At Thanksgiving I began a grand experiment: living in the same household as my wife.
Though we've been married for six-and-a-half years, this is the first time we've attempted this version of communal living. While I know most people will respond, "Duh," this is a radical step for us, requiring that at least one of us (in this case, me) give up a home that means a great deal. With Sandhill's blessing, I'm taking a leave of absence to try this out. If it doesn't work, Ma'ikwe can revive her plans (from July) to divorce me and I can return to Sandhill.
No sooner did we recover from the tryptophan overload of Turkey Day than we plowed into the archeological site that has been my bedroom at Sandhill for the last 20 years. Fortunately Ma'ikwe had set aside the week to mainly support me in the transition and the reorganization of Moon Lodge (her house at Dancing Rabbit where we now live), and she played a strong role in keeping me on task, and helped me sort things into four piles: a) move; b) give away; c) store; and d) trash.
While I'm only half done (there are at least two full days ahead), we've mostly cleaned out the closet, and have moved both the bed and desk. In the process I've already found two long-lost things that I knew were in the room but couldn't figure out where I'd placed them, and had lost hope of ever seeing again. It was like an early Christmas!
The first thing was a pair of small diameter rifflers with which I intended to sharpen the blade of our Univex grinder for shredding horseradish (which is incredibly hard on equipment, not just your nose). I figured the blades are expensive and it couldn't hurt to try sharpening what we had instead of springing for a new blade—but that theory only works if you don't lose the rifflers! I'd ordered them five years ago and couldn't recall where I'd put them to save my soul. It turned out they were in a bowl on my desk (underneath scads of insulated coffee sleeves) still safely inside their factory packaging. Whew!
The second miracle was coming across a box of butchering equipment (carefully sealed with packing tape and clearly labeled in my handwriting) alongside my desk (in an area I rarely venture to look at). It included a blade and grater plates for our meat grinder, a homemade locust pushing block (with a diameter barely smaller than the inside of the feed throat on the grinder), sausage casings, and a stuffing funnel. I'd been looking three years for that lot, and it was fortuitous to come across it right after cutting up three deer, most of which was destined to become burger.
While most of what I discovered was old and familiar, there were plenty of clothes I've never worn and have no idea how they got into my closet. Ma'ikwe was good about pushing me to let go of most of it. Often I'd touch something and it would trigger a story about its origin. Pretty quickly, Ma'ikwe figured out that she didn't need to pay attention to what I was saying; she could just nod occasionally as I went through the grieving process.
Sleeping in the Bed You Made
It was powerful sleeping for the last time with Ma'ikwe in the bed I'd made 38 years ago, from locally cut white oak. It was the bed in which both of my kids were conceived and holds a lot of positive juju for me. We disassembled it the next morning and put it back together at Moon Lodge—only to discover that Ma'ikwe's mattress was bigger than mine and didn't fit between the posts at the end of the bed. Oops! So, after a few deep breaths, I sawed off the posts and we were able to sleep there that night: my bed and Ma'ikwe's mattress, symbolic of the union of our lives.
Almost as important as the bed was moving my desk into Ma'ikwe's living room, so that I'd have a workplace that was reliably mine (heretofore it had been my laptop atop my lap in a chair near the wood stove). Ma'ikwe likes to bivouac on her couch, with her papers spread round her. I prefer a desk (or table) and now we're side by side, with easy sight lines of each other. Something of a his-and-hers living room.
While we've already hauled about six boxes of books over, there are at least that many still to go. Plus, we've hardly made a dent in my piles of paperwork, including a four-drawer filing cabinet. I'm seriously toying with shipping a bunch of the FIC material off to an archive facility (at the Center for Communal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville IN), rather than continue to haul it with me wherever I go. It's time to divest!
We managed without too much strain to shoehorn my clothes into the dresser and closet space that Ma'ikwe freed up for me, we folded my modest cooking supplies into Moon Lodge's spacious kitchen, and we were even able to find a home for my best-in-county eclectic liquor collection (through the judicious use of the loft space above the bathroom). But I have no idea where all those books are going to go, even after we build three more rows of shelves along the south wall of the guest room.
The Ties that Bind
Last week, as part of the new world order, we had a conversation about the division of Moon Lodge domestic chores that included the two of us, plus Jibran, Ma'ikwe's 16-year-old son. Jibran is seriously thinking of trying to enter college next fall to study philosophy, which could mean that the next 8-9 months are his last as a regular fixture in our domestic scene. Before he departs, I have a personal agenda to get Jibran's skill set beefed up to the point where he can: a) consistently start a fire in the wood stove; b) cook a basic meal without burning the food or telling us how incompetent he is; and c) tie basic knots (I figure if you master the square knot, clove hitch, bowline, and tautline hitch, you can handle 99% of the situations where knowing the right knot can save your ass). All of these things will, I believe, make a bigger difference in his life than being about to explain nuances in epistemology. He'll just have to trust me on that.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
At Thanksgiving I began a grand experiment: living in the same household as my wife.
