Sunday, October 23, 2016

Connor Has Game

I'm visiting Ceilee and his household clan in Los Angeles this week, and yesterday I played a game of Ticket to Ride—the Nordic Countries with my grandson, Connor. 

The game is relatively straight forward to learn. The board consists of a map (in this case, Scandinavia plus portions of the Baltic States) on which major cities are connected by would-be train routes. Routes are of various lengths and are arbitrarily associated with one of eight colors. For the most part, turns consist of players either: a) drawing cards (in one of the eight colors); or b) playing cards of the appropriate hue to claim a route. With some exceptions (where there is double track between busy cities) only one player can build a given route; others have to go around. You score points both for building routes, and for establishing track that connects cities for which you have route cards (where points are awarded in proportion to the distance between cities).

When I asked Connor if he knew how to play he assured me that he did. OK, I thought, let's see. In our first game he demonstrated that he clearly understood the mechanics of turn-taking and how to build track, but he was clueless about route cards. He did not complete a single one of his five routes, and his score was terrible. Once that was revealed I spent time with him explaining how the route cards worked. He didn't need to be able to pronounce København, Örebro, or Åndalsnes (which is a good thing because I'm not sure how much better I could do); he just needed to be able to locate them on the map. After 15 minutes of teaching him how to do that we played again. The second time around he completed four of five routes and scored four times better. While he didn't win, he was competitive. 

Connor is only five years old and I was impressed: both that he hung in there for the lesson, and that he was able to immediately apply it. It won't be that long before he's beating me, and it was a proud Papa Ward moment.

• • •
For reasons that are not all together clear, I grew up playing a lot of board games. I am well aware that many of my peers got bored playing games, but not me.

I went through a phase in my 30s when I has hooked on correspondence chess, and I dived into the arcane world of duplicate bridge around my 50th birthday (a passion which continues today), but it turns out that we are living in the golden age of board games—the last 20 years especially—and I consider myself lucky to have been around to enjoy it.

I recall occasionally playing chess, Monopoly, and Scrabble with my father, but he lost interest in a game whenever I got good enough to consistently beat him, so he was not a regular competitor. (His best game was gin rummy, which we occasionally played together throughout his life—in part because I never got as good as he.)

As a kid my favorite game was Clue, because of the variety of winning strategies you could employ and the subtleties of logic and inference (to be really good you needed to be able to learn from the fact that the person two to your right could not refute the suggested combination of suspect, weapon, and room, while the person one to your right could).

In college I was enthralled by Diplomacy, a board game played on a map of Europe where seven players took on the identities of England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Russia to conducted a battle royale. You had to master both the logic of battle (maneuvering armies and fleets to gain military superiority) and the art of negotiation (developing allies to gain political superiority). That was my first exposure to the possibility of a great game that was not based on chance (dice rolls or card drawing).

As an adult I played fewer board games—it was hard to find anyone interested—until I discovered Siedler (which translates from the German to "Settlers of Catan"). That changed everything. It was, by far, the best board game I'd ever played that involved more than two players. As it happened, Siedler came along just as my children got big enough to understand gaming strategy and it quickly became my family's favorite (the expansion version that we consider the best is Cities & Knights, with the fish and pond replacing the desert, and with the deck of cards replacing dice). Years later, that same game proved to be the household favorite for Ma'ikwe, Jibran, and me. 

Since Siedler opened the gates, a flood of excellent board games has ensued, the best of which are diceless. My favorites include Agricola, Le Havre, Ora and Labora, Puerto Rico, and Caylus. For those who have trouble with games that last more than 60 minutes, try Splendor or Carcassonne.

There are also cooperative games, where players unite in a effort to defeat a common faceless enemy: Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Arkhem Horror all work that way.

Over the last three decades board games have played an important role as a medium for quality time spent with my kids (Ceilee and Jo) and my stepson, Jibran. My daughter, Jo, and her husband, Peter, met at a gaming shop in Asheville NC and today they play with friends at least twice a week in Las Vegas—which I am welcome to join whenever I visiting. Gaming teaches logic, geography, strategic thinking, and how to win and lose with equal grace—all important life lessons. And it's a lot of fun.

