Conference in Durham NC when someone came up to me on the last day and asked, "Are you the fundamentalist?" I double clutched.

No one had ever asked me that question before and I was at a loss to understand where they were going, and why they thought that I might be their destination. More amazing still, it turned out that I was the fundamentalist. Apparently someone had described me as a consensus fundamentalist, and I didn't have to think very long before I could see the aptness of that label.

Consensus is the most common form of decision-making among intentional communities, and interest in community living is on the rise. Thus, consensus is getting more attention these days—all the more so because many groups struggle to get good results with it. 

Most problems with consensus boil down to a small list:

—Too much power in the hands of each individual. It only takes one or two contrarians to gum up the works for the entire group.
—Too difficult to work through complex issues when you need everyone to agree.
—Too many things need to be decided by the plenary; plenaries are bogged down by too much minutia.
—It takes too long to hear everyone's viewpoints on everything.
—Participants are not good at staying on topic, or avoiding repetition. Thus, meetings are not efficient.—Committee work is often trashed by the plenary.
—Paralysis in the face of a threat to block.

In general, groups respond to this package of unpleasant results in one of four ways: 

1.  They get so frustrated that they abandon consensus and try something else, perhaps majority rule.
There is an increasing call for trying to hold onto the spirit of consensus (a collaborative attitude) while relying on a different decision rule (some form of voting being the most popular alternative) to sidestep susceptibility to logjams.

2.  They keep banging away, essentially accepting that results aren't any better than they are. 
For many groups, even so-so results with consensus are seen as superior to the power dynamics and factionalism characteristic of majority rule.

3.  They find a work around. The two most common are:

—modified consensus (which allows a super-majority vote to decide a matter if concerns are not resolved after x number of meetings)

 —sociocracy (which is a highly structured approcah aimed at keeping the momentum going once the plenary takes up a topic, and at emphasizing solutions that are good enough, rather than laboring to find something optimal)

4.  They get motivated to learn how to do consensus well.

While I strongly favor Door #4, I want to explain how I got there. 

I've lived in intentional communities using consensus since 1974, and have been integrally involved in community network organizations (which also use consensus) since 1980—the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, 1980-2001, and the Fellowship for Intentional Community, 1986-present. On top of that, I've been a process consultant and consensus trainer since 1987. 

All of which is to say I've been to a lot of meetings and have tons of experience with consensus in the field. I know what it is and how to consistently get good results with it. As a consultant I am regularly asked to help groups navigate tricky waters using consensus and I repeatedly get positive results. 

Overwhelmingly, my experience tells me that the main problem with consensus is that groups seldom prepare well to use it and are then disappointed with what they get. The problem is not with the process; it's with practitioners not understanding the personal work needed to function cooperatively instead of competitively.

In fairness to the detractors of consensus, it takes hard work and a personal investment to unlearn competitive conditioning. Not everyone understands that when they join a cooperative group, nor is everyone up for the challenge when they do. But it can be done. I've done it myself, and I teach it to others.

Fortunately, you don't need everyone to do that work, just enough of the group to set a tone and to consistently steer the group gently, but firmly back onto a constructive path if dynamics turn tense or combative.

If you are a group that wants to learn how to use consensus well, you have two main leverage points at your disposal:

A. Understanding and committing to culture change
This means taking in at a deep level that the group does its best work only when all input is welcome, which means creating a container in which disparate viewpoints are not just allowed; they're encouraged. The members of the group need to energetically (not just intellectually) embrace the advantages that different ideas bring to the consideration. When the expression of doubt or disagreement is quashed or punished (think eyeball rolling, withering looks, and tightened voices), the whole group loses. Think of it as hybrid vigor.

Creativity and collective magic do not thrive in a battlefield where a tug-of-war mentality obtains (every inch in the direction of someone else's idea is an inch away from yours). When you are a stakeholder on an issue, the challenge is shifting from a sense of combativeness (to promote your idea above those of others; let the best idea "win" in an environment of vigorous debate) to one of curiosity (hoping that others can enhance your idea, or advance your thinking)—because the prime objective is a good decision for the group; not that you look good. If you are not a stakeholder, then you are well poised to safeguard the process, helping bridge among factors to produce the most balanced proposal.

While it is not so hard to describe the theory of cooperation, it's serious business learning to act that way in the heat of the moment, especially when the issues cut close to the bone.

B. Investing in skilled facilitation
An alternative approach is to develop a cadre of facilitators who are able to remind the group of the way it meant to function whenever it strays, bringing all parties back from the rigidity of bunkered positions into the softer place where everyone is on the same side, trying to uncover the best plan forward in light of all that needs to be taken into account.

 Skilled management of the process can address many of the bugaboos about consensus that I mentioned above:

—Outliers are worked with by making sure that their right to be heard and taken into account is paired with the responsibility to extend that same respect and courtesy to others. It's not OK to insist on the right and neglect the responsibility.

—Good facilitators are able to break down complex topics into digestible smaller chunks. While the group may not be able to get the whole thing in its mouth in one bite, eating smaller portions usually does the trick.

