Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A House Divided

Yesterday I learned how frustrated my wife, Ma'ikwe, has been that I have not been actively designing and managing with her the construction of her house at Dancing Rabbit. Ouch!

When she moved to Missouri a year ago, it was her intent from the get-go to build a house, assuming only that the community was a good fit for her. As she integrated into the community well, and quickly found a place for her considerable dynamism and social savvy, she was excited to manifest a house at her home. What I didn't know, was how much she wanted me to build that house with her.

Building a house (as opposed to having one built for you) is both an exhilarating and exhausting project. Having done house construction at Sandhill, I knew that—not just in my head; I knew it in my bones. I knew that the opportunity to design your own home is a rare chance to express yourself three dimensionally. For most of us, it's the single larget investment we'll make in our lifetime. I also knew that it would be a statement of values that will last for decades, if not the rest of your life.

The one time I was in charge of a house construction project, it was the dominant theme of my life for six years. Knowing that managing house construction would require me to substantially set aside the other main calls on my energy (promoting community as the main administrator for FIC, doing social change work as a group process consultant, contributing to the health and vibrancy of Sandhill, spending time with friends and family), I considered the price too high, and focused instead on the question of how best to support Ma'ikwe.

Mistaken Assumption #1: I thought that I had talked through this with Ma'ikwe at the outset. Yesterday I learned that that was not her experience. She tearfully pointed out that she never wanted to manage the house project alone and was deeply disappointed that I rejected partnering with her in that role. For Ma'ikwe, our early talks about this were never a discussion; her impression was that I was making an announcement (not stating a preference), and that her only option has been to cope with that reality as best she could.

From my perspective, my choices for supporting the project seemed to fall into three categories. First, I could help with the design.

Second, I could help with the actual work. This further breaks down into: a) being a grunt whenever I was on site and and could provide an extra pair of hands; and b) committing to handling specific aspects of the project (think subcontractor). As it's played out, I committed to cutting the posts for the main framework (there are 16), overseeing installation of the plumbing and wiring, and constructing a cistern.

Third, I could finance the project. In my view, I was an especially good fit for this role. Houses eat money and I'm in a particularly generative phase of my consulting career. The downside was that this choice exacerbated a general challenge that Ma'ikwe and I face around finding the time needed to cultivate and enjoy our relationship (for more on this see "Stretching the Ties that Bind," my blog of April 19, 2009). Where she needed to be home more to manage the project, I needed to be on the road more, to fund it.

There was also another layer below this. I felt that it was important that this be Ma'ikwe's house. I live at Sandhill; she lives at Dancing Rabbit. In addition to the vagaries of all relationships, I am two decades older than my wife and she figures to have many years in this house without me. I felt it needed to be hers, not ours.

Mistaken Assumption #2: I see now that I never worked through this issue with my wife. Where I saw myself as being thoughtful and strategic; she felt cut out. She wanted it to be our house, and I never joined the party. This was—and remains—tricky stuff. While Ma'ikwe has turned down living at Sandhill, I have not. I already have a home. In fact, part of the reason I was unwilling to take a lead role in the house project was my need to continue to invest in my community, to have my oar consistently in the water at home. It's been hard for me to be willing to stretch as far as I have to play a significant supporting role in the house project, and then face Ma'ikwe's bitter tears over how she feels spurned by me in her time of need.

On the good side, I believe that it's worked pretty well where I've taken on specific aspects of the project. On the not-so-good side, the design discussions have been prickly. Ma'ikwe wants to involve me, both for the connection and because she knows I have construction experience. Often though, I'm not available when her questions arise. While I don't have any expectations of her consulting with me—and try to be cheerfully available whenever she asks—these conversations often go poorly.

It goes like this:
o She'll ask a specific question.
o I'll want to know addiitonal information than what she's provided (because I'll typically approach a design question differently than she does, and will want more background).
o She won't understand why I'm asking the questions I do and get frustrated (compounded by the dynamic that she's often working at the limit of her construction knowledge and may not know the answer to a particular question).
o In the presence of the rising tension I'll back down and suggest that we just let go of my opinion on this matter. I figure that my relationship with Ma'ikwe is more important than the house, and I've learned that once Laird-giving-Ma'ikwe-advice conversations go off the rails, they don't tend to get better.
o Ma'ikwe feels miserable. She didn't get help with the design question, she didn't get connection with me, and now there's tension that wasn't there before. Yuck.

Unfortunately, it's even worse than that. Overlaying everything above is another dynamic which is undermining our ability to connect. It goes like this:
o I'll ask Ma'ikwe a question.
o She'll begin to answer and I'll interrupt (to either rephrase my question more precisely once I see that her response won't give me what I'm looking for; or to follow an important side road that opened up in the course of her explanation). I think I'm taking care of my emerging needs and being up front about what those are.
o Ma'ikwe will get frustrated because I haven't allowed her to finish. My interrupting comes across as disrespectful, impatient, and perhaps condescending (don't I have any faith in her ability to answer my question; I give long answers, why isn't she allowed the same courtesy?).

