Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Culture Clash

I’m typing this inbound after three weeks of winter vacation in the Southwest, the last four days of which were with my family in Las Vegas. While that was mostly a good time, it ended awkwardly and I want to explore the hurt and confusion at the end. During the long Christmas weekend in Nevada there were 11 of us in the mix and I think it best to begin this narration with an introduction to the basic cast, so I can properly set the stage:

Dramatis Personae
o Laird (your 60-year-old narrator for this passion play)

o Ma’ikwe (my 39-year-old wife of 2+ years)

o Jibran (her 12-year-old son)

o Ceilee (my 28-year-old son)

o Tosca (his 29-year-old wife)

o Taivyn (their 20-month-old daughter)

o Jo (my 22-year-old daughter)

o Annie (Ceilee’s 59-year-old mother; my ex-partner)

o Laurie (Tosca’s 25-year-old sister)

o Bob (Tosca’s 75-year-old grandfather)

o Juanita (Tosca’s septuagenarian grandmother)

The Back Story
Bob & Juanita have a house, a nice house (roughly midway between a suburban home for a retired couple and a palatial entertainment estate) in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb on the southeast side. This house is affectionately referred to as the "Big House."

Ceilee & Tosca own a more conventionally-sized suburban house in the Mountains Edge development in the southwest corner of Las Vegas. With four house guests, the capacity of this residence was maxed out.

I live at Sandhill Farm, an income-sharing community in northeast Missouri. Annie helped me start that community 35 years ago, and both Ceilee and Jo were raised there. Annie currently lives a similar rustic lifestyle at Left Bank, a rural land trust community outside Floyd VA. Ma’ikwe lives a similar lifestyle at Dancing Rabbit, just a a two-mile crow flight northeast of Sandhilll.

Tosca grew up in De Soto MO, and was strongly influenced by Bob & Juanita, who have been highly successful in the tire business. She spent a fair amount of her childhood visiting her grandparents at their home in Las Vegas, and has always had a positive feeling about the place. Tosca and Laurie both enjoy the stimulation of urban life and the things and opportunities that money can buy. Having said that, all the adults in the cast have virtual calluses on their hands from regularly pulling an oar when there's work to be done. That is, everyone likes to help out.

All of the player’s have a caring personality and are unpretentious. Everyone enjoys spending time with Taivyn, who is thoroughly loved, has a sunny disposition, and is all the more precious for being the acknowledged start of the next generation of two family bloodlines.

Ceilee works in management for Cricket, an up-and-coming cell phone company. He works long hours and is the sole breadwinner in his family. Tosca manages the house and takes primary care of Taivyn. For the Christmas weekend, Ceilee only had to work a few hours Christmas Eve; otherwise he was able to enjoy a rare four-day weekend.

As new parents, Ceilee and Tosca seldom get a day off together without Taivyn.

Setting the Scene
Ma’ikwe is struggling with health issues. As the pattern of her symptoms has become clearer in recent months, it seems likely that she has some form of fibromyalgia, and possibly multiple sclerosis. She’s working with a number of health care practitioners to refine the diagnosis and to determine the best course of treatment. For now at least, she's trying to get on top of this without relying on any heavy-duty allopathic drugs, which course I support. At this early stage, she is mainly trying to be more careful about her diet (consuming minimal amounts of wheat, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol, while making sure to eat some meat every day) and to get plenty of rest.

Jibran didn’t have anyone near his age in this setting. While he is mostly able to entertain himself, he likes to pay games and was given a complex and popular board game called Arkham Horror by Ceilee & Tosca for Christmas. Naturally enough, he immediately wanted to play the game (and had good prospects in that most of my family loves to play board games), but had not succeeded in getting an opportunity to more than start learning it under Jo’s tutelage (she has a version at home and is something of an expert), with Tosca and me learning at the same time. We had only completed one round with the four of us before we needed to suspend play Saturday afternoon in order to keep a dinner reservation, and everyone was too tied to resume when we made it home at 10 pm. This was frustrating for Jibran, yet he held out hopes of returning to the game Sunday, our last day in Vegas.

Laurie had just arrived in town Christmas Day (Friday) for the start of a visit through Jan 12. She had just moved to St Louis (from Columbia MO) after a difficult relationship break-up, and was looking forward to some healing and connecting time with family. She and Tosca are very close, and Laurie loves being a doting aunt to Taivyn (who calls her Aunt Yah-Yah; which everyone views as an inspired fit with her fireball personality). At the same time, as often happens with siblings close in age, too much time together can lead to strain between the sisters, and Tosca was trying to suss out how much time with Laurie was optimal.

Some of us like watching football (Ceilee, Bob, Tosca, myself, and to some extent Ma’ikwe); the others believe you can have a decent life and never watch football.

Some of us like to gamble (Ceilee and Tosca in particular; Bob, Jo, and myself to some extent); others have no interest.

While all of the adults drink alcohol, some do so sparingly and others with gusto. Navigating this range comfortably can be a challenge.

As all of us enjoy good food (whew), meals are often a highlight of our time together, and generally offer a reliable touchstone for social occasions. This particular configuration of characters first coalesced for Christmas dinner at the Big House, followed by a Saturday night dinner that Ceilee had arranged at Buca di Beppo, a boisterous national Italian restaurant chain where Ceilee regularly entertains clients. (Amazingly enough, we ate in the "Pope Room," which features what must be the epitome of Catholic kitsch—an upper half bust of Pope Benedict XVI, smiling benevolently from the center of a lazy susan which dominates the center of the table.)

Sunday's Drama
All along, Sunday had been earmarked for the bettors and football enthusiasts to spend a chunk of the day at a Sports Book, where we could place bets and watch NFL football games.

Despite this clear starting point, the day unfolded in confusion—which, as it turned out, was a theme we continued throughout the day. The night before, following the pasta extravaganza, Ceilee had hired a party van (something that’s a regular part of the landscape in Vegas, apparently) to drive us through a section of a nearby park where a passel of local companies, Cricket among them, had set up a fantastic Christmas light show.

It was 9 pm by the time we had reconvened in the parking lot of Buca di Beppo, and it took a while to sort out what would happen next. The contingent of Ceilee, Jo, and Laurie wound up heading for a nightcap at a bar, followed by a session in the hot tub at the Big House, where the three of them ultimately crashed for the night. While Bob & Juanita weren’t up for more partying, they were happy to take Taivyn home with them, making a total of six in Henderson. The remainder (Tosca, Annie, Ma’ikwe, Jibran, and I) headed back to Mountain’s Edge and an early bedtime.

While this plan gave Tosca a night off from parental care (a good thing), it complicated Sunday’s arrangements, which remained unsettled as everyone went to bed.

There were three wrinkles that prevented the fog from lifting early: a) not having all the players in the same house—despite the miracle of modern telephony, it’s still not as good as having everyone in the same room; b) Ceilee was hoping to go to Emeril Lagasse Stadium at the Palazzo (a major casino/hotel on the Strip), which is a celebrity chef’s Sports Book that opened just three months ago—synergisticly commingling football, gambling, and high-end snack food (imagine salmon tartare served up on rice cakes), but that was dependent on Bob being willing to use the pull of his AmEx black card to pry open a luxury suite at the last minute, and Ceilee hadn’t broached that idea with him yet; and c) Ceilee—one of Saturday night’s party hardy crew—was not quick out of the starting gate Sunday morning.

The Early Action
While most of us at the Mountains Edge house slept great, Tosca had had some disturbing dreams about misplacing her baby (pretty understandable when your child is sleeping in a different house) and arose worrying about logistics. She fielded a phone call from friends wanting to know which Sports Book we'd be rendezvousing at; when she put them on hold to check with Ceilee (out in Henderson) she learned he hadn't gotten out of bed yet. Frustrating!

After the long evening the night before she wasn't sure if she wanted to go with the boys to the Sports Book or not; maybe she'd have a better day staying home and playing games with Jibran and others (which was music to Jibran's ears). When Ceilee arose and called back, he reported that Bob was interested in the Lagasse Stadium idea, but they couldn't be certain of getting in. At this point, Tosca gladly handed off the baton of Sunday Coordinator to Ceilee.

While Tosca, Annie, and Ma'ikwe went to a 10:30 am yoga class (with Tosca still undecided about how she wanted to spend the rest of the day), Ceilee took our bets over the phone and raced out the door to place them at the nearest Sports Book before the 10 am kick-off PST. Jibran and I figured we had time to walk the dog, so we made a brisk 30-minute circuit around the neighborhood, taking us right up to the edge of the desert on the west and south. (It's such an mind boggling juxtaposition having raw rock in one direction, and then turning around to find typical suburban development in the near foreground, boundaried by total glitz on the horizon—there's no place like Vegas.)