It's great to be on hand this week to see the next generation picking it up.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Outbound for La La Land

As is my wont on weekdays, I awoke in the dark. Instead of stumbling downstairs and putting on the coffee however, Susan and I got into her brother Roger's Prius and caught a ride from him to the Minneapolis Airport. Susan boarded a jet to Salt Lake City at 6 am, outbound for a long girls' weekend of frolicking in Ogden. I winged my way toward the City of Angels 25 minutes later.

For the next three weeks I'll be galavanting all over the continent, with my time neatly partitioned into three segments:

a) For the next six days I'll be visiting Ceilee and family in southern California. While I'll still keep up with email and handle the odd phone call, this is mostly vacation.

b) In the middle stretch I'll take my time rumbling from Los Angeles to Ham-Nord, Quebec, the main highlights of which will be enjoying Amtrak's Coast Starlight end for end (LAX to SEA) and Via's premiere choo choo, the Canadian, from Vancouver to Toronto. This sojourn will take six nights and seven days. On the theory that getting there is half the fun, I intend to enjoy my scenic adventure in full.

c) The final portion will be five days of meetings at La Cité, a 32-year-old ecovillage in Quebec that I'll be visiting for the first time. The first two days will be a meeting of the newly constituted Global Ecovillage Network of North America, followed by the three-day fall organizational meeting of the Fellowship for Intentional Community. For the first time, I will be attending as an observer, without portfolio since having stepped down as Executive Secretary last December. 

I'm looking forward to all of it.

In Los Angeles I'll be seeing my son, his partner (Sarah), my grandchildren (Taivyn & Connor), and my granddog (Zeus). Yippee! In addition to simply enjoying the contact high of family, I will be rehabilitating a painful memory. The last time I visited LA was mid-December last year. It was there that my lower back pain reached a crescendo that continued for six excruciating bed-ridden weeks, eventually culminating in the discovery of three collapsed vertebrae and multiple myeloma. These were not my happiest days.

That prior visit was scheduled for six days, but was extended when I was in such pain that I could barely get out of bed, much less manage a bus ride to Las Vegas (where Jo and Peter awaited). No fun. In Los Angeles I had taken over Taivyn's lower bunk, which meant that she had to negotiate nighttime acrobatics sharing a narrow berth with her younger brother. (Much as she loves her grandfather, she was happy to see me depart the premises.) 

In any event, my visit last December was not the enjoyable family time we all had envisioned. In the coming week I get a redo, overwriting my visit of 10 months ago with fresher memories, featuring a recovering, more flexible Papa Ward (my nom de familia). While it's dubious how much I'll be available for bouncing on couches, and there may be questions about whether I'll be able to hold my own when Zeus (a boisterous 60-lb bulldog) wants to circumnavigate the block, I'm confident I'll be able to read to my grandkids in full theatrical voice, and be a demonstrable help in the kitchen, especially as dishwasher and sous chef.

How did I get to be "Papa Ward"? Glad you asked. Throughout my life I've never been that comfortable with honorifics and discourage their use whenever I can. (To this day, anyone trying to get my attention with "Mr Schaub" is immediately revealing that they don't know me well or my sensibilities on this topic.) To the extent possible I eschew honorifics and ask people to simply call me "Laird. When I became a parent it was easy to extend that preference to my kids. (I hadn't the least concern that they'd be confused about their paternal origin without its being steadily reinforced by calling me "Dad.")

As it turned out, when my daughter (Josefa) was a mere pup she had trouble pronouncing "Laird." It came out more like "Lerd" (which, incidentally, is what I often get when native Spanish speakers take a pass at my name). Her mother (Elke) found this amusing and enjoyed reinterpreting Jo's attempts as "Ward," as in "Ward, I'm worried about the Beav" (a semi-obscure reference to a line frequently trotted out by June Cleaver when talking parent-to-parent with husband Ward on the iconic '50s sitcom, Leave It to Beaver. This successful six-year sitcom lampooned the peccadilloes and misadventures of two boys navigating life in the suburbs—remember, this was back in the age of innocence, way before the bathroom humor of Animal House (1978), the raciness of American Pie (1999), or the vapidity of Clueless (1995).

One of the challenges I faced in prepping for this multi-stop three-week odyssey was puzzling out my travel wardrobe. While Ward does not intend to wear a robe, he does expect to be robed. According to Weather Underground temperatures are expected to threaten triple digits in southern CA this coming week; yet trekking across Canada the following week I expect to wake up to frost most mornings. Needing both shorts and a fleece-lined vest (in order to straddle an anticipated 75 degrees of ∆t) put considerable pressure on the modest capacity of my roll-aboard suitcase. Sigh.