My part of the above sequence is rooted in communication patterns that I've developed over decades—long before I got together with Ma'ikwe. Our struggles over this dynamic however, are now common enough that I believe the viability of our relationship is at stake. I think it's up to me to find a way to overhaul how I ask questions and listen to the responses—and soon.

Ma'ikwe has given me the gift of her reactions to my behavior, and yet I'm uncertain what I'll be able to turn around, and how quickly. I'm starting to get pretty self-conscious around her, pausing frequently to reflect on the ways in which what I was about to say may be irritating. At this point, the tunnel is dark, and I'm uncertain which way to turn or how long I'll be in there. I'm confident that Ma'ikwe is worth the effort; I just don't know what I'll be able to achieve. Luckily, I'm not afriad of the dark.

Looking back, I can see that Ma'ikwe and I did not built a sufficiently solid foundation for the house of our relationship. I'm hoping there's still time.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Incubating Green Eggs

This weekend I met with three friends (David Waskom, Susan Short, and Elph Morgan) in Ann Arbor to explore the creation of a business consulting consortium for cooperatives that we're styling GREEN EGGS—Guild for Relational Economics: Experts in Neighborly and Entrepreneurial Growth that's Green & Sustainable.

The Ecovillage Design Education curriculum sponsored by GEN identifies four foundational elements of sustainability:

Our premise for Green Eggs is the dynamic marriage of the economic and social components. While our group may not be world experts in economics, nor the only tools in the shed when it comes to the social aspects of cooperative living, we believe we have something special to offer when it comes to the two together—analyzing cooperative businesses in such a way that we expressly factor in the community and social features.

Like all new commercial ventues, the market place will soon tell us whether our thinking is sound.

• • •
My observation is that the economic leg of the EDE formula is the weakest. Many cooperative groups disdain regular economic tools because they're so strongly associated with traditional capitalistic thinking (and are therefore evil). Marketing is eschewed because promotion is linked in cooperators' minds with Madison Ave and manufactured demand. At Green Eggs, we believe we have to do better than that. If you have a product or service with sound values and you believe in what you're doing, it shouldn't be a debasement to tell people about it, and with enthusiasm! We're not talking about twisting arms; we're talking about not hiding your light under a bushel.

Our point of leverage is to help cooperative ventures get over whatever humps they encounter on the path to profitability and excellence. We've embraced the egg as an icon because our idea is to either help birth businesses or to offer them rebirth. (While we aim to assist in live deliveries, we don't figure to be
particularly involved in raising the offspring.)

We won't just look at bottom lines and supply lines; we'll also look at communication lines and feedback. The revolution is going to have to make social sense as well as economic cents, and we believe this can be fully realized without compromising values. In addition to offering financial and social analysis, we'll broker financing, and examine management and staff selections and relationships. We'll look at how well the business fits with the values and make-up of the community in which its embedded, and at how well the business recognizes and leverages its advantages while coping creatively with its liabilities.

We're launching the Green Eggs initiative on the belief that there are enough cooperatives out there who get it that setting a high bar for social dynamics doesn't mean you have to settle for a low bar for financial success. While we may or may not be prophets; we believe in profits. In the coming months, we'll find out if this concept is profitable.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Happy Birthday, Jo!

Today my daughter, Jo, turned 22. Fortuitously, I have meetings in Ann Arbor this weekend, and that afforded me an easy occasion to be on hand for the festivities in Toledo, where Jo loives with her partner Peter Lipphardt. In truth, she's been celebrating all week.

Tuesday she and her partner Peter took possession of a new puppy—seven-week-old Yoshi, a just-weaned black lab/boxer mix. Believe me, this dog is going to have a good life. When we arrived early this evening to my Zingerman's Roadhouse rendezvous in Ann Arbor, it happened that there was a farmer's market going on in the parking lot. When Jo, Yoshi, and I did a walk-through to kill time, three different vendors came out from behind their stalls and insisted on holding the puppy. We could have sold tickets.

Wednesday we had the party proper. While my kids and I love to eat out, it's even more fun to cook. Jo made sushi for 12 (unfortunately, there were only six at the party, but it's considered bad manners to run short of the main course), plus a fabulous four-layer ice cream cake, made of alternating slabs of green tea and ginger ice cream, dusted with ginger snap crumbs and edged in whipped cream. Luckily, we'd skipped lunch (as well as breakfast and lunch the following day).