While Jibran and I cooled our heels in front of Ceilee's TV set, Ceilee (working in concert with the AmEx concierge) was able to wangle a reservation at Lagasse Stadium for the second games, starting at 1 pm. Because they needed to show up right away to secure the spot, he asked me to meet him there, inside the Plazzo casino. I no sooner hung up than the women waltzed in the door post-yoga, and Tosca decided spontaneously that the opportunity to experience Lagasse Stadium was too enticing to pass up. Grabbing her purse, we jumped in the car and headed for the Strip. If you're keeping score at home, that left Annie, Ma'ikwe, and Jibran at Mountains Edge and Juanita, Laurie, and Taivyn in Henderson.

The Middle Action
Tosca & I were the last to arrive at Lagasse, settling into cushy banquette seating just as the first games were winding down. We just had time to get down a beer and a few final bets before the second games started and we were ushered into Luxury Box #3 (of a total of six). There, in addition to exclusive access to four large-screen digital TVs (showing each of the four games happening concurrently), we had a private waitress and our own pool table (in case the games were not sufficiently riveting or aerobic). It was, in short, a trip.

The food, as expected, was excellent. The football, while up an down, was also as expected. None of the bettors did particularly well, nor did any suffer horribly (I finished the four-day run having wagered $170 and netting $7.55 (which is a particularly modest gain in light having taken Ceilee for $10 in a couple games of 8-ball). As the football wound down, Tosca lost interest early, and after wandering outside the luxury suite, she settled into a session of video poker. She hadn't been there for more than 15 minutes when word came back that she'd won one pot for $134 and another for $80. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that put the taste in her mouth and thoughts of returning home to pick up the suspended game of Arkham Horror faded into the background.

The Late Action
When Philadelphia finally pulled it out with a late field goal against Denver and the last of the second games had ended, we quit our box at Lagasse Stadium. After Ceilee retrieved his car from valet parking, he gave it to Bob to drive back to Henderson. It was 5 pm and the rest of us had the evening in front of us. Walking back upstairs into the casino, people wanted to gamble. As I felt I'd had enough gambling on football, I was happy just to be with my kids and watch. Ceilee & Jo played blackjack side by side, while I stood behind them and coached Jo (in such fine pints as not taking a hit that risked her going bust if the dealer's up card was a 4, 5, or 6—as there are no longer many chances for me to teach my grown kids anything that they're interested in learning, I take my opportunities where I find them). While no winning streak went supernova, neither did the dealer become Darth Vader, and both of my kids finished slightly up.

Meanwhile, Tosca—she of the hot hand—opted for three-card poker, where she promptly hit a straight flush worth $600. When I walked over to congratulate her on her success, I watched her cash three 7s for an additional big payday, and the game was on. After taking a break to go to the bathroom, Tosca resumed her one-woman assault on the house by tackling roulette, where she won again.

By this point, we'd been gambling for about two hours and Laurie called, wondering what the plan was for the rest of the evening—she had dropped Taivyn off at Mountains Edge and wanted to meet up with the group on the Strip (though not particularly a gambler, she wanted to party). Simultaneously, Ma'ikwe also called to find out what was happening. Jibran was getting pretty frustrated about losing his chance to play Arkham Horror and Ma'ikwe couldn't understand people choosing to gamble over spending the last evening together as family. I could see it both ways and knew that there wasn't going to be an easy fit between what was wanted by the group on the Strip and the group at Mountains Edge.

On the one hand, it was easy to sympathize with Ma'ikwe wanting to be with family, and I knew that the casino wasn't going to do it. Jibran, as a minor, couldn't be there at all, and Ma'ikwe needed something more calming than casino action.

On the other hand, it was equally easy to sympathize with Ceilee, Jo, and Tosca wanting to stay on the Strip: it was a rare night out where they knew that Taivyn was being well taken care of; Ceilee & Jo were getting some rare adult sibling time together; and they had prospects of getting some time with Laurie where the young adults could frolic together.

It's hard when everyone's desires don't line up well, and it was a downer ending to an otherwise highly enjoyable visit. Tosca and Ceilee had gone out of their way to totally welcome Ma'ikwe, Jibran and me into their home for a holiday weekend, and completely included us in the Christmas ritual. The Sports Book gambling session Sunday was the exception to that, and yet that was the lingering aftertaste and I felt powerless to deflect her anger. Sometimes you just have to take it.

The Even Later Action
After listening to Ma'ikwe's lament it seemed the sensible thing for me to do was to take Tosca's car and return home. Though I had been drinking beer at Lagasse Stadium, I had quit when the football ended and I was in good shape to drive (unlike the gamblers, who had continued to imbibe as they flowed onto the casino floor). They knew they'd be taking a taxi home and were fine with my taking the car.

I got home without mishap a little after 8 pm, just as Annie, Ma'ikwe and Jibran had started watching the latest Star Trek movie on pay-per-view. Ma'ikwe was in a better space by the time I had returned (and was relieved that I didn't reek of alcohol). After the movie, we all went to bed, and I never heard the arrival of the late night revelers circa 3 am.

While I was somewhat wistful about not spending those extra hours with my kids when they were having fun together, I needed to drive to Albuquerque the next day and I was thoroughly grateful to have had a full night's sleep. Also, my returning home was the right thing to do in support of Ma'ikwe, who especially needs to be able to count on me as she weathers her current health challenges.
• • •
So what is the lesson? While I'm still sorting that out, I think there's something about acceptance, something about patience, and something about not expecting all the puzzle pieces to fit together just because that would be handy.

The lifestyles of the 11 people in this drama demonstrably do not fit together. We nevertheless make an attempt in the name of family, which is both admirable and understandable, yet undeniably a stretch. Looked at from this perspective, I don't think that the tensions that surfaced Sunday are anyone's fault per se. Rather, I think that some degree of awkwardness was inevitable. The question is how can we anticipate and prepare for it better?

Ma'ikwe and I have to sort of how much it makes sense to spend time with people and in settings that are more comfortable for one of us than the other. While we generally enjoy being together (and the opportunities to do so are precious given that we don't live together), that may not always be the right choice.

While I'm not going to give up seeing my kids, Ma'ikwe and I probably have to negotiate more carefully about how and/or whether it's going to work for her and/or Jibran to be with me and my kids at the same time. I don't want anyone to be unhappy, yet I also don't feel that the responsibility for everyone's happiness lies wholly with me. Sunday evening I was forced to choose between my kids and my wife, and I didn't like it one bit. As I digest what happened last weekend, I'm going to try hard to do what I can to avoid being caught in that same situation in the future.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Home is Where the Hart Is

Home is one of those elephant words, whose meaning at any given time depends upon which part you’re touching. This is the second installment of a blog series where I unpack some of those meanings…

Essentially, I experience home as the familiar yet precious elements of our lives. Home is where we feel seen and connected. It is where we touch our roots and the place from where we fruit. It is at once a paradoxical touchstone that is both now and hopelessly distorted by a past that we can never really return to, nor ever truly free ourselves from.

Here’s the outline of my series:

—home as family (Dec 24, 2009)

—home as place

—home as culture

—home as routine

—home as work

In this second entry, I’ll focus on Home as Place.

I've been living in the same place for more than 35 years. While that statement would hardly qualify as remarkable for most of human history, it is a rare today—at least in the US, where we have become a highly mobile society and there is little resistance to scratching the itch of wanderlust. In fact, I know hardly anyone who is living today in the same place they were living in 1974.

Apropos my theme, and people knowing where they live, there is a great story that Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel) tells about traveling in the jungles of New Guinea. The group of locals he is journeying with explores beyond the boundaries of its tribal territory and finds it itself unexpectedly needing to bivouac overnight in an unfamiliar location. Needing food, a few break off to forage and return with a quantity of mushrooms. When Diamond expresses his uneasiness over taking a chance on eating fungi found in unknown territory, his hosts reply with disdain, "Why would we feed you poisonous mushrooms?"

The point here being that "civilized" people, such as Diamond (and you and me), have largely been raised without a developed sense of our local environment, and mostly wouldn't know which mushrooms are safe to eat. In contrast, indigenous people tend to be much better connected with their local environment and probably have known which foods were safe to eat since they were five years old. Our lives used to depend on that kind of knowledge. And while you might reasonably argue that they still do, few people today are that aware of the place where they live.

Instead, Home as Place has come to mean familiar sights and sensations: the unique feel of your own bed; the spot where you drink your morning cup of coffee; the view out the west window at sunset; how rain sounds on the porch roof; the smell of the workshop.