Fortunately, I enjoy challenges. La La here I come!

Monday, October 17, 2016

How Quickly Could I Train a Facilitator?

I enjoyed a fabulous brunch yesterday at the Duluth Grill, a well-established local institution that features local, fresh, organic food—some of which is grown in raised beds in their parking lot! 

As the place was packed around noon (we were lucky to be seated in only 30 minutes) the wait afforded our party of four (Elph Morgan, Lorna Koestner, Susan, and me) just enough time to tour the parking lot and all the flora. It happens that Lorna has had a personal hand in the plethora of parking lot plantings and was able to tell us all about them. In addition to a variety of fall-thriving vegetables that are an easy fit with the cuisine (rhubarb, chives, and many varieties of lettuce and kale) there were ornamentals in bloom (cosmos, poppies, datura, mullein, and pansies) and fruiting exotics (black nightshade and white everbearing strawberries) that we could munch on.

When we got inside we found the menu was almost as distinctive as the raised beds. I had the Everything Skillet, Susan went with the Mairzy Doats Bowl, Lorna selected the Rabbit Marsala, and Elph opted for the Salmon Bowl. Yum! 

• • •
During breakfast Elph (an old friend from Ann Arbor) had a question for me. How quickly could I train someone to be a decent facilitator assuming they started with no familiarity with consensus. What an interesting question! He wasn't talking world class; just baseline competent.

I thought about it for a bit, and came up with this response: It all depends on the person's ability to be able to shift perspectives. If they stumble with this basic facilitation skill—the ability to step back from one's own viewpoint to see the same dynamic through the eyes of others (reference Trump, the classic one-trick pony who only sees the world through Donald's eyes)—then it would be a project. While I'm confident I could coach them up to develop that capacity (assuming they aspired to learn it), it would probably take months. 

On the other hand, if the person already had that capacity, I felt I could get them to decent in a single weekend.

Elph was lamenting that he was unable to find any programs to help people learn basic facilitation skills in a cooperative setting (think inclusive culture) in a short time. When I reflected on what I offer, I had to admit I don't have much in my portfolio to meet that need—even though I consider facilitation training a specialty. While I conduct a number of two-year trainings (I have three going concurrently) and I expressly welcome people into my classes from any background and with no prior experience, it nonetheless is a 24-month commitment, which is a fairly steep barrier.

I also conduct consensus trainings (and facilitation trainings) for communities, most of whom would be willing to have one or two outsiders join the party for a reasonable fee, but I haven't done anything to promote this possibility and it rarely happens.

Finally, I do a number of workshops at events each year, and it's common to offer something on facilitation once or twice. But those are just 90-miute introductions designed to inspire, not train. Training requires a sequence that is way beyond the scope of a one-session workshop: 
—Presentation of theory
—Demonstration of principles and skills
—Practice under supervision
—Flying solo

Over dinner last night I discussed with Susan my intention to follow up with Elph to see if we could put together a prototype facilitation training weekend for dummies, where the target audience is people who are interested in cooperative culture yet have no particular background in consensus or community living. I have a long train journey coming up next week (when I rumble from Los Angeles to Quebec by way of Vancouver BC) which should give me the perfect occasion to piece together a proposal.

If you, the reader, have interest in participating—or know someone who might be—please let me know and I'll make sure that you're informed about what bubbles up. Contact me directly at

Elph also asked me what I had available in writing about consensus facilitation. I told him (as I tell everyone) quite a lot, though it's scattered among my blog entries, Communities magazine articles, and client reports. Now that I've retired from administrative work for FIC and have my multiple myeloma under control, I'm laboring regularly on organizing my writing into books. Elph encouraged me to not dawdle and had this advice about what would be a useful presentation to him:
—Elucidation of principles
—Step-by-step guide to execution (think cookbook)
—Stories that breathe life into the above

As I'm still in the organizing phase (trying to figure out what I already have and what's missing), I admitted that I haven't yet given much thought to layout of the material. That said, Elph's sequencing appeals to me, so we'll see what develops. His request that I include stories has special resonance for me. I view stories as the oldest vehicle extant for transmitting information and the easiest way for people to retain lessons (there's a reason that traveling minstrels were so popular before the invention of movable type or the internet). 