Thursday (today) Jo drove me up to Ann Arbor (just an hour straight up US 23) and she collected on her present from dear old dad: a shopping spree at Zingermans' Delicatessen, located on brick-paved Kingsley St in old Kerrytown. Believe me, Zabar's on Manhattan's upper west side has nothing on this place. The cheese and sausage selections are simply mind boggling. Jo even picked up an iced container of fresh caviar to go with the "food porn" dish she had in mind for her & Peter tonight: angel hair pasta tossed with the leftover uni (that was special ordered for the sushi extravaganza) and garnished with the caviar.

What says love more than food, family, and a new puppy?

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Write Stuff

Most of my work as a process consultant entails my traveling to the client, working with the group in situ. While it's not uncommon for me to do some significant prep or follow-up work from the comforts of home (via email and/or phone), I've been doing steady work from home this year for a group that's trying to effect a graceful break-up.

This is hard to do in person, and even trickier with a dispersed group with tenuous trust. I've never had a job quite like this before and it just occurred to me the other day that part of why I'm successful at it is because I'm a decent writer, and can capture in words both the letter of the agreement and its spirit—which is no mean skill.

• • •
These days, I'm essentially authoring at least one report a day. If I miss a day, it means I'll have two the next. To be sure, some are relatively minor—perhaps a page or two long, taking only 30-60 minutes to compose. Others are more substantial. When I write a follow-up report after a weekend of consultation, it typically runs to 8+ pages and takes all day.

Musings about the Muse
My career as a writer didn't get out of the starting blocks until my junior year in high school, when I was accepted into English III-J, where English (a required subject) was interspersed with an introduction to journalism. Essentially, that meant the 30 or so juniors who'd been accepted into that program were the gophers for the dozen or so seniors who had survived III-J the previous year and become the staff responsible for producing the award-winning high school newspaper, The Lion. The crucial element that made this setup succeed was the newspaper's sponsor, Miss Kay Keefe. She pioneered this offering from the English department (neatly guaranteeing a steady supply of "volunteers" to crank out the newspaper) and was the only teacher of III-J in living memory. As far as anyone knew, she lived in the newspaper office. And by the time I was a senior, and Editor of The Lion, I came to live there, too.

Miss Keefe taught me to write directly, and sparingly (I cherish the epistolary Twain remark where he apologizes for the length of a letter, because he didn't have time to write it short.)
She was my first acknowledged mentor, and much of my laboring as an author and as an editor—I'm a switch hitter—is about ordering things for clarity and trimming the fat. Brevity, it seems, is perhaps the subtlest skill for an author to acquire.

At Carleton College, as a freshman, I was required to take Rhetoric. For the term, I was expected to produce at least one piece of writing every week. While I thought it torture at the time,
it nudged me along in on my uncertain journey as an author. English professor Wayne Carver was my instructor, and I came to love both his gravelly voice and his instructive comments about my writing. He was the first person who encouraged me to think that I might become a writer.

While this prospect seemed dim to me at the time (I was known during my college career for the success I had in convincing professors to allow me to present "papers" orally, relieving me of the chore of laboring with pen and paper, and them of the chore of reading it), I recall with amusement (and no little astonishment at the time) that when I was hired fresh out of college to work for the US Dept of Transportation in DC—ostensibly because of my background in mathematics and sociology—that I was essentially employed as a writer.

I was expected to summarize what occurred at meetings; I was asked to rewrite poorly crafted drafts of other people's reports; I'd frame the questions that my superiors would pose at hearings; if a report contained any significant amount of numbers or number analysis, I was invariably called upon to assess whether it "made sense." While I thought my skills in this regard were average, I gradually came to understand that I was viewed as exceptional. While it was nice to be regarded as special, I was alarmed that the bar was so low. (What had my fellow bureaucrats been doing in school, if not at least mastering competency in all of the three Rs?) It was deeply troubling to me that fully employed adults were so inept at expressing themselves in writing.

Well, I retired from DOT (and from regular employment in general) at the ripe age of 23. Setting aside my pursuit of a career, I turned my attention to the search for community. While this was one of the best choices I ever made (along with having kids, marrying Ma'ikwe, and not going to law school—roughly in that order), my heretofore steady progress as a writer was arrested. Leaving aside my drafting the occasional statement of purpose or community description for the New Age Community Guidebook (the forerunner of Communities Directory), I wasn't writing much until I got involved in community networking.

I first dipped my toe in this water circa 1979 (about five years after launching Sandhill, when I realized that my community in northeast Missouri was not going to be a large enough sandbox to play in). Now, of course, to continue the metaphor, my involvement in networking constitutes whole body immersion, and I have trouble recalling what the non-community world is like (or why anyone would choose it). But this was a progression and didn't happen all at once.

