Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Select Plus

This past week I achieved a status I never expected to reach: Select Plus with Amtrak.

What does this signify? For one thing, it means I've ridden the train a lot this year.

Here's how it works. For every dollar you spend on Amtrak travel you earn one Tier Qualifying Point (TQP). If you spend as much as $5000 on train tickets in a calendar year you will reach Select status for the following year. (Note: this is good only for yourself; money spent buying tickets for others does not accrue TQPs for you.)

As a consultant and community networker who prefers traveling by rail, I've been able to reach Select status a number of times. In addition to earning some coupons that way (good for upgrades, passes to first class lounges, and discounts on tickets) people who have Select status get a 25% bonus on all train travel expenditures. Thus, for every $400 spent on Amtrak travel, I earn 500 TQPs as a Select member.

To get to Select Plus status, however, you have to earn 10,000 TQPs in a calendar year, which seemed beyond the pale. I was able to grab the brass ring this time only by virtue of taking advantage of a relatively new credit card option.

Let me explain. For many years Amtrak has offered a credit card that earns train miles—much as other credit cards earn airline miles. To be clear, "train miles" are not TQPs. Train miles are merely "points" and can be traded in for tickets or upgrades, but that's a separate reckoning from TQPs. However, about three years ago Amtrak switched from Chase to Bank of America as the bank through which their credit card was offered and they created a new option: you could either get a no-fee credit card where every dollar run through it earned a point, or, for a $79 annual fee, you could get three points for every dollar spent on train travel, plus 1000 TQPs for every $5000 you ran through the card.

I paid the $79, and that was the key to reaching Select Plus.

Why is that big deal? Here are the highlights. During 2018 I'll get to enjoy:

• four one-class upgrades (from coach to business class)
• unlimited access to first class lounges
• access to United Club lounges at major airports
• 50% point bonus on Amtrak travel

While all of that is helpful, the thing I have my eye on most is access to first class lounges. As a mere Select traveler I got a couple passes a year, now I'll get it in every major city where I board or change trains—Chicago, Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Portland, Los Angeles, St Paul, New Orleans, Raleigh, and St Louis.

That means comfortable seats, wi-fi access, complimentary beverages, and free bag storage—all very appreciated by the weary traveler.

Further, it's relevant that I earn regular points at an accelerated rate. I've been stockpiling these against the day when Susan retires as church lady for St Paul's Episcopal in Duluth and she can occasionally travel with me. If I use my points for sleeper car accommodations she can ride with me in a roomette for no additional charge. Yippee! That's worth saving for.

All in all, it has been definitely worth the $79 per year.

P.S. My remaining train fantasy is to own my own private train car, replete with kitchen, bar/lounge, desk, and sleeping compartment. Hah! I should live so long.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

An Older White Man's Response

Over the last month this country has been going through a spate of revelations about men in power (including elected officials, Hollywood celebrities, captains of industry, spiritual leaders, you name it) being accused of having abused their positions of influence to pressure women into sexual relations. It's pretty disgusting.

As an older white guy, I have a number of thoughts about this. 

I. Tip of the Iceberg
As bad as the revelations have been so far—which are terrible—you can be sure that the total scope of what's happened is much worse than we know today. Most abuse never gets reported, or is hushed up when it does.

One of the more pathetic excuses being offered by Roy Moore and his apologists is that they do not find the allegations against him to be credible because the incidents happened almost four decades ago. Surely, they argue, occurrences that bad would have been reported right away. Huh? If they knew anything about the psychology of abuse, they'd appreciate how hard it is for the victim to come forward. There is no correlation between delay and authenticity.

On the positive side, each time a woman finds the courage to tell her horror story it gets a bit easier for other victims to speak up as well. Though I am not at all happy that abuse occurs, I think we need to shine a spotlight on it if we're going to make any significant cultural change. In this current surge of revelations, a number of brave women have been doing the hard work of speaking up, and that should be celebrated and supported.

II. A Person's Right to Their Sexuality
After more than 60 years on this planet I've come to understand that the breadth of human sexual orientation and turn-on is incredibly varied and complex. While I believe that, in the ideal, everyone should have the freedom to express sexual desire (to extend an invitation) whenever they want, I think that's incredibly dangerous unless there is a concomitant commitment to responding respectfully when invitations are declined. If you can't hear "no," don't ask the question.

While I'm generally fine with individuals exploring auto-eroticism to their heart's content*, if you're wanting to interact sexually with others then you need their willing participation (for more about coercion see Point III below). As easy as it is to write that, however, there are a number of complications that need to be recognized.

Sexual abuse is mainly the misuse of power to gain sexual favors. If the power imbalance among potential partners is too great, how can you be sure you have consent (as opposed to acquiesence)?

Let me lay out four versions of this:

•  If the age differential is too great
I know an intentional community that developed a guideline for teenagers that they needed to be within two years of each other for sexual contact to be acceptable (above and beyond mutual consent). For adults I've heard it proposed that sexual contact be considered inappropriate unless the younger person is at least six years older than half the age of the older one.

