Thursday, August 28, 2008

Sailing the Seven C's

I'm preparing a talk that I'll give this evening at Friends House, a Quaker retirement facility in Santa Rosa CA. As part of it I'll be talking about how to build community. In wrestling with how to organize my material (and be entertaining at the same time), I've hit upon the rubric of the Seven C's, which I'm test driving here:

1. Communication
The key here is developing the ability to listen accurately. Of course, it also helps to be able to be clear and concise in stating your own views, yet hearing well is crucial. Doing this well typically means developing a range of ways to communicate (styles and formats), so that you are using a language that is comfortable and easily understood by others. If making the connection is important, then be prepared to travel most of the way to others, instead of making them come to you.

Factors here include slang, time of day, how long you speak without pausing for the other person to respond, eye contact... even how close you are physically to the other person. There's a lot to this!

2. Curiosity
How interested are you (or more to the point, how interested do you appear to be) in what others are saying, especially if they have views that are different than your own. The more genuinely welcoming you can be, the better this is going to go. Please understand that I'm not saying you have to agree with someone to be curious about how they got there.

3. Cour
When you are uncertain about how to say something well, or how it will be received, it can be challenging to speak up. I'm focusing here on voicing your views (especially when you suspect they will be unpopular), asking questions (all the more if you think people will roll their eyes or label them "stupid questions"), being willing to change your mind in public, being willing to try something new or uncomfortable, and bringing your passion into the conversation. All of these things take courage.

4. Complexity
are different. I know you knew that, but I mean really different. For the most part, our model of ideal meeting behavior is that people don't raise their voices, speak one at a time, and contribute essentially on a rational level. While all of those things can be helpful, it is be no means the only ways people communicate (or feel comfortable communicating). Can you work emotionally, kinesthetically, intuitively, spiritually? To the extent you can, it will greatly expand how well you can genuinely connect with others (and connection is the root of community).

5. Conflict
Mostly we have a culture that is afraid of conflict (because mostly we have experiences where conflict leads to hurts and damaged relationships). The key, however, is not how much conflict exists; it's how well you respond to it. The way I see it, conflict (which I'm defining as at least two different points of view and at least one non-trivial emotional upset) is normal and we need to have an understanding about what's happening and a way to work with it that doesn't pathologize the people who are upset. This is huge.

6. Civility
I'm not talking about pretending to be nice. Rather, I'm talking about intentionally selecting ways to communicate that you believe will be easier for others to understand and not be triggered by. It makes little sense to insert cuss words into every other sentence spoken to a church group, for example.

7. Constructiveness
Last, it pays to keep your eyes on the prize. If community is the goal, emphasize connection and see to it that your comments are forward moving. Focus more on what you think may bridge a difficult dynamic than advocating for your view. It's problem solving, not a debate.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Twin Oaks & Television

I have a three-lettered acronym that comes in handy as a process consultant: OBE. (No, it doesn’t mean Order of the British Empire, though that’s a useful bit of crossword trivia.) In my argot, it means “overtaken by events.” I use it to describe situations that are difficult to resolve, yet which become moot when circumstances shift.

For example, learning how to type accurately was an important secretarial skill when people relied on the technology of mimeograph machines to create inexpensive copies (it was an absolute booger correcting mistakes on a stencil, necessitating costly delays). Today, in the era of high-speed photocopiers, no one uses stencils. With computer word processing and inexpensive printers, it’s no big deal to rework a document and crank out a fresh original if someone discovers a typo. Although it’s more important today that everyone learns to type—it’s hard to imagine functioning without email or access to the Web—the need to type accurately is largely OBE.

In general, people live in intentional communities with the purpose of altering their lifestyles to something more in line with their values than they can readily find among mainstream options. It’s what makes them “intentional.” While communities vary substantially in where they draw their lines, for the purpose of this article I want to focus on the history of television at Twin Oaks, which is a well-established income-sharing community in central Virginia that celebrated its 41st anniversary last June. Twin Oaks members have always been deliberate about how much they let outside culture seep into their environment, and yet the floodgates are never closed completely.