My initial involvement was with the Federation of Egalitarian Communities and I twice compiled minutes for Assemblies—the semi-annual multi-day meetings at which delegates gather to map out FEC strategy and make policy decisions. Keep in mind that this was the early '80s: we took notes by hand and did the final minutes on stencils. I typed really slowly to avoid mistakes. In addition, I'd sometimes write proposals and dabble with job descriptions (you can get the man out of the bureaucracy, but can ever
truly get the bureaucrat out of the man?)

During my FEC days I gained a reputation as being a stickler for clear writing. At one point I remember receiving as a gift a red pen from Jonathan Bender (at that time the delegate from Tekiah, a now-defunct community in Floyd County, Virginia). He had circulated to all the delegates a draft of an official letter he wanted to send out on FEC letterhead. According to Joanathan, every other delegate said the letter was fine. However, he described the marked-up copy I had returned to him as "a sea of red ink." He gave me the pen because he knew I must go through them fast. Somewhere, Kay Keefe was smiling.

In 1986 I wrote a 40-page proposal for a Federation-wide self-insurance program as an alternative to commercial health insurance. It took me more than a week in February and served as a nice contrast to cutting and hauling firewood. (It had enough legalese in it to suggest why I would have been successful as a lawyer, that scary thing I didn't do after college. It also had enough word play in it to suggest why I needed additional outlets for my writing—if nothing else, to relieve those around me from having that tendency leak so readily into my everyday speech.)

The next year I helped establish the Fellowship for Intentional Community, with which I've been involved ever since. I was the Editor for the first edition of the FIC's Communities Directory in 1990 and also the second in 1995. That gave me license to write a few articles. The pace quickened when FIC took over as the publisher of Communities magazine and we got that quarterly back into regular production in 1994. For the last 15 years I've authored almost all of the Publisher's Notes, plus myriad other articles (mostly on group dynamics and/or observations about the Communities Movement). As the main administrator for FIC, I regularly put together proposals, assemble reports, draft agendas, concoct fundraising and marketing letters, and edit minutes.

About this time, my part-time career as a group proces consultant was also gaining momentum, and it came in handy that I was once again in the writing saddle. After several years in the field, I came to understand that most clients fail to digest a significant portion of what happens in the course of the live work we do together and are greatly benefitted by a written report afterwards, in which I tell them what happened and give suggestions about where to devote their attention for future improvements. After more than a decade of practicing this skill, and listening to client feedback, I am confident that I give good report.

When I started doing two-year trainings in Integrative Facilitation in 2003, I upped the ante again. At the conclusion of training weekends (of which there are eight per course), I typically owe about 10 reports: one to the host community, and one for each student who did live work facilitating a meeting for the host. While I apsire to get these into the students' hands within a week (while the memories are fresh), it can be a logistical challenge finding the time to crank them out.

[This need for thorough and prompt reports, by the way, is one of the main reasons I'm fiercely devoted to traveling by train. Trains are slow, and there are no interrupting phone calls—excepting from the cell phones of the passengers seated near me. If I'm on Amtrak long enough, I can have the reports done before I get back home (and have to face the pile of mail that's accumulated in my absence).]

Not content there, I cranked up the intens-o-meter one more notch in December 2007 when I launched this blog. I apsire to post something every three days, all of which is on top of what else I'm writing. It's now 170+ blog entries later, I am finally comfortable styling myself as a writer.

The challenege is relatively simple and constant. I don't start composing a piece unless I have a positive answer to three questions:
1. Do I have something interesting to say?
2. Am I inspired to say it?
3. Can I say it in a clear and entertaining way?

Of course, there are times when I look back and realize that I only thought I had a good enough answer to some of these questions. Yet, on the whole, it's a worthwhile bar to try to clear en route to the keyboard. The hardest question is the first one—how, after all, do you know when you know enough about a topic to start writing? It's analogous to the question teachers must face: how do you know when you know enough to put yourself forward to instruct others?
• • •
Now let me return to where I started, with the forming community that has sorted itself into two camps who are no longer compatible in the same community. All parties desire a peaceful separation with a minimum of pain and agony, and they have turned to me to assist in the surgery.

Since April I have facilitated five conference calls for this group, carefully helping them find the path to an honorable disentanglement. While I don't recommend this professionally, I have also drafted the minutes for these calls, as the relations between subgroups has gotten so frayed that the one side does not trust the notetaking of someone from the other side.

On the last call (just last week) we were working through the details of a Buyout Agreement, where one subgroup would purchase the rights of the other. It was a measure of the how far I've come on my journey as a wordsmith that when the talking was done, I knew I wanted the job of drafting that agreement. Of course, I also knew that both groups would be more open my work simply because it didn't come from "them" (I have, after all, no dog in this fight). Yet I also knew that this is a skill I have. Not as the lawyer I didn't become, but as a person who can think through the morass of potentialities and see how to lay out a clear path that is fairly balanced. It's art work (as well as heart work).