Because my community (Sandhill Farm) places a high priority on raising the food we eat, I have gradually extended these markers of home to include more subtle signs, gleaned from a third of a century of homesteading:

o I know within 24 hours when the spring peepers will emerge from the mud to launch their vernal chorus. More than just monitoring the thermometer, it is a matter of sensing the right combination of warmth, length of day, and rising humidity. My body has come to know that combination when I feel it each March.

o I know when to cut hay. While the nutritional value peaks when about 10% of the seed heads have emerged from their sheaths, it is more complicated than that. The cool weather grasses like brome and orchard grass are ready in May and that's also our wettest month. If you cut grass on wet ground it will mold from underneath; if you wait until the ground is completely dry, it may be June. You have to consider the maturity of the crop, the dampness of the earth, and the prospects for enough sunny weather to cure the crop and get it baled before the next thunderhead spoils the lot.

o How many know the optimum temperature for churning cream into butter? It's 62 degrees Fahrenheit. Though Sandhill no longer has its own dairy herd, I used to make butter a lot, and got good enough at sensing the right temperature that I could tell when it was time just by feeling the side of the churn as the cream gradually warmed. If you hit it right, you can turn a gallon-and-a-half of cream into three pounds of butter in about five minutes. If you start with the cream too cold it can take 20 minutes; if you let the cream get too warm, the butter won't separate well from the buttermilk and the butter will tend to sour.

o Garlic is one of our culinary staples (we only semi-joke when we tell prospective members that they can have any dietary preferences they want… as long as they eat onions and garlic). While planting garlic is straight forward—pretty much any time in the fall before freeze up will do—the art to being self-sufficient in the stinking rose is knowing when to harvest and how to store your bulbs.

Garlic is ready when the bottom pair of leaves turn brown. In northeast Missouri that usually occurs around July 1, give or take a week. Once we get close, we pay close attention to the weather, as it's far less work if we can get into the field about 48 hours after a good rain. The rain will soften the ground (meaning most bulbs can be extracted by hand instead of requiring the assistance of a garden fork), and the two days of sunny weather will mean that most of the dirt can be crumbled off the roots by hand (instead of extracting gooey mud balls with each plant).

After that it takes about 30 days for the bulbs to cure in an outbuilding, where summer temperatures and good air flow will gently extract the excess moisture. Then, before the drying goes too far, we trim the bulbs and place them loosely into boxes where they're stored on the concrete floor on an earth-sheltered building. There, the cool temperatures, medium humidity, and modest air flow will keep them in good condition until needed—even into the following spring.

o In these modern times, where most countrysides has been thoroughly reconfigured by modern agriculture, the two largest undomesticated species remaining in northeast Missouri are wild turkeys and white-tailed deer. The combination of low human density (my county has fewer humans than the high school I attended in the suburbs of Chicago) and plentiful woodlands (more than 10%) makes ideal habitat for these species (as well as for raccoons and possums).

In fact, over the years we've lived here, the population of both turkey and deer has increased, to the point where some locals earn more from renting ground to out-of-state hunters than from farming.
When it's not firearm season for deer, I enjoy walking the woods (which is fully 40% of Sandhill's property), looking for deer trails and where they bed down for the night. In the spring, I can find clutches of wild turkey eggs by watching where the hens flare up from their nests when I wander too close while stalking for morels.
• • •
Having now invested 35 years in learning some of the natural rhythms of my home place, these lessons have become precious to me. And they are all the more valuable in that I am often not here to enjoy them. One of the paradoxes of my community life is that I feel called upon these days to spend a large fraction of my time on the road extolling its virtues (or consulting with others about how to better unlock its secrets), rather than staying at home enjoying the fruits of my investment.

As this is the last day of 2009, I did some toting up. In the last 12 months I've slept in 46 different places that were not my own bed, and that doesn't count any of the 23 nights I slept on a train. Fortunately,
the vast majority of these beds were with friends or clients, and only three were in commercial establishments. With luck, I won't sleep in any commercial beds next year, and I'll spend the entire year either enjoying the place I call home, or sampling a place that's home to someone else I know.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I'll Be Home for Christmas; Just Not in My Own Bed

Home is one of those elephant words, whose meaning at any given time depends upon which part you’re touching. As I’ve promised Ma’ikwe that I’d unpack some of those meanings in a blog series, this seems as propitious time as any to begin…

Essentially, I experience home as the familiar yet precious elements of our lives. Home is where we feel seen and connected. It is where we touch our roots and the place from where we fruit. It is at once a paradoxical touchstone that is both now and hopelessly distorted by a past that we can never really return to nor ever truly free ourselves from.

Here’s the outline of my series:

—home as family

—home as place

—home as culture

—home as routine

—home as work

In this first entry, I’ll focus on Home as Family.

Home for the Holidays
Christmas is coming! Whether or not the goose is getting fat or I place a penny in an old man’s hat, I’m going to be with family—which is something I look forward to with relish (often made with cranberry at this time of year). I’m typing this in the partly sunny skies of northern Arizona as Ma’ikwe, Jibran, and I zoom west along I-40, inbound for a rendezvous with my son Ceilee, his wife Tosca, and his daughter (my granddaughter) Taivyn for the long Christmas weekend. Ceilee’s mother (and my ex-partner and dear friend) Annie flew in from Virginia yesterday, and my daughter (Ceilee’s sister) will join us Christmas Day. Ma’ikwe’s got Paul Simon’s 1991 Concert in the Park cranked up on the tape player, and we’ll be there by dinner. Life is good.

When I was growing up, I did Christmas with my parents. By my late 20's, after having a kid of my own, Annie and I started Celebratign Christmas at Sandhill. Now the wheel has turned again, and we parents are traveling to our son's. It's both different, and exactly the same.

While it's important to me to protect time with my kids as much as possible, I especially cherish being with them at holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, where it is possible to suspend one’s everyday routines to be with loved ones for days at a time. Thus, today I’m driving home to family. Even though Sandhill, where my mail comes, is 1000 miles in the rear view mirror, in the sense of the word I’m exploring today home is wherever my family is. Thus, if we‘re all together in one spot, then that location is assuredly home.

This year the timing is nearly perfect. We'll arrive within minutes of when Ceilee is expected to get off work Wed afternoon, and we'll depart Monday morning, just as he's due to head back in.

Home for the Holidaze
As it happens, Ceilee and Tosca live in Las Vegas (the glitzy one in Nevada; not the sleepy one in New Mexico), which is perhaps as great a testament to consumption and excess as one can find. The lights of Ceilee’s Christmas tree will be backlit by the never-extinguished twinkle of The Strip, just a few miles to the northeast. (Given Las Vegas’ tireless efforts to promote itself as a major sports venue, you might think of it as the Magi meets Mammon in the best two of three falls.)

While Ma’ikwe, Annie, and I have consciously chosen lives of inconspicuous consumption (at least by first world standards), my son has not and it’s a measure of our love of family that we’re not going to let a little materialism get in the way of a good time. We all like giving one another presents, and no one will be cheated out of the unwrapping ritual Friday morning.

The greater danger, when it comes to the Holidaze, is not so much getting caught up in a billboard driven urge to see Carrot Top live at the Luxor, as it is to not over-indulge in holiday spirits. In the end, no one is proof against libations with too much proof.

Home for the Hollandaise
There are a number of ways in which I bond and celebrate with my kids, including game playing (the internecine Siedler competition is downright fierce), butchering (we did that at Thanksgiving), eating and drinking (hence my cautionary note above), and even wilderness canoeing (we’re hoping to get up to the Northwest Territories next summer). But for all of that, there is perhaps nothing we enjoy doing together more than cooking. While everyone in the family enjoys dining out, we’re accomplished enough in the kitchen (and sufficiently vain about it) to begrudge a meal out when we can often prepare the same thing as well or better ourselves, and at a fraction of the cost.

Ma’ikwe and I have brought with us new crop piñons from the Land of Enchantment, so that we can prepare a dessert featuring vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, and toasted pine nuts. And we couldn’t resist scooping up two-thirds of the fresh brussels sprouts last night at La Montañita (Albuquerque's local food co-op), knowing how terrific they’ll taste after having been kissed by a frost. We’ll steam them until barely tender and then smother them in home-made Hollandaise. Yum!

Of course, that’s just a taste. In five days there’s sure to be time for such family traditions as plum pudding, a roasted turkey, egg nog, baked garlic, and ribbon sandwiches, not necessarily in that order.

I can hardly wait to find out what we’ll cook up. Just like a little kid, I can hardly wait to be home for the holidays.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Consensus of Opinion

Are you familiar with that phrase? I am.