Monday, December 9, 2013
of the Star Wars movies is the concept of "the Force": a binding,
metaphysical energy that is everywhere, but which some are more
sensitive to than others. In particular, it is a phenomenon that Jedi
Knights—such as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker—aspire to grok, attune
with, and harness.
Though not quite in the same IMAX way as George Lucas, I try to teach facilitators to be sensitive to the energy in group dynamics and to trust their intuition (in addition to tracking whatever the little jimmy dickens people are actually saying) with the understanding that there is much more going on in meetings than sequencing an agenda, exchanging ideas, and solving problems.
That said, one of the things that most groups encounter, sooner or later, are people who act as if the Force doesn't exist (at least not beyond the force of their will) and I want to explore the dynamics around that phenonenon.
One of the hallmarks of cooperative groups is that they pay as much attention to how a thing gets done as what gets done. Thus, process agreements (explicit norms about how things should flow) tend to be a big deal in cooperative groups (and individual initiative to just go out and "get 'er done" is less celebrated).
I want to approach this from the perspective of two archetypes that are especially vexing to the Cooperative Force: the Tragic Dynamic Veteran and the Cynical Lone Wolf, both of which should be familiar to observers of group dynamics. First, I'll start with a compendium of qualities that these types tend to hold in common.
o Are hard workers.
o Are willing to push for what they believe is needed, even if their position is unpopular.
o Are not particularly looking for the limelight; yet expect quiet recognition and acceptance for their (considerable) contributions to the group's welfare.o Have martyr tendencies, where they expect some relief from scrutiny (or slack around process) by virtue of their yeoman service to the group.
o Will suffer in silence (rather than gnash their teeth in public), even though it's not hard to tell when they're pissed.
o Tend to be critical of people with a high need for emotional support, unless it's accompanied by high productivity. Similarly, they're skeptical of devoting a significant chunk of plenary time to focusing on feelings unless it can be clearly shown that this leads to action. ("If we redirected just half the time now being taken by meetings to simply doing the work, there wouldn't be so damn much to talk about.")
Archetype I: The Tragic Dynamic Veteran
—Frustrated by non-performance. While they'd prefer to be part of a team, they don't want to be held up by slackers. Process is fine, but when push comes to shove, it's more important to get the work done than to hold the hands of people missing deadlines or wracked by doubt.
—Often easier to do something themselves than wait for someone less able to get around to it. While this doesn't build capacity, it solves the immediate problem and doesn't slow them down. They accept many claims on their time and it can be excruciating asking them to accommodate the confused, the slow thinking, and the less competent.
—High-functioning, which package probably includes many or all of the following traits: a) multiple skills useful to the group; b) the ability to work quickly; c) the ability to produce quality work consistently; and d) an understanding of work details, the best way to sequence things, and the big picture.
—While process savvy, there is a tendency to be impatient with bureaucracy when it's perceived to be in their way (or irrelevant).
—Long to have their ideas listened to as closely as they listen to the contributions of others.
—Tend to get sullen when upset (because they've learned that the group doesn't do well with their anger)
—For the good of the group will put their thumb in the dike to tackle work the group wants done but which no one else will tackle. If this is work that they don't enjoy or don't think is necessary, it can lead to resentment when that effort is not appreciated or broadly supported.
—By definition, leaders have more power (the ability to influence others) than others. As such, they are often the target of those who are suspicious of power being unevenly distributed.
—Socially adept and readily available to help others at need, though not particularly open about their own needs, or asking for help. Given how much the group may depend on the contributions of dynamic leaders, the expression of their personal needs can be labeled emotional blackmail.
Here's how it works:
A) The group is dependent on its leaders to get things done.
B) The group functions better and feels more cohesive if members share from the heart what's going on with them.
C) Emotional needs tend to be translated into demands.
D) The leader responds to the request that they be more human and vulnerable in the group (per point B), yet in the presence of that sharing there's push back from the group about the leader pressuring the group to meet their needs (per point C) with the implied threat that they'll withdraw their energy if their needs aren't satisfied (invoking Point A).
Thus, while leaders may think they're only doing B, it may appear to others that it's a power play. Yuck.
How this type benefits the group. They can find people who can meet them in some respects (big picture thinking, stamina, dynamism in front of the group, pace), providing peers and the possibility of handing off significant aspects of their workload to others. They don't mind sharing the credit or control if the work is being done well. The group can be a base of operation or platform for their work in the world.
How the group benefits from this type. The group often relies on their dynamism and vision, even when there is baseline discomfort about how much power they have. A good leader can help develop the leadership capacity in others, both through modeling and direct mentoring.
How to connect. I think the points of leverage are: a) being diligent about leaders sharing from the heart as much as others; b) seeing to it that leaders have peer support (just like anyone else); and c) holding leaders accountable when they color outside the process lines. Hint: Leaders tend to operate on accelerated time, which means it's important that any of these options be acted upon as promptly as possible, to interrupt the leader's tendency to feel isolated and poorly understood.
Archetype II: The Cynical Lone Wolf
—Surly; uncommunicative; doesn't respond to emails or notes; isn't responsive to feedback or evaluations.
—Socially awkward; not well connected in the group.
—Rarely attends meetings & doesn't speak much.