I've become, after all these years, the amanuensis to community.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Concrete Progress

Two days ago I helped pour the floor for Ma'ikwe's new house at Dancing Rabbit. And my ribs still hurt.

Although I've done a fair amount of homestead construction over the years—not to be confused with professional experience—I've drifted away from it over the last decade. While there's always something that needs attention on a farm, it's been over 10 years since Sandhill built a new residence and I'm on the road about 60% of the time these days (promoting community and doing process consulting). Most of my remaining on-farm time goes into food processing and a few specialty tasks like filing taxes, cutting wood, and celebration cooking.

I only get involved in the occasional construction project any more. But I miss it.

I like working with my hands, and I like having tasks where it's easy to tell what progress you're making. This is in sharp contrast with process consulting, where it can be fairly subtle figuring out how much things have changed over the course of a weekend. With house construction, it's WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get), and often one day's work will result in dramatic changes. It's highly satisfying.

While most of my efforts in support for Ma'ikwe's house have been financial (we figured out early on that I was more valuable earning money to pay for the building than I was saving money by doing construction), now and then I get out to the work site with gloves on. Two days ago was just such a time, when I helped massage 14 cubic yards of ready-mix into a four-inch floor, in the process of which we encased the gobs of plastic tubing that will serve as the guts of the radiant floor heating system.

While things got a little more exciting than we wanted when the power trowel died on us 15 minutes into the finishing process (and the surface was way stiffer than we wanted by the time we'd raced to town and rented a replacement), we nonetheless ended up with a substantially flat floor that will be perfectly serviceable.

Knowing that I was simply an adjunct to an experience concrete crew, I sussed out early in the morning that my best role was to work the edges against the retaining wall, which was beyond the reach of power tools and needed to be worked by hand. That got me out of horsing around with the spin screeder or pushing the wet concrete around to the low spots.

While I was happy to not have an aerobic assignment, there was an acrobatic challenge to my wielding a magnesium float: all my work had to be accomplished with my body horizontal, leaning over the stem wall and reaching to the floor. After three hours, I had bruised ribs.

By the time the second power trowel arrived, I was happy to retire from the field. I drank five glasses of milk and took a two-hour nap. It was glorious: the sleep of the righteously exhausted.

[Afterwards, Ma'ikwe and I went into town together—Wed is my regular bridge night at the Kirksville duplicate club. We did a bit of shopping for construction supplies (Monday I get to wire the main circuit breaker panel we bought, and give Ma'ikwe's crew 120-volt service on site, courtesy of her solar panels and the July sunshine), and had dinner before I played cards. I drank two beers with my burger and fries and then achieved a whopping 82% game—by far the best result I've ever had in 10 years of playing duplicate. Kinda makes you wonder whether it was the commingling of physical and mental stimulation, the calming influence of the two beers, the joy of having a productive day, or just blind luck.]

And I'm not done yet achieving concrete results. In a month or two, I get to build a cistern for Ma'ikwe and a neighboring couple (Bear & Alyssa), suitable for holding 8000 gallons an
d with stout enough walls to be the foundation for a laundry and heating facility to be build atop it. While the walls will be surfaced bonded concrete blocks, the floor will be another round of ready-mix.

The trick will be to find a window of weather dry enough to excavate to a depth of nine feet, level it out, form it up, bring in the trucks, let it cure, stack the walls, and parge the inside and outside of the blocks—all before a thunderstorm leads to a cave-in. Essentially, if it never rains, I get to pour.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Dog Breath Berries

This week I'm stripping the black currant bushes. It's the end of the season and I'm spending an hour or so each afternoon before dinner diligently finding all the late-ripening berries on our 30 or so bushes. The patch is located just south of our new greenhouse, on the edge of our main garden, and berry picking is a meditation for me. Very centering. The patch is dense and I carefully, methodically work my way around one bush at a time, looking under each branch for the precious black fruit—about the size of a pea.

Sandhill Farm is now 35 years old, yet our black currant stock is much older than that. The scions came from my Aunt Hennie's house in Elmhurst IL, carefully transplanted cuttings from her homesteading backyard—now smack in the midst of the Chicago suburbs. Hennie is my mother's ony sister and both of them were born in that house—Val in 1917 and Henrietta in 1907, the duaghters of Johnnie and Gertie Golden. The two-story clapboard house with its steep winding stairs was built in 1899, and we have a picture in the family archives of the surrounding area just after it was built. At the advent of the 20th Century there were no other buildings in sight, just wind-swept prairie. Today you'd have to drive for more than two hours west to get a comparable sight.