When I was a child, my parents used to drum into my head the redundancy of the expression consensus of opinion (if you ever wondered where my snobbery with words originated, look no further). What else, they reasoned, could a "consensus" refer to, except a collection of viewpoints held in

Today, however, I want to lament the lack of consensus about the meaning of the word consensus, about which I have a definite opinion. My friend Tony Sirna suggested this topic in an email yesterday:

"As the Senate now considers 60 votes needed to pass health care, if the Democrats just forget about the Republicans, then the Democrats essentially need to come to consensus (or at least unanimity) to pass health care.
It's interesting to see how they are stumbling through that process and how up in arms people get about the notion of one person blocking things.
It would be interesting to talk about how this is and is not like consensus."

As this topic appeals to me, here are my thoughts:

The Definitions
Consensus has two main meanings, which unfortunately have a tendency to overlap, fostering confusion: a) it is a specific decision-making process; and b) it refers to a preponderance of people holding a similar viewpoint, which can (sadly, because of the imprecision) mean anything from a bare majority to a unanimous opinion.

The former definition has a couple of roots. The dominant one in US culture is from the meeting practices developed by the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. The lesser known one is from certain Native American tribes, particularly those comprising the Iroquois Confederation. In the '60s, the Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society pioneered a secularized version of consensus as a decision-making process, adapting the Quaker practice for use in the realm of political activism. Today, consensus, in one form or another, is the most common mode of decision-making adopted by intentional communities. Mind you, I didn't say it was well understood, or widely practiced with consummate skill; only that is was used a lot.

While there are a number of versions of consensus practiced among communities and cooperative groups today (the confusion around which has substantially contributed to my workload as a process consultant), it is clearly understood that agreements cannot be reached if there is any member—even one—standing in the way of a proposal. This is referred to as blocking.
While I'm constantly amazed at how many groups blithely opt for consensus as their decision-making process without any attempt to learn what it is beyond reading a book or hearing someone describe it once, there's no question that it's a popular choice among groups determined to find a more cooperative method for reaching agreements.

The latter definition is used to indicate which way the wind is blowing when focusing on a particular issue. It is commonly pressed into service to describe the position currently favored in a political analysis and is scale independent (that is, it's just as likely to be used to label a dominant position at a PTA meeting as a position in the US Senate, as Tony did above). While consensus, when used in this sense, often has a flavor of "a strong or overwhelming majority" (as in votes to burn), that is not always the case, contributing merrily to the obfuscation.

The overlap of these two definitions is that they can both be employed to describe a situation where people are trying to decide what to do, and both are associated with the "winning" position. If the process of decision-making is consensus, then the term refers to the absence of any principled objection. If the process is voting (a la the US Senate), then consensus refers to having secured enough votes to win. In both cases, consensus refers to there being sufficient agreement to determine the outcome.

The Confusion
This similarity of definitions and overlap of usage leads to considerable mischief. Because the cultures in which consensus (the decision-making process) and voting are designed to operate are as different as night and day, when a person speaks of "forging a consensus" the implications are wholly dependent on the context.

In consensus, agreement is ideally built by a process that fosters curiosity, compassion, and creativity. In voting, agreement is reached through a process of coalition-building, compromise, and calculation (often augmented by combativeness, concessions, and control). Now, finally, we are getting to the point Tony was raising about the quality of the Senate's machinations regarding the health care bill.

Note how difficult (schizophrenic?) it would be for the Democrats to apply the culture of consensus to forge agreement on their position, only to turn around and apply the power of that agreement in order to win the vote, which decision resides firmly in the other paradigm and is the one they're deeply steeped in. (It generates the kind of brain-freeze headache you get from eating ice cream too fast.) It is all the more improbable (though the goddess only knows our society needs this kind of cultural change) that Senators would embrace the culture of consensus in that they were elected by succeeding at electoral politics. While there are historic examples of people who had epiphanies about the way they conducted business after they ascended to power, they are scarcer than potato seed and I'm not holding my breath waiting for consensus conversations among the US Senate.

When Obama opted during the 2008 election campaign to promote an image as someone who could work both sides of the aisle, he was essentially claiming the ability to use the process of consensus to get things done in Washington without the divisiveness of politics as usual. It is instructive that this message helped to get him elected, yet hard-boiled political professionals are now using this claim against him, as a sign of his weakness and a wishy-washy nature—something not admired or deemed effective in the culture of voting, where the preemptive strike is applauded, and curiosity is spun as indecisiveness and looked upon with scorn.

Note further how ridiculous it is to talk about one or two Democrats "blocking" a unified party position when there are 40 Republicans poised to join them in voting against the health care bill. This kind of high-level posturing is the ponderous dance of the political pachyderms, and there is no lightfootedness or what's-best-for the-country nonpartisan thinking about it—however much breast-beating there is to the contrary.

The Conclusion
I believe that if we want politicians to operate from the culture of consensus, then we'll have to find a way to build neighborhoods and cities that operate from that culture, and then insist that we have representatives just like us. Can I get consensus about that?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Strangers at the Table

Ma'ikwe and I are visiting Hummingbird Ranch, a beautifully sited community tucked into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside of Mora NM. Fortunately, the weather has been benign enough to all us access to (and hopefully tomorrow, egress from) their winding entrance road.

A year and a half ago, the Fellowship for Intentional Community held its spring organizational meetings at Hummingbird, and part of the deal we made in exchange for hosting was that I offer some process consulting. (Barter of this kind is a standard offering we make when searching for a meeting site, and it works out well—simultaneously keeping our costs down and deepening connections with the host.) While it took a while to arrange a good time for me to honor the process commitment, Ma'ikwe and I are making good on that right now.

The community asked for a Consensus training, so that they could better understand how that compares with the Attuned Alignment decision-making process that they've pioneered (for more information about that, check out their publication, The Co-Creator's Handbook), and in yesterday's session we got into an interesting side conversation about integrating new members. In particular, at what point does it make sense to invite new people to participate in community deliberations? I think that's a great question.

At my community, Sandhill Farm, we typically invite prospective members—even visitors—to attend community meetings, as it's a terrific way for them to get deep insights into the group's dynamics and for us to assess how savvy they are about communication and how we solve problems. We observe how much they speak, how much their comments are apropos, and discuss with them afterward what they observed and what their impressions were. The new people are generally flattered to have been allowed to sit in, and the information we get about their experience has proven to be an excellent predictor to who's likely to be a good fit if they wan t to pursue membership. On top of that, we've rarely had a problem with people inserting themselves inappropriately into our deliberations to the point where it's seriously getting in the way.

That said, there is a legitimate concern that untrained or uninitiated folks can disrupt the flow or sense of safety in a meeting, especially if the group's discussing difficult or sensitive topics. As such, at Sandhill we reserve the right to call a closed, members-only meeting. Though we invoke this only rarely, we make it clear to new folks that this is a possibility, and occasionally some members are relieved to make that choice (most commonly when we're discussing critical feedback about someone in the community and are unsure how best to proceed—it often feels more constructive to keep the circulation of such information to a minimum, while committing to provide all parties who have been excluded from the meeting with a summary of what was discussed).

In the case of Hummingbird, they have many visitors and some members have grown weary of new people taking up valuable plenary time with naive suggestions or requests to be filled in about what they alone don't know. As this can be a real concern, I offered two possible ways to cope with this short of banning non-members from meetings:

First, you can ask the new folks to observe only. You might give them a chance to share how they experienced the meeting during the time for evaluation at the end, or you might assign an established member the job of discussing with the new people how it went in a one-on-one conversation after the fact.

Second, if you're willing to be more expansive, you might allow the new folks to participate, with three caveats: a) that they do their best to be respectful of the group and to take into account that they may not know sufficient background on a topic to contribute constructively; b) that they will not be allowed to block a proposal; and c) that the group reserves the right to not spend plenary time trying to catch the new person up on what they don't understand.

Essentially, this becomes a choice of whether it's more challenging to have the rhythm and safety of the meeting be at risk (by allowing the new people to participate), or more problematic to have the new people complain about being excluded by a group that claims it's committed to diversity and inclusivity. Pick your poison.

In the end, I think the best you can do is to explain to new people at the outset why the group has a policy that allows exclusion, the conditions under which that right might be invoked, and the pathway by which the new person can earn the right to fully participate. If the group does all this, and also commits to reaching out to the new person and listening to what their experience was like (of having limited rights to participate in the meeting), then I think you have a good chance of coming through this with minimal hard feelings.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Adventures in Hydrotherapy

It is my first morning at Ojo Caliente, where Ma'ikwe and I will be for three days of combined birthday present to each other. Already we've had an adventure.