—May ignore greetings.
—Tendency to leak sarcasm.
—They are a person of actions; not words.
—They possess cowboy energy; acting impulsively on their own, rather than seeking permission and group support.
—Life experience has taught them that talking doesn't get things done.
—Being emotionally vulnerable risks getting hurt; it's safer being armored.
How this type benefits the group. Their work ethic is an inspiration to others. You never have too many members who ask little and deliver a lot. Their areas of commitment tend to be handled promptly and competently.
How this type benefits from being in the group. They basically align with the group values, and benefit from the shared work (living in a group, the loner needn't do everything themselves). They accept group decisions about what needs to happen and what resources are available to accomplish things; yet they opt out socially. (Since they don't value group process, they don't see its violation as that big a deal.)
How to connect. I think the best chance with this type is offering something that makes sense in their value system. Probably that means selling them on how clear communication and clear energy leads to better efficiency and productivity. While they may be skeptical, they will probably accept hard evidence (the proof is in the doing). Hint: Someone approaching this type is not likely to gain any traction unless that person has a decent reputation for getting things done.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Following my post of Nov 30 (Gender Dynamics in Cooperative Groups) I received three comments. They were so interesting that I've decided to keep the dialog going...
It might be interesting to look at the research about how women and men resolve arguments. Men seem, according to this research, to leave an encounter where some agreement has been reached with an ability to leave it behind; women tend to come back minutes, hours, or days later with "and this is a pattern of yours" to restart a broader discussion. It's not over for them. When I heard this I was in the car with my ex-husband, who is now in a committed relationship with a man, and he was somewhat offended because he said his husband is definitely more female in that way. Of course I recognized myself and him in the examples. We were trying to think of an evolutionary advantage to the female behavior and we could come up with only the hunter vs. gatherer advantages...being able to kill and eat something differs psychologically from growing or gathering edibles...and what roles that meant "feminine" gay men and butch lesbians did in early society. But maybe it's more about creating community and resolving issues....somebody has to say "it's done" and somebody has to remember for next time.
While I'm not an anthropologist (and therefore don't know jack—or jill, for that matter—about the evolutionary explanation for different gendered responses to arguments), I can build a picture about why relational people (who may be women) tend to hang onto disagreements that results-oriented people (who may be men) claimed to have moved beyond. If the argument ends without an energetic resolution, the dynamics persist. Relational people know this, and therefore attempt to engage in a holistic way (even if they're not particularly distinguished as problem-solvers). However, if the other person isn't emotionally articulate (or even available), this may not go well. In such cases, all parties may reach an acceptable rational solution, but everyone doesn't feel heard or "done." Those aware of the unfinished business are likely to cycle back to it.
All of that said, in the community context it has not been my experience that women tend to hold on to hurts any longer than men, or, for that matter, that women are any less quick to be ready to move on.
I have had a lot of experience visiting communities and hearing this bigoted viewpoint about men being one way and women being another way. I mean, I hear it outside communities as well, but I would have imagined more critique of the concept of the gender binary or the idea of gender being anything more than a concept in our heads, in communities. I have heard quite a bit of critique of these ideas of men are this and women are that in the circle of Acorn, Twin Oaks, and Living Energy Farm. Still, there is a womyn's gathering and a womyn's collective at Twin Oaks.
I remember, at an early Gaia U board meeting, there was a proposal to divide the Board by gender (just women and men, no one else). It was decided there be two heads of the board, because, you know, "you have to balance the feminine and masculine energies" and "men and women have a different way of looking at things."
What does this idea that men and women think and do things differently serve? Let's say it's not being said from a biological perspective of sex, rather than gender, and you're only talking about the cultural norms and how people were raised. Even then, what can this thought even serve? First, it is said from a cisgender perspective speaking only of women and men and no one else. It excludes intersex people. It excludes transgender people. Beyond that, what do you do with an idea like that? You apply it to the people around you and make judgments on individual people based on what your belief is about people of their gender. The problem with prejudice like that is that there is no way to take a whole classification of people and accurately apply it to any one individual within the classification.
I wrote the original piece because I believe there are important differences in the way that boys and girls are conditioned in the mainstream culture. It was not my aim to encourage stereotyping or to promote the assumption that all feminine-presenting people act one way and all masculine-presenting people act another; it was to describe a gulf that I see played out repeatedly in cooperative group dynamics and which I believe we must learn to recognize and develop the capacity to bridge between.
The most important part for me is the ways in which cooperative culture differs from competitive culture with respect to how it solves problems. In the wider culture, we venerate rational problem solvers and systems thinking. In cooperative culture those qualities are still an asset, yet so is the ability to work relationally and empathetically.
What was intriguing for me about my friend's observation (which was the inspiration for my Nov 30 blog) was: a) that both styles persisted in his well-established community; and b) that the clash between the styles was the major impediment to peaceable resolution of conflict. I was not so interested in the analysis that women were never strident, or consistently did a better job of setting aside their egos to think of the whole, yet I was interested in how gendered cultural conditioning could explain what my friend observed. That's exciting because it means that there is every reason to believe that if all children were trained to be skilled at human relations, then we could all be better cooperative problem solvers.
