Friday, May 30, 2008

Entering the Rapids

One of my favorite recreational pasttimes is wilderness canoeing. Over the course of the last 50 years I’ve spent—in aggregate—about one year in a canoe. Mostly in Canada (which has more land than the US and only one-tenth the population, and therefore much more wilderness).

For the most part my experience has been lake canoeing (which means that wind is far more a determinant of progress than current). That said, it’s not unusual for two lakes to communicate via a stretch of river passage, and some portion of the time that means white water. If the current is going our way, we’ll have to assess whether we think we can run the rapids, walk them, or portage around them. Sometimes we have a route guide that will give us a hint of what we’ll encounter, but we never run white water without sussing it out.

Once we decide to shoot a rapids, we select an approach and a paddling technique (it’s not uncommon that you’ll need to change direction part-way through and you want to work out the sequence and the signaling ahead of time—as much as I’m a process junkie, in the midst of white water is not the right time to call a mtg). Because your leverage in altering directions is dependent on the relative difference between the canoe’s speed and the current, it’s generally best to enter rapids with strong strokes. I line up my chosen angle of approach, and then let my bowman know it's time to lean into their paddle with two words: "Hit it!"

As you accelerate into the maelstrom, there’s a particular moment when you are not yet into the white water, yet you are committed beyond return. Your heart rate jumps, the adrenaline is flowing, and time slows down. You are totally alive… and you haven’t even done anything yet! (One of my best canoeing buddies was friend named Tony, and he found that the sound of approaching rapids was more effective than Metamucil for achieving regularity in the bush—he had to take a dump just anticipating that we might shoot.)

• • •
This morning, I am entering the rapids of six consecutive days of total immersion in the World of FIC. It starts tonight and runs through noon next Thursday. First the Art of Cmty Southwest weekend—registration starts this afternoon—followed immediately by the FIC spring organizational mtg at Hummingbird Ranch.

It is part of my public life… which I simultaneously crave and dread. I love the energy and exhilaration, yet can never be sure whether I’ll encounter hidden rocks that can swamp my boat. I forget to eat, need less sleep, and am always wanting to have my paddle in the water, feeling my way in the changing current, and laughing with the crashing waves. I never feel more alive than when I'm in the rapids.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Circus Comes to Town!

In three days, the FIC will open its Art of Community Southwest weekend, running May 30-June 1 on the campus of the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. I’ve been in town since last Wed, and can feel the building energy. They're coming!

For me, participating in a community conference is like going to the circus. There's a festive, time-is-suspended atmosphere where everyone can temporarily set aside their regularly scheduled lives (and protective armor) to create magic together. There will be big top plenaries, five-ring sideshows (concurrent workshops), out-of-town performers, techno-wizardry, and entertainment galore. Everything but dancing bears and corn dogs.

The way it's not like a circus is that the Art of Community is about authenticity, not diversion. It's about delivering the tools and inspiration to lead the life you want, rather than delivering a temporary escape from what's not working. Talk about magic: the FIC believes you can bring your life and values into alignment and have a good time. (Our aim is to have you wake up Monday morning with a dream you can act on, not with a feeling that the weekend was just a dream.)

Part of the excitement is that it's a little bit out of control, by which I mean interactive and unscripted. For many, the best parts will happen on the fly: the chance conversations at the bookstore, during coffee breaks, or with the person sitting next to you at that special workshop on how to train wombats to fetch your morning paper. Or with the person bidding against you
for the Caribbean vacation at the Sat night benefit auction—maybe you should do that cruise together.

Sure there's a schedule, and, as a presenter, I'll have an outline of what I want to say. Yet I prefer to work without a net—inviting comments and questions from the audience, looking for the sweet spot where I can ride my enthusiasm on the wave of their curiosity. Just like at any circus, you never know what's going to happen next. The trick of it is trusting that you'll know when to jump on board when those extemporaneous surges come. (My mantra as a workshop improv artist: keep breathing, and trust the magic.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This morning I'm not on stage; I'm on call. I'm acting as Boy Tuesday for my wife, Ma’ikwe, who’s the ringmaster for this weekend's event. (I’m typing this in a coffee shop across from campus—appropriately enough, called "Satellite"—where I wait in orbit as her chauffeur while she’s closeted with her A/V magician, Derek Roff.)