Frankly, I don't know where the line is with respect to age differential, but there is one, and it's a dynamic to be reckoned with.

•  If there is an implied threat to safety, or possible retribution (say loss of a job, or a withheld promotion)
Suppose the invitation comes from a bodybuilder who is known to be prone to anger. Or from your boss, and you need the job, or covet a special assignment. Even though you want to say "no," you might hesitate.

And it can be even worse than that. If the person grew up in an abusive family (perhaps where the father beat his wife and kids), they may be sensitized to the danger of a male losing his temper, and may overreact to a raised voice because it triggers bad memories. I'm not saying it's the man's responsibility to know that ahead of time, but you can commit to paying attention to how your words and tone are landing, and making appropriate adjustments.

•  If the invitation comes from a guardian or protector
If you receive a sexual invitation from your father, your minister, a police officer, or district attorney (shades of Roy Moore)—someone you've been taught to expect safety from, it can be very tricky ground to navigate.

•  If the invitee does not have the capacity to give informed consent
It's inappropriate to have sexual relations with partners who are not able to respond thoughtfully to a sexual invitation due to incapacitation (think of Bill Cosby), or who do not have the cognitive ability to understand what's being asked.

For all of these reasons, it's important to develop clear norms about what kinds of sexual invitation are appropriate to extend.

* Even with masturbation there should be limits. I believe it's abusive, for instance, if you're pressuring others to watch (a la Louis CK). Also, I'm aware of an instance where a man tried to heighten his pleasure through near-strangulation and failed to stop in time. His accidental death left an incredible mess for others to clean up. The standard, I believe, should be sensitivity to how your self-focused act may place others in an awkward or compromised situation.

III. A Person's Right to Freedom from CoercionIf a sexual invitation places the recipient in a dilemma—where they don't feel safe to decline, or they anticipate having to pay a price for "no"—that's abuse. It is not enough that the powerful person did not mean to be coercive. It is incumbent on them to look ahead of the curve, at how their invitation may be hard for the recipient to handle.

In essence, the more power you have, the more circumspect you should be about extending sexual invitations, or even being available for sexual liaisons invited by the person with less power (because of the potential for the dynamic being misunderstood by observers if, say, the secretary seduces the boss, or the student their instructor).

IV. What's a Reasonable Strategy to Get from Where We Are to Where We Want to Be?
If we envision a world in which men and women and are equally powerful, does it make sense to flip privilege—where we preferentially support women being more aggressive than men—in order to close the gap more quickly? And if so, for how long? 

Sandra Day O'Connor had to wrestle with this question when, as a Supreme Court Justice, she had to lay out guidance in support of affirmative action as a legally defensible tactic in the battle to eradicate racial inequality. She chose 20 years.

While I have no idea how long it will take to dismantle male privilege (or even if it's possible in this day of alt-right Neanderthal politics and throwback gender roles), I am sympathetic to the argument that women deserve to be treated better then men, at least for a while, in order to counterbalance the negative impact of a lifetime of disadvantage.

In the world of intentional communities, where I have spent most of my adult life, there is an important distinction between groups that have a spiritual focus, and ones that do not. Among secular groups there is a strong commitment to creating feminist culture (by which I mean gender blind, not pro-female). However, spiritual groups can be all over the map when it comes to gender: anything from Old Testament patriarchy to New Age there-is-the-divine-in-all-of-us. 

As my experience is rooted in the secular side, my work is slanted toward creating feminist culture. As an older, college-educated, Protestant, heterosexual, able-bodied, articulate white man, I am oozing with privilege, which means I'm susceptible to misunderstanding (or being oblivious to) how the field is slanted in my direction. As someone who has been active in the Communities Movement I've always understood that my privilege was going to be scrutinized under a microscope. 

I'm OK with that. I don't want to be the recipient of unearned advantages, and I'd like to help develop models of appropriate male behavior—even though I'm still in the process of figuring out what those are.

V. How Does This Impact Me Personally?
The intersection between my societal objective (working toward a feminist culture) and my own sexuality has been very challenging to integrate. Once I became aware of the pervasiveness of male abuse, the societal double standard for sexual exploration by men and by women (if a man does it he's "sowing wild oats"; if a woman does it she's a slut), and the phenomenon of date rape, it gave me pause. 

I became suspicious of sexual attraction. What was inherent, and what had I been conditioned to? What is my birthright as a human being, and what is a brute reptilian urge broadly tolerated under the permissive shibboleth of boys will be boys? Not wanting to be that guy, I became sexually buttoned down in response.

Even though I came of age just as the fires of the Sexual Revolution were burning brightly (I entered college in 1967, right after spending the Summer of Love touring Europe), I resolved to proceed with caution. I was deliberate about romantic liaisons, and never slept with a woman on a first date. I wanted to make sure she was interested as well, and didn't feel pressured into sex.

Being aware of how men misuse their power (there is nothing in general about today's news that is revelatory to me—men have been acting as predatory jerks for a very long time) to gain sexual access to women, I made a commitment to do my best to not be part of the problem. The phrase "casual sex" became oxymoronic for me. I was either going to be thoughtful and emotionally grounded, or it wasn't going to happen.