I hear your [Abe's] frustration with the division by gender raised by this article. I also realize how much I appreciate the issues raised by the article. Rather than proving the point of Laird's 'thoughtful friend' (since I'm a cisgendered—and an old white guy at that) by drawing 'positional lines' (and I could—I still have those testosteronal reactions), I'd rather try to look at the truth of what you're saying as well as the truth of Laird's post. There is a good bit of truth in each.
First, I want to acknowledge that many individuals do not fall within the cultural norms of their gender—and many also fall outside gender norms at all. But I also think it's important to look at what is perhaps the heart of what Laird wrote here, his list of relational skills. I think that anyone using these skills, whether cisgendered, transgendered, genderqueer, or intersex, any human being using these skills will further the building of communities. I also think that we need to encourage anyone who is quick to speak up (regardless of gender) to wait and step back and encourage the quiet people to speak up so that all voices are heard.
Personally I would like to live in a community with more strong women and less strong men (I've seen what's been described too often for my liking), and definitely with more queer folk of every type, with many people who flout and challenge gender norms.
And I agree that we need to look at each individual as their own unique self. I think there is a place for looking at gender dynamics and a place for looking beyond gender dynamics.
I'm wholly in agreement with MoonRaven's concluding paragraph. However, I want to comment on the admonition that those who are quick to speak up should step back, and the idea that groups may be better off with fewer strong men.
I believe what we need are groups where all members are strong—by which I mean articulate, unafraid to voice their views (even if unpopular), able to take full responsibility for their feelings and their actions, and possessing a strong enough sense of self that they do not feel unworthy or damaged as a consequence of others disliking their words or behavior. (Note that I am not equating strength with stridency or obstinacy.) The meek or insecure do not, in my view, get strong as a result of shackling others. That's coddling.
As a professional facilitator, here's the way I prefer to handle the dynamic where air space is unevenly distributed in open discussion (which only happens all the time). I have two main strategies. First, if I notice that a minority is dominating the conversation (or that there are a number of people who have not yet spoken), I will often offer an observation along the lines of, "We have had an animated conversation the last 15 minutes and a number of useful ideas and concerns have surfaced. I notice though that a few people have spoken a number of times while others have not spoken at all. For the next while I'd like to make room to hear from those who have not yet contributed to the conversation."
This does a number of things all at the same time:
o It honors the contributions received so far, which means those who are quick to speak or are less daunted by speaking in front of the whole group are not punished or made to feel bad. (While I don't want to celebrate being rash, it's fine to be quick.)
o It expressly encourages those who have spoken a lot to sit on their hands. It's now other people's turns.
o It creates an explicit opening for the shy or the more deliberate thinkers to step up. Don't come back later with the complaint that there was no opening.
Note that this approach does limit the quick for a time, but only after they have already contributed, not before.
The second strategy I employ to equalize participation is to mix up formats. Instead of relying solely on open discussion—which is often the quickest way to get at things—I intentionally use a variety of other approaches. Here are three:
—Go Rounds (where no one speaks twice until everyone who cares to has had a chance to speak once).
—Small group breakouts (where it's easier for people to test out their ideas).
—Individual writing before sharing in the whole group (some are more articulate that way than orally—why not occasionally give them a format at which they excel?).
All together, these are strategies for getting everyone into the conversation without gagging the strong, which, by the way, has nothing to do with gender, yet has everything to do with getting everyone's wisdom into consideration—all the while encouraging all participants to get stronger without pretending that we're all alike.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
I've recently been in a dialog with a thoughtful friend who has lived half his life in a consensus-based community and shared this reflection about gender dynamics (which I have lightly edited to preserve anonymity):
As I see it, there is a distinct difference between the genders that has persisted for decades, well beyond the behaviors or personalities of particular men or women. When our group experiences open conflict in arriving at consensus it almost always becomes positional/territorial "lines" between one or two men, not women. I have recently seen the group get close to agreement only to have the consensus founder because one or two males believe they have a better understanding of: a) how consensus works; or b) what the real problem is that the rest are missing. It happens repeatedly… and heatedly.
Recently, I was standing in a circle of members when I expressed a concern that a committee had sent out a written message to a departing member that had not been cleared in plenary. When anger erupted in response to that revelation all the women took a physical step back, while the males exchanged heated words. Though we worked through the anger over the next days, it has made me look more closely at male-female dynamics during our plenary conversations—to read the body language, to observe if females are speaking out or not, and to see who is helping us move collectively and who is holding onto some "sacred" place that cannot be touched.
Lately, I've been finding a wonderful amount of courage and inner clarity to challenge these positions, yet I admit to almost wishing to be part of a community where the women's views were weighted a bit more than the men's (I know that's a big generalization, but there are threads of truth for me), because women can sense much of what is being felt in the group and what is being lost that the males often miss while proving themselves "right."
I can certainly resonate with your observation as someone who gets to peek behind the curtain of many groups (people don't hire me to confirm that everything is going well).