Last August I was at the community to participate in their annual Communities Conference, affording me an occasion to visit with long-time friend Valerie Renwick (an Oaker since 1992). I asked her, as friends will do, what was happening at the community these days. Among other things, she gave me a thoughtful reply about their evolving relationship with outside media.
Like a number of communities trying to create alternative culture, there has traditionally been a lively debate at Twin Oaks about the evils of television. In its early years, the community simply didn’t allow one on the property—it was viewed as too large a conduit for promotion of the kind of values the community was trying to be an alternative to, such as manufactured demand, violence, vapid dialog, materialism, and social isolation (ever try to have a meaningful conversation in the same room with an active television?). While most people will admit that television occasionally offers programs of value, on the whole this was felt to happen not nearly enough to justify all the other crap that would come through the transom. It was an interesting line to draw. While magazine subscriptions went uncensored and there was no attempt to limit radio reception, TV was banned as too insidious.

[As a long-time member of Sandhill Farm, another egalitarian community, I am highly sympathetic to this debate. We’re a 34-year-old group and have never owned a television. Just ask my kids how weird that was. Now both adults, there were careful when growing up about how much they shared of their Sandhill upbringing with their peers. How would they explain no TV? And while I have an excellent relationship with both of my kids today, and visit them frequently, both also own large, flat screen TVs.]

Sometime in the 80s—when Twin Oaks had about two decades under its belt—the community was anonymously gifted a large screen television, and the community accepted. (There was an intriguing rumor that the donor was none other than B.F. Skinner, the Harvard psychologist whose Utopian novel Walden Two inspired the creation of Twin Oaks. It was purported that Skinner offered the television as an educational enhancement, and I never learned if this story were true or apocryphal.) While some Cassandras descried it as a Trojan Horse, the community (after considerable debate) decided it could benefit from the television recreationally. It cleverly disabled the tuner, rendering the unit useful only for showing videocassettes. These had become popular by that time and it would be much cheaper to bring videos home than to watch discretionary funds be eaten up by trips to area movie theaters.

The movies shown had to be vetted for acceptable values, and screenings took place only on certain evenings. For the most part, this middle-ground position has worked well and the practice continues today. Technology, however, as it is wont to do, kept evolving and the equation got considerable more complex with the advent of personal computers and miniature televisions.
While the community kept pace with the Information Age by providing an increasing number of computers available for member use in public space, it was inevitable that machines would start moving into people’s private rooms, where there was unfettered access to the cornucopia of information and visual stimulation of the World Wide Web. Today, publicly shown movies are still screened for appropriateness, yet there is no control whatsoever about what members are watching in their own rooms. Valerie remarked to me on her uneasiness with this erosion in the community’s control of cultural influences.

A particularly poignant event occurred in the late 90s that highlights the emotional flaring that’s possible when values and technology collide. I want to tell the story of my eponymous friends Dale and Fulano.

[While “Fulano” is not in my normal pantheon of androgynous pseudonyms, I’ve selected it here because it was a distinctive favorite of my recently deceased friend and Twin Oaks founder, Kat Kinkade. Kat, this bud’s for you!]

Though neither lives in the community today, they were both well-established members at the time of this incident. Dale was mild-mannered, yet highly principled. Fulano was creative and fun loving. Both were seen as upstanding community members.

It happened one day that Fulano was discovered to have smuggled a small television into his bedroom. While clearly against the community norms, he figured no one would notice and what harm was he causing anyway? He was just quietly watching movies in his own room. Dale was pissed by this flaunting of community norms and Fulano’s apparent insensitivity to the community’s carefully worked position regarding how much mainstream culture was allowed to permeate the community’s cultural membrane.

While Fulano was promptly asked to remove the television (and did so), Dale still seethed and was contemplating what he felt might be appropriate consequences for this flagrant violation of agreements. At this critical juncture (are there ever any accidents?), it came out that Dale, a devoted Trekkie, had occasionally been secretly entering the community’s public television space after hours and privately watching videos of Star Trek, the Next Generation. Oops. You might say Dale was hoisted by his own Picard.

In the ensuing decade, personal computers have gradually become a normal feature in members’ rooms at Twin Oaks. It’s a done deal. Aided by community-wide wireless hubs, people have Internet access in their own bedrooms. While private televisions are still outlawed, who cares? It was this back door development that Valerie was unhappy about.

Today, Twin Oakers, like a lot of us, still wrestle with questions about what constitutes healthy culture and how to manifest it. That said, concerns over how much someone is watching Jean Luc outwit aliens is OBE. Just do it in your own room.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Best in the Long Run

As I type this entry, I'm doing something I rarely do: watch television. In this case, it's a live telecast of the final Olympic event, the men's marathon.