As the suburbs gradually crept west, the Goldens kept their plot of land and continued a tradition of serious gardening. They still had chickens in my lifetime, and one of the highlights of the holidays was the homemade red currant jelly (stored in glass with a paraffin seal) that Hennie used to contribute to roast beef dinners, and the fruit cake she'd make every October (and soak in bourbon for two months before distributing it the form of carefully wrapped bricks to all her nephews and nieces under the Christmas tree). There was a long run of Concord grapes in the backyard and once we found several bottles of a forgotten vintage in the cellar, left over from when Johnnie & Gertie made communion wine during Prohibition. It was incredibly good.

The Goldens favored raspberries over strawberries, and currants over blueberries. When I moved to Sandhill in 1974, Hennie gifted me a set of ceramic crocks, a sauerkraut slicer, and and an asortment of various hand tools. It didn't occur to any of us (at first) that we might also need plants.

Upon arriving at Sandhill we enthusiastically purchased lots of fruit stock, almost all of which was easily obtained from mail-order nurseries. It turned out though, that black currant bushes were not obtainable. We learned that black currants serve as the alternate host for the fungus that causes White Pine Blister Rust and the forestry lobby (in the '70s) had sufficient strength to get black currants banned from interstate sale in an effort to contain this disease.

We were somewhat put out about the whole thing (given that white pine lives nowhere near us)
, but instead of calling Congress, we just called Hennie—and placed an order for some cuttings. She obliged and black currants are now firmly established in northeast Missouri—both at Sandhill and anywhere there's a neighbor who's requested starts over the years. While the ban on the sale of black currants plants has since been lifted, and you can now buy rootstock from nurseries, we're self-sufficient these days and no longer needing nursery help.

Black currants are a hardy bush that needs little attention. Too tart to be enjoyed fresh, they're best used in jams and in winemaking. While almost everyone I've met enjoys the wine, I've known many who were able to contain their enthusiasm for the task of picking the berries. The tedium of small fruit collection is typically relieved by the allowing harvesters to graze as they work. In the case of black currants, however, there's not much incentive.

In fact, we had a long-term member at Sandhill named Julez (she was with us 1988-95) who used to call them "dog breath berries," and it wasn't a term of endearment. I took it as a sign of her enduring affection for me (and perhaps the wine) that she'd agree to help pick the berries at all.

Tomorrow, I will dust off one of Hennie's 10-gallon crocks and continue a family tradition: I will begin a batch of black currant wine. When Ma'ikwe and I got married two years ago, I had reserved the entire 2006 crop of black currants to make 20 gallons of wine for the wedding. Although Hennie did not live long enough to see me get married (she'd died in the '90s), she was there in spirits.

And it raises my spirits each year as the new berries ripen and I practice my heritage. This week in the agricultural cycle, my mantra goes something like this:

I am Laird
Son of Valborg
Nephew of Hennie
Picker of Berries
Vintner of Black Currant Wine
Keeper of Tradition
Celebrant of Life

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dancing to the Tune or to the Coin

I had a phone conversation with Susan Frank today (see my blog of Jan 22, 2009 for more about Susan). She's a student at Prescott College doing an independent study on intentional communities, and I'm her out-of-town mentor. Mostly that means I read her blog about her visits to communities and make comments about her musings and the video clips she's posting.

Today she told a story about an event she attended the previous weekend. It was focused on Green Living (as in ecological, not Martian) and she was put off by how the event had gotten big and out-of-control in an effort to be more financially successful. Examples: it was not just sponsored by Clif Bars, it was sponsored by Budweiser and Toyota, too. For that matter, Susan said that American Spirit Tobacco was a sponsor and they were offering free cigarettes to anyone willing to answer a survey—an offer sufficiently attractive that there was a never-ending queue outside their tent of folks waiting to take the survey. Hmm.

As she told her story, I was reminded of the event I had just attended, the national cohousing conference, June 24-28 in Seattle. This national organization depends mainly on profits from events to raise money and one of the ways they accomplished that this year was by hiring a professional auctioneer to run the benefit auction during the Saturday night banquet.

On the one hand, they met their objective, tripling profits from the Live Auction, and I believe Coho/US to be a solidly worthy cause. In part that was the result of more diligent solicitation and promotion. But they achieved higher profits by also making some other choices that were not so clearly beneficial. The pursuit of money can do that to you.

The Saturday night dinner was unquestionably the social highlight of the five-day conference. Historically, it's the one solid chance folks have to sit down in a leisurely way and have that conversation with an old acquiantance or a new friend that you didn't have time for around the coffee pot between workshop sessions. This time however, entrance to the room (and access to the open bar) was choked by the requirement that everyone attending be assigned a bidding number and paddle. The line was further slowed by everyone being encouraged to give their credit card information in case they bought anything at auction—thus trading inconvenience at the front end for smoother collection at the end.