Fortunately, after 30 years as a professional facilitator, I have lots of stories. All I have to do is pay attention.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Ten Commandments of Scribing

Last month I was conducting a facilitation training on the West Coast with one of my co-trainers, Ma'ikwe Ludwig. As commonly happens, when student facilitators work they often ask another person in the class to scribe (capturing the essence of what people are saying on flip chart paper, a whiteboard, or a chalkboard) to help participants track what was said—giving them a visual reminder, so they needn't rely solely on memory. 

(One significant advantage to the training is that students learn the craft as a cadre of peers who can help each other along the way. That means there are plenty of people willing and able to fill support roles in service to whomever is the lead facilitator. That includes conducting openings and closings, creating graphics or charts of background info, doorkeeping [taking latecomers aside to fill them in on what's happening, allowing them to get up to speed without slowing everyone else down], and note taking. The most common support request is having a fellow student scribe.)

Because there is often awkwardness about how to do this well, Ma'ikwe took the time to spell it out in an impromptu teaching moment. Inspired by her summary, I'm recapitulating it here, embellished with my own commentary.

In no particular order, here are Scribing's Ten Commandments (well, guidelines):

1. Nuggetizing
The heart of good scribing is being able to accurately capture the essence of what someone says—in less time than it takes them to say it—with a phrase or perhaps a couple of words. We call it "nuggetizing," to distinguish it from court transcripts, or verbatim minutes. (One of the reasons that we like students to use scribes is that it gives them useful practice at a bread-and-butter facilitative skill: separating signal from noise. Thus, when one student is behind the wheel and another is scribing, two are getting on-the-job training at once.)

2. Form Follows Function
It's worthwhile for the scribe to pause at the outset to reflect on how their product will intended to be used. The answer often suggests a way to organize what you collect. For example, the simplest way to record statements is on a running list that goes from top to bottom of the first page, then top to bottom of the second page, and so on. But if you know ahead of time that comments will likely fall into four major categories, the utility of the list may be significantly boosted if you prepare five sheets of paper: one each for the four anticipated categories, plus one catchall for anything arriving from left field. Now you've got a home for whatever comes along and the end product will automatically be sorted. Nice.

Hint #1: In the end, it's far likelier that what was said will be more useful than when it was said.

3. Clump Like Comments
If you leave enough space between entries, it is often possible to add later comments that are similar (though not identical) to previous ones already posted. Any aggregating of like sentiments on the fly will be greatly appreciated when your done and looking for themes (which I guarantee will happen, or should).

Hint #2: If someone offers the same comment to one already up, you can adopt a simple convention to denote that: use a check mark or a star (*) next to it to indicate that that thing has been said an additional time (** would indicate that it's been said thrice, etc).

4. Grammar Amnesty 
In the heat of the moment such niceties as spelling and grammar can suffer collateral damage. Even though Strunk & White may turn in their graves, don't get hung up on proper English. As long as meaning is preserved, take your best pass at it and move on. (Going the other way, if you're the facilitator and your scribe has written "god judgement"—instead of "good judgment"—I suggest you grin and bear it.)

5. Eschew Obfuscation
All the clever wording in the world will count for naught if your scribblings cannot be discerned from the far corners of the room. With that in mind, only choose from among dark markers: steer clear of yellow, orange, pink, lavender, and light green. And while we're at it, be wary of scented markers as well: in a poorly ventilated space there are people who can get rather huffy if they're forced to be huffing marker fumes. No need to push the edges of your audience's sensitivities.

Hint #3: It can assist tired eyes to track clearly if you employ alternate colors when recording adjacent thoughts, and you can earn extra credit with drawings (even cartoons) that capture the essence of the point—rebuses can work as well or better than words, and it can make for more aesthetically pleasing charts into the bargain.

6. Write Large 
Bowing to the same god as in the previous point, make sure that the size of your lettering is sufficient that aging eyes can easily read your offerings from across the room. Your prime directive here is legibility; not saving trees.

7. Handle Push Back with Grace
Speakers will not always agree with your word choices when summarizing what they said. If a speaker believes you've mischaracterized them, try to be at ease when fielding their request for modification. (And it's OK, by the way, to stop the action now and then to ask a speaker if your nugget captured their point well enough—so long as you don't do it too often.)

