Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sounds of Silence, Part Three: Silence in Consensus

Communication is a huge field, and obviously integral to understanding cooperative group dynamics, which is where I work and play. In this field, one of the trickiest things to accurately interpret is silence. I want to talk about what it means when people aren't talking, and I'm offering this as a four-part harmony, one blog at a time:

Part One: Silence in Conversation (Oct 1)

Part Two: Silence on the Road to Speaking (Oct 8)

Part Three: Silence in Consensus

Part Four: Silence on Email

The roots of consensus follow two main historical threads: one is the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the other is a Native American tradition, especially the tribes of the Iroquois Federation. Among Quakers it is understood that silence means assent. In that culture it is the responsibility of each member to speak his or her mind. Meetings proceed at a pace where there is ample spaciousness for each person to voice their views, and if a member of a Quaker Meeting chooses not to speak it is understood that the group can move forward on solid footing.

In contrast with that, it is my understanding that the reverse was true among Native American cultures. There, silence was understood to be a withholding of agreement, and no decision could move forward until everyone had spoken.

Upon reflection, it’s obvious that you could go either way on this. The important thing is for everyone to understand which way to interpret silence in your group. After working for decades with contemporary groups using consensus, I’ve found the best solution is generally a hybrid. I ask groups for permission to interpret silence as assent on procedural matters (“Here is my summary of the conversation so far: ____. Does that seem complete and balanced?” or “I suggest that we alter the focus of the conversation from X to Y; is that OK with the group?”), yet typically insist on some active sign from each member about their views when asking for formal agreement on a proposal. I figure the stakes are fairly low when it comes to how the group focuses its attention, and fairly high when it comes to determining policy. I’m willing to go for a streamlined approach to questions about how the meeting will progress, and then slow it down for decisions establishing agreements that will bind the group into the foreseeable future.

Absent an explicit understanding about silence, it's easy to understand how the group can get into trouble. For example, a member may feel that they have nothing to add to the conversation and is not speaking out of respect for the group's time. However, someone observing that member may not be sure that's what's going on. You may guess that the member's silence is out of confusion, or possibly because they're still cogitating about what they think or how to express it. (For this reason, it's common for consensus groups to encourage members who have not addressed a topic to voice something like, "So-and-so speaks my mind" to let others know that everything is copacetic rather than unsettled. It's a simple step that can dissipate the fog and needn't take more than a few seconds.)

In addition, silence in meetings can be a powerful tool in shifting the energy or in shifting the level of engagement. It can be terrific, for example, as a change of pace. When discussions get bogged down a moment of silence can help members step back, take a deep breath, and remove themselves from unproductive wheel spinning by reflecting on what's already been contributed—the better to identify what might have not yet been voiced, or to identify what potential connections between statements have been overlooked. Alternately, silence can be used effectively to ask participants to drop into a deeper level of connection, perhaps where people speak from their hearts more than from their heads.

While the potency of this approach tends to diminish with overuse, it can nonetheless be a valuable option if used sparingly, and in the right moments.

In groups which embrace the autobahn philosophy of open discussion (no posted speed limits on how quickly one person speaks after another), an occasional moment of breath-taking can dramatically alter who feels comfortable entering the traffic flow, resulting in input from the shyer folks in the room—people who may otherwise never be heard from.

If you're part of a consensus group that doesn't normally work much with silence, I have the same advice that Dr. Zeuss offers regarding green eggs and ham: Try it, you may like it!

Why Intentional Communities are Important

I'm in Berea KY, attending the Fellowship for Intentional Community's fall organizational meetings—three days of fun and stimulation conversation with friends and fellow zealots. All day long, we talk about community, swap stories, discuss strategies for building cooperative culture, and scheme about ways to balance the budget. I love it.

One of the highlights of Day Two was listening to Board member Raines Cohen discuss the activities and missions of a variety of organizations engaged in efforts to build a better world that involved some aspect of community building. The Board's job was to sort out what role we might play in collaborating with these efforts.