Now fast forward through those awkward early years to a time in my 40s when another piece to the puzzle became clear. I was making love with my partner one night when something triggered an intensely sad memory for her and she lost all desire to continue. As the memory wasn't connected with me, and she felt badly about asking me to stop mid stride, she suggested that I simply finish without her. That is, she invited me to engage with her physically while her mind and psyche were elsewhere.

I was appalled. While I understood that her offer was well intended, I could not imagine how I could continue on my own. Sex by this time had become for me an inextricable union of energies, something my partner and I wove afresh together on each occasion. It was not something either party mailed in. Thus, as soon as she became sad, I became detumescent. 

Later, I pondered that exchange more deeply. While I couldn't imagine forging ahead with intercourse when my partner had lost interest, she had expected me, as a man, to either prefer to continue (once aroused), or perhaps be unable to stop. I realize, of course, that some men act that way, but are there men who really can't stop? I didn't understand.

Years later, while still with the same partner, I noticed that my erections were becoming unreliable. There is one time in particular that stands out because my partner wanted intercourse and I was not able to deliver. While it was frustrating and somewhat embarrassing for me, she was angry. She thought I was withholding my erection, like it was something I could control at will. What an interesting juxtaposition!

In the first instance she interacted with me as if I my erection signaled manifest destiny, where intercourse was not be be denied; in the second she expected me to be able to produce an erection on demand. Maybe other men are different, but my relationship with my penis did not match her expectations on either occasion. As I see it, men always have choices about their actions, though they may not always have erections.

Over the last 20 years I've experienced a steady decline in the frequency and duration of my erections. While this varies from individual to individual, it is a normal consequence of male aging, and I accept that. Nonetheless, I wonder how much of my experience is physiological, and how much is psychological. 

I raise this question because I suspect there may be a link between my declining erections and the deep questions I have about where desire may lead. (If I were fully open to it would I be at risk of unleashing passion that could result in abuse?) It seems reasonable to me that I may literally be embodying my ambivalence.

This question is all the more up for me (so to speak) in that I've become aware over the years (partly through intense work with a female psychologist) that it is relatively common for some women, at least at times, to want to be "taken" in the height of passion. That there is a natural tendency in heterosexual relationships for the man to be directive and the woman to be receptive. Oh boy, talk about playing with fire!

Having learned as a young man that there may be a monster behind the door of my unbridled sexuality (in service to which all manner of atrocities have been committed), I've worked hard to keep that door locked. Thus, on those occasions when an intimate partner has knocked on the door, asking me to open up, I've been scared to the point of paralysis of what I'll find. 

What a complicated journey! Maybe I'll live long enough to figure it out.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Keeping Busy at Home

Winter arrived in a hurry in Duluth. When I left for my last trip Oct 17, there was still plenty of color in the trees and there had not yet been a killing frost. When I returned home Nov 3, we were looking at 10 days without daily temperatures appreciably poking their collective heads above freezing. Yikes!

Cold weather is a good time to sit by the fireplace and reflect. As a senior citizen (my odometer rolled over to 68 recently), I sometimes wonder about how best to put my knowledge to use. That means looking for the intersection of what valuable things I think I've learned in life, and what I think people might be interested in learning from me—which are not necessarily the same thing.

Even as I've scaled back my workload since retiring as FIC's administrator at the end of 2015—I continue my work as a cooperative group process consultant and facilitation trainer, but that's only half time—I remain keenly interested in trying to make a positive difference in the world.

Since regaining much of my health following a stem cell transplant in July 2016 (to treat multiple myeloma), I have enjoyed paid work (and had sufficient recovery to deliver quality service) every month since then excepting last June (which is often a time when communitarians take vacation and are not looking to hire consultants). That said, I have no travel scheduled this month. What gives? It turns out that the answer is other opportunities.

While I haven't been hired to visit a struggling group to help them get out of the ditch, nor do I have a facilitation training lined up, I've been asked to do all of the following, preferably before Thanksgiving:

•  Author 4-5 blogs for the FIC, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary by posting a remembrance once per day all month. (I've done three; two to go.)

•  Review a fundraising letter for a community hoping to replace an $85,000 loan from ex-members that's being called. They have until the end of the year.

•  Continue work as an arbitrator/facilitator for a longstanding group that's trying to negotiate an amicable separation between one couple and the four other members, where there have been serious breaches of trust, and each side feels underappreciated and misunderstood by the other. About once every week or two I am called upon to put together a progress report as we inch our way forward.

•  Draft an assessment of a community that is struggling with integrating new members. It has largely turned into a tug-of-war and relationships have gotten seriously frayed. I'm not sure if it can be turned around before there's a mass exodus, but I have to try.

•  Write an article about consensus for the third edition of The Change Handbook.

•  Craft a testimonial for a long-time member of a client group in Colorado that I've known since 2004. They're celebrating his contributions and I've been asked to add a flower to the bouquet.