Somehow, it's appropriate to be watching the marathon, which is a test of stamina. My day felt a bit like that as the friend I'm visiting and I faced the Sisyphean task of re-organizing her 10x10 storage unit and culling books from her lifetime collection to make room on her apartment shelves for what we extracted from the storage unit. In the end, we moved a lot of things around, and yet the apartment looks just as jammed as before. My firend assures me it's better; I hope she's right.

A marathon is 26 miles and change. I've been doing community networking for 28 years and change. Close enough. (In fact, change is the most exciting part of networking.) A marathoner needs to be in it for the long haul, and that pretty well describes my relationship to networking. Unlike many athletes, marathoners don't typically peak until they're in their 30s. I like to think I get better with age, too.

While community building is not typically aerobic, it's definitely energetic. And I firmly believe community living is great for a person's long-term health—physical, emotional, and spiritual. It's a multi-disciplinary sport.

Now that I'm putting my mind to it, It turns out there are a plethora of parallels. I've just never thought of it before.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hard Wired in Virginia

Back in 1974, in the first summer of Sandhill's existence, I bought a copy of a paperback book by H.P. Richter entitled Wiring Simplified. I think it was either the 12th or 13th edition (the drawings looked like they were made in the 40s or 50s, establishing beyond doubt the durability of H.P.'s advice). It was on sale for $0.84 and it may have been the most productive investment I ever made. In the early days of our community, there was no end to what we didn't know how to do and we needed volunteers to master the skills we were reluctant to hire out. Electrical wiring was one of those and I was the designated volunteer.

Studying Richter's guidebook religiously, I learned the basics of house wiring, and oversaw the rewiring of our farm house that first fall. Thirty-four years later I've wired every building at Sandhill and helped out with wiring here and there wherever I've traveled. I know what colored wire nut will hold how many strands of solid copper 12-gauge wire, the ampacity of 0000-gauge aluminum entrance cable, and how far to place a switch box above the floor (48 inches).

Today I was helping my old friend and ex-partner, Ann Shrader, with some wiring as part of a major expansion to her house about six miles outside Floyd VA.

(Yesterday we trimmed garlic bulbs and canned tomatoes—once a homesteader, always a homesteader. It wasn't work; it was just hanging around with a dear friend. Today I did some recreational wiring.)

For all of that, it wasn't simple. In fact, reworking old wiring seldom is. First I ran a new outlet into a newly constructed wall, and that was a piece of cake. Everything was visible and there was no insulation to navigate around, or wall covering to block access. The hard part was of overhauling a double switch right inside her back door. The box was closed in drywall and packed with fiberglass. Yum.

There were two switches in the box and both needed work. One was to be replaced with a grounded outlet (because the ceiling fan the switch controlled was being moved to another room). The other was being upgraded from one-way to three-way, so that the back porch light could be controlled from either outside or inside.

Opening up the box was no problem. But then the fun began. I was expecting three lines into the box (an incoming hot from the source, a line to the ceiling fan, and third to the back door light). But there were five. The other two turned out to be spurs to different outlets, but it took me a while to sort it all out. The ceiling fan wire (which I wanted to remove all together) was stapled securely to the stud behind the drywall and I wound up cutting it out—not elegant, but effective.

I next had to run 14-3 into the old box and it took me an hour to snake the damn thing down 38 inches of wall, dense-packed with fiberglass. Grr. After removing a couple inches of drywall (I'll patch it on my next visit) I was finally able to fish the new cable into the box. Next I had to sardine all the wires into the proper alignment and close the box with a new cover plate. My fingers are still sore from all the torquing with wire nuts and a needle nose pliers.

Finally, I horsed the new cable through the old wall and got the outdoor switch wired in tandem with the indoor one. Ann scrounged some used wire straps and we got everything secured and closed up. Happily, when I flicked the breaker on everything worked, and I had just enough time for a celebratory beer before heading out for a birthday party at the neighbors.

Nothing like a nice leisurely day in the country, I always say. Tomorrow, for something completely different, I get to drive 870 miles home. I'm looking forward to that to (and so are my fingers).

Saturday, August 16, 2008

No Phone, No Service

Monday I was driving from home to Louisville and I had an early afternoon phone date with a radio station in Florida. I missed the call.