The way I've made sense of the gender phenomenon you described above is that women in our culture are conditioned to be more relational than men; and men are held up to the standard of John Wayne, the archetypal rugged individualist. (To be sure, I know plenty of women who are every bit as roosterish as those men whose behavior you have highlighted in your community, but in general I think your observation is sound.) For relationally oriented people it's not so difficult to set aside personal preferences for the good of the group. For those taught to trust their inner truth above all else, it can be the very devil distinguishing between personal preference and divine inspiration. In that context, asking them to think of the whole is an insult because they believe that their inner truth is always about that. They just have trouble accepting that other people's inner truth might be different, and just as divinely inspired.
On the whole, it's been my observation that strong women tend to run intentional communities. Not because they are naturally better leaders, but because it's essential for leaders to have developed fairly sophisticated social skills to be effective in community, and girls tend to be steered in that direction more than boys. While you want leaders to be good at both relational skills and systems thinking, it's my sense that its easier for a woman to learn systems than it is for a man to learn to see an issue from another person's perspective.
What do I mean by relational skills? It's the ability to:
o Articulate clearly what you think.
o Articulate clearly what you feel.
o Hear accurately what others say (and be able to communicate that to the speaker such that they feel heard).
o Hear critical feedback without walling up or getting defensive.
o Function reasonably well in the presence of non-trivial distress in others.
o Shift perspectives to see an issue through another person's lens.
o See potential bridges between two people who are at odds with each other.
o See the good intent underneath strident statements.
o Distinguish clearly between a person's behavior being out of line and that person being "bad."
o Own your own shit.
o Reach out to others before you have been reached out to yourself.
o Be sensitive to the ways in which you are privileged.
Intentional communities (at least the ones that don't espouse traditional gender roles, which is most, but by no means all) tend to be especially attractive to strong women for two reasons. First, communities tend to be progressive politically and are therefore likely to be committed to breaking down stereotypical gender roles. Thus, women are far less likely to encounter glass ceiling dynamics in community. That means openings for everyone without reference to their plumbing. Hallelujah!
Second, communities are committed to creating cooperative culture, and that means how things are done tends to matter as much as what gets done. This is in striking contrast with the mainstream culture and its fixation on results. In consequence, those social skills (that women have been conditioned to excel at) stand out as a big plus.
Going the other way, community can be a challenging environment for strong men because their behavior may trigger knee-jerk suspicion about whether their strength is rooted in a desire for personal aggrandizement (the mainstream tendency) instead of service to the whole. It is not enough that the strong man thinks he's clean (by which I mean not ego-driven and working on behalf of everyone); it matters more how he comes across to others, and this is all about social skills, not facility with rhetoric or branding.
It's even more nuanced than that. Given the historic privilege that men have enjoyed in the wider culture, the determination to create a more feminist culture in community (by which I mean egalitarian—not woman-centered) translates into encouraging women to step up and men to step back. In practice this can result in women being celebrated for being assertive (in the interest of encouraging their stepping up) while men taking the same action are criticized for being too aggressive (in an effort to encourage their stepping back).
While this may be demonstrably unfair, a more subtle question is whether it's an appropriate strategy for closing the gap in societal prejudice that favors men. While there's no doubt that this strategy won't work long term (because it would just reverse the inequity), it's an open question whether this brand of affirmative action is justified in an effort to accelerate getting to the promised land of equal opportunity, or for how long it should be supported.
All in all, intentional community is an incredibly potent laboratory for experimenting with gender dynamics in pursuit of the holy grail: a better life for all.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
I know that Thanksgiving is tomorrow, but I'm going to start early.
I'm chugging inbound on the eastbound Southwest Chief, having boarded in the wee hours of Tuesday in Kingman AZ. I was awakened in the pre-dawn of eastern KS this morning as they stuffed the empty seats with heading-home-for-the-holidays passengers at Topeka and Lawrence. That means I have four hours until I'll be collected at the Art Deco Amtrak depot in La Plata MO—just enough time to jot down (well, peck down) all that I'm thankful for in the final hours of my four-week road trip.
I'm thankful for the home that I am returning to. On a basic level, homelessness is a serious societal ill, symptomatic of the inevitable consequences of our winners-and-losers competitive culture. As a road warrior who travels mainly by train, I get to see more than my share of the not-so-pretty sides of cities and the people for whom the American dream has become a nightmare. I was raised with plenty of privilege and advantage and I've been able to parlay those into a life that works pretty well.
On a deeper level, home is more than just a roof over my head: a) it's a place on Earth where I have sunk deep roots, and where I have found a strong sense of Spirit, even though I didn't know I was looking for it; b) it's a community where I have established deep personal connections with fellow travelers in the social change business; and c) it's served as a living foundation from which I operate as a cooperative process consultant—my work is grounded in the reality of my life experience much more than any books I've read or workshops I've attended.
In many ways, connection to place has crept up on me. It was not the way I was raised, and I stumbled upon its preciousness as the years went by and I accreted in my psyche the natural rhythms of my community's farm in northeast Missouri as season followed season, year after year. This is a profound gift that I discovered in spite of my slash and burn cultural conditioning.