•  Conduct regular phone consulting with a friend in Seattle who's hip deep in developing a multi-racial grassroots restaurant and events facility in an urban neighborhood that's struggling to maintain its identity in the face of gentrification. It's righteous work, but fraught with complications.

So while I may not be hired to hit the road this month, there's no moss growing on me (or my keyboard).

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Dia de los Muertos 2017

Today is All Saints Day. It is also the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, when the veil between the temporal and the spirit world is said to be thinnest. In Mexico this is a time to remember dear ones who have recently departed. Notably, it is treated there as a time of celebration. It is neither somber nor macabre. Gravestones are spruced up and altars are festooned in bright colors and momentos. Favorite foods are prepared. 

I am especially drawn to this holiday because it addresses a societal need. Overwhelmingly I experience our culture as ritual starved, and I think we have an unhealthy out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude toward death. Having recently experienced a long walkabout near the edge of death myself (courtesy of multiple myeloma), I have particular zest for pausing, to note those who passed over the edge since this date a year ago. 

I started this tradition in 2013, and today I am remembering two souls: Kimchi Rylander and Chuck Marsh. Oddly enough, they were both long-term members of Earthaven, an ecovillage in Black Mountain NC that was founded in 1994, and which I've had occasion to visit from time to time. While it's hard whenever you lose an elder, this year they lost two and are doubly sheathed in black crepe.

While I was not especially close to either of them, they were both fellow travelers in my field of passion—the arcane world of community networking.

Kimchi Rylander  
She died Feb 16, at age 55, from breast cancer and complications from diabetes.

I knew Kimchi in two ways. First, as someone who, from time to time, represented her community at the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference (which was a regular whistle stop on my event circuit for two decades). And second, as a point of light and a ray of hope at home. She was an organizer and a lubricant in a community that suffered more than its share of sticky dynamics and strong personalities. 

Earthaven has been a community that has drawn to itself a wealth of people with a burning desire to be a model of sustainability, but everyone's vision of how best to accomplish that was not always aligned and the community has frequently struggled to get all the horses pulling in the same direction. Whenever the neighing turned to naying, Kimchi would be one of the ones to hold the heart.

Blessed are they who pour oil on troubled waters.

Thank you, Kimchi.

Chuck Marsh 
He died Aug 27, at age 65 (or thereabouts), from pancreatic cancer.

Chuck was a pioneer in ecological landscape design and he consulted and educated on edible landscaping, biological economics, and Permaculture Design. Earthaven was a great fit for Chuck and he devoted the latter third of his life to making it a home base for his work in the world. 

I always think of him with a scarf tied rakishly around his neck and with a puckish grin on his face.

Chuck had over 35 years of experience working with the plants, soil, water, climate and people of North Carolina to design and install place appropriate, productive, and sustainable home and commercial landscapes. 

Can we ever have too many people dedicated to designing and creating beautiful, productive, resource conserving landscapes that celebrate and deepen our connection to the natural world?

Thank you, Chuck.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Group Works: Iteration

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention 2. Context 3. Relationship 4. Flow 5. Creativity 6. Perspective 7. Modeling 8. Inquiry & Synthesis 9. Faith

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The sixth pattern in this category is labeled Iteration. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:

Try it a second time, even a third. Outcomes of one round of activity or conversation inform the next, deepening, expanding, and generating new understandings and possibilities. For more powerful effect, repeat a process multiple times in the moment, or revisit at a later time.

This pattern is a tricky one. The first thing that occurred to me is this counterpoint quote, widely attributed to Albert Einstein: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."

With that cautionary note in hand, where is the gold in Iteration? There can be an important—though sometimes subtle—difference between incremental gain and no gain. The importance of this pattern lies in the fact that groups frequently are unable to tie up a topic with a ribbon and bow in one pass. If participants think in terms of all or nothing (only completion will be deemed a success), then they may miss substantive gains on the road to completion. 

In my experience it is common for groups to take multiple meetings to complete deliberations on complex topics, and it is crucial that the group (either through savvy facilitation or the diligence of the topic's sponsors) recognize partial product that's achieved along the way (otherwise that ground will just have to be replowed, which is bad on morale). Think of it as scaffolding en route to completion; subsequent meetings should start where the prior one left off—not back at the beginning each time.

Groups should always go into meetings expecting progress to be made (and facilitators should never allow a meeting to end without summarizing the product, helping to ground the gains, lest they evaporate in a cloud of vagueness). That said, some meetings yield more high-grade ore than others, and occasionally it takes some careful discernment to identify the product.

BTW, "product" can be many things. In addition to solutions or agreements, progress can include:
•  Resolving tensions in connection with the issue, allowing people to hear one another better (clearing the air)
•  Determining who else needs to be brought into the conversation (and who will extend the invitation)
•  Getting clear on how prior agreements and common values impact the current discussion
•  Defining questions
•  Creating a road map for exploring the topic thoroughly (identifying subtopics and the order in which they'll be engaged)  
•  Striking an ad hoc committee to shepherd the issue 
•  Assigning research
•  Establishing deadlines for relevant work to be done outside of session

What's more, Iteration can show up in multiple ways:

A. Asking the same question in the same way
You might make this choice in different meetings, because the attendance has shifted and you want to hear what the new people have to say. Or you may do it back-to-back in the same meeting, but with the facilitator probing more deeply into the meaning of the responses.