This afternoon Registrar Donna Berry arrives by train from Minnesota, the first of the out-of-state organizing team to arrive, and we've scheduled a power dinner with her and Site Manager Peggy Loftfield (a Albuquerque local and 13-year FIC veteran) at the Chama River Brew Pub, to continue the ferment, so to speak. (Don't you just love the circus?)

Ma'ikwe woke up this morning in a sense of panic, momentarily thinking it was Wednesday instead of Tuesday (how could she ever get everything done with only 60 hours left 'til show time?). After realizing she'd slipped a gear, she exhaled… then settled into identifying what exactly she needed to accomplish in the next 24 hours to head off that same feeling of panic tomorrow morning—when it really would be Wed.

Can you feel the buzz? I can't say for sure if we'll get everything done in the next three days (or if Ma'ikwe will wake up any morning before next Monday without a knot in her gut),
but I can promise a great time… and who knows when the circus will come again?

The curtain goes up Friday evening and, hey, there's still time to get tickets!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Deep in the Heart of Texas: Sanity Prevails on Appeal

Yesterday, a state appellate court in Austin TX (comprised of three Republican judges, I might add) struck down the lower court ruling that gave the state custody over the 468 children that had been forcibly removed from the Yearning for Zion Ranch by the State Dept of Family and Protective Services (FPS) in the April 3, 2008 raid on the fundamentalist enclave located in west Texas, about 45 miles south of San Angelo.

The judges unanimously concluded that evidence supporting the claim that the children were collectively in immediate danger of sexual or physical abuse was insufficient. Legal experts noted that it was highly unusual for an appeals court to rule on a continuing case, and could be construed as a sure sign that the evidence supporting the lower court action was egregiously weak. Unless new evidence is brought to light (deemed unlikely) or a stay is granted by the State Supreme Court, it is expected that most of the children will be returned to their families, perhaps as soon as next week.

To be clear, this is not a blanket exoneration of activities at Yearning for Zion. It is a rejection of the thinking that: a) the community can reasonably be viewed as a single household; and b) if any child in the community is at risk of abuse then all are equally at risk. Assuming the appellate court ruling holds, the state will now have to make the case for abuse for each child individually. Here is the ruling on that:

"The notion that the entire ranch community constitutes a "household" as contemplated by section 262.201 [of Texas law] and justifies removing all children from the ranch community if there even is one incident of suspected child sexual abuse is contrary to the evidence. The [FPS]'s witnesses acknowledged that the ranch community was divided into separate family groups and separate households. While there was evidence that the living arrangements on the ranch are more communal than most typical neighborhoods, the evidence was not legally or factually sufficient to support a theory that the entire ranch community was a "household" under section 262.201."

FPS tried to make the case that the children were in immediate danger by virtue of living in a cmty which held the belief that it was acceptable for post-pubescent teenage girls to marry and bear children. The appeals court explicitly rejected this line of argument as well:

"The simple fact, conceded by [FPS], that not all [Yearning for Zion] families are polygamous or allow their female children to marry as minors demonstrates the danger of removing children from their homes based on the broad-brush ascription of every aspect of a belief system to every person living among followers of the belief system or professing to follow the belief system."

These are potentially important rulings for intentional cmties, as they build case law establishing that (at least in the state of Texas) families and households are not considered to have surrendered their judgment or responsibility by virtue of having chosen a communal lifestyle. I applaud the appeals court for its sensible stand.