This involves a number of steps. First, what do we think we're good at? I believe the answer here—the thing that intentional communities are better at than anyone else—is using a relationship-based approach to problem solving. As much as any other segment of the culture, we're learning how to handle tough issues without leaving anyone behind. We're learning the skills needed to get all of the stakeholders to the table, solicit what's crucial to each, identify the common threads, and figure out how to create an environment of curiosity and openness in which to manifest a solution. While I believe this is enormously valuable, it's interesting how little demand there is for what we know. I can't tell whether others don't believe intentional communities have this skill (perhaps because our experience is considered too alien, or because we're thought to be running away from society's issues), whether they think they have it as well, or whether that skill is not important. It's baffling.

Second, how should we approach these groups to make an offer of support? Often, the trick to getting a good reception is learning as much as possible about what your audience is really looking for and starting to build your bridge from their end—rather than insisting that others come to you. It can come as a shock to many activists that not everyone shares their agenda or that others organize reality differently.

Third, where do we think there's a sufficiently strong connection that we'll get a positive response—in other words, what attempts are worth our time and effort. This is often about as scientific as reading tea leaves, and requires sussing out what feels most likely to work. Because there's not enough time to try everything, you have to make choices. (There is a tendency to feel frustrated when efforts fail, and it can be a challenge to find the patience to give others a sufficient chance to warm up to your overtures. Hang in there!)

Trying to succeed at inter-organizational networking can be like fishing. Sometimes there are long stretches between nibbles; sometimes there's no fish in the pond; sometimes you're using the wrong bait. The thing to keep in mind is that the skill needed to make connections with other organizations is exactly the same thing that's needed in build bridges between stakeholders—that thing I posited at the beginning of this blog that we community people are so good at.

Do you suppose the universe is trying to tell us something about how far we've come on the path to perfection?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Going Like 60

I enjoyed a unique and touching 60th birthday celebration over the weekend.

It started propitiously enough when Jennifer Martin drove over from Dancing Rabbit Friday afternoon, clothed in more attitude than fabric. Arriving in a skimpy black teddy, black leather boots, long black gloves, and a choke collar, "Mistress Jennifer" got everyone's immediate attention. With an affected British accent she directed me—with crop in hand—to get my things together with alacrity and get in the car. While I was not all together certain what "things" would be needed for what lay ahead (there was a scroll directing me to bring an overnight bag, wine, and cash in small, unmarked bills, but that didn't actually cut the fog much), it was clear I needed to make choices quickly.

Hastily selecting some festive apparel (like Jennifer, I also chose a ruffled black top; unlike Jennifer, my selection—a shirt—covered more and accentuated less), I got in the car and away I was whisked for the three-mile ride from Sandhill to Dancing Rabbit. I tried, with partial success, to concentrate more on the driving than on Jennifer's decolletage and we'd only barely (so to speak) gotten into the topic of sex toys when we'd arrived and I could gracefully effect a change of subject. (Where was the weekend headed??)

To my amazement, the birthday celebration started at the Milkweed Mercantile, the not-quite-finished Eco-Inn located smack in the midst of Dancing Rabbit. My birthday dinner (the first of two) was their inaugural restaurant event, and Ma'ikwe and I were the first overnight guests at Kurt & Alline's inn. So it was an auspicious occasion for more than just me.

In addition to my surprise at seeing the Mercantile ready for service (my immediate impression was of the warm glow of flames dancing in the fireplace, complemented perfectly by the array candles happily flickering on the elegant table), guests started popping out from behind the furniture. First there was Tony, handsome in a red vest, followed by his partner Rachel, in a long print dress. Given that they're both good friends and live at DR, their attire was more unusual than their presence, so I took this first "Surprise!" in stride.

When I turned to my left however, it was shocking to find my sister Alison smiling back. She lives in Chicago. I had hardly digested that before her eldest son Allan added his "Surprise!" to the chorus. He lives in Iowa City. After finally managing to get a kiss from the party impresario, my wife Ma'ikwe, I was urged to look around a bit more closely, and discovered to my furthering surprise that a second sister was in the room—Kyle, all the way from San Antonio. Holy moly, this was getting more special all the time.

After that initial burst, the rate of surprises slowed down a bit. There was time for appetizers and drinks (which I pretty much needed by this point). Other local guests drifted in and I was able to catch my breath. (And, since Jennifer had demurely changed into an evening gown, so could others.)