B. Exploring the same aspect of the issue but with a different focusing question
Listening to one round of answers may suggest a potent follow-up question (or two) that uncovers new veins of insight. As long as you're gaining depth and understanding with successive rounds, why stop?

C. Exploring the same aspect of the issue but with a different format
Often enough, the responses change with the format—both what is contributed and who voices it. People who are quiet or uncertain with one approach may open up and become suddenly eloquent under a different one. Note: no single approach works best all the time, so beware of claims made for a particular format as the blue ribbon best for all occasions.
Going back to Einstein, it is imperative to have a clear idea why iteration will be constructive—why going to the well again (in any of the above senses) will yield new results and enhance your grasp of the issue or how best to proceed. You should not repeat an exercise simply because you can't think of what else to do and this Group Works card admonished you to do it.

Note that the image that accompanies this card is of a spiral staircase. Iteration works if it's an upward spiral. If you're just going around in circles (aka spinning your wheels), that's not the time to hit play-repeat. Groups (and facilitators) should be following their noses (on the scent for product), not slavishly following a formula.

Monday, October 16, 2017

How Intentional Communities May Save the World

At the end of last month I had an opportunity to give a talk at Carleton College in Northfield MN. I'm an alumnus there and was on campus as a guest speaker for a freshmen course on Utopias. The philosophy professor who brought me in offered me a chance to give a talk during the noon hour that would be open to all students. I accepted, and today's blog is the essence of my presentation, Sept 29.

Fifty years ago this fall I had just arrived on campus as a Carleton freshman. Those were days of foment and change. Among other things, they were the last days of in loco parentis. My first year men were allowed on women’s dorm floors from 2-4 pm on Tuesday; women had reciprocal privileges on Thursday afternoons. The door was supposed to be open at least six inches and three feet were supposed to be on the floor at all times. By the time I was a senior I was a resident assistant on a coed dorm floor. All efforts by the college to keep men and women physically separated from their animal urges were abandoned.

During my tenure, students were not allowed to have cars, everyone lived on campus, and the winters were long and cold—this was back before climate change, and Al Gore had not yet invented the internet. 

Having been raised in the Father-Knows-Best Republican suburbs of Chicago, campus life brought me face to face with a number of potent realities for the first time, including institutional racism and the early days of feminism. There were riots on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention. Vietnam was raging. Kent State happened in 1970. That same spring I got arrested protesting at a draft induction center in St Paul—along with scores of my fellow students and the college chaplain. I received a lottery number and prepared to apply for a CO status if I got drafted after graduation. 

Cooperation as the Obverse of Competition 
In the classroom, I took an introduction to sociology course in which I learned that cooperation is the opposite of competition. While that caught my attention right away, I had no idea how central that revelation was to become in my life. Bookmark that insight. I’ll come back to it later.

I loved my Carleton years, where I experienced a combination of stimulation and support that fostered both inquiry and personal growth.

When I graduated (1971) I wanted to make a difference in the world, and took a job with the federal government in DC, to see if that was the right stage on which to apply myself—in the belly of the beast. Working for the US Dept of Transportation, one day I met the person who was the secretary of the administrative assistant for the Assistant Secretary for Administration. When I simultaneously realized both how funny that was and that I knew what it meant, it occurred to me that I might have been in Washington too long.

So, at the advanced age of 23, I retired from the M-F 9-5 world—which, incidentally, I never returned to—and rebooted my post-college life, beginning with a different question: instead of "what would I do?" I asked "who do I want to do it with?" I was beginning to understand the primacy of relationships in the pursuit of happiness. I wanted the milieu I tasted at Carleton but I didn’t want to go back to school to get it. It was at that point that I stumbled onto the arcane world of intentional community: groups of people living together on the basis of explicit common values. This, I thought, might be what I was looking for. And it was. Not as an escape from mainstream society, but as a base of operations.

I was part of two couples (three of whom were Carls) who founded Sandhill Farm in 1974. Located in the rural, northeast corner of Missouri, we pooled our income and dedicated ourselves to organic food production, land stewardship, and right livelihood. I lived there happily for 40 years.

In 1979 I became restless with an exclusive focus on Sandhill, and started looking beyond the property lines to expand my locus of attention. While I considered community living to be a political act (not escapism), I wanted to expand my field of operations. With that in mind I got involved in community networking, promoting dialog and collaboration among sister communities. At first I did this via Sandhill joining the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (in 1980) and my serving as a delegate. Seven years later I helped start the Fellowship for Intentional Community, a clearinghouse of information about communities of all stripes with a special emphasis on North America. 

Also in 1987 I launched a career as a process consultant working with cooperative groups, helping them to successfully weather internal tensions and to develop effective structures. Although I no longer live at Sandhill (I left in 2014), I continue my consulting work and in the last three decades I’ve stepped into the fire to work with more than 100 groups across the continent. Over time I’ve become an expert in cooperative group dynamics. 