I'm thankful for my intimate partner, who loves me profoundly and pushes us to be all that we can be—on stage as public figures, on the couch, at the stove, and in the bedroom. (There's a reason that the kitchen sink is a metaphor for everything—and the goddess only knows we've spent our share of time there, talking about how to build it, how to get water to it, and how frequently to clean the dishes. There's an amazing amount of domestic dynamics that revolve around the kitchen sink.)
We have been a couple for eight years now, and we've worked our love harder in our eighth year than in any of the previous seven. For one thing, most of this past year we've been doing couples counseling, getting help looking at the parts we've rather not see. I'm telling you, a good marriage (and why settle for anything less?) is not for the feint of heart, and our relationship is a work in progress if there ever was one. All together, I feel blessed and I return home eager to begin our grand experiment in maintaining a single household for the first time.
—Paid Work That Aligns with My Values
I'm thankful for my parents who instilled in me a strong sense of self—as a person who could be all that he could be. While my choices confused my mother and confounded my father (who was hoping he was raising a midshipman of industry who would grow up to be a captain), I've found my place in a life centered around community with a minimal amount of wandering in the wilderness. It was from my upbringing that I learned to be risk tolerant, from which I derived the courage to insist that I make a living from activities that embodied my values and which satisfied my soul, not just my wallet.
Whenever I encounter people who are weary of their jobs, or peers who turn longingly toward retirement, I realize how fortunate I have been. I still get up each day looking forward to speaking at the next conference, facilitating the next thorny meeting, or crafting the next report. People pay me to do what I love and are happy with the bargain. Is that a good life, or what?
—Service Work That Aligns with My Growth Path
I'm thankful for my work in a second way also. More than being consonant with my values, my work is also the way I try to be a social change agent. Rather than heart work that I do on the side as a volunteer, as a community builder (though I know my way around a hammer and trowel, I mean this more in the sense of social sustainability than bricks and mortar) I've made it my business to place the creation of cooperative culture at the very center of my life. And the way I know that's a good choice for me is that my work regularly results in my getting up close and personal with my blind spots and human frailties—often in a spectacularly public way! I figure that when your service path coincides with your growth path it's a cosmic affirmation.
—Living in Interesting Times
I'm thankful for all the amazing opportunities there exist for doing good in the world at this time of flux. While today's global reality (peak oil, climate change, population pressures on water supplies, economic instability) translates into a general malaise of uncertainty and anxiety—and that's no fun, especially for those craving stability—it also creates openings for reexamination and experimentation where there were few before. We live in a time that's rife with possibilities. Though all seeds won't sprout and some fields will be overtaken by weeds, I find it an exhilarating time in which to be cultivating new culture.
I'm thankful for the amazing wealth of people who know and care about me, and who open up their hearts for me to be there for them in return. As John Donne succinctly pointed out four centuries ago, no man is an island, and I am buoyed by the archipelago of my myriad close relationships. This was poignantly brought home to me in July when Ma'ikwe was ready to throw in the towel on our marriage, and I struggled to come to grips with what my life would be like with the center blown out of it. Slowly, I realized that I would be fine. While my relationship with Ma'ikwe remains precious to me, I had a good life before her and all of the elements of that would remain if she left. I remembered that I am not an island and that even in emotional free fall I could expect my friends to be there to help break my fall.
I'm thankful for my two adult children, Ceilee and Jo, who both take responsibility for their own happiness and for their commitments. They know how to work hard, and how to take into account how their behavior affects those around them. Most of all, I'm thankful that we love each other, that we freely acknowledge that love, that we make time for one another, and that we enjoy each other's company. No sooner does one visit end than I am looking forward to the next.
I'm thankful for my four siblings, all of whom cultivate the scared garden of familial relations. Though we don't see each other often, we are there at times of need and celebration. Two months ago I visited my youngest sister in Toronto. Two months from now I'll see my brother in Fairhope AL. Blood ties are the long waves of relationship, where the currents are deepest and steadiest. This is not so much about a mind meld or an alignment of values. Rather, it's about a common history and the shared water of our earliest memories. It's recognizing and honoring bonds that is operates on a visceral level. I am thankful that we all know that.
I'm thankful for living in a community that has a core commitment to growing and processing its own food. It's not possible to eat any better than we do. Though I did not move to community because of food, it turns out that I love working with food and didn't know it! I am grateful that my community has a spiritual connection to raising and consuming organic food. It is integral to our symbiotic connection to our land, which we interact with on a daily basis. We feed our land and it feeds us, body and soul.
I'm thankful for a body and mind that still work pretty good at 64—which is a good thing given all that I ask of them. The older I get, the more I've lost friends and acquaintances who have had their health (or luck) run out. Increasingly, these people are younger than me and I have occasion to be thankful for the good cards I have been dealt. It is up to me to honor that gift by playing them well.
I'm thankful for being able to read and for the existence of more good pieces of writing than I will ever be able to get to in one lifetime. I'll never run out of good material to read, and I still buy books faster than I read them. Some of this is the chance to be exposed to new thinking. Some is enjoyment of a well-crafted story. Some is appreciation of word crafting (which is not the same thing as a good plot—J K Rowling is a terrific story teller, but a wooden wordsmith; Charles Dickens was superb at both; Ambrose Bierce was so trenchant and clever that he could make a dictionary good reading).