After a half hour or so, the door popped open and an eager black dog skittered inside. It was one of my granddogs: seven-month-old Yoshi. He was followed immediately by his owner, my daughter Jo, just in from Ohio. Holy Toledo, now they were arriving from different time zones!

This level of surprise was sufficient to get us to dinner: dressed spinach salad garnished with slices of Asian pear, followed by a main entree of lasagna, capped off with tiramisu and dessert wine. Lovely! Somewhere between the main course and the dessert, the door burst open again. By this point it could have been Santa Claus and I wouldn't have batted an eye. Instead, it was Betsy Morris and FIC-Board member Raines Cohen from Berkeley. (Would Max Lindegger from Australia be next?) While not exactly mythical figures, Raines & Betsy are legendary travelers and world-class social butterflies, so it only made sense that they'd make an appearance. After all, there was a party going on, right? (They were en route from California to Kansas City to DC to Berea KY, and I guess Rutledge is sorta on the way.)

It was both confusing and wonderful to have at the same table so many different elements of my life, all happily commingling: my sisters, my daughter, Rutledge community connections, FIC compatriots, and even one of my bridge partners (though Jennifer usually dresses differently for the Kirksville duplicate club). While the numbers were not large, the mix and energy of the evening was satisfyingly evocative of Ma'ikwe's and my wedding in April 2007, and that's as good as it gets. Ma'ikwe was wise enough to know both how meaningful for me this would be and that I wouldn't ask for it. Therefore, she didn't ask.

There were no new arrivals after that and the party broke up around 10:30 (poor Alline was patiently reading in the corner, wondering if she'd ever get to bed). That meant that Ma'ikwe and I had the inn to ourselves for the rest of the evening, which we took full advantage of to celebrate in ways that were equally special yet beyond the scope of this blog (and you thought I didn't have any boundaries).

After a leisurely morning in bed (read more celebration), Ma'ikwe and I drifted next door to the DR Common House and our morning coffee ritual. Eventually we were joined by all of the out-of-town guests and Ma'ikwe conducted a tour of DR. While I knew most of her spiel, there's been so much going on at DR (20 people have been accepted for residency this year, and there's more new construction then at a gold strike boom town) that it was good to get more current on what the neighbors are up to.

The tour ended at Ma'ikwe's new house, which is now only a fortnight away from being enclosed enough to be able to occupy and heat for the winter (which is very exciting). Alline catered a lunch for us at the house site, after which Allan had to depart for his regularly scheduled life back in Iowa City (though not before he got to share with me a 120-minute IPA from Dogfish Head Brewery, which is worth every penny of the $10 it costs for a 12-oz bottle).

Then the party progressed (as progressive parties do) to Sandhill, where Jo and I were the surprise dinner cooks. I had been worried about being home for five days and not contributing at all to the cook rotation at Sandhill, but my clever wife took care of that. Knowing that there isn't much I enjoy in the world more than cooking (and eating & drinking) with my kids, she arranged that Jo & I got to be the cooks for the second birthday dinner and we merrily spent five hours in the Sandhill kitchen putting together the following repast:

o Fresh mixed green salad with homemade vinaigrette dressing (aka Laird sauce)
o Sliced tomatoes and red onion marinated in homemade basil aioli mayonnaise
o French bread with brie and baked garlic
o Roasted sweet potatoes
o Homemade pasta with a choice of sauces:
—Onions and garlic, slowly
caramelized in sage butter, olive oil, and black currant wine
—Mushrooms Berkeley (shiitakes, onions, and green peppers sauteed in butter and then cooked down for hours in sorghum, mustard, wine, and worcestershire)

Nobody went hungry.

Then it was back to the Mercantile for birthday cake (a choice of spice cake with maple frosting, or carrot cake with cream cheese frosting), ice cream, and a second round of partying. After getting all sugared up we watched a video that none of us had seen before: Geoph Kozeny's footage of Ma'ikwe's and my wedding roast, held the night before the ceremony in April 2007. It was just as funny the second time.