We live in a culture that celebrates individualism to the extreme—perhaps more than any other culture in human history. Intentional cmties (in varying degrees) make a conscious effort to offer a lifestyle where individuals, as members, voluntarily surrender some of their rights to the group, based on an understanding of alignment with the group around fundamental values (which, by the way, the individuals have a right to help articulate). The key thing to understand here is the word "some." No intentional cmty, to my knowledge, asks its members to surrender all individual rights to the group. This is a nuance that FPS seems to have misunderstood, yet the state appellate court, thankfully, did not.

I have no first-hand knowledge of Yearning for Zion Ranch, and am in no position to ascertain whether abuse occurred or not. If there is solid evidence that it occurred—and FPS thinks there is—then I support its investigation and adjudication.

At this point, FPS has egg on its face for the overzealousness with which it conducted the Yearning for Zion raid and investigation. Maybe it shouldn't have taken all the eggs out of the basket and tried to cook them all at once. In its haste, FPS has likely caused at least as much trauma through the forcible separation of children from their parents as it claims to have prevented. They were out of control. [For a more thorough analysis of FPS' actions, see my blog
of April 22: Yearning for Sanity.]

For the moment, some semblance of control has been restored. Now, perhaps, FPS can get on with a non-hysterical examination of what abuse has actually occurred, involving which specific children. Their proper task is to sort out what is illegal and abusive, from what is merely unpopular and unusual. To be fair, this is not necessarily an easy task to do well. But then, neither is raising children.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Bloomin’ & Perfumin’

The black locusts are in full bloom in northern Missouri. While the emergence of the redbud blossoms (weeks earlier) is marginally more showy, nothing is more aromatic.

I drove from Columbia MO to St Louis yesterday morning to pick up a one-way rental car, and then promptly turned around and drove nonstop from St Louis to Albuquerque (which pretty much defines what people mean by a long day—1175 miles—boy, did bed look good, and not just because my wife was in it).

All day I was streaming past copse after copse of black locust, which were leaning into the Interstate, heavy with off-white blooms and redolent with a cloying fragrance every bit as attention-getting as the sensory gauntlet you traverse when straying too close to the women’s toiletry counter (now there’s an interesting turn of phrase) at major department stores. I suppose that wild plums (which bloom much earlier) are just as intense, but they don't exist in the same numbers as black locusts, which have successfully shouldered their way into the margins of our forest ecology.

• • •
Having grown up in the 50s and 60s, I used to think it was “normal” that women would frequently make their social appearance within a cloud of perfume and deodorant, and that a man’s entrée into a closed room was often presaged by a bow wave of after shave or cologne. It wasn’t until college that I started questioning the point of masking one’s natural smells, and the insidiousness of Madison Avenue marketing aimed at getting people to feel ashamed of the way they smell. Once a stumbled into the more authentic world of cmty living—where people actively cultivate direct communication—I began to reverse my childhood conditioning. Today, I experience perfume and deodorant as noticeably weirder than natural body smells, and cologne as an irritating anomaly. Think of it as the olfactory corollary to what-you-see-is-what-you-get: in cmty, what you smell is who I am.

Although black locust and wild plum blossoms have intense fragrances, it makes all the difference in the world to me that these have been brought to my nose's attention by Nature, instead of DuPont or Chanel.
• • •
White oak is the climax tree in northeast Missouri, and one of the most prized among native species for its lumber—fermented corn squeezings does not make the magical transition from white lightning to whiskey until it's been aged in white oak barrels. Perhaps only black walnut lumber consistently commands a higher price. Commercial value notwithstanding, I have a special place in my heart of sustainable hearts for black locust and it's unsurpassed utility.

How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways
1. In addition to the nose-joy available to humans, our honeybees are happily hauling in nectar every waking moment during the 5-7 days the blossoms last. It's the first major flow of the season and helps the hives immeasurably as they ramp up for the sweet clover season, just around the corner.

2. Black locust is a nitrogen fixer, making it an excellent choice for securing and repairing thin ground. Lacking a dense canopy, the crops nearby (whether grass or grains) still get ample light. The roots simultaneously hold the soil and replenish nitrogen; the branches soften the wind, yet allow plenty of sunshine to pass through.

