Saturday, November 29, 2008

Trial by Football

I'm in Las Vegas for six days, hanging out with my son Ceilee and his family and friends. The four days of the Thanksgiving weekend will be about as different from my homesteading life in rural northeast Missouri as it can get.

While we try to emphasize self-sufficiency and sustainability at Sandhill Farm, I think the main thing that sustains Vegas is an overweaning passion for the consumptive life. I guess you could say that Sandhill and Vegas both succeed pretty well at promoting a lifestyle based on core values—they're just very different values.

And yet, my son and his wife Tosca are happy here. He has a job as an account manager for Cricket, a national phone company. He likes technology and he likes management. While I'm neutral about technology, I certainly depend on it (I can't even imagine my current life without a laptop) and I'm fond of management also. Where I work the nonprofit side of the street, Ceilee's riding the coporate elevator.

The thing I keep foremost in mind when visiting Ceilee is that I'm visiting my son and his family, with whom I am highly desirous of an ongoing and affectionate relationship. While he's developed some values that are rather different than mine, I am determined to not recapitulate the tense relationship I had with my father when, as a young adult, I veered sharply to the left of the conservative values he attempted to instill in me growing up (in the Republican suburbs of Chicago).

I love my son, and I accept that he has every right to make up his own mind about the lifestyle and politics that suit him best. These were the same rights I tried so desperately to get my father to recognize should be mine 40 years ago, and the principle is no less valid today, even though I'm now the dad.

So, when I'm in Vegas I'm Ceilee's guest, and we do Vegas things. At Sandhill we don't own a TV. By the time the Bears & Vikings conclude their Sunday night game in Minneapolis (two nights from now) I will probably have watched a dozen football games in about 84 hours. As we're both sports fans, I simply enjoy the opportunity. We laugh, drink, eat, and I find out how he's doing—roughly in that order. I take turns holding Taivyn, his seven-month-old daughter (and my first grandchild), do some dishes, and help cook and clean.
Before I leave town early Wed, I'll also find time to change out all the electrical outlets in his kitchen (back home in Missouri I'm the community electrician, and it turns out that some homesteading skills are just as handy in the city as they are on the farm).

Today we played golf, as part of a foursome that included a couple of Ceilee's local friends (both of whom work for Patron, the high-end tequila manufacturer, with corporate headquarters here). While golf was a sport I essentially left behind as a teenager, I still play every now and then when Ceilee invites me. While I shake my head at all the water that's devoted to keeping the fairways green in this desert environment, I enjoy having my son give me pointers on the best way to hit a sand wedge.

What it distills to is that s
pending time with my kids is precious to me. When I visit them I try to fit into their life, rather than asking them to adapt to me. And besides, the lifetsyle I embrace in Vegas, stays in Vegas. It's only the relationships that need to transcend geography and politics. I don't ever need to hit another golf ball, place another bet at a casino, or even see another football game on TVbut I do need a loving realtionship with my son. Luckily, I have one.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Baja Boondoggle

Years ago I was short listed for a process consulting job in Hawaii. That's right, an expense-paid trip (in February as I recall) to a tropical paradise where I'd get paid to be there. Sadly, I had a scheduling conflict (a prior commitment to work in Colorado, I think) and had to take my name out of consideration. Sigh. I always figured that would be one of the ways to tell that I'd "made it" as a consultant, getting gigs like that.

Well, a week from Wednesday I'll be flying to San José del Cabo, at the southern tip of Baja California for two days of paid work with a forming community called Lumbini Gardens. It's fun just telling people about it.

I was in Baja California only once before, back in 1990 when visiting Krutsio, a small income-sharing community on the Pacific Coast near Guerrero Negro. It was isolated and breathtakingly beautiful. Although it was sering hot desert just a short distance inland, right
next to the ocean there was always a cool onshore breeze that kept tempratures in the 50s at night and in the 70s during the day. Krutsio produced all the water they needed (which included gardening) with solar desalination, and their power came from solar panels and a wind turbine. While the productivity of the land was meager, the pristine tidal zone was teeming with edibles—including such delicacies as abalone and nori—and the fish was never fresher.