Setting the Stage
Ojo is a mineral hot springs in the high desert of New Mexico, about an hour north, northwest of Santa Fe, nestled between the Chama and Rio Grande Rivers. First identified as a healing place by Native Americans centuries ago, the site was developed as a recuperative spa (a Latin acronym, by the way, from Salus Per Aquas, or health through water
) by Antonio Joseph in 1868, and has been continuously operated as a privately owned business ever since.

Ojo Caliente (which translates to warm eye in Spanish—don't you just love that image for a geothermal spring?) is unique in that there are four separate hot springs that emerge at this one location, featuring iron, arsenic, lithium, and soda—affording guests a semi-bewildering array of options for how to treat what ails you. The pools come in different temperatures as well as flavors, and options are augmented by a sauna, a regular swimming pool, and a rich menu of therapeutic wraps, mud treatments, and massages.

The Afternoon Surprise
Ma'ikwe and I checked in yesterday afternoon. After settling into our room, we strolled down to the wine bar and enjoyed an excellent glass of '06 merlot. Then we donned our swimming attire and robes and headed for the waters. Our first choice was the arsenic pool, which is the hottest at 105 degrees. In the 40-degree outdoor ambient temperature, we could soak (at various degrees of immersion) for about 10 minutes at a time before becoming sufficiently parboiled that a break was in order.

After a few rounds of that I was interested in a dip in the iron pool, followed by a sauna (having been here once before, two years ago, I had a definite idea about how best to build up a state of euphoria as well as an appetite for dinner in the excellent Artesian Restaurant on the premises). As Ma'ikwe wanted to linger in the luxuriation of the hottest waters, we separated.

Imagine my surprise about 10 minutes later when the attendant in the sauna area asked if my wife were at the arsenic pool. Casually admitting that that was so, she went on to inform me that my wife had just passed out. Oops. Now we were off script.

By the time I got there, Ma'ikwe was lying on the concrete next to the pool, swaddled in towels and surrounded by concerned staff. She was a little weak, yet fully conscious and I figured whatever happened couldn't be too bad because she was serving up her typical witty comebacks whenever anyone asked how she was doing.

According to Ma'ikwe, and corroborated by a couple of other women who were near her at the same time, she stood up to leave the pool and felt dizzy. She immediately sat down on the side of the pool. When the dizziness persisted she started to lower her heads between her knees, and passed out before she got there. The next thing she remembered was lying on the concrete next to the pool, looking up. The two women, who attended to her right away and got staff assistance, reported that she was out for about five seconds. On the way down she scraped her face, hand, and knee, but all of that was superficial and there was no concussion.

The protocol in this situation (which makes perfect sense to me if I put myself in the shoes of spa operators) is to call the local EMT, to make sure that the fainting didn't presage anything more serious. The husband and wife team (Craig & Catherine) showed up minutes later and efficiently and respectfully went through the routine checking of blood pressure, pulse, and oxygen and blood sugar levels in the blood. This was followed by a basic scan of body parts and reflexes, and asking the obligatory questions about what day it was and who was president.

As Ma'ikwe had good responses for all these tests, everyone relaxed. Though the emergency response protocol requires EMTs to recommend that someone be checked out at a hospital whenever fainting occurs (for a deeper look at potential underlying problems), we politely declined and signed a release, which Craig & Catherine took in stride. As it happens, Ma'ikwe travels with arnica (in pills and cream no less) and everyone agreed that taking that right away was a good idea (even though Craig & Catherine could only advise that "off the record," lest they run afoul of their allopathic accreditation).

While the excitement of the afternoon led to a more subdued evening (entirely appropriate for Ma'ikwe's health, yet not exactly what we had lined up for our couples retreat), it left us pondering why exactly she'd fainted. Understandably, Ma'ikwe was frustrated that her body wasn't performing up to snuff.

Ma'ikwe has been struggling with overall symptoms of weakness and achiness for several weeks, and has been suspecting that she may have some form of fibromyalgia. This possibility had been confirmed by a trusted health practitioner (Carla) that Ma'ikwe saw on Friday—who has the triple threat credentials of DOM (Doctor of Oriental Medicine), ND (Naturopathic Doctor), and RN (Registered Nurse). While the diagnosis was based solely on symptoms and is not conclusive, Ma'ikwe is trying it on, and extra rest is strongly advised.

In addition, Ma'ikwe is trying to treat herself in a variety of ways including the ingestion of vitamin supplements, one of which is a B-complex. Because she's shown a sensitivity to taking B-vitamins in the past (they were recommended during her pregnancies—13 and five years ago—yet she invariably felt nauseous and threw up whenever she attempted them in pill form), Carla recommended trying B's in liquid form, where it's easier to fine tune the dosage. While Carla would ordinarily recommend 10 drops daily for someone in Ma'ikwe's situation, she suggested starting cautiously and gradually increasing the dosage if everything went well.

Friday and Saturday, Ma'ikwe put her toe into the B-complex waters with two-three drops of the liquid supplement. As she had no adverse reaction, yesterday she took six.

Taken all together, three days at a spa sounded just right, and we thoroughly enjoyed the two-hour drive north from Albuquerque on a sunny Sunday afternoon. So what went wrong? Here's what we've puzzled out:

—Ma'ikwe is suffering from a general sense of weakness and achiness (possibly fibromyalgia).
—We increased our altitude by a 1000 feet (to 6200).
While it doesn't happen often, she has a health history of occasionally fainting.
—She'd just doubled the dosage of a supplement known to make her nauseous.
—She'd had a glass of wine (and no water) right before entering the pool.
—Hot tubs (which the arsenic pool essentially is) dehydrate users.

Pieced together this way, it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that jumping into hot water was, well, like jumping into hot water. No wonder she fainted.

• • •
Today, thankfully, Ma'ikwe feels much better. Though she still has some raw souvenirs of her header onto the concrete, those will heal quickly. Today she's going to get back on the horse by attempting the less thermally challenging iron pool and has vowed to drink more water, while eschewing wine and B-vitamins.

I can hardly wait to see how relaxing today will be.

Friday, December 11, 2009


While I know that most of us associate the number 1040 with the form that individuals must file annually with IRS, it also happens to be the exact number of miles we put on the car when Ma'ikwe, Jibran, and I drove to Albuquerque Wednesday night through Thursday afternoon. Ufda.

Fortunately, most of the heavy snow predicted to be dumped on northeast Missouri missed us. As the line of freezing temperature skated to our north, most of the precipitation fell as drizzle and the highway department was more than equal to the task of keeping the roads cleared. When the skies cleared Wednesday evening, temperatures went into free fall and our biggest challenge was the bitter cold and a stiff headwind. We were relieved to exit the cocoon of our car for breakfast in Liberal (does it strike you as odd that there's a major population center located smack in the middle of arch-conservative western Kansas labeled "Liberal"?) and notice that the sun had already pushed temperatures into the 20s. We were going to make it!

Further buoyed by the maple syrup on our pancakes and the caffeine in our coffee, we were borderline euphoric when we remounted for the final one third of our trip. The biggest remaining challenge was rotating drivers frequently enough to keep the person in the left front seat awake (while the person in the right front seat napped).

Though there was evidence of snow all along our route, nowhere was the accumulation daunting and there was hardly any on the roads through Tijeras Pass, where I-40 snakes through the Sandia Mountains that protect Albuquerque's eastern side. We slid painlessly into Thursday afternoon's rush hour traffic, and negotiated the final urban miles without mishap.

We were warmly greeted by our five-lettered hosts—Denis, Zaida, and Nandi—who had a merry wood fire,
a savory lentil soup, and the bonhomie of conversation with close friends to ease our reentry to civilization. It was a soft landing, and it took all of Ma'ikwe's and my reserves to stay present through dinner, after which we were graciously allowed to sink into bed (at 6:30 pm) and the willing arms of Morpheus, whose amazing recuperative powers we benefited from throughout the night. Ah, sleep.

Now Friday, it is the first day of our Southwest vacation. While our hosts are at work and school, Jibran is visiting his best friend, Ma'ikwe is off to a doctor appointment, and I'm writing reports (the loose ends that did not get tied up before my Missouri departure, yet which stand between me and a truly relaxing time at the hot springs in Ojo Caliente starting Sunday afternoon).

Tomorrow, Ma'ikwe and I will join Zaida and others in presenting a free all-day workshop on community living. It's being organized (after a fashion) by a friend who is long on good energy, yet short on structure, which means we have little idea how many will be showing up or what they'd like to get out of the experience. It's an exercise in letting go and trusting the Force (or the goddess of minimalist planning—do you know her?). It should be an interesting day, if somewhat chaotic. Think of it as workshop improv.

Anyway, that's the report from my first 18 hours in Albuquerque, 10-4.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Snow Job

About a week ago I started hearing from friends around the country who were reporting their first snow of the winter. While there have been a number of years at Sandhill where our first flurries appeared in October, that was not the case this year and it appeared that everyone was getting snow before we did.