With as much traveling and networking as I do, it’s inevitable that some of the phone dates that I make will fall on travel days. By and large, I’ve been successful pulling over when the time draws near, finding a pay phone, and making the call. Monday, that strategy failed: I couldn’t find a pay phone.

Ironically, the place where I’d pulled off I-64 to search for a phone was New Harmony, IN—site of Robert Owens’ 19th Century Utopian experiment. There was something oddly humorous about not being able to represent the North American Intentional Communities Movement while traveling through one of the oldest communal settlements in the US. Oh well.

There are a couple things going on here. For one, I don’t own a cell phone. If I did, of course, I wouldn’t have been looking for a pay phone. While there have undoubtedly been times when a cell phone would have come in handy (such as Monday), mostly I’m happy not being that available. And there haven’t been enough times that I’ve wished for one that I’ve felt justified eating $400/year in creased outreach expenses.

For two, a consequence of so many people owning cell phones these days has been a marked decrease in the demand for pay phones, and many have been removed from service. Today, they’re significantly harder to find. In New Harmony I tried five places and I might as well have been visiting the town in Robert Owen’s day for all the luck I had.

So Monday was the day that the technology failed me—in a place historically known for its innovation. They say irony is wasted on some folks. But not me.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Vegetable Choreography

It's canning season!

Though we're a week or two behind our normal schedule (due to the cool, wet spring), the momentum is building. The buckets of fresh produce are accumulating in the walk-in cooler. Just this morning I saw cabbages (both red and green), okra, tomatoes, tomatillos, apples,
green beans, collards, broccoli, potatoes, carrots, leeks, onions, peaches, and even a few peppers (both hot and sweet). Two days ago we processed 20 bags of sweet corn. Abundance.

Sandhill is a community which emphasizes food self-sufficiency and now is the time of year when we need all oars in the water. My niche in all this: an acidified foods specialist. That means I concentrate on foods that have a high enough acid content that they can be canned in a hot water bath instead of in a pressure canner. That's tomatoes, salsas, pickles, jams, and all manner of condiments. Over the course of the next two months we'll produce a year's supply of all these things—plus some to sell as specialty items at area fairs and festivals. This is the time of year when we start to refill the root cellar shelves in earnest, preparing for the winter to come.

One of the things I like best about food processing is the challenge of using the food and facilities efficiently. To illustrate what I mean, let's talk tomatoes, one of our staples. In addition to preserving tomato pulp and juice (about 200-250 quarts of each), you need to sequence all the condiments using tomatoes:

1. Barbecue sauce comes first, because the onions are ready before the tomatoes and the hot peppers are ready afterwards (barbecue sauce uses lots of onions, and no peppers).

2. Next comes straight tomatoes (because the peppers are still not ready).

3. Once the peppers come ripe, it's time for tomato salsa. In anticipation of this day, we've frozen cubes of fresh cilantro back in June (fresh frozen is totally superior to dried). By August all the cilantro has gone to seed (which is coriander) and you can't make delicious salsa with anything other than the tender green leaves.

4. If the tomatoes are strong, we'll make some ketchup. If they're weak (which will probably be the case this year), we'll defer ketchup and keep canning pulp and juice.

There's an art of knowing how many tomatoes you're likely to get in late August in Sept, so that you don't put too many early tomatoes into BBQ sauce. One year I got that wrong, and people grumbled about the paucity of pulp all winter (never mind the surfeit of barbecue fixings).

When it comes to using the kitchen efficiently, the trick is knowing when to start heating the raw chopped tomatoes so that they're hot when the pot gets full. Our basic working unit is the 5-gallon pot, so you have to think on that scale. (We used to cook down our tomatoes to get a thick pulp, but that takes forever. Now will simply press a strainer into the hot pulp—being careful to not let the rim drop beneath the level of the boiling pulp—and ladle juice out as soon as it fills the well of the strainer. We draw off about half the volume in juice, and the remainder is pulp that's good to go. )

Meanwhile I've started another 5-gallon pot for a water bath and can put the juice right into that. Quarts of tomato juice need to be in boiling water for 10 minutes; quarts of pulp for 45 minutes. Typically I'll have two water baths going and one pot of tomatoes (to separate juice and pulp). When I have everything in rhythm, I can fill jars at the same speed I'm canning and keep all the burners going. I can generally can six 5-gallon buckets of fresh tomatoes in about four hours, turning out 21 jars of pulp and 14 quarts of juice, plus two additional gallons of juice to drink fresh.