Where I'm going in December will be different. It's a developed area awash with American ex-pats, where land prices have quadrupled in the last five years. Although the beachfront will not be wild, my fondest wish is to see whales (several species winter in the Gulf of California, including sperm, blue, fin, grey, and humpbacks). I'll have to get lucky for that to happen however, as I fly in Wed and depart Sunday (to catch a train that afternoon to my next gig in Asheville NC, where I'll be teaching facilitation with my wife Ma'ikwe and staying with my daughter Jo). Most of the time I won't be walking the beach casting hopeful glances into the Sea of Cortez. Rather, I'll be in meetings, trying to help the group sort out interpersonal dynamics and discuss the future of their project.

I've spoken with most of the members by phone in preparation for the meetings, and am optimistic about a positive outcome. For one thing, there will only be about a dozen people attending (smaller numbers=fewer permutations). For another, all share a Buddhist Dzogchen practice and accept Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche as their spiritual guide (it tends to be easier helping groups through rough spots when everyone drinks from the same well and has already embraced the notion that self-examination is worthwhile).

Although the work isn't until Dec 5-6, I start my journey this evening, boarding the Southwest Chief in La Plata MO, westbound for Las Vegas, where I'll arrive in the wee hours of Thanksgiving. There I'll have six days with my son Ceilee, his wife Tosca, my seven-month-old granddaughter Taivyn, and my favorite dog in the whole world, Zeus. The timing of the Baja work is such that I can combine it with a visit with my son and his family (encompassing a precious four-day weekend) at no extra cost.

All together, I'll be gone Nov 25-Dec 20. While that's a long stretch, I'll be visiting both of my kids as bookends to the trip, with back-to-back paid weekends in the middle (and did I mention the overnight stay that Ma'ikwe and I will have in New Orleans when we exchange seats on the eastbound Sunset Limited for ones on the northbound Crescent, as we amble along the southern US en route from Los Angeles to Charlotte?).

While I still can't tell whether I've "made it" as a process consultant, I have a pretty wonderful life, and am having a whale of time in the process, whether it actually involves humpbacks or not.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Losing Long-term Members

This week, Michael and Käthe announced that they'll be giving up their membership and returning to their homestead in southern Missouri at the end of the 2009 growing season. We'll be sad to see them go. They've been members of Sandhill since Feb 2002, and it always hurts when you lose people who are fully integrated into the family.

Over the years, we've noticed that two years is an important watershed for new members. If someone makes it that long they've gone through two growing cycles and probably have a pretty good idea about what life here is like and how well they fit into it. They also have had plenty of time to figure out what the friendship potentials are (as well as who's particularly irritating).

[Another key to someone staying or going is whether they find a partner, or how they perceive their potential for finding one—if they're in the market (which, incidentally, tends to be almost independent of whether they currently have a partner). Years ago, a visitor who had spent some time in Israel reported that in the
kibbutzim it was said that the two main reasons people leave are because: 1) they've fallen in love (and were afraid that in the nutrient rich environment of community the new relationship might be tested beyond its resilience); or 2) because they didn't fall in love (and would leave in the hopes of improving their chances of finding their soul mate).]

In our 34 years, we've only lost a handful of members who have lived here more than two years (not counting my kids who "graduated" through normal metamorphosis): Becca, Clarissa, and Lindsay were here for three and change; and in the 5+ category we've only lost Grady, Jules, French, Annie, Bekka… and now Käthe & Michael. To put this in fuller perspective, we've had 79 members (67 adults) all together in our history (I'm only counting those who "officially joined" in some sense). Through today, half of the people who have lived at Sandhill for more than three years are still living here. We six (five adults and one child) are the embodiment and articulators of the community's culture and the center of the gyroscope.

It is both fortunate and unfortunate that our nucleus evolves. Change is at once heart-wrenching, inevitable, and life giving—sometimes all in the same day.

While we'll have 12 months before it happens, losing two people is a serious blow when you only have six adult members, and it will be interesting to see what effect this has on how we view recruitment and our 2009 intern program. It would be really good to manifest one or two new members next year.

I am reminded that the Chinese ideogram for danger and opportunity are the same. We have the choice to be fearful in the face of impending loss, and the chance to be exhilarated by the unfoldment ahead. While it's true that one of the values we embrace at Sandhill is voluntary simplicity, luckily, I've never gotten community living confused with the expectation of a simple, predictable life.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When Meat is Deer

I'm the community butcher.