I got emails reporting sightings from Virginia, Colorado, and even Louisiana of all places. Now, finally, it's northeast Missouri's turn, and it appears we will make up in quantity what we lacked in precociousness. We awoke to a dusting yesterday and today it's supposed to start in earnest, with four inches expected by nightfall, followed by an additional half foot in the night. That's a lot, and I have a mixed reaction to this forecast.

Mostly I have a positive association with snow and winter weather—unless I'm driving in it. It evokes cozy warmth by the wood stove with a cup of coffee and a good book; the exhilaration and gliding delight of cross country skiing; the all-over tingling sensation of rolling naked in downy crystals of cold as soft as fels naptha after a sauna; the sound-dampened hush of the barren woods; the unlimited potential of a slate wiped clean.

On the other side of the equation, I am dismayed at the prospect of the big dump because, in this instance, I do have to drive in it. Tomorrow night—after my weekly indulgence in duplicate bridge at the club in Kirksville—Ma'ikwe, Jibran, and I plan to journey straight through to Albuquerque for the start of a three-week vacation with friends and family. Ordinarily this drive takes about 18 hours. This time it might be more of an adventure, and I'm immediately reminded of the same trip the three of us undertook the last week of December two years ago, where we unexpectedly got the opportunity to spend New Year's in a motel room in Amarillo because I-40 was iced over the last 300 miles to Albuquerque. I'm fervently hoping not to replicate that experience.

On top of the precipitous forecast, temperatures Wed night are supposed to plunge into negative digits. How good can it get? Fortunately, the car we'll be taking is small and the heater works fine. My biggest concern is icy roads, but luckily, temperatures that cold are incompatible with snowy skies and it will have to clear off for the mercury to drop that low. By staying on major highways I'm reasonably certain that road conditions will be acceptable. Excepting outright blizzards and gale force winds, the most dreaded condition is freezing rain and that, at least, is not in the forecast.

I suppose the silver lining is that winter weather excitement might help keep Ma'ikwe and I awake through the all-night vigil, but I've found as I've gotten older that the adventurous aspect of marathon road trips palls, and I'd just as soon have a boring, clear road with temperatures a more seasonal 40 degrees.

While I gird my loins for the 900-mile road trip Wed night, I am simultaneously trying to buoy my spirits with the prospect of cross country skiing on fresh powder tomorrow afternoon. My dear friend Annie would refer to this as a chance to "burn some ash," which I believe is analogous to occasionally taking the car out for highway speed driving in order to burn off carbon deposits. Humans have been hard-wired for physical exertion and not good things happen when the extent of one's activity is stroking a keyboard and opening the mail. Because 18 hours in front of a steering wheel will not qualify as a
physical change of pace (the modest benefit of a manual transmission is canceled out by power steering), I am looking forward to the elevated heart rate associated with 30 minutes or so of cross country skiing.

The goddess only knows what lies in store for us on our return journey from Las Vegas to Rutledge Dec 28-29, where the most direct route takes us through the heart of the Rockies. I can hardly wait.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Cold Start

About 35 years ago I was visiting college friends in Minneapolis in early January. On a whim, we decided to go winter camping in Grantsburg WI, just across the St Croix River from Pine City. We drove to a wooded area, showshoed about a quarter mile in to a frozen pond and set up camp. While there was a lot of brave talk while huddled around the camp stove preparing dinner, one night at 30 degrees below zero was about all the fun we could stand. Nobody slept that well and our car was so frozen that we weren't able to get it started without a jump the next morning. We considered it a moral victory that no one suffered frostbite.

I was reminded of that memory last night, sleeping at Ma'ikwe's new house over at Dancing Rabbit. Though the outdoor temperatures were far more moderate—20 degrees above zero—we were effectively indoor camping in an enclosed-though-not-yet-tight two-story house. We were sleeping on the ground floor, and the BTUs from the wood stove were merrily congregating near the second story ceiling—too far away to do us much good. My initial attempt to sleep without socks or my wool knit hat (as I would ordinarily at home, even on the coldest nights) did not work, and Ma'ikwe and I spent the night alternately warming our front back and sides next to each other under three layers of blankets. The term "bracing" only barely begins to describe the experience. Briskly walking home this morning, I actually warmed up in the course of the three-mile jaunt. The trick in cold weather is to keep moving.

Now home at Sandhill, I'm composing this blog in the relative warmth of a well-insulated house. Ma'ikwe and her 12-year-old son Jibran, are facing three months of winter in a house that cannot be easily heated. Brr.

Ma'ikwe did a terrific job to get her house from groundbreaking to enclosed in one season, yet the house is far from complete and only marginally livable at this point. Given that Ma'ikwe doesn't particularly enjoy cold weather, it's all the more impressive that she's embracing a Little House on the Prairie homesteading experience until spring. (No doubt her resolve to not repeat this pioneer reenactment next winter will keep her on task to complete construction in the coming year.)

The hardest part will be keeping her spirits from dropping with the thermometer. While some tasks aren't possible in freezing conditions—such as adding additional coats of plaster to the straw bales—there are still many things that can be done to make progress in the winter, such as mudding the drywall on the ceiling, framing interior walls, weatherstripping the doors, and making quilted curtains for the windows. Beyond that, it'll be important that Ma'ikwe stays actively involved in other efforts (such as writing, or planning her community's annual retreat in February), lest cold weather lethargy lead to depression.

Fortunately, my wife is a courageous woman, and I'm optimistic that she'll weather the challenges of winter well. And come March, she'll probably have a deeper appreciation for the warmth and promise of spring than most of us.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Problem Solving and Community

As the FIC's main administrator, I do a fair number of press interviews—about 2-3/month. Thus, I get a lot of practice coming up with sound bites that nuggetize the essence of community living. Up until recently, my favorite had been:

The essential challenge of cooperative living is learning how to disagree about non-trivial matters and have that be a unifying experience.

While I still like that one, lately I've been test driving a newer model:

Intentional community is about learning how to solve problems without running anyone over or leaving anyone behind—which is fundamentally different than the way problems are addressed in the mainstream culture.

While I reckon these two aphorisms are roughly equivalent, I like how the latter suggests culture shift (where the former has a whiff of mental jujitsu and sleight of hand about it).

As most people know, community comes in a kaleidoscope of sizes and flavors: from so big that you don't know everyone's name, to so few that there's nothing you don't know about each other; from the isolation of
rural Wyoming to the urban density of Manhattan; from the sacred to the secular; from celibate to anything-that-moves sexuality. In short, the range is very wide.

One of the lesser appreciated spectra into which intentional communities sort is Degree of Engagement. To be sure, this is somewhat a matter of size (at my community, Sandhill, our five adult members eat dinner together most nights; at nearby Dancing Rabbit there aren't more than a handful of days in the year when all 45 members are on the property at the same time, which means that daily contact among members is necessarily more diffuse). However, there is more subtlety to it than that. It's also a matter of how frequently the group meets, how aligned the members are on the community's common values, and how the group solves problems. It's this last measure that I want to focus on here.

Here's a set of questions I've distilled from
22 years as a group process consultant. The answers, I believe, will be highly predictive of where your group lands on the Degree of Engagement spectrum.

Checklist for How Cooperatively Your Community Solves Problems

1. To what extent does the group welcome emotional input on problems?
As a species, we're hard-wired to have emotional responses. I don't mean we have strong emotional responses all the time; I'm only saying that they're not rare. Yet many groups don't know what to do with emotions when they enter the room, and basically take the ostrich approach—hoping they'll go away if the group pretends they're not there. Most groups have a meeting culture that says, in effect, that expressing strong emotions is immature and inappropriate. In consequence, most groups have brittle conversations about problems, because they're ever vigilant about suppressing strong feelings. Instead of figuring out how to harness passion, they harass it.

For those with high emotional intelligence (by which I mean they know things and respond more accurately in the emotional realm than rationally), meetings are stressful because they are not allowed to use their best language. If it's bad enough (maybe they're not bilingual), they'll stop coming to meetings. Worse, the group might take comfort in that development.

2. How dedicated is the group to hearing from everyone before entertaining proposed solutions?
Problem solving will both be more inclusive and more effective if the group develops the habit of making sure that everyone who wants to has had the chance to help define the problem before the group starts batting around potential solutions. When proposals are allowed to enter the conversation at any time (or worse, are encouraged at the outset as part of the introduction of the topic), those members who are slower to organize their thoughts, or who struggle to get air space may give up. To them, they face a Hobson's choice of either betraying their nature by pushing into the conversation, or giving up and trusting that the quicker and more assertive will take their unvoiced considerations into account. Good luck with that.