Then, when the abbreviated milling time was cut short by the call to start dinner, it turned out that before the food was served the auctioneer solitcited contributions to a scholarship fund to attend next year's conference. That was followed immediately by a request that people donate (by raising their paddles) to have additional bottles of wine appear at each table. While in past years the Live Auction didn't begin until after dinner, this year the bidding started right away, and continued at a steady pace right through dinner without pause, effectively drowning out conversation. While the auctioneer was certainly entertaining, and expert at keeping the bidding rolling, most folks were too exhausted at the end to linger—either for dancing, or the chance to have their postponed conversations. It was an interesting choice to slant the whole evening toward making money, and I will be interested to hear how the feedback runs on this.

It was rather like the difference between watching a show on TV and participating in a no-talent show run by the participants. While b
oth can be entertaining, one is far more connecting than then other. Perhaps it's just a question of what you like to dance to. At what point does your pursuit of golden eggs place the life of the goose at risk?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Power Gradients

One of the most fascinating topics for me about cooperative group dynamics is Power and Leadership. We just don't have very good models for how to do this well, and the need is everywhere.

I'm defining "power" as the ability to get others to do something, or to agree to something. Leaders use power to get things things done, and power is neither inherently good or evil—though there is considerable opinion about whether its application is healthy or unhealthy. When leaders are viewed as using power "with"—for the benefit of the whole group—there's no problem; when they're seen as using power "over"—for the benefit of themselves or for a subgroup at the expense of others—there's hell to pay.

In recent email correspondence with author and friend Vicki Robin (of Your Money or Your Life fame) she shared the following reflections about nuances of power:

I'm thinking about the difference between power (ability to influence outcome), charisma (inherent energy that influences), and radiance (energy that fills and inspires others to their own ends). These three seem to come from different places in my psyche. I aspire to radiance and am most at peace when the energy flowing through me simply nourishes others (who are then happy around me, increasing my own happiness).

This was a stimulating conversation, as I had not focused previously on how "charisma" and "radiance" figured into my thinking. Let me take them one at a time.

My feeling about charisma is that involves an ability to influence based on personal attraction and conduct that's independent of thinking. That is, the charismatic person can sway opinion based on force of personality, independent from strength of argument. Clearly, this can be a dangerous thing—both because it could lead you to conclusions you might otherwise reject, and because it can lead the charismatic person to misunderstand the source of their power (that is, they might belief they're a better thinker than they are).

And it's more complicated that that. In most situations a person's charisma is not uniformly strong in a group, and there will tend to be a knee-jerk negative response by those in the group who are not drawn to that person's magnetism, serving as a counter weight to the positive response of those who find the person charismatic. This gets messy in a hurry. Now, in addition to sorting out what to do about an issue based on the thinking in the room, you must also navigate the extent to which charisma may be distorting (in either direction) how that information is being viewed.

For all of that, charisma can be a wonderful thing in carrying a group through a morass, galvanizing a group to action when it might otherwise be in peril of losing its will and its way in the Slough of Despond. (I have a friend who styles such moments "Captain Kirk speeches," after the unflappable commander of the starship Enterprise, and his uncanny ability to rise to the occasion when the odds are as long as the tentacles of the evil aliens.)

I'm thinking Joan of Arc here. While i'm less sure of my fotting on this, I suppose that this too depends on how the audience perceives it. If it comes across as authentic and on target, I imagine it's irresistible and people love it. If however, you experience the radiant person with their head up their ass, I reckon you'd feel differently about the influence of their "sunshine."

But maybe Vicki was talking more about a person being fully in their own power and totally unthreatened by disagreement. While the impact of being in this state probably still depends on the audience's sense of relevance to the situation, I recognize that this may not be as problematic as my prior paragraph indicated. I think an important question for me would be whether I perceived the radiant person to be capable of receiving well while being in a state of emanation. If I felt that the person was all give and no take it would likely piss me off (who appointed them God?)

With all of this, the important thing is that you have to track not just intent (of the powerful, charismatic, or radiant person); you have to track perceptions to understand impact and the extent to which the exercise of power will be seen as "with" or "over."

For my money, one of the key tests of a group's maturity is its ability to talk openly about power, and whether it can discuss with compassion and depth the perception of some members that others are using power less cooperatively than they believe they are.

Vicki continued:
I know I am charismatic when I speak and write but consider it simply a gift I've been given, a "feature" of my persona. I use that best when I am serving a cause. Then there is power, which is the exercise of my will for protection or projection. It's more the animal level. Canny. Neutral in that it can be used for more or less selfish ends but always in service to my needs. I am willing to exercise power and that's where I sometimes get in trouble with groups.
Communitarians, "green meme-ers", don't like to see themselves as carrying or exerting more power. That's where the yellow in spiral dynamics helps me, to see that wise use of power is to empower the whole, which I hope is where I land most of the time."