I'm thankful for the excuse to pause every three days and reflect on what's happening around me, and for the chance to practice my craft as a writer (striving ever to be more like Bierce, though perhaps less acerbic). I have tried at various times in my life to maintain a journal, but was never able to manifest sufficient discipline until I began this blog six years ago. While I have sometimes been successful with an epistolary approximation (when investing in a particular relationship at a distance), these would invariably peter out after some months.
In this format I have chanced upon just the right mix of public service and private inquiry to sustain my interest. Although my primary inspiration for starting this blog was public service, it's proven to be such a personal benefit that I would probably continue it even if no one read it—it's been that much fun and helpful in clarifying my thinking. Today, if someone casually asks how I've been, I can generally swamp their boat by simply giving them the URL to this blog.
Finally, I'm thankful for my favorite way to start the day (other than sex). I prefer French roast, brewed strong enough to put hair on your forehead, balanced with a generous glug of half and half, which neutralizes the acid while preserving the essential bitterness that I crave. It's my only non-negotiable when clients hire me to work with their group.
Where there is life there is coffee
Where there is coffee there is life
We all worship the brown bean
Body of the God Caffeine
Sunday, November 24, 2013
I'm in Las Vegas today, observing what Best Buy has dubbed "Blue Sunday" (which allows merchants to steal a five-day march on Black Friday, through the clever ruse of assigning an underutilized hue to the occasion and offering up some pump-priming sales to roust people off their couches and out of NFL-induced stupors to go shopping).
Does this shit work? I mean, do people buy more stuff just because today has a color? I reckon there's no better place to test this theory than my current location—America's iconic temple to materialism and excess.
As it happens, I'm not here to conduct market research, but to visit my daughter (Jo) and son-in-law (Peter). This is the caboose segment of a month-long networking odyssey that began on Halloween and included earlier stops in Ann Arbor MI and Portland OR—places that are decidedly bluer than Clark County NV (and where it's far more likely that you'll encounter crunchy granola, both as a breakfast offering and as a political genre).
Despite the obvious differences in climate—both in terms of weather and politics—I've experienced this trio of cities as more similar than you might think. Partly this is a meteorological anomaly; partly it's a matter of finding what you're looking for. In reflecting on the past month, I'm wondering how much I've simply found rain wherever I went, or I've made it.
As a professional facilitator, I warn groups that I am "agreement prejudiced," by which I mean that I'm ruthless when it comes to pointing out potential agreement in the room. The reason this is important is because we live in a culture that idolizes the rugged individual (think John Wayne, Ayn Rand, and James Bond) in contrast to identifying with the group (or the neighborhood, or the tribe). In service to that ideal we've overwhelmingly been conditioned to think first in terms of differences rather than common ground (because it is only through our uniqueness that we can be certain of our individual identities; when we agree with others we are not distinct).
As someone committed to the creation of cooperative culture (in contrast to the competitive culture that has always dominated the American sociological landscape), I have trained myself to look first for the ways in which situations are similar. Having worked hard to unlearn the knee-jerk orientation toward differences, I am often the first person in the room to see how different ideas can be bridged—essentially because there is a strong tendency to find what you're looking for, and I'm always looking for connections.
So how have I found Ann Arbor, Portland, and Las Vegas to be similar?
80% Chance of Precipitation
In each city I enjoyed more rainy days than dry. While there's nothing particularly noteworthy about encountering November rain in southeastern Michigan or in northwestern Oregon—two of the grey-sky capitals of the United States, it was eyebrow raising when that phenomenon continued in southern Nevada.
I was in Portland for a week. Despite sunny bookends on the Wednesday I arrived and the Wednesday I departed, it was drizzling each of the six days in between. It was breathtaking (on Wednesdays) to get glimpses of Mt Hood and Mt St Helens, and I count myself lucky to have enjoyed those sights at all.
On average, Portland gets nearly 40 inches of rain a year, with the heaviest months being November through January. So rain was to be expected there. In contrast, Las Vegas typically gets only 4.19 inches a year—a mere tenth of Portland 's bounty.
All together, 1.37 inches have fallen in the last 72 hours. While I understand that's just a good soaker in Missouri, here in the desert that represents a hefty one-third of Las Vegas' average annual rainfall. Break out the galoshes, Nellie!
With the historic average rainfall for November in Sin City at 0.36 inches, we've already quadrupled it since Thursday morning—with more rain forecast for next weekend (when residents may experience Black Sky Friday). In contrast, they had 0.01 inches in October (which means there was a moment last month when the sky more or less thought about raining… and then changed its mind). The next thing you know, they'll be planting corn in vacant lots, or raising catfish in drainage ditches.
When I walked through the Summerlin neighborhood Thursday morning (to deposit a couple of checks and buy a door bell buzzer for Jo & Peter), I had trouble slipping on the asphalt because of how water floats the oil residue that gradually accumulates on the road surface between rains. In Las Vegas, that film had been accumulating since September. Watching cars attempt to accelerate into merging traffic was a bit like watching hippos on ice skates—and about as safe. Fortunately, I didn't witness any accidents.