3. As a native species, it is second only to osage orange as naturally rot-resistant wood. It's superior to red cedar or walnut, and untreated black locust posts will often last more than 20 years. Better still, black locust grows straight and you can sometimes get two, three, or even four poles out of the same tree—something you'd never see in osage orange, which grows more twisted than Jim Crow Republicans. Its lumber is a great choice for high-moisture environments, such as root cellars or greenhouse framing.

4. Finally, the wood is readily split and makes above-average firewood. What's not to like?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

No Way to Run a Railroad

About a month ago, Citizens Funds (nee Working Assets), was acquired by Sentinel Investments, based out of Montpelier VT. As it happens, I manage a six-digit risk pool for the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC) and up until the acquisition we had been using Citizens Funds as the main vehicle for depositing contributions and loan payments.

The transition to Sentinel has been anything but smooth. Leaving aside the extent to which Sentinel is an equivalent choice as a Socially Responsible Investment (an important consideration to FEC), I want to write about how bigger does not necessarily mean more competent.

I was first notified of the transfer of accounts (from Citizens Funds instruments to equivalent Semntinel Investments instruments) by letter in mid-April. When I spoke with a Sentinel rep on the phone, I was told that the old checks (on my money market account) and deposits made out to "Citizens Funds" would be honored through the end of the month. After that everything would need to change. New checks would be mailed to me before the end of the month. I asked about how to make deposits in the new account, and was told how over the phone. I was uneasy with the realization that no information about this (or deposit slips) had been sent to me and that I was the one who thought of that question—the letter explaining the transfer neglected to cover that operational detail. Yet what could I do?

I had phone transfer privileges with Citizens for redeeming funds or moving money among accounts. Knowing that I wanted the same ease of operation with Sentinel, I asked how to set that up. The guy on the phone told me it wouldn't be a problem: just send them a letter requesting those privileges.

I drafted the letter April 22, and emailed it to an FEC corporate officer to sign and submit. I then left on a trip for two weeks—hoping that everything would be in place upon my return. No such luck. On May 6, there was a letter from Sentinel waiting for me, explaining that the request for phone transfer privileges needed to have a medallion signature guarantee and b
e accompanied by a corporate resolution. Grr. The Sentinel guy on the phone mid-April might have mentioned those requirements. (What's the point of having customer service reps who don't know the correct answers?)

On the other hand, having the phone privileges would only have been of limited use because I had not yet received the checks that had been promised. Unfortunately, by May 6 I needed to write two checks. I was dead in the water.

After another phone call to Sentinel (to make sure that I now correctly understood the protocol for establishing phone transfer privileges), I scrambled to figure out where I could secure a medallion signature guarantee without a special trip to town. It looked like I was going to have everything lined up, and then it struck me: why would Sentinel honor my signature on checks? After all, they inherited me as a customer; I hadn't applied for an account. So I went back to the well and called Sentinel again: "Will you honor my signature on the new checks you're sending me?" Answer: no. Holy moley! Apparently they were just going to wait to inform me of that little nuance until after someone sent one of my checks for collection. How could they take over all the Citizens Funds accounts and not think of that?!?

A few deep breaths (and expostulations) later, I asked that a signature card be sent to me. "No problem," I was told. By now I was three days away from my departure for a six-week trip, and knew that there wasn't sufficient time to receive the signature card at home. Not wanting those overdue checks to be stalled for an additional six weeks, I asked that the signature card be mailed to where I'll be this coming Monday. "Uh," came the reply, "We can only mail things to the registered address for the account." [More deep breathing.]

I can understand why mutual funds do allow redemption checks to be mailed to exotic addresses, but blank signature cards? What possible security problem can they be protecting against? Do they think at all about what they're doing? I had my doubts.

It is now the middle of May. I still don't have checks for my money market account, have not been allowed to use the old checks since May 1, have no acceptable signature on record, and no phone transfer privileges. Other that that, everything is going fine. I am allowed to make deposits.