Why Does This Matter? 
The world of intentional community is small and not widely known. FIC figures there are roughly 100,000 people in the US who live in some form of self-identified intentional community—groups who willingly wear that label. In a country of 325 million that’s less than 0.03%. While the number of communities is growing, it's statistically insignificant. Do I think it’s the wave of the future? No. It’s too radical. So what’s the point? 

If you ask people if they have as much community in their life as they want—without defining what community means—I figure you might get 100 million people saying they’d like more than they have. There are that many who will tell you that they experienced a greater sense of neighborhood and belonging when they grew up than they have today. That’s three orders of magnitude larger. Now we're talking impact. What does intentional community have to offer those 100 million people?

Let’s go back to that point I made earlier about cooperation being the opposite of competition. 

I Versus We 
In any society there is a dynamic tension between how much individuals are acculturated to identify with self, and how much with society (or neighborhood, village, or tribe). When you take a step back and examine contemporary US culture from an anthropological perspective, I think you can make the case that there has never been a time in human history when the focus on the individual was more ascendant. 

In a competitive culture—which is unquestionably what we have in the US—the "I" focus is constantly being reinforced. So what? Consider what happens when you're in a conversation and you agree with half of what someone says and disagree with the other half.

For almost everyone, their first response is "But… " Even though you could just as legitimately start by acknowledging the partial agreement, that's rarely what happens—because our cultural imperative is to identify how we are unique, or at least distinct from others. When we agree, we don't establish differentiation.

This tendency has a profound impact on the atmosphere in which the conversation proceeds. If the  competitive environment prevails, you're essentially hoping that a fair fight will produce the best result—the strongest ideas will survive. If however you reverse this, and start by acknowledging the common ground, you can establish a cooperative container, where everyone is on the same team and differences can be encouraged for their potential of offering hybrid vigor. This may sound like a simple trick, but it's radically different.

In competition, there is a tug-of-war, where different views are in ridden into battle to see which prevails. In cooperation, everyone is in the same boat trying to successfully navigate a stream of different ideas. While the currents may be treacherous, and there may be different ideas about the best course, the people are trying to pull together.

One way to understand the impulse to experiment with intentional community is a desire to purposely shift one's location on the I—we spectrum more toward the "we" end. The trade-off is you get better connection and support, in exchange for relinquishing some control and autonomy. When people report that they want more community in their life, they are, in effect, saying that they’re jonesing for a greater sense of belonging. 

Now let’s look at two main ways that intentional community is pioneering critical work that addresses current societal challenges: 

I. Resource consumption 
There are about 7.5 billion in the world today and that number is rising. By any sane measure we are running out of resources and it is flat impossible for all the people in the world to consume resources at the current US rate. Should we just thank our lucky stars and hope to hold on, or try to do something equitable about it? I prefer the latter.

One of the ways that intentional communities are important to the wider society is that they are R&D centers for radical sharing. What if we challenge the notion that quality of life equates with throughput and acquisition material goods—the concept that the person who has the most stuff when they die wins? I realize it sounds fairly shallow when I state it that crudely, yet that’s how most people live their lives.

Here are four leverage points on how to shift this that are being actively modeled by intentional community:

A. Economies of scale
There is a lot that can be done to minimize drudgery and liberate time. If seven households living near each other agreed that they’d each cook one night a week for all seven, think how much time that would free up! It does not take anywhere near seven times as long to cook for seven times as many people. Yet mostly households cook alone every night. While cooking for only your own household gives you maximum control over menu, who wants to cook and clean up every night if there was a non-exploitative way to slash that by 80 percent? Even doing this just some of the time could make a big difference.

When I lived at Sandhill (where meals were prepared for members every night) it turned out that it was my turn to cook about once a week. Not only was that more efficient, but I truly enjoyed cooking at that frequency. If I had to do it every night, however, it would suck the air out of my happy balloon.

B. No prostitution
What value would you place on an integrated life, where work, school, home, and place of worship are in one location, aligned with your values? There’s a constant psychic drain that people experience when a core aspect of their life is out of alignment with what they believe in, yet almost everyone suffers from this to some degree. Think how common it is for people to either dislike what they do to earn a living, or are unhappy with where they live—or are happy with both but accept a brutal commute as the price to have them.

While it's not easy to quantify this cost, it’s expensive. To what extent do you think a person's long-term health is impacted adversely by having major aspects of their life unaligned with core values? I think it's pretty damn big.


C. Substituting access for ownership
The essential model our society offers for achieving success is ownership. But is that actually necessary? Isn't access to things a reasonable substitute for ownership? How many of us need to own our own lawnmower, table saw, or extension ladder? How about your own car? 

I lived for a couple years at Dancing Rabbit, an ecovillage of about 45 adults that is trying to showcase the possibilities for living a high-quality life on drastically fewer resources. In line with that mission members agree to not operate private vehicles. Instead, the community runs a car co-op to meet members' needs. With some sophisticated scheduling and a willingness to share rides with others, they have been able to provide a vehicle to meet 98 percent of members needs to go to a certain town on a certain day with a fleet of three cars and a pickup.