Tough most years this is a busy time for that, there are currently no deer hanging in our walk-in cooler, and it's unclear whether I'll sharpen the knives this month or not. Even though we're four days into the rifle hunting season for deer, none of our three hunters have been successful yet. Northeast Missouri is about 10% wooded, and has a low human population, which combines to make excellent habitat for deer. Over the course of our 34 years here, the deer population has steadily increased—despite increasingly liberal regulations about hunting limits. (In fact, there are farmers in the county who net more annual income from renting their land to out-of-state hunters for the 11 days of deer season than they do from growing crops.)

While almost all of the omnivorous members of Sandhill have helped take part in processing our meat over the years, one of my homestead niches has been to take the lead on working up the meat from our homegrown animals when their time has come.

While I don't have a taste for killing, and I generally leave that part for others, I am drawn to the role of overseeing the transformation from carcass to food. I view it as part of a sacred trust between myself and what I eat, and I try to honor the spirit of the animal whose life I (and others) have taken by using the carcass as fully and as respectfully as possible. In addition to having the flexibility of cutting up the meat to suit our preferences (getting the right ratio of roasts to ground meat, for example), we make our own sausage, boil the bones to make soup stock, and preserve the scraps as a prized supplement to store-bought dog food.

Among other things, butchering is one of the bonding rituals I have with my children, and both Jo (21) & Ceilee (27) already have plans to be back on the farm for the 2009 deer season. We're looking forward to a fortnight of family time, culminating in Thanksgiving—which I consider the perfect homestead holiday. The larders will full and the agricultural cycle will be ended; it's a great time to kick back and celebrate the bounty of life with friends and loved ones.

In our first quarter century on the land, no one here had interest in hunting and we relied on the animals we raised domestically for our meat (culled chickens, males born to our milk cows, and sometimes goats, pigs, and turkeys). Steers comprised the lion's share of our domestic meat. However, that shifted when we let go of our dairy program back in the late '90s. Our lead cow contracted Johne's Disease—the bovine equivalent of Crohn's Disease in humans—and we needed to eliminate all cattle from our land for at least a year to kill off the contamination in our soil. After a year of not milking twice a day, people rather enjoyed the increased flexibility in their daily routine. When a neighbor switched his Holstien dairy to an organic operation, we started buying our milk from him and we didn't revive our own herd.

Without milk cows, there were no steers. Ceilee, then a teenager, developed an interest in hunting, and we made the transition from beef to deer as our primary meat source. As an organic farm, it was a somewhat tricky issue. On the one hand, we saved all the grain and pain of domestic care. On the other, we knew what our steers were eating, and we had no control over what the deer were eating. That is, the steer meat was organic, but the deer wasn't. While there are several of plusses to eating deer—the meat is local, lean, and sustainably raised & harvested—all meat is a known sink for environmental poisons and we're taking a risk.

Several years into incoporating deer into our regular diet (at Sandhill we tend to eat a low-meat diet; on average it shows up on our menus only once or twice a week) we haven't noticed any detrimental health consequences. Still, we're keeping an eye on it.

This fall, three different friends had approached me about helping with the butchering so that they could learn the craft. I enjoy teaching and was pleased that folks thought well enough of both my skill and my attitude to apprentice with me. However, there will be no lessons without successful hunting. As there's still another week of the firearm season, the carcasses may yet appear. We'll see.

Meanwhile, it's amusing to realize that as a proess consultant and experienced communitarian, I consider the opportunity to meet to be dear. As a homesteader in northeast Missouri, I also have the opportunity for my meat to be deer.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Intersection of Community and Economics

This morning I got off the westbound California Zephyr in Denver amidst a snow shower. Scrambling to get away from the wet, heavy flakes, I scooted over to the Tattered Cover Bookstore at 16th & Wynkoop, and ordered a triple latte. Fifteen minutes later, a friend collected me for a ride to Loveland, where the skies, amazingly, were a cloudless cerulean blue. Welcome to Colorado winter weather.

I'm visiting Sunrise Ranch this weekend, sitting in on a meeting of the Sunrise Credit Union Board. It has been about a decade since I was last here (over the years FIC has held two board meetings at this long-time headquarters of the Emissaries of Divine Light) and seeing the place again, in the red rock country of the northern Colorado Front Range, brought back a flood of powerful memories. We established the mission for Communities magazine here in spring 1995, and then held our first-ever Art of Community weekend conference in fall 1997.