3. To what extent has the group been successful in creating an atmosphere of curiosity in the face of disagreement?
The essence of cooperative culture is encouraging a full expression of viewpoints (under the assumption that if everything is out on the table, then it will be easier to weigh and balance factors appropriately). If however, opposing opinions are met with resistance or hostility—rather than curiosity—then the speaker must gird their loin in preparation for an onslaught. Sometimes it won't be worth it, and alternate viewpoints will not surface.

4. How often do you hear "But… " as a person's first word in response to another's statement?
In the mainstream culture, we're used to doing battle when someone disagrees with our position (the most appalling tactics can be categorized under the euphemistic heading "healthy debate"), either through a vigorous defense or an aggressive counter-attack, challenging their premises or the flow of their logic. The key to inclusivity is responding to alternate opinions with openness and interest with the possibility in view that your mind might be changed (rather than fear that you'll be publicly humiliated as a consequence of another's idea being found superior to yours). Does the group understand the importance of creating a culture of curiosity in those moments?

5. Does the group have facilitators capable of consistently bridging between conflicted parties?
In the heat of the moment, we tend to revert to our deepest conditioning, rather than responding from of our loftiest ideals. In other words, if it appears that some matter close to the bone is not going our way, we tend to fight rather than cooperate, and it can make all the difference whether you have the capacity among your in-house facilitators to bridge between conflicted parties and help guide everyone back—
with honor—from the brink of a fight that no one really wants.

6. How frequently does the community meet?
This is a loaded question. The facile answer should be, "as often as needed," yet the question beneath this is whether the group is avoiding meetings because they have no confidence in their going well. The group may be ducking issues, or loathe to tackle them with everyone in the room. if so, this is not a good sign and will surely indicate weakness in the group's cohesion.

7. Does the community regularly evaluate managers and committees?
While it may not be obvious why this indicator is on the list, many groups fall into a trap of allowing long-term members to remain in the same position of responsibility for years at a time without examination. While this is not inherently bad, it can be trouble if there is no way to discuss dissatisfaction with performance, or to review what the community really wants out of that position. When people become entrenched in positions of power and create fiefdoms, it leads to demoralization and undercuts the will to engage.

8. What effort is made to integrate new members into the community's culture?
Over time, communities inevitably create their own idiosyncratic culture. There becomes a "normal way things are done around here." For long-term members, this become second nature and is the air they breathe. For new folks this is all very mysterious, and it can be exhausting worrying over the possibility of committing a social faux pas that was never explained to them. It's like walking through a mine field blind. If new members are obliged to walk through that mine field alone, it takes an exceptionally tough person to weather more than few explosions and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Many will tend to get less venturesome. At best, this retards the integration process and prolongs the power gap between old and new. At worst, you'll lose the new person.

• • •
How did your group measure up? While it's up to the members of each group to decide for themselves how much they want to be in each other's lives, I've offered the Checklist above as a aid for groups to be able to achieve the level they want, rather than the best they can stumble into, guided only by good intentions.

If you like, think of it as a way to solve problems about how you solve problems.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Same Old Grind

Today is Day Three of this fall's deer butchering and my hands are sore.

I put in 5.5 hours Friday, 7.5 hours Saturday, and I'll keep at it today until I'm done—pushing 20 hours all together. We worked up six deer this season, yielding about 350 lbs of ground meat, roasts, ribs, stew meat, sausage, jerky, and soup stock. With the addition of occasional contributions from our poultry flock (chickens and turkeys) this is Sandhill Farm's meat supply for the year. It's one of the jobs I've learned to specialize in over the years, yet I don't do it regularly (or even every year) and I've been using muscles the last couple days that are not typically exercised by virtue of my routine three hours/day at a keyboard. And while I've successfully avoided any major slips with knives or saws (knock on wood), I nonetheless have an impressive array of minor nicks and scrapes on my hands that are souvenirs of my time in the abattoir that is otherwise our food processing kitchen.

Just before dinner yesterday I finished cutting and deboning the last carcass. I got the last of the bones into the stock pots, and all that remains is to complete the sausage making (half done when the dinner bell rang last night), to start drying the jerky (which was marinading overnight) and to grind up about 200 lbs of deer hamburger (which is the way we most prefer it). Monday I'll give the kitchen floor a thorough cleaning and put the equipment away until next year.

While Sandhill doesn't eat a no-meat diet, we do eat a low-meat diet (on average, we serve meat at a meal 1-2 times/week). We live in a climate with terrific deer habitat (the population has been steadily rising the entire 35 years we've lived here) and with topography that supports grass production (that is, most of the land is too sloped to farm in row crops without serious erosion). With modest stocking rates, grazing animals fit well into the ecology of our land and we believe that a diet that includes moderate amounts of grass-fed animal protein is responsibly sustainable.

My main challenge today will be coaxing the homemade meat grinder (a
hand-me-down from Stan's father, Jake, who passed it on to his eldest son when his butchering days in southern Manitoba were over) into working through all four buckets of meat chunks, converting the tougher cuts—plentiful in a deer—into lean hamburger. It'll take all day.

There are many tasks on the farm like this, that take hours to complete and require more perseverance than perspicacity. The trick to it is setting aside the time with grace and embracing it as a meditation, rather than as a burden. I am not butchering deer so much as I'm feeding my family and honoring the deer by using it as fully in the process as possible. The deer graze on our land, we eat the deer, and, ultimately, we will die and our bodies will nourish the land. It's a cycle.

While the gears of this cycle turn slowly, just as the auger in our homemade grinder, it's also inexorable, and I embrace my small part in it and accept responsibility for occasionally having my hand on the crank.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Perfect Farm Holiday

It's late in the year, late in November, and late in the day. A weak sun made a cameo appearance this morning before ducking behind the rolling banks of grey and leaden clouds that have been brooding over Missouri most of the month. Temperatures are in the 40s and should slide below freezing tonight. Most days it drizzles a little; some days it actually rains; tonight snow flurries are predicted. It's been a hard season for deer hunters. Yet for all that, it's one of my most anticipated times of the year and nothing can dampen my spirits: it's Thanksgiving week.

The larder is full, we have wood enough stockpiled to heat ourselves into 2011, and both of my children are coming home for the first time in three years. The agricultural year is over and the gardens have been put to bed. It's time to gather, cook, relax, drink, laugh, eat, and tell stories with loved ones. If you live on a farm, Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday to have others come to you. What better place to celebrate the harvest than where the harvest happens?

Late Monday night I got home from a week in Virginia. After a cup of coffee and some trip accounting Tuesday morning, Emily and I got to work butchering poultry—eight older chickens
culled from the flock, as well as the featured guest for Thursday's dinner: our biggest tom turkey. We spent most of the day on this ritual, carefully taking the life of each one, plucking, dissecting, and canning all the chickens. The tom, of course, was left whole (sans viscera), ready for the oven first thing tomorrow morning.

Thursday we'll be celebrating with a joint meal at the neighbors, Dancing Rabbit. I'll go over early to help my wife, Mai'kwe, make tamales, one of her specialties gleaned from five years of living in Albuquerque. My daughter Jo & her partner Peter will be timing their drive in from Toledo to arrive just as we sit down at 2 pm. After a blow-out meal, we'll repair to Sandhill for the remainder of the day, which translates to more laughter, game playing, and drinking, roughly in that order.

Sometime after dark, Trish, Joe, and their one-and-a-half year old son Emory will arrive from St Louis for the start of a five-day visit. We've been courting each other for most of the year, and Sandhill is hoping they'll move up as early as February, when the Earth quickens for the new growing season. Their last visit was Labor Day Weekend (a quarter turn of the calendar back, at the advent of harvest), and I'm pleased to welcome them into the circle on this occasion of wood heat and camaraderie; the days of toasting and being toasty.

Friday, my son Ceilee arrives with his wife Tosca and my granddaughter Taivyn—now a curious and highly mobile 19 months old, and a match for Emory. As Friday will be the only evening my family is all together (Ceilee has a flight back to Nevada Sunday morning to be on the job Monday), I asked to be assigned to cook that day. Cooking and eating together is one of my family's favorite recreational cum spiritual activities, and orchestrating an opportunity to do that during Thanksgiving weekend renders Friday
something akin to a high holy day.

Both of my kids grew up at Sandhill, so their coming this weekend is more than seeing Dad. It's coming home.

Cutting Up in the Kitchen
The last time both Jo & Ceilee were at Sandhill was three years ago, also at Thanksgiving. It was right before Ceilee moved from Columbia MO to Las Vegas NV, and he was happy to spend most of the pre-Thanksgiving rifle season on the farm hunting deer. Jo had spent the summer of '06 at Sandhill while she sorted out what she wanted to do after culinary school. Among other responsibilities she shouldered that summer, she raised two pigs, with an eye toward butchering them at the same time as we tackled Ceilee's deer.