One of the oddities about Las Vegas is that it's only here because of the Hoover Dam (32 miles to the southeast), which supplies both cheap electricity and an abundance of water, siphoned off from the impounded Colorado River. From the perspective of natural systems, this is a totally unsustainable place for a city, where the metropolitan area has about 2 million sun-dried souls, representing a whopping 70% of the state total. Location notwithstanding, for this weekend there was abundant water in the desert, and I'll be able to tell people that I've seen it happen at least once.
80% Chance of Participation
To start with, all three states voted for Obama in 2008, which means there are strong progressive threads available in each location from which it's possible to weave cooperative cloth. I'm not saying that everyone is a Democrat or a Green. I'm saying that in all three places there are Cultural Creatives and I was happy to sit down with some of them in each city to discuss what kind of culture we might create.
In addition to presenting at community events in Ann Arbor (NASCO Institute, Nov 1-3) and Portland (Cooperative Communities & Sustainability Conference, Nov 15-17), I taught two classes at Ananda College as a guest lecturer, did four consulting gigs, and generally functioned as a rainmaker for cooperative networking.
I had conversations with potential donors in all three cities, multiple phone dates with reporters interested in intentional community, promotional conversations about facilitation training, web conferences and one-on-one chats over coffee with like-valued organizations and potential collaborators—all of which is on top of crafting reports, treading water with email traffic, skyping with Ma'ikwe, and enjoying meal time conversations with my various hosts.
Thus, one way or the other, in my life it's always raining. While there's no doubt I get wet a lot, you can't have life without water, so I say bring it on!
Friday, November 22, 2013
Groups are often sloppy when it comes to establishing norms around members giving critical feedback to one another. In fact, as a process consultant who has worked with perhaps 100 cooperative groups over the last 25 years, I've rarely encountered a group that has an explicit understanding about the responsibility of every group member to provide to every other group member a channel for hearing feedback about their behavior as a group member—and it's a huge problem.
When feedback channels get clogged, virtual sewage piles up, resulting in anaerobic dynamics. This is the ideal medium in which gossip bacteria multiply, leading to gaseous grumblings behind people's backs, the exhalation of which tends to foul the air. Peuw!
OK, let me frame this a bit tighter. First of all, not every reaction (thank god) needs to be processed through feedback. Often enough, the person with the reaction can let it go. Maybe they understand that their reactivity is more about them and has little or nothing to do with the other person. Maybe they're able to see that the stakes are low enough and their relationship with the other person is strong enough that they can accept the triggering dynamic as a trivial matter and move on. In any event, every fender bender does not require a police report.
Also note that I'm not talking about all behavior being subject to review—I'm only talking about behavior in the context of group functions. (Thus, you're probably not obligated to listen to someone's upset about how often you wear purple, or how distressed they are that you've named your ill-tempered rescue dog Hermione—which happens to be the same name as your favorite aunt. But you are, I think, on the hook for hearing their irritation about not having filled the tank of the group-owned pickup when you used it right before they did and they ran out of gas on the way to the recycling center.)
Further, I'm not suggesting that people need to be available to receive critical feedback on demand. There needs to be options (for instance, now or later; morning, afternoon, or evening; alone or with third party support; perhaps they'd like to see it in writing before discussing it). The prime directive here is what's most likely to land constructively (rather than destructively).
For many people, it's painful receiving critical feedback and they'd prefer to put it off until some in the next decade (if they could get away with it). Understandably, people tend to shy away from pain. But that's a bad idea.
Think about the analog with physical pain. If you step on a nail it's a damn good thing that you feel pain—which informs you that something is wrong with your foot. It's not about being happy that you're in pain; it's about being happy that you know you have a nail in your foot. Pain is an important—even essential— biofeedback loop. If you inadvertently put your hand in a flame, you burn your fingers, your hand hurts, and you pull your hand out of the fire. Whew.
If you're a diabetic, you may have nerve damage in your extremities, which could result in your stepping on a nail and not feeling anything (or fail to realize that your hand is burning). That's dangerous. Pain alerts you to do something about it. Despite how easily everyone can follow that physical example, it's amazing how many act as if they have emotional diabetes when doing something that's painful to others.
Cutting yourself off from their pain means the feedback channel is broken. It's important information to you that your words or actions have landed awkwardly and it's a poor bargain to impede or block that flow of information. Mind you, I'm not saying you're obliged to agree that you've done anything wrong or that you must change what you do, but if you interrupt the information reaching you then you don't have the chance to consider it. You may not know that your chocies are painful to others unless they tell you. Metaphorically, you won't know to pull your hand out of the fire or the nail out of your foot (or perhaps more aptly, to pull your foot out of your mouth).
Keep in mind that I'm not saying this is easy. Especially if the delivery of the feedback comes with a charge and you don't feel there's substance to the complaint. It's a double whammy if you feel unjustly accused and dumped on into the bargain—requiring near-saintly equanimity to respond with grace and empathy instead of with defensiveness or outrage.
But isn't it better to cultivate grace than diabetes?