It's a dance. Can you hear the music?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Less Is More: Selling Land to Our Interns

At yesterday's community meeting, for the first time in Sandhill's 34-year history, we agreed in principle to sell some land.

Ann & Kevin have been with us the whole growing season—kind of like extended interns—trying to figure out if they were suited to homesteading, and whether they were suited to life in northeast Missouri. It's turning out that they think the answer to both questions is "yes!" While we pitched to them the idea of membership in our community, they really want their own piece of property (which isn't that hard to understand: 34 years ago, so did we).

Even though we only have 135 acres (small by the standards of modern agri-business), it's plenty for us. We actively cultivate less than 20 acres, and the 14.5-acre piece that Kevin & Ann are proposing to purchase only includes one acre that we regularly cultivate. We can easily adjust and not compromise our basic commitment to growing most of our own food, plus crops for sale.

Our main consideration was not the loss of farmland, but making sure that our high commitment to the land's stewardship is maintained. After living with Kevin & Ann for several months, we're not worried. There's an old rural saying that predates organic farming: the best fertilizer is the footprints of the farmer. With Kevin & Ann purchasing that piece from us, they'll get more fertilized than when we owned it.

In the end, it's not about how much land you own; it's how well you steward the land and work toward a sustainable future—both for the land and the people who live on it. We're excited because we think selling a chunk to Kevin & Ann will be good both for the land and the people. We'll be getting great neighbors (instead of losing interns), and weaving more threads into the alternative social fabric of southern Scotland County. Once the deal goes through, we'll have Sandhill Farm (with eight members), Dancing Rabbit (with about 45 members), Red Earth Farms (with seven members), and Kevin & Ann's homestead—all within three miles of each other. What's more, ex-DR members Penn & Laura are also looking for an acreage in the area. The neighborhood is filling up!

The clumping of alternative communities is a great concept. Not only do the new groups (or even new homesteaders) get the benefit of the prior folks having pioneered good local relations, but the new folks get an instant social network with a strong values match, access to an alternative knowledge base specific to that climate and location, and the chance to borrow tools and equipment from their cooperative neighbors. What's not to like?

When I think about all the Fools Tax we paid as the first community in the area trying to do alternative things that no around here had ever done before, it's surprising we survived. Moving into the area today is almost like drawing a Get Out of Stupid Free Card. There's no end to the mistakes that the new people can avoid by simply talking things through with their neighbors. It's a good feeling.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Community on Trial

I got a phone call this afternoon from New York and it was bad news. My friend Susan Patrice had just learned that Becky Johnson was acquitted on all charges in the shooting of Ganas Community member Jeff Gross two years ago. It was an incredible result.

My understanding is that the District Attorney prosecuting the case made no attempt to explain to the jurors what it means to be an intentional community, and that there was no response to repeated pejorative references to Ganas as a "cult" by the defense attorney. Indeed, that was part of their defense: that Becky had been abused and mentally damaged by her association with the community (and thus, apparently, wasn't responsible for her shooting Jeff six times at point blank range after stalking him for months).

The other angle taken by the defense was that Becky wasn't the one pulling the trigger. Becky denied it and there were no other witnesses to the shooting besides Jeff. Apparently his word, and the circumstantial evidence (such as guns in Becky's apartment and notes indicating her obsession with Jeff) were not enough to convict beyond a reasonable doubt.

According to Susan, who witnessed the seven days of court proceedings, the basic strategy of the defense was to put the community—and alternative lifestyles—on trial instead of Becky. I guess it worked.

Sitting in Missouri I'm shaking my head, trying to understand how all the testimony of community members in support of their lifestyle was ineffective in the face of an obviously mentally damaged Becky. They apparently found it easier to believe that the community members were all either lying or duped and that Becky's damage was yet another piece of evidence of the community's duplicity and ill-intent, rather than believe that the community was basically fine and that an unwell Becky
preferred to hold Ganas responsible for her bad experience instead of taking responsibility for it herself.

It was a hot and muggy day in northeast Missouri, but it's always a chill wind blowing when "unpopular and unusual" is confused with "unjust and unprotected." My heart goes out to Jeff and my friends at Ganas. They deserved better.