How is this company in business? I have no idea.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Due Process versus Doing Process

Last week, I got in trouble at home when I started a dinner conversation on the front porch while one member was still in the kitchen, preparing something for the dogs while the rest of us were sitting down to eat. Her story was that I (and the rest of the cmty for allowing it) was being inconsiderate, even disrespectful by not waiting for her. I had announced at the dinner circle (with everyone present) that I wanted to have this conversation while we ate, and it was her view that it was my responsibility to wait until we were all assembled. In short, I should have cared more about including her.

[To be clear, she entered the conversation about five minutes into it. No decisions had been made in her absence and we paused to catch her up after she arrived. Nonetheless, she entered the room irritated by her feeling of being dissed, and participated critically in the discussion, turning what I thought was an exciting prospect—a media offer to showcase Sandhill's hallmark emphasis on food self-sufficiency—into a energy-sapping litany of all the things that could go wrong. What a downer. Dinner broke up with the proposal tabled until the next cmty mtg—slated for tomorrow.]

My view on this dynamic is quite different (now there's a shocker). While I agree that all members have the right to be included in conversations about matters affecting the cmty, I also think that members have the responsibility to show up in a timely way or accept that things will start without them. Respect is not a one-way street.

Due Process
There are a number of things about my fellow member's upset that are hard for me:
o While I had invited everyone into the conversation (making clear my intentions), she did not let others know about her plan to delay eating. She could, for instance, have said something like, "I'd really like to be part of that conversation; can you wait to start until I prepare something for the dogs?" We would have waited.
o This person does not always eat dinner. So it wasn't clear if she was ever coming to the porch.
o This person has a chronic pattern of squeezing in one more thing before a mtg and arriving late. At what point is she dissing others rather than the other way around?
o I have a lot of trouble with her transferring her undisclosed hurt (about our starting without her) into hyper-criticality about the topic. If she's walking into the room
upset, let's deal with that directly; don't take it out on the topic.

Doing Process
Clearly I'm not having any trouble getting righteous about my negative response to her criticism. But what's the point? By firing back at her with all of the above, I'm just making war. Worse, because I'm carefully wrapping it all in Process Principles, I'm essentially making it a Holy War (which is the most vicious kind of battle—one where you confer upon yourself the moral dispensation to ignore the decency and good intentions of the other side, and allow yourself to indulge in atrocities and mean-spirited attacks without guilt).

The point of good process is to serve as a guidepost for building relationships; for acting with respect and clarity. People take in, digest, and convey information differently. Good process is meant to help us keep those differences in view and to successfully navigate the gulfs separating our perspectives. It is not meant as a weapon, to fire upon the ships sailing across the gaps.

Just as therapists tend to be drawn to their field with an interest in their own healing, I've found that as a Process Consultant I get nearly constant chances to learn about my own blind spots, as I get tangled in my own feet.

Tempest in a Teapot
I'm giving a lot of attention to a relatively minor incident. A person feelings got hurt and we didn't sort it out very effectively in the moment. Even though no one meant a bad thing, it didn't go well. Shit happens.

The reason I'm writing about it is that, after chewing on it for a week, I've finally gotten past my Process Armor to find the golden nuggets about how I'm contributing to what's not working. When we return to the conversation in tomorrow's mtg, I'll be better prepared to speak from compassion, and check my high-mindedness at the door.

Over and over again, I get to take into my bones the essence of this aphorism from Arnie Mindell (author of Sitting in the Fire): "It's not about Truth; it's about Relationship."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy 34th!

Yesterday, Sandhill celebrated it's 34th anniversary.

We had an all-day party, which included a gigantic potluck dinner, a Treasure Hunt for the young (or young at heart, and spry of foot), sweat lodge, barn dance, and may pole—all interlarded with lots of conversation and laughter. The rain almost held off until we were done. Some of the neighbors were caught by the late precipitation, and stayed the night, extending our party into this morning. It was a lovely time.