Think about that. Their ratio of adults to vehicles is greater than 10:1. By way of contrast, in 2015, the ratio of licensed drivers to licensed vehicles in the US was 218 million to 263 million, a ratio of 5:6. What's wrong with this picture? It's apparent that the overwhelming majority of people in this country blandly accept that they "need" their own car (some apparently "need" two!), even though it sits idle the vast majority of the time. This represents an incredibly wasteful investment for the sake of convenience.

What could be freed up if you weren't chasing the dollars needed to buy, operate, service, insure, and house your own private car(s)? If Dancing Rabbit adults were operating vehicles at the US average they'd have a fleet of 54. That catches people's attention.

To be sure, sharing resources means there are some additional challenges. For one, there can be scheduling issues, when two or more people want to use a jointly owned asset at the same time. You have come up with a reasonable and fair way to settle who gets to use a thing when there is more demand than availability.

For two, there can be tension around how common assets are maintained. When everyone owns thing, there can be a tendency for no one to maintain it. Tragedy of the commons. Even if maintenance expectations are clearly spelled out, it's likely that people will vary significantly in how diligently they apply themselves to those standards of care—the end result of which is someone can discover at 4:30 am that the community car they've been assigned does not have enough gas in it to make it to the train station 60 miles away (which actually happened to me once).

So there are definitely kinks to work out. Yet, in return, there are 50 fewer cars on the road. Not a bad trade.

D. Redefining security in terms of relationships
Until the advent of cities—a relatively modern human phenomenon—humans mainly aggregated in tribes or villages. In that context, your fellow humans would be there for you in time of need. Security was not about bank accounts or insurance; it was about relationships.

In community, people are trying to recreate this safety net of relationships. The pool needs to be large enough that you can be reasonably secure from too many needing support at the same time, or from the burden of care falling too heavily on the shoulders of too few (strength in numbers), yet not so large that people don't know one another, and the interpersonal bonds are too dilute.

This is a huge lever in that it allows people to release the need to accumulate assets against the potentials of old age or compromised health. Think how freeing this could be! If you needed fewer dollars to make your life work, it would give you a wider choice of employment, because you could trade off lower compensation in exchange for a better values match.

II. Problem solving 
Now let’s go back to the I—we spectrum, and the strong tendency in contemporary culture to focus first on disagreement—on how we are different from others. This has a profound impact on how people solve problems.

In the mainstream culture people work to aggregate enough power (or enough votes) to win. In cooperative culture, the strategy is to make sure that there’s a legitimate opportunity for all voices to be heard and then to collectively labor to find the solution that best balances the factors and interests: no one goes forward until all go forward. In the former we come to meetings hoping to change other people’s minds (so that our idea will prevail). In the latter we come to meetings hoping that our minds will be changed (because the ideas of others may enhance our thinking, from which the whole will benefit).

And it’s more than that. Think about how dehumanizing and stultifying it is that the wider culture operates as if all human input can be neatly translated into ideation, allowing little or no room for emotional and intuitive input—which are parts of our birthright as a species. Much of my group consulting requires me to work constructively with conflict, where emotional reactivity is a central component. We have little facility with this in the wider culture and we desperately need a vocabulary and orientation that allows us to welcome passion and spirit into our work.

The power of these differences can hardly be more compelling when one contemplates the current incivility and polarization in current politics, where polemics and vilification have replaced dialog and mutual respect. Greater competition is not the answer. Neither is a President who is knee-jerk counter puncher. We need a paradigm shift.

Intentional communities are important to contemporary society—not because they will become a dominant lifestyle—but because they are the R&D centers where we are unlearning competitive conditioning, and figuring out how to cooperate instead. The gleanings from the intentional community experience can be exported into schools, churches, neighborhoods, and workplaces—wherever people ache for more community and sense of connection—and that’s why it may save the world.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reflections on Las Vegas

I woke up this past Monday to the horrific news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas Sunday evening, Oct 1. After listening to the sobering news accounts I sent an email inquiry to my adult children, Ceilee and Jo, both of whom live in Vegas:

"Susan and I are visiting old college friends (Peg & Caesar Sweitzer) in Alma CO right now and watching TV coverage of the horrific shooting in Las Vegas last night. While I realize that it’s highly unlikely that either of you were attending the country and western concert where the gunman was targeting the audience, I can’t help but think about you both and the incredible sense of violation and madness that this represents.

"I recall being in Denver right after the Columbine shooting in 1999 and how somber the mood was then. It’s so hard to understand why things like this happen.

"Please send me a note when you can. (Susan got the text from Jo letting us know that you all are OK, so I already have that most important fact.)"

Jo replied that day:
We are fine. I honestly think that the impact is stronger for the tourism industry than it is for any locals who don't interact with the Strip. 