—On the ball facilitators will make sure the group is deliberate about what work is attempted in plenary, insisting that topics be handed off to managers or committees once all the plenary-level considerations have been addressed. They will also encourage the group to delegate authority to subgroups so that minor, routine items need not require the plenary's rubber stamp.

—While everyone has the right to speak, that does not mean everyone has something to say. Further, if another member has already said what you intended to, it is enough to add, "So-and-so speaks my mind," which takes less than five seconds. Good facilitators will encourage people to speak on topic, to the point, and to add their input just once.

—Skilled facilitators will not allow work to be handed off to subgroups prematurely; they'll insist that the plenary provide clear guidance for what's wanted, so that the work that returns is more likely to be honored.

—Savvy facilitators will know how to handle blocking concerns. Instead of backing away from them, they'll lean into them—to make sure they understand the interests that underlie that reaction, to check to see that they're a reasonable interpretation of group held values, and to work with them as a key factor that a solution needs to take into account.

 • • •
If advocating for old-fashioned consensus as the best way for cooperative groups to make decisions makes me a fundamentalist, then bring on the long frock coat. I already have a beard and a steely visage.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Lighting a Local Economic Fire

Consider these trends:
 
1. There has been sustained, increased interest in community living the last 25 years
Since 1990, with notable spikes in 1990-95 and 2005-07, the Fellowship for Intentional Community has been tracking the volume of inquiries about community living and the number of new community starts. Interest is up and has remained so for a generation. While there are many factors that combine to make this happen, one in particular is affordability. People are worried about how to make their lives work on their own (or as nuclear families) and are increasingly interested in experimenting with the sharing characteristic of community, to create a better quality of life without having to chase as many dollars.

To be sure, what this looks like is all over the map. For some groups it's how to leverage assets to have access to an even better range of amenities by virtue of joint ownership (things like a swimming pool, hot tub, woodworking shop, exercise room full of barbells and equipment, or even a space to entertain 20 in one sitting. 

For others it's how to minimize their carbon footprint and pioneer models of high quality living on a shoestring budget (read low resource consumption).

For others still, it's about being able to age gracefully in place, without counting on your children or the government to provide a safety net.

2. Marketplace turbidity
It is much harder than ever to predict the health of the economy, which means uncertain job security, as well as uncertain retirement funds. Here are three sobering factors that contribute to this:

a) In the global economy, more and more jobs are being outsourced overseas, where wages are much lower. There is no reason to think that this won't continue, unless energy costs get high enough that overseas transportation of goods is prohibitively expensive. Given that it's considered political suicide to allow energy costs to spiral upward, don't look for this mitigating circumstance to save domestic jobs any time soon.

b) We are going through unprecedented automation of jobs as we enter the age of robotics. This is not just about spot welding on automobile assembly lines, robots are expected to soon make inroads in traditional low-paying service jobs such as flipping burgers at fast food restaurants. Fewer and fewer people can expect to find decent full-time employment, or perhaps employment of any kind.

c) In conditions where it's an employer's market (too many workers lusting after too few jobs) wages and benefits are driven down. I have a close friend who's a philosophy professor. Recently he got bumped off tenure track—not because his performance reviews were poor,  but because the university could get away with it. Now he's employed as adjunct faculty, where they pay him half as much for the same work and can avoid offering tenure. His future as a professor is murky.

3. Boomers are retiring
Social Security is running out of money, and it's scary contemplating if the government will be able to accommodate the bulge of Baby Boomers entering retirement age with fewer younger workers contributing to FICA. Can we count on that money being there when it's needed? As a Boomer myself, I'm questioning that.

 • • •
So what does this add up to? 

If we want to get ahead of the curve (rather than just take our chances on surviving being buffeted about by macro-instabilities) we need to be thinking about what we can do to take care of our own economic needs at the local level. We need to be thinking about how we can create fair exchanges that meet real needs and about which people feel good in the delivery.

I think this is going to mean:

o  Local resilience
We need to be engaging on this at the level of people we know, who understand that we are in this together. When economic exchanges are not faceless (such as buying a book through Amazon), it matters that both parties feel good about the exchange, because everyone depends on good relations and a solid reputation for repeat business. (Hint: it doesn't matter whether it's barter, working for wages, or offering a service—the principle remains the same.)

o  Value-based part-time work
People don't necessarily need full-time employment if commuting is minimized or eliminated, and barter substitutes for cash purchases. What people need is enough work, and work that they feel good about delivering—because its aligned with who they are, and what they want to be known for. Work like that is not so draining. People get out of bed in the morning looking forward to it.

o  A little help from our friends
We need to be thinking about how to help people start and succeed at local businesses—not just for their own economic viability, but to create jobs for non-entrepreneurs as well. Everywhere there are people who have learned to be successful in business and we need to harness that skill to help guide others in developing sound business plans, and to be savvy about managing money. We need to make the shift to think of additional local businesses as a strengthening of the local web, rather than as competition for limited local dollars. We either succeed together, or go down together.

In short, we need to be real communities.