This year the revelers had a distinctively younger cast. In addition to Sandhill's under-40 additions of Apple, Thea & Jacob, Kevin & Ann, and freshly arrived intern Sarah, there have been four babies born at neighboring Dancing Rabbit and Red Earth Farms (two each) since our party last year. The wheel is turning.

The way I understand it, the Greeks considered 34 to be the perfect age—the point where youth and vigor were just balanced by age and experience. So what's not to like about the cmty being 34? Who can resist the lure of claiming to be the "perfect age"? Who knows, maybe we'll have the perfect growing season. (Though for that to occur, it'll need to warm up and dry off licketty split, and I'm not holding my breath.)

After years of a lower population (down to five adults) we're now on the rise again. While it would be a stretch to call life here perfect, morale is high, the sun is shining on our faces, and the wind is at our back. And that's worth celebrating at any age.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Pulling Proposals out of a Hat (or Some Orifice)

This is the counterpart I promised to my May 4 posting on how to get the most out of plenary Discussions. After you've flushed out all the factors that the group agrees need to be taken into account (the main objective of the Discussion phase), then it's time to start crafting solutions. Often this step is begun by a cmtee, but sometimes the plenary is on a roll or there's time pressure encouraging the group to proceed with all deliberate speed. In any event, I will offer here four aids for efficient and energizing Proposal Generation:

An Atmosphere of Curiosity, not Embattlement
The key moment is when someone says something that differs substantially from what you're thinking. How do you respond? It will make an enormous difference if your initial reply is less like, "That won't work for me... " and more like "Wow, that's really different from what I was thinking. Tell me how you got there; maybe I'm missing something... "

In the former, you're assuming a fight. In the latter, you're wondering if your mind will be changed by new information or new insights. The trick is developing the mind set that different perspectives can be a strength—they let you see the problem more completely—rather than as an occasion for a battle.

In the mainstream culture, we learn to capitulate or fight in the face of differences; in cooperative culture we need to learn wonder in the presence of differences.

Stretching, not Pulling
As a practical matter, the initial responses to suggestions are crucial for setting the tone. If people can learn to begin with what they like about a suggestion (rather than with "But... ") there will be a lot more flexibility (and hence, creativity) with which to reach the finish line. The image I offer here is how can everyone stretch to reach what others are offering, rather than how can you pull everyone toward your position. [Remember, the object here is not how well your initial suggestions hold up; it's how efficiently the group finds the best solution.]

Bridging, not Advocacy
When facil
itating Proposal Generation, insist (gently, yet firmly) that all suggestions be attempts to combine and balance what came out of the Discussion phase. Let's suppose that there are a list of factors labeled "x" and another list labeled "y," both of which need to be taken into account. What you don't want (now that you're in Proposal Generation) are statements in support of just "x" or just "y." Been there, done that.

So, when a person proposes something that appears to only address "x," a savvy facilitator will respond, "I get that your suggestion will satisfy "x"; help me understand how it also satisfies "y." Generating solid proposals is essentially about bridging all the factors; it is not about pushing until you get your way.

Build on Interests, don't Get Stuck on Positions
For many, their nightmare dynamic (short of fulminating anger) is where the group is more or less evenly divided on some non-trivial issue: one side favors doing "Z"; and the other side favors doing "not Z." That is, the positions are diametrically opposed and each side is fairly passionate about it. What to do?

There's generally a way out. Almost always, "Z" (or "not Z," if you prefer to look at this the other way around) is a conclusion, and not a fundamental value. The key to getting unstuck is peeling back the deadline positions to the underlying interests. Most times, each side is looking at the same problem through a different lens, each of which is a legitimate group value. So, for example, would it be that shocking if an analysis focused on affordability came to a completely different conclusion than one emphasizing environmental impact?