SCU is the only credit union in the country located in an intentional community—and they specialize in personalized service and helping groups trying to build cooperative culture. Anyone who becomes a member of FIC is automatically eligible to join SCU.

This afternoon they asked me to facilitate a brainstorm on what aspects of the SCU mission were precious to the board, and what would be the components of their ideal program if unconstrained by budget limitations or government regulations. While afternoon sessions are often the sleepy portion of all-day meetings—because the blood tends to be more actively engaged in the stomach (processing lunch), than in the brain (processing agenda)—no one was falling asleep for this topic, and it was a challenge to capture and sort all of the ideas on flip chart paper.

The program inspirations that most captured my imagination were:
o Offering property insurance for cooperatives
o Helping communities establish credit
o Providing
entreprenurial financial advice to cooperative businesses
o Packaging loans to cooperative groups
o Advising groups about fundraising
o Bridging innovative funding sources with traditional ones
o Providing the financial componenet of consulting teams providing techinical assistance to struggling groups
o Delivering everything with a commitment to relationship building and training people to be better at managing their own finances

While it remains to be seen what actions will come from all this juicy conversation, I'm excited to be honing in on how to provide financial services with high integrity; to be building a cooperative world and net assets at the same time.

While it's possible for activities that lose money to be a solid fit with one's values, they can hardly be sustainable if they aren't profitable. The SCU Board wants to build a more cooperative world and make money. It will be very interesting to see what manifests from this energy.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Jokes as the Canary in the Meeting Room

Last weekend at the NASCO Institute in Ann Arbor I got a chance to pioneer a workshop on the role of humor in meetings. I styled it: "But Seriously Folks… " Though I had sketched it out years ago, this was the first time I got to do it.

The best part was that in the process of delivering it, I got a new insight into what humor represents. I already understood that jokes are sometimes a terrific tension breaker; sometimes a distraction; and sometimes an unattributed criticism (think sarcasm). My new idea was the extent to which humor is an indicator species.

That is, excepting only when things are rolling along smoothly (by which I mean the group is loose and on topic & productive), humor is mostly a pressure relief valve, and suggests that there is some level of discordance in the room. If the meeting culture does not provide a reasonable way for people to examine tensions, or participants don't know how to articulate their discomfort, attempts at humor (or else shutdown) are likely to result.

If you're aware of this—that jokes are a symptom, rather than a cause—it suggests a different strategy when you encounter people offering up inappropriate zingers. Rather than focusing on extinguishing the behavior ("… and the beatings will continue until morale improves"), you can root around for the underlying tensions. You can think of the oddly placed joke as a cry for help.

While you still need to be alert to the damage that can ensue from put-down humor, you can also look for ways in which the meeting is not working for the people sniggering in the back of the room. It might be the topic; it might be the format; it might be that you've gone too long without a break—but something isn't working. You could be more curious about what that might be, rather than more diligent about keeping the comedians on a short leash. At least that's my insight.

I'm eager to test drive this in the meetings I have coming up (luckily, there are always more meetings) to see how much it helps me sift through the complexities of dynamics to better understand what's happening and what opportunities it presents. Uncovering a nugget like this is exactly why I love trying out new material. Teaching forces me to distill my experiences into articulate patterns, and whenever the information is organized in fresh ways, there is the chance that I'll see deeper patterns still.

I think of it as the fractals of group dynamics.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Ma’ikwe and I just finished up a weekend in Ann Arbor MI, where we participated in the annual Institute hosted by the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO). It was my 12th consecutive year as part of the faculty for this event, and as much fun as ever.

NASCO is an umbrella organization for student co-ops, and the 300+ participants come from all over the US and Canada. While the strongest co-op systems send a raft of folks (Berkeley CA, Austin TX, Madison WI, Oberlin OH, and the locals in Ann Arbor), there are representatives from all corners of the continent and it’s a great mixing ground. These are the co-opers who are excited about group living—as opposed to those drawn mainly by the lure of cheap rent. They are The Next Generation of community seekers, happy to swap stories about how to do group living better and to explore their post-graduate community options.