I think you can always get into trouble when exercising power, because you can always be perceived to be acting "over" instead of "with." While your intent may be less than pure (and that's definitely worth looking at), my main point here is that leaders are never in control of how their intent will be perceived no matter how pure it is, and they must act with the understanding that at least some of the time they will take hits about how they are abusing their power. You can rail all you want about the unfairness of that, but Harry Truman had it right: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

We desperately need leaders, because we're all not of equal ability, equal motivation, and equal availability for the hard work at hand. We need to be choosing our best people to lead, while at the same time working hard to increase the opportunity for everyone to enhance their leadership qualities, to create an ever-widening pool from which to select tomorrow's leaders.

I believe Vicki's right to be striving to use power as much as possible for the benefit of the whole. Though a good heart doesn't guarantee that you'll always see things accurately—or that you'll always be seen accurately—it's certainly a good start. In addition to creating a solid understanding of what power "with" looks like, and an appreciation among cooperative groups of the need for having leaders who use power from that model, we need to find better ways to talk about power and what's hard for us about it.

Lacking that kind of dialog and compassion we'll simply continue the dynamic of the Left being divided among itself (and therefore substantially ineffective as a force for social change). Surely we can do better than the pathetic cultivation of leadership bashing as an art form—where we lop of the heads of all flowers who brazenly rise above the field in their eagerness for the light.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Fine Line Bteween Wanting to Speak and Needing to Speak

Last week I was in Seattle attending the national cohousing conference on the campus of the University of Washington. Because my partner (Ma'ikwe) and I were running the conference bookstore, we rented a car and drove over 2000 miles each way. (The compact car was so compacted that all we could sight through the rear-view mirror was a wall of boxes and the passenger seat didn't recline more than a couple inches—I mean that car was full.)

In addition to seeing a lot of Wyoming and Montana (which we found to be exceptionally pretty following a wet spring) that meant we were in the car for three days outbound and three days inbound. At the start of the return trip last Tuesday Ma'ikwe and I had an important exchange. It began with Ma'ikwe sharing reflections about a conversation she had with a mutual friend over the weekend. Though I hadn't been present for the conversation, I had long-term observations about how I saw this person in relation to group dynamics and jumped in to share them (in case you ever wondered what professional facilitators talk about when they're alone, it's just as bad as you might have imagined). Ma'ikwe didnt have a good reaction to that and the conversation stalled.

There were a number of factors that contributed to the derailment, and I had all the way from Port Townsend WA to Rutledge MO to sort them out.

1. Ma'ikwe hadn't asked for my opinion
The fact that I felt my comments were both substnative and germane didn't really matter. Ma'ikwe felt that I had hijacked the conversation, and what might have been an interesting exploration became stillborn. As a sat with this across eastern Washington and southern Montana, I saw how it paralleled other situations, and I could see my unhelpful pattern of occasionally being too eager to grab the mic, competing for air space.

2. I'm too critical of others
Perhaps worse than the faux pas of offering unsolicited opinions, my views are often critical. Where Ma'ikwe wanted to celebrate her friend's exploration of what she's doing with her life, I had launched into an unkind analysis. Ma'ikwe was irritated that I had shifted the energy, and questioned my ability to allow people to grow. Ouch! When I asked if she'd rather I changed my opinion or didn't express it, she wasn't sure.

As it happened, the previous night we had been in a dinner table conversation with others and Ma'ikwe didn't like how I had been critical of other process professionals when their names had surfaced in the discussion. So her reaction to my criticality had been building for a while, and Ma'ikwe—to her credit—felt compelled to voice her reaction.

As this feedback incubated in me I went through a sequence of defensiveness, sulking, and then acceptance. Ma'ikwe had the grace to let me sort through
this on my own, and I've gradually come to appreciate that there are really very few times when I need to speak—especially when I'm critical of others. The world's mostly doing fine without the steady insertion of my gratuitous "wisdom."

3. Not needing equal air time
As part of my journey to accept this feedback, I went through a phase of righteousness about how poorly I think others tend to use air time in groups (regardless of whether it's formal meetings or informal gatherings). When I caught myslef indulging in my penchant for criticality (it was ony a matter of time before I collided with the obvious), I smiled and reminded myself that life is not about how good you look; it's how well you see the opportunities for enjoyment, connection, and surprise. It really doesn't have anything to do with air time at all.

• • •
The fundamental truth in this exchange with Ma'ikwe was that I was irritating my partner and she was letting me know it—which I had asked her to do. While it probably took me about 1000 miles to sort it all out, I finally arrived at a place where it was OK. While this place is unfortunately not marked on road maps (with suggestive names, such as Enlightenment WY, Deep Listening MT, or New Insight NE), the good news is that it can be found—even though you may have to burn a little ego and retread some ideas to get there.