The good news is that affordability and environmental impact are not sworn enemies. By identifying these two as baseline interests you now have much more room to work with. Let go of Z and not-Z; focus instead on finding proposals that do a decent job of balancing these two interests. [Hint: in the end it may turn out that Z (or not-Z) is actually a good proposal; but the energy around it will be completely different because everyone has acknowledged and honored that both core interests need to be taken into account. People can be amazingly graceful about specifics if they feel that their core interests are fully understood and will be taken care of.]

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Morel Imperative

I know I promised that this posting would be about Proposal Generation—I'll do that tomorrow—but instead of sitting at a keyboard the first morning back after my fortnight in the Tar Heel State, I went morel hunting. I was lucky not to have missed the season all together. Spring is later and wetter than usual in northeast Missouri (some years the all-too-brief morel season is already finished by May 7), and I returned from a four-hour ramble in the woods with two full bread sacks—about 10 lbs, which is a gong load of wild mushrooms. A veritable mycological jackpot! In the understated local argot, I would be said to have found "a couple of messes" (it's a technical term).

While it's always a bit of a mystery what you'll find in the woods—not every year is a good one for fungi—you can at least count on a pleasing panoply of wildflowers in early May—sweet williams, spring beauties, rue anemone, yellow violets, bluebells, and even wild ginger—and I found all those spring regulars today.

Morel hunting is one of the highlights of the agricultural year for me. It means walking the land at the peak of the spring growth surge, and it's one of the ways I can measure what I've learned about where I live. I moved to Sandhill quite a while ago (it'll be 34 years tomorrow), and it has taken me most of that time to learn the half dozen or so best mushroom spots within a reasonable walk of our house.

As the bread sacks steadily filled, I had to be increasingly careful navigating among the wild gooseberries and blackberry vines, whose prickers will rent the fragile plastic totes in a blink, spilling my precious cargo. Though my bags developed holes and would no longer hold water, I arrived back mid-afternoon triumphant, without the loss of a single mushroom.

It is highly satisfying to enter the kitchen after a morel walk carrying the goods in quantity (that feeling of the successful hunt has an incredibly long lineage—I reckon all the way back to caveman days and mastodon haunches). One of my favorite memories about this was stopping off at the FIC trailer about six Mays ago and giving the Office staff a peak of my haul that day. Most of the staff at that time lived at neighboring Dancing Rabbit and therefore wouldn't be at the dinner table when the wildcrafted morels made their culinary appearance. DR member Susan Wright, our generally proper and undemonstrative accountant, took one look at the brimful bowl of prime morels and uncharacteristically blurted, "Oh fuck!" Mushroom lust will do that to people.

I'm the community cook this coming Friday, and today 's success means I've already figured out what to build the main entreé around. The salivating has already begun.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Navigating the Swamp of Plenary Discussion

Once a topic has been deemed appropriate for plenary consideration (for more on this, see my blog of Jan 25: Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas) the heavy lifting is best accomplished in two phases: Discussion and Proposal Generation. These should happen in sequence and are best not mixed. Today I'll look at the Discussion phase. Next blog I'll tackle Proposal Generation.

The object of Discussion is to flush out all the factors that a good solution or response to the issue needs to address. It is important that this phase be completed before you begin problem solving—else how will you know whether you have a good proposal?

There is a wide variety of formats that might be used—singly, or in combination— to achieve this. While the default format for groups is typically open discussion, you have a wide menu of other formats to select from, including (but not limited to):
—go round
—guided visualization
—individual journaling
—small group breakout
—conversation cafe

What you're trying to weigh in assessing which to choose from is what will give you the best combination of completeness (hearing from everyone) and efficiency (you want it to happen in this lifetime). I style this the "Swamp of Discussion" because you don't know at the outset:
o How deep the water is
o Where you'll come out
o When you'll come out
o How dirty you'll get in the transit
o How bad the bugs will be

While you hope for the best, sometimes it can be a real slog. Is there guidance about how to improve your chances of doing this well? You bet! Here are the five (easy?) pieces of advice I think will help you navigate the Discussion phase with accuracy and alacrity:

1. Keep your eyes on the prize (insist that comments be on topic).
2. Minimize repetition (you can accelerate the process by liberal application of the phrase "ditto," or "[so-and-so] speaks my mind" if someone else has already said your piece; while each member has the right to be heard, mtgs are not "open mic night"; be concise and respectful of group time).
3. Sort the wheat from the chaff (test for which viewpoints need to be labored with—because there are linked with group values—and which are simply personal preferences—which you'll accommodate if possible, but are not obliged to take into account).
4. Divide and conquer (if the topic is complex—and most of the interesting ones are—it is generally an effective strategy to chunk it down into more digestible smaller pieces, which the group is capable of chewing on and swallowing; you do not score bonus points in the Akashic Record for trying to discover the Unified Field Theory for a complex topic by treating it as a gestalt concept).
5. First among equals (are there any factors that should be given a higher priority than others when crafting a proposals for what to do?).

WARNING: no matter how well the plenary discussion goes, don't forget to take into account that some people may have missed the mtg and need a chance to have input on the Discussion before you launch into problem solving. Because missing members will be expected to abide by any agreement that comes out of this, they have the right to add their piece if their views are not already in play (Hint: for this to go well, your minutes need to be sufficiently detailed that people not present can get an accurate picture of what factors have been identified.)

Friday, May 2, 2008

Relating to My Kids as Adults

I'm in Asheville NC this morning, concluding a four-day visit with my daughter Jo (and a handful of other friends in the area). One of the joys of my life as a process consultant and cmty networker is that my heavy travel schedule gets me around to see friends and family fairly regularly. I especially enjoy opportunities to be with my grown children (now that they're out of the house, I miss them). Instead of sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring (never my style anyway), I go to them.

I did not particularly have a good relationship with my parents when I reached my majority, and was on the other end of this equation. My father and I squabbled all the time and visits home were characterized more by sarcasm than sweetness; they were more provocative than evocative. Now that I'm experiencing this dynamic the other way around, I'm highly motivated to not recapitulate the dysfunction and wasted opportunities of 30 years ago.

The main trick is to not get hooked by my children's different opinions and lifestyle choices. The main commitment is to showing up. Yes, I still pick up the tab 95% of the time when we eat out, but now we negotiate as equals when deciding where to eat and what movie to watch. My kids still ask me for advice from time to time, but I no longer expect it and it happens on their terms.

It meant a lot to me when, a few months back, my daughter and I were observing a semi-public power struggle between a determined mother and a defiant 10-year-old. After watching it play out for several minutes, Jo turned to me quietly and apologized for what it must have been like for me to parent her as a 10-year-old. It's nice to be seen—even if it took a decade for the scales to fall from her eyes.

I'm an assertive guy, and I raised both of my children to be assertive as well. This didn't always make for easy parenting, but they take full responsibility for their lives today and both enjoy hard work (for things they believe in). It's a pleasure to tackle projects together as a family team when the opportunity presents itself—like the three days of butchering we did as a threesome at the end of deer season in 2006.

I had a good laugh Wednesday night when I decided to eat dinner at the restaurant where Jo has been working since July. Upon arriving I told the host that I was Jo's dad and it wasn't a minute later that he asked, "Has Jo always been this intense?" I looked him in the eye and deadpanned, "No [pause], she's mellower now." He decided against asking any more questions and showed me to a table. When I later related this exchange to Jo, she and I both howled.

Parent Emeritus
While your kids will always be yours, they will not always be kids. One of the challenges of parenting is knowing when to let go. This process essentially starts at birth, and tends to proceed by fits and starts from there. You are constantly assessing your children's judgment and their need for room to grow, preparing for the day when they won't need you (so that when they don't have you, they'll be ready). Kids need to learn their own lessons, yet they also need a safety net, so the falls won't be so traumatic.

Now that my kids have left the nest, I'm really no longer on duty. I'm just a the retired father—the Parent Emeritus. Luckily for me, my kids still look forward to my visits.