This year I did five workshops:
—Stump the Chumps (where Ma’ikwe and I field questions about knotty issues in group dynamics)
—Essentials of Meeting Facilitation (where I go over the highlights of the facilitator’s skill set, trying to get folks inspired about what’s possible and why it’s a craft worth learning)
—Conflict (where I try to sell folks on the idea that conflict isn’t bad—doing conflict badly is bad—and it’s a very good idea for groups to discuss how they want to work with emotional input and constructively address distress if and when it enters the room)
—But Seriously Folks… (where I examine the complex nature of humor in meeting dynamics)
—Should You Start a Community or Join One? (where I give participants a close look at the gauntlet of challenges that community pioneers can expect to face and how they morph into something else as the community makes the transition to the settler phase)

In short, I get to share information and perspectives about my life’s work with an eager audience. How much better can it get?

• • •
Well, four years ago, with a little help from my friends, I did figure out a way to make a good thing better.

I was sitting around with my Ann Arbor friends lamenting that my heavy travel schedule (I’m on the road half the time) had the unwanted consequence of sharply limiting my opportunities for celebration cooking. No doubt thinking foremost of my psychic well being (it’s bad for a person’s health to have their creativity stifled), my friends spoke right up: “We can help with that. How about you cook for us Saturday night of the NASCO weekend? We can make it a dinner party for 12-14 people. You cook and we’ll buy the ingredients.”

I accepted this offer with alacrity, and thus was born the annual Ann Arbor Slow Food Extravaganza. While I worked solo to produce the inaugural dinner in 2005, Ma’ikwe joined me the second year and it’s been a husband-and-wife tag-team performance ever since. We commit to selecting the menu and manifesting an ingredients list by Oct 1, and the supplies are dutifully awaiting our arrival in town in November.

I used to think my NASCO weekends were fully subscribed if I was teaching workshops in every slot. Hah! Now I’m prepping for Saturday night in every moment I’m not prepping for a workshop. Our routine is to drive to Ann Arbor Thursday and start cooking first thing Friday morning. The biggest crunch occurs Sat afternoon, when I race back to the kitchen (at Sunward Cohousing, three miles west of the Michigan Union, where Institute happens every year in downtown Ann Arbor) and try to add the finishing touches to all the dishes that cannot be completed the day before. Luckily, Ma'ikwe tends to not have as crazy a workshop schedule as I, and she can usually don her apron earlier in the afternoon.

Two nights ago, Ma’ikwe and I produced the 4th Extravaganza, featuring Greek cuisine on this occasion. People started arriving around 6:30 pm for cocktails and antipasto and everyone stayed past 11, by which time we’d made a serious dent in the baklava, port, and ouzo. As intended, participants took their time, lingering over the presentation and enjoyment of four courses and innumerable conversations.

Thus, there are myriad reasons why NASCO weekends have become firmly established as one the highlights of my annual calendar.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes We Can

Tuesday night (actually, early Wed) I watched Barack Obama first address the nation and the world as the President-Elect—to a wildly enthusiastic crowd in Grant Park, in unseasonably balmy Chicago. In the audience, the cameras showed Jesse Jackson crying. In Nova Scotia, so was I.

Finally, we have a chance to do it differently. Now it’s up to all of us to make something of the opportunity. They say being the President is tantamount to getting up every morning and trying to drink from a fire hydrant. Well, it isn’t just Obama’s Herculean labor to muck out the Aegean stables of politics as usual; we all need to get a hand on that fire hose and figure out how to direct that stream of water usefully—lest we drown in a flood tide of teary regret and spilt milk.

We are on the cusp of hope, and I didn’t know how much I thirsted for it until I got so choked up as Obama remind me of my commitment to optimism. While I don’t really know whether we can or cannot, I know there is no advantage to thinking we can’t. I’ll have my oar in the water, pulling in concert with Obama, doing what I can to help build a world that works better for everyone.

• • •
Visiting my in-laws in Nova Scotia, for the first ever I watched a US presidential election from a foreign country. I never fully appreciated how arcane our politics are until I attempted to explain the meaning of what CNN was reporting to a group of intelligent, but mystified Canadians (whom we had invited over for the evening of Americana and to watch the returns—we served chicken wings, pizza, campaign trail mix, and apple pie).