Hint #4: For some people paraphrasing does not work; if you do not use their exact words they will object to what you've written. For those folks you'll have to mirror what they said—even if you discern no difference between what they said and what you offered. Just go with it.

8. Match the Number of Scribes to the Need
For most conversations (whether open discussion or rounds) one scribe is generally sufficient to keep up with the traffic. That may not be true however, if you're conducting a brainstorm, which can often be energetic and fast-paced. Rather than slowing down the creative process (heaven forbid), it typically works better to assign a second scribe, where they each take turns capturing comments.

9. Don't Scribe Everything
Scribing is an option, not an imperative. You should have a clear sense of the benefit you'll derive from using a scribe, or don't use one. In general it's to help capture ideas, both to reduce a tendency to repeat and to not lose an idea because there were too many to remember. It can also help a group identify themes and next steps.

That said, scribing can be distracting (perhaps people are watching the scribe more than the speaker; perhaps the scribe is drawing attention away from the facilitator). It can also pull people away from the energy appropriate for the task at hand. Thus, it's typically beneficial to scribe brainstorms, yet too heady for heart circles—where the focus is more on enhancing or repairing relationships and less on problem solving.

All in all, be judicious about using scribes.

10. The Facilitator Is the Boss
Finally, at the end of the day, you are in service to the lead facilitator and you should bow to what they want from you as scribe. If you are at all confused or uncertain about how to carry out your role, be sure to huddle with them and clear that up ahead of the meeting. If you disagree with their thinking and are unable to persuade them to your viewpoint, don't sabotage their work; do your best to accommodate their wishes and talk with them about it further after the meeting.

That said, if you find yourself confused midstream, it's perfectly fine to stop the action for a minute and ask for clarification. While no one wants to witness a floor fight between the facilitator and the scribe (perhaps battling for control of the dry erase markers), neither does anyone want to witness an uncertain scribe twist in the wind. Use your common sense.

Sharpening the Conversation

Last weekend I was conducting a facilitation training with co-trainer María Stawsky The weekends run from Friday morning through Sunday afternoon and are a mix of presenting material, answering questions, conducting practice exercises, and facilitating live meetings. That said, we emphasize the last approach above all others: devoting three-fourths of every weekend to having students prepare for, deliver, and evaluate the facilitation of real meetings—on the pedagogical theory that people tend to learn faster and more deeply if they're facing live ammunition.

As teachers, María and I face the challenge of identifying a teaching moment as it develops and figuring out what intervention (if any) might be both effective and elucidating. Here are the elements of this:

o  Because the teachers are experiencing the situation as it unfolds in real time—the same as the student facilitator—it means we have only a short time to recognize that there's a problem with how things are going.

o  Immediately after we identify that something is off, the next question is whether we have a solid idea about what would correct it. While María and I are experienced facilitators (which means we have access to personal memories of untold numbers of prior meetings to draw on) each situation is unique and thus considerable discernment must be used in choosing an alternative path.

o  In the context of training weekends, we have to put our ideas through two screens before acting on them: 

a) Will our idea be more effective than what the student is doing? Will it help the meeting be more productive?

b) Will it help the student learn how to be a better facilitator (presumably the prime directive for a training weekend)?

o  Less obvious perhaps, yet still a factor, is how to get in and out quickly so that we are minimally disruptive to the meeting's flow (we're trying to bolster students; not pull their pants down). That means we have to be able to execute (or explain) our idea with precision, so that the reins can be returned to the student as quickly and as seamlessly as possible.

Let me give you a recent example. In the context of a training weekend, a student was facilitating a meeting of the host community that was focused on how the group should proceed in the face of a recent decision by their developer to end their relationship, leaving the community high and dry in their attempt to find suitable property and get their dream homes built. There were a handful of ideas in the room about where to focus energy, one of which was to make sure that the community had learned whatever lessons they could before jumping ahead (and being at risk of repeating mistakes).

While no one was against the idea of learning from mistakes, there was push back about how much that was needed at that time; about how much that should be a priority (what is being prudent, and what is being timid?).

When the dissent was first voiced it wasn't clear whether the speaker's point was that taking time to focus on lessons was a waste, or whether that had already happened sufficiently to move on. When the facilitator allowed others to contribute to this topic (a good instinct) you could tell that the group was uncomfortable being in a conflicted dynamic and was trying to find middle ground (perhaps by seeing to it that all ideas about what to do next—there were four main ones—were honored and supported). After a few minutes of spinning their wheels (spreading oil on troubled waters takes time), it appeared to me that the facilitator was unsure how to handle it.

