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.

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