No, it didn’t mean much that McCain carried South Carolina, or that Obama got Vermont; but Obama being declared the winner in Pennsylvania was a big deal.

In Canadian federal elections, they vote for the party (not the leader) and the party determines who will ascend to become the premier. Our Canadian friends liked our system of voting for the person—if only they could understand it.

Is each state’s allotment of electoral votes proportional to population? Answer: sort of. I explained that a state’s number of electoral votes equaled the sum of its Senators and Representatives, which is never lower than three. While the assignment of Representatives is proportional to population (one person, one vote), the assignment of Senators is independent of population: everyone gets exactly two (one state, two votes). I may as well have been explaining the mysteries of matrilineal descent in Swahili.

Finally, in near exasperation, I stated, “I can explain the US electoral system; I just can’t defend it.”

How could they project one candidate the winner as soon as the polls closed, before even one percent of the vote had been tallied? We waded into the arcane world of exit polls, statistical analysis, margins of error… and their eyes glazed over.

In the end, I realized how decades of US elections had trained me to know how to sort wheat from chaff when watching returns (on Tuesday the key markers were the presidential race in Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana; or the senate races in NH, TN, LA, MN, and OR). I was not surprised that Latinos were voting much more for Obama than they had for previous Democrats; I was surprised that race did not seem to be a factor (among those who reported in exit polls that race mattered to them; 55% voted for Obama; among those who reported it didn’t matter, 53% voted for Obama). It was, thankfully, a neap tide for the Bradley effect.

I knew the Presidential race was over when Obama carried Ohio, yet it mattered a great deal that Obama also won some southern states (Virginia, Florida, and finally, North Carolina), demonstrating strength in all regions. He was going to get a mandate to lead; not a house divided. When Republican analysts lamented the unfortunate timing of Wall Street’s recent free fall, it was the same old song (and time to get another beer).

But when John McCain gave his concession speech in Phoenix, I held my breath. How would he spin it? To his credit, John rose to the occasion and spoke graciously. He gave Obama credit and offered an olive branch (after watching some of the debates, it was far from obvious that he would make this choice). I exhaled. Give McCain credit, he went out with his head held high and he pointed the way to the bridge we'll need in the days ahead (resisting the impulse to dynamite the abutments on his way out the door). The people had indeed spoken, and in his final speech on center court, McCain responded as an American, not as a Republican.

I want the civility and optimism that emerged Tuesday to be nurtured into a future that’s like that every day. I am hopeful.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

From Ceilee to Ceilidh

When my first child was born 27 years ago, my partner Annie and I faced the age-old opportunity of what to name him. One of the advantages of a nine-month gestation is that there's a fair amount of time in which to ponder ones' options. As it happened, during this period in our lives Annie was getting together regularly with a group of neighbors to play Irish music, and she was inspired by the Gaelic term for those gatherings, ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee)—which equates to an informal congregation to play and enjoy music together.

Figuring the Gaelic spelling was too much of a burden with which to saddle our unborn son, we anglicized the ending to something a bit more straight forward, finally settling on "Ceilee."  While it's hard for first-time observers to intuit that the "C" is hard, we were enamored of the unique and festive qualities of this improvised name.
• • •
Vacationing with my wife Ma'ikwe in Nova Scotia this week, imagine my surprise when her father and step mother suggested we spend the weekend at their Cape Breton cottage (located in East Skye Glen; if you're keeping score at home, that's between Whycocomagh and Mabou, straight west of Lake Bras D'Or) and attend ceilidhs Saturday evening Sunday afternoon. That's right, real ceilidhs. (Or, as they say in Nova Scotia, the real MacDonald.) While we scored a few points for knowing what a ceilidh was (and even more for knowing how to spell it), the truth was I had no idea what kind of music to expect.

As it turned out, it was Scottish step dancing—which thrives on Cape Breton, thank you very much. While some hoofers indulge in a fair amount of bouncing, for the most part it's all done from the knee downward, and the very best dance "close to the floor."

The prime tourist season there is June to mid-October. During that stretch, there is music and step dancing six nights a week (all but Sunday) in the heavily Roman Catholic western part of the island. Traditionally, the instrumentation is a fiddle, accompanied by a piano. Sometimes, there's a guitar on stage as well, though that's a semi-heretical modern concession. The fiddle player—who is just as likely to be a woman as a man—is key, and they maintain a strong beat by bouncing a leg percussively on stage as they play, which is a style I've never seen in bluegrass. The evening ceilidhs start at 10 pm and go til 1 am. 