To be clear, this was not a disaster; it was just ineffective. It was a loss of momentum, a shying away from the dynamic moment. It was also a teaching moment, where I could simultaneously accelerate the consideration and showcase for the student how to do it.

In this instance it was by doing something that many consider counter-intuitive: leaning into the differences for the purpose of trying to bridge the gap. The principle I used to guide me was a simple one: if you can identify who holds the ends of the conversation (the people with the positions that are furthest apart) it can often be effective to focus especially on them, with the idea that if you can find a way forward with those folks on board then it's highly likely that everyone else will be carried along as well. 

There are two reasons that this flies in the face of traditional approaches to facilitation (and therefore is not employed much):

a) In cooperative culture, groups tend to move away from tension, not toward it. If you direct attention toward the people on the edge there is the sense that you risk fanning the flames—an undesirable result.

b) In cooperative culture, there is a core value of inclusivity and trying to equalize voices. Giving extra attention to a few people (and less to everyone else) is directly counter to that idea. (Won't you be rewarding people with extreme positions by giving them extra air time?)

The key to this working is that the facilitator needs to be able to work accurately with each player, establishing both that their position is understood and what it means to them. If this is done well, each player relaxes (they won't be left behind) and it's possible to negotiate a way forward that everyone can get behind. In this case, I first found out that the person who was leery of looking for lessons felt that that had already been done (the juice had been sucked out of those bones) and was worried that supporting more of that at this point was diluting group energy when it was most needed to be laser-focused on essentials. 

Turning to the person who advocated for more analysis I asked specifically what they wanted. The response: two hours of committee time, leading to a report to the plenary. I then turned back to the objector: "Can you swallow that?" Answer: "Yes." I then announced: "OK, we're done." Looking over to the student in the facilitator's chair, I offered: "Back to you," and sat down.

It only took about two minutes to run through the whole sequence. Along the way I was able to give the facilitation class an excellent example of what can be gained by sharpening the conversation, and by focusing on the outliers in service to the goal of efficiency without leaving anyone behind.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Descent of Winter

Earlier this year I moved to Duluth MN, which for many weeks of the year can claim to be the icebox of the US. While there's no telling where the heart will lead, in my case it was here. Susan has been here since 1979 and that was good enough for me.

To be sure, others come for the salt-of-the-earth people, for the thriving art scene along the North Shore, for the glorious views of Lake Superior, or for easy access to the output of Bent Paddle Brewing—but what people don't do is to come for the balmy weather. (There are better locations for working on your tan.)

Although here it is October 6th and we still haven't experienced a killing frost (Susan and I harvested fresh basil this afternoon), the "high" tomorrow—and I use that term loosely—is projected to be a crisp 45 degrees. So here we go; time to make sure that the furnace filters are clean.

Fortunately, I like winter. To be sure, I don't particularly like ice, but I love creating a warm cave in our double bed each night, snug beneath the down duvet. I love hot soup for dinner, accompanied by cold butter melting on steaming rolls. I love how the diamantine stars dance on a clear new-moon night in January, sometimes accompanied by a curtain call from the Aurora Borealis.

In Duluth we expect the summers to be shorter and the winters to be longer. Even knowing that however, it's hard maintaining a good attitude in the face of spring's shy appearance. April is the cruelest month of all—when the calendar says it's spring but the ice persists in the harbor, delaying the start of the shipping season, as well as gardening. In anticipation of that Susan and I have finagled a Schaub sibling rendezvous in San Antonio for the first weekend of April in 2017, which we expect will net us a 30-degree gain in differential ambient temperature (we'll be trading 40 degrees in Duluth for 70 degrees in San Antonio—quite the upgrade). Will we be ready or what?

It was interesting this summer (when I was in Rochester for five weeks, getting my stem-cell transplant) that whenever I told folks that I was from Duluth, most southern Minnesotans commented on how lovely it is up here. This stood in sharp contrast with the opinions offered by most of my friends (living in balmier climes) who immediately expressed sympathy for what they considered my Nordic exile. (Oh, you poor boy.) Over and over I've had to explain that I like living in Duluth. Winters have never been a  problem for me, as long we've had enough dry firewood and good caulking around the windows.