All of this came together in the days before Thanksgiving, when the three of us spent three solid days butchering two pigs and eight deer. There are many choices to be made in how meat can be used and we love the art of catering to people's culinary preferences while making the fullest use possible of all that the animals have provided us. It is simultaneously joyous work and sacred work, as we have a bond with our food to honor it, just as it nourishes us.

This year, though the poultry butchering necessarily took pace before my kids arrived, there are still six deer hanging in our walk-in cooler and it's probable that part of the precious time I'll have together with my kids will be spent in the kitchen with meat and knives—where we'll be strengthening familial ties
even as cut up roasts and grind sausage.

On the farm, my children learned about the rhythms of seasonal cycles, about finding pleasure in work well done, and about taking time to savor fresh food, the smell of wood smoke, and the campanionship of others. In the coming hours we'll have together, we'll retouch all of these themes, weaving an ever-finer tapestry of connection and contribution—all of which is why I've found Thanksgiving to be the perfect farm holiday.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Child as Father to the Man

For three days this week, Terry O'Keefe (of Asheville NC) and I were visiting Acorn, an income-sharing community in central Virginia which operates Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a mail order business specializing in heirloom and organic vegetable seeds. We were conducting a preliminary examination of SESE operations with an eye toward seeing if we could offer them substantial help in improving both their bottom line and their member satisfaction. It was the initial field trial for GREEN EGGS—Guild for Relational Economics: Experts in Neighborly & Entrepreneurial Growth that is Green & Sustainable [see my blogs of July 26 & Oct 17, 2009 for more on this budding consortium].

Acorn is a community of about 23 members. It was started in 1993 as a spin-off of Twin Oaks, when that well-established income-sharing community was full to overflowing in the midst of the nation-wide surge of interest in community living in the early '90s (which was the last surge before the one that erupted in 2005 and continues today). Rather than build another residence, Twin Oaks decided to build another community—and Acorn was the offspring of that inspiration. Located just seven miles away, Acorn is an easy bike ride away from the mother ship.

Twin Oaks fronted the money to buy the land and create the initial infrastructure for the fledgling community. For its early years, Acorn's economic base was doing contract work for Twin Oaks' robust hammocks business (for decades, Twin Oaks had the main contract for supplying Pier One, which was the largest hammock retailer anywhere). Thus did the parent offer economic sustenance to its child.

Acorn has not had an easy history. Most of its 16 years have been characterized by high member turnover and a lack of clarity about what it wanted to be in the world. Throughout the uncertainties however, it was sustained by Twin Oaks' benevolent attitude toward the long-term debt and its steady offer of income work in Twin Oak's businesses.

Ten years ago, Acorn made a b
ig decision: they bought Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and committed to building it into becoming their main business. SESE was launched in 1982 as a sole proprietorship. Over the course of 17 years, the owner had painstakingly nurtured the business from a seedling (that had co-opted the homestead kitchen table for seed sorting), into a flowering business featuring heirloom seeds with about $100,000 in annual sales. Happily, when the owner wanted out, Acorn wanted in. Thus did the community begin to emerge from under Twin Oaks' economic skirts.

When an intentional community operates a business (which most income-sharing groups do, but which most non-income-sharing groups do not), one of the trickiest challenges is finding a profitable enterprise that is a solid enough value match. Understandably, groups are chary about being associated with products or services that don't align well with the values they're espousing, and
recruiting members to rally around.

In buying SESE, Acorn had a winner. Here was a business providing the seeds and knowledge to help people grow their own food—a basic need if there ever was one. It was dedicated to protecting heirloom seed (varieties that had been established prior to 1940 and the genetic manipulation spurred by World War II and the Green Revolution) and genetic diversity. SESE sells only non-treated seed, almost no hybrids (only four in the 2009 catalog), and as much organic seed as it can find or grow. When it contracts with other growers to supply seed for them, they're offering meaningful income work at home for gardeners all across the country, helping to make it possible for them to remain where they love being yet struggle to find work. What's not to like? On value scale of 1-100, SESE probably scores about 99.

Over the past decade, as it turns out, Twin Oaks and Acorn have been moving in opposite directions
economically. Twin Oaks lost the Pier One account (as that giant of the leisure furniture industry abandoned the tried and true in favor of fresher products) and the community is still groping for a business mix that will replace lost revenues. Meanwhile, Acorn posted steady progress in building up SESE and was perfectly poised to benefit from the 70% jump in the demand for garden seeds that ensued from last year's economic nosedive. For the first time, in 2009 SESE's gross sales will top half a million dollars.

When Acorn scrambled to find enough people to grow seeds for them, they contracted with Twin Oaks, which is now growing as many of SESE seeds as Acorn is. In the face of last year's rocket ride in sales, Acorn turned to Twin Oaks to help them package seeds, and even has some of the senior community's veteran gardeners conducting germination tests and fielding customer queries about horticulture.

While Acorn is still paying down its mortgage to Twin Oaks and the older community is still asset rich, when it comes to income work today, it's Acorn offering steady work to Twin Oaks, not the other way around. The child is hiring the parent, and it's working well for both. It's a feel-good story about cooperation a grand scale. Now if we can only get Democrats to see Republicans that way, and vice versa…

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Walking into the Lion’s Den… and Getting Eaten

Tuesday I received one the angriest pieces of correspondence in my 30 years of community networking, and it’s shaken me up. One of my jobs as the FIC’s center fielder is to catch complaints about communities listed in our Directory. While I don't get a lot of these, the few I get are important to handle with sensitivity. This week I didn't do so good. 

There was a hot potato in my In Box last Friday, when a woman registered a formal complaint about her brief experience living with a forming community last September. She felt she’d been treated unfairly, that she’d been discriminated against as an older woman, and that the community had misrepresented itself as a place where everyone had a say in group decisions: her story was that one man decided things by fiat and claimed they operated by consensus.

Sunday I dutifully sent a note to the community passing along her complaint verbatim, and asked for their side of the story. I got a prompt replay on Monday in which the man in question denied the charges outright and leveled countercharges at the woman that were worse than what was had said about him. His story was that the woman was regularly abusive with her language and that on at least one occasion this spilled over into physical violence, leading to the community filing a police complaint against her because of an unprovoked attack on another member.

While she claimed that he had reneged on promises of work in lieu of rent; the man claimed that the woman did no work and took advantage of the community. Each said the other owed them money.

While it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that these two individuals had no future living together, I nonetheless persisted in working with the man in an attempt to accomplish two things:

a) To clear up to the extent possible any misunderstandings and hurt feelings between the complainant and the community.

b) To determine if there were any substantive inaccuracies in how the community describes itself in their listing, or if the group is otherwise in violation of the FIC's boundaries around advocating violent practices or interfering with members' rights to freely disassociate from the group.

From the man’s perspective, I was being grossly insensitive to the community’s situation. He reported their feeling violated by this woman and what was I doing questioning the victim? How could I even take this woman’s charges seriously? Was I really following the FIC’s policy about how we handled complaints or was I just picking on him because he was African-American, and trying to mask my racism behind bureaucratic bullshit? 

After another email where I tried to clarify what I was attempting to do and assuring him that I was following the same process we always use in working with complaints, he shot back an even angrier email demanding that he be allowed to talk with someone else, saying he wanted to file a formal complaint about how badly I’d treated him. Boy, did that go south fast. 

Even allowing for the plausible truth about his being traumatized by this woman, I’ve been struggling to see what the payoff for him was in putting such a negative spin on my motivations for attempting to discuss the matter. (After all, even if the woman was abusive, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he wasn't also. Nor does it mean that FIC should look the other way if there has been any misrepresentation on the community’s part in how they describe themselves.)

In my efforts to clear up misunderstandings (a more modest goal than repairing damage to their relationship—which I quickly came to the conclusion I had no prospects for achieving), I had asked a number of questions about the discrepancies between their stories. With the exception of giving me details of the woman’s attack of the other member (the basis for the police complaint), I noticed that in the course of his diatribe against me he did not answer the questions. In short, he deflected the examination of his part in the dynamic and was abusive to me in much the same way he was complaining that the woman had been to him. (And out of this clay we are attempting to mold a cooperative culture. Yikes!)

Today, sadly, I gave up on being able to inject any hopeful ray into my investigation of the storm clouds over this community, and I turned the matter over to two of FIC’s veteran Board members to pinch hit for me.

Much as I like the image of myself as a person who can make any situation better no matter how bad the damage, on this occasion I simply struck out.