While that may make sense in Madrid (where Spaniards are just starting to think about dinner), or even in the summer months where the higher latitude of Cape Breton (46 degrees and change) translates into a night sky that has just started to reveal its stars by that late hour, it was hard to make sense of the 10 pm start in November, which seems the middle of the night. Nonetheless, people were streaming into the parking lot by 9:45 pm to ensure good seats at the tables next to the dance floor. It was perhaps the quintessential Canadian experience: snow flurries outside, fiddlers warming up on stage, and Saturday night hockey on the television in the back of the room.

On Sundays, there's a matinee in Judique (JUH-dick), at the Celtic Music Interpretive Center, running 3-6:45 pm. Perversely, the Saturday evening show in Mabou (MAH-boo) was billed as a family night—and yes, there were children under 10 in attendance, waiting patiently for their turn on the dance floor—where nothing harder than ginger ale was served; Sunday afternoon you could buy beer, wine, or that uniquely American bastardized brewed beverage, Smirnoff Ice. Go figure.

The music is played in predictable sets of three pieces: two jigs, followed by a reel. If you're asked to dance for the first number, you stay on the floor for all three before it's kosher to sit down or switch partners.

The featured fiddler this Sunday was Marc Boudreau from Cheticamp (CHET-i-camp), an Acadian (think Longfellow's Evangeline and the rootstock of today's Louisiana Cajuns) enclave up the western coast of the island. From his boyish looks I'd guess he's still on the sunny side of 30, yet he really tore it up. In the middle of the afternoon (after things had suitably warmed up) there was a special guest appearance on spoons by local legend Gerry Devoe, also of Cheticamp. He only played for one jig, yet displayed a flair and fluidity that I'd not seen before, either with spoons or bones. Rhythmically alternating between his thigh and the palm of his off-hand, he'd improvise down his calf, off his elbow, or even against his forehead. It was quite a show. In contrast with the diminutive Marc, Gerry was on the north end of 70, a silver-maned man with a bulbous nose and the honey-tongued voice of a raconteur; he spent most of the afternoon agreeably socializing and cajoling ladies onto the dance floor—including Ma'ikwe.
• • •
One of the most impressive aspects of the music was how it's become a glue for the local culture. This is community at its best. A melting pot from the outset, the First Nation people of Cape Breton are the Ma'qmaq (MAC-muh), and most of the villages names come from that language. In addition, there were waves of French (who settled Louisbourg on the south coast) and then the Scots and Irish. Though the island has been steadily losing population since 1960 (then over 130,000, it's now down more than 10%, mainly due to the collapse of the cod fishery), the rural population (at least on the west coast) has maintained its identity and flavor through a strong adherence to its two traditions: faith and music.

While there's no doubt that skill is prized on stage and on the dance floor, it is a very accepting society. In addition to the featured musicians, aspiring fiddlers were given a chance to perform when Marc took a break. It was noteworthy that in the two ceilidhs I attended, the main fiddlers were under 40. While there are no doubt many accomplished older musicians who are still plying their craft on Cape Breton, the young are picking it up and being celebrated for their virtuosity. While a majority of the crowd was over 60, the young also dance, and the step dancing culture encourages partners to switch regularly, often mixing the generations 

The dancing is done with partners and traditionally that means a man and a woman. Yet when two women partnered, no one skipped a beat. While the basic square requires four couples, dancers seamlessly expanded to accommodate a fifth or sixth couple. If you wanted to dance, there was room for all. Whenever the numbers would swell to eight couples and beyond, mitosis would occur and the one square would become two.

Fancy steppers would dance right next to those with two left feet, and everyone would be have a good time. The more experienced would gently correct the befuddled and there was always enough patience and music to finish the prescribed steps. While some had more breath than others, and some had lighter feet, the smiles were ubiquitous.

I had a warm time at the ceilidhs and was inspired by how the Cape Bretoners have relied on music to not just retain their culture; they have learned to become one with their music, and use it to enhance and celebrate their community. It was an inspiration. And made me proud to have stumbled into naming my son Ceilee.