As the thermometer drops, Susan and I start turning our attention toward holiday cooking opportunities: there will be Thanksgiving next month, followed by Christmas. Those are chances to warm the house from the kitchen outward, with good food marinating with family and good company. Somehow the food tastes better when it's cold outside.

Winter is also the best time for reading. For a couple years now I've been on a serious campaign to reduce my material possessions, with special attention being given to the enormous volume of books I've gradually aggregated over the years. Essentially I'm trying to turn around my habit of buying books faster than I read them. As a frame of reference I've plowed through 23 titles in the last quarter. As soon as I complete a title (I tend to alternate between fiction and nonfiction and have very eclectic tastes) I turn it over to Susan: either she can hang on to it to read herself (maybe one in four), we send it on to Goodwill, or I deposit it in one of the free lending libraries sprouting up in Amtrak depots these days. Slowly but surely, we're debooking the house, and I'm having a lot of fun getting exposed to all manner of ideas and wordcrafting.

You just gotta like winter.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Doing the Can Can in Richmond

I've always considered myself a can-do guy. True, I'm a bit more limited these days because of my cancer—due to calcium leaching, for example, I have to be careful about how much weight I lift—but I've recovered a great deal of functionality since being hospitalized last January and am getting around pretty good these days.

Thus, it was amusing last night to be eating at the Can Can Brasserie in Carytown, a tony urban retail strip along Cary St in the capital of Virginia, where the legacy of the Civil War (referred to here as the War of Northern Aggression) continues to simmer. Our brief journey to the restaurant, for example, took us right by a prominent well-lit monument to Stonewall Jackson. Hmm. I reckon it's a matter of perspective. To locals, Appomattox was barely 151 years ago; what's the hurry in getting over it?

History aside we had a lovely dinner. As you might guess, the Can Can featured French cuisine (though no petticoats). Marty and Dan raved about the pan-roasted grouper and Jenny seemed well pleased with the coq au vin. Unfortunately, my lamb chops (the Sunday special) were disappointing: stringy, undercooked, and the flavors not well blended with the polenta melange on which they were presented. Oh well, no restaurant can expect to ring the bell every time, and the meal ended on an up-tick when the four of us shared two high-calorie desserts.

For me the highlight of the evening was the company. I had not seen any of my dinner companions since before my cancer had been discovered and it was lovely having two hours of unstructured laughter and free-flowing conversation with them last night. They traveled over 90 minutes each way for the "privilege" of my company and we made the most of it.

On the way back to the car I confided in Jenny that my recent brush with mortality has helped me focus on the primacy of spending time with friends—further, I'm learning to not count on being able to do later things that I blithely pass up doing today.

Over fresh bread (and an oozing appetizer of baked brie, quince purée, raspberry compote, and candied walnuts—ooh-la-la), I caught up on the doings at Shannon Farm (Afton VA), where all three live. There is a proposal to bring fiber optic cable into the community, finally assuring residents of access to high-speed internet connections (welcome, Shannonies, to the late 20th Century!); and Marty's pod is about to hook up to a solar panel array that promises to significantly diminish the revolutions of the dial on his electric meter. Nice.

Both Dan (an independent insurance agent) and Jenny (one of three partners operating Heartwood Design, a well-established custom woodworking shop that focuses on up-scale kitchen remodels for the DC market) are wrestling with the same questions that Susan and I are: how best to segue into our retirement years, juggling:

A. The desire to keep active (though at a gradually decreasing level).

B. The desire to maintain a decent income flow (through a judicious combination of savings and current earnings).

C. The desire to have increasing control of one's time (where B is robust enough to cover what you'd like to do with C).

It's always interesting hearing how others are solving this equation, with each situation having unique characteristics to weigh.

Last night's social configuration is a precious artifact from my FIC days. Dan and I were part of the original group that founded the Fellowship in 1987. By the time that Dan was ready to step back (in the mid-90s) Jenny (his partner) had already made the transition from onlooker to imp (as we whimsically styled "implementers" back in the day) and I wound up working closely with her for nearly 20 years. Marty stepped into the circle in 1997 and continues on the FIC Board today. All of which is to say that I've been through many fires with these folks—both in service to community and in service to relationship.

Last evening it was a delight to stir the coals and bask in the considerable warmth of our mutual friendships—whether the South ever rises again, or not.