I can see the location where it happened from my office windows but it just looks the same as any other day. Facebook is full of opinions and condolences but the truth is this is the world we live in. We made our bed and now some of us have to lie six feet under in it. The best thing I can do is stay out of the way of the pros who are trying to do their job to get this mess cleaned up and investigated. I already donated blood so I can't do that again for a while. 

It is sad, but I've been feeling this way for about a year now so this doesn't seem any worse than it's been. Sure 58 people died here last night but another hundred will die from gun violence across the country today, and tomorrow and the next day. Not to mention the hundreds in Mexico City from the earthquake, Puerto Rico, TX, & FL from the hurricanes, South Africa and the Pacific Northwest from the fires, North Korea from the human rights violations etc.

The world is a place of ongoing tragedy, great joy, and beauty. It's just how much we choose to see of each on any given day. 

What a complex response I had to this reply! 

I. We Live in a World of Incredible Paradox
Jo is right.  

At night I dependably get angry listening to the PBS News Hour as Judy Woodruff guides us through Trump's latest missteps and mindless provocations. Each morning I laugh when Lucie (our nine-year-old rescue dog—part black lab; part collie) jumps up on the bed and licks me awake. 

Once a month I travel cross country to work with cooperative groups in struggle, putting out fires and offering hope as best I can. In contrast, when I'm home I take time to cook delicious food and enjoy companionship with Susan and company. I worry about the future of humanity, yet take pleasure in a reading books at a rate of one per week, doing the daily NY Times crossword, and playing duplicate bridge on Mondays and Wednesdays. Life is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, it's important to me that I'm trying to make a positive difference in the world, attempting to lead an aware life. On the other hand, it will do me and those around me no good if I'm somber all the time and bathed in constant sorrow. The trick of life is to feel the pain yet not let it swamp your boat. To be able to laugh in a world going to hell in a handcart.

II. Las Vegas Itself is a Paradox
Both my community-raised kids now call Las Vegas home. After having been raised on a communal farm dedicated to sustainable living, they now happily live in a city that's about as unsustainable as you can imagine, artificially supported by inexpensive electricity and water hijacked from the Colorado River—both courtesy of the Hoover Dam. Before the dam Las Vegas was just a sleepy village of about 5,000 people, a modest water-stop oasis on the route to Los Angeles. 

Work started on the dam in 1931—it represented a major Depression-era public works project, employing thousands over the course of four years. Not coincidentally, the first casino was licensed in 1931 as well, starting Las Vegas down a path from which it would be forever different. Today it has population of over 1 million, and growing.

It is an aggregation of modest, earth-toned neighborhoods, dotted with gated enclaves of starter mansions, radiating out from the glitzy, circus-like atmosphere of The Strip— which is a round-the-clock paean to Mammon and Materialism—all improbably plunked in the midst of a surrounding desert of breathtaking natural beauty. Go figure.

III. Pervasive Violence
I have devoted most of my adult life to creating alternatives to violence; to promoting cooperative culture. As I mentioned above, I earn a living traveling into harm's way, in an effort help groups better navigate the shoal waters of group dynamics. One of the key qualities that I bring to my work is the ability to feel deeply into an upset person's reality—to see things through their eyes, and to articulate the meaning that has for them. From that emotional bedrock I've found that it's often possible to bridge chasms that otherwise appear to be too deep, too far, or too triggering.

In that context it is both humbling and frightening to realize how hard it is to imagine being Stephen Paddock. How did he get to the state of mind where he could purposefully spray bullets into a crowd of music lovers? I work with angry and frightened people all the time, yet occasionally I am unable to bridge to someone. In particular I am susceptible to falling short when it comes to imagining the attraction of violence. 

There is no doubt that it is part of the human psyche, yet it is a dark door that is hard for me to open. I have trouble accessing the capacity for murder, rape, and dehumanization, and I'm not sure what meaning this inability has. I'm not sure I want to be able to open that door. What monster in me may lurk behind it? What might I be unchaining? Scary stuff.

Even as I took in the horror of Sunday's shooting, Jo's note reminded me of how we have all become inured to everyday violence that is parceled out in smaller doses, as well as the numbing onslaught of natural disasters (the severity and frequency of which have undoubtedly been amped up by humans unmindfully monkeying with the planet's climate). I was punched in the gut by Jo's reminder that nearly 100 people are killed by gun violence in the US daily. Sunday's massacre was just a modest spike in a bad trend—not the atrocious anomaly we wish it were.

And the Republicans want to ease restrictions on gun control, allowing people to carry concealed weapons across state lines, making it easier to buy silencers, and eliminating or easing background checks for mental instability and criminal records among prospective gun buyers. This makes us safer? Yikes! By what standard does this pass for thinking?  

I am completely baffled by people who believe that an aggressive response to violence will eliminate it. I have never seen that work.  

IV. Parental Pride
Finally, there is also joy for me in Jo's response, which was thoughtful, heartfelt, multifaceted, existential, practical, and pithy (all in four paragraphs).
My daughter is 30 years old and it makes me proud to see that she has matured to the point of feeling the pain around her yet not letting it swamp her boat. Isn't that the best we can hope for our children? Or for each other?