After that, we tapered off with a round of Skittles, a wooden game of Appalachian heritage that has been in the Schaub family since before my birth. (Is there anything more grounding than traditional foods, ritual activities, and convivial friends and family?) It's played in an open box that is approximately four feet long, two feet wide, and eight inches high. The box has partitions and there are 15 five-inch high wooden pins (turned on a lathe) that are set upright on designated locations around the box. The more obscure the location of the pins, the more they're worth if you knock them down. The game is played by taking turns winding up wooden tops with string and then releasing them into the box. Your score is the value of the pins your top knocks down. There are tricks to getting a lot of action out of your top, yet it's a mistake to think that your score doesn't depend substantially on luck.

Just as the tops eventually wound down, so did us revelers. After about 30 minutes of Skittles, bed beckoned to us all and the second day drew to a close.

This was my actual birthday, yet it worked better for most of the out-of-towners to celebrate early and use Sunday as get-away day. Thus, my sisters and daughter were gone before Ma'ikwe and I had arisen from the luxury of the Mercantile's down comforters.

Again we started with coffee (which is not much different than saying I got out of bed, or the sun rose in the East). After a leisurely breakfast, we schmoozed with Betsy & Raines and then I headed down to Ma'ikwe's house to install the stove pipe for her wood stove. On Saturday I got to cook; on Sunday I got to do some construction. It made me happy (as Ma'ikwe knew it would) to be able to bookend my birthday with the opportunity to be constructive with my hands.

Although rain shortened my work day after about five hours (you can't caulk a roof penetration in the rain), I was able to complete the trickiest part—building and installing the fireproof pass-through, where the double-wall stove pipe goes through the insulated ceiling. That means the ceiling rafters will be ready for the drywall crew expected today. Whew.

Right before sundown, with rain clouds rolling in from the west, I went home and did yoga, which was a fitting conclusion to my birthday.
I realized as I was stretching, that yoga was the last thing I'd done before Jennifer appeared on Friday. So while it may be questionable whether I ever got the hang of my birthday, I'm confident that I got the yin and the yang of it.
I want to close with a reflection about connection and the threads of life. In addition to the straight forward joy of unhurried time with friends and family (which I'm pleased to report are not mutually exclusive groups), it was a delight to see how things naturally tended to flow in sequence.

o Two years ago I had asked Alison to bring Skittles to Ma'ikwe's and my wedding in Albuquerque, but there was a lot going on and it didn't happen. On the occasion of my birthday, which I didn't even know Alison was attending, she brought Skittles on her own.
o Friday night, after Ma'ikwe had created an ambience which echoed our wedding, Alison presented me with a framed statement of our wedding vows which she had calligraphed and gotten all the wedding guests to sign as witnesses. While I knew this was in the works, it was the first time I'd seen the finished product, which will be mounted over Ma'ikwe's and my bed.
o Saturday evening we watched for the first time the video of the wedding roast, after which we had queued up a game of Skittles. It was eerie to hear Ed Pultz (an original Sandhill member) say halfway through the roast that he "was surprised that no one had mentioned Skittles so far." I had forgotten he'd said that.
o I next depart home tomorrow, for the start of a 16-day trip. My first stop will be Berea KY to participate in the FIC's fall organizational meetings. It will be my first time I've ever in Berea… which just happens to be where Skittles is made.

Are there ever any accidents?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Birthday Surprises

I'm not typically big on birthdays. This year, however, I may not have a choice.

In two days I'll turn 60, and Ma'ikwe has been plotting for months about how that should be celebrated. I've been told to keep my schedule completely free from Friday afternoon through Sunday morning—that's about 44 hours worth of surprises. So even if I remain not big on birthdays, I reckon this year my birthday will be big on me. (And I'm fairly confident I'll have some great blog material come Monday morning.)

As I'm not the kind of person who tries to wheedle clues out of people, I truly have no idea what shenanigans my wife is up to. I'm just going to let the Force guide me—and hope it's guiding her as well. My mantra will be WWYD: what would Yoda do?

As it happens, Ma'ikwe turns 40 in early February, which means that no matter how out of control things get over the weekend, I only have to wait a little over three months before I have the chance to get even. (Ma'ikwe is fully aware of this, yet I'm not sure whether that knowledge is injecting some sobriety into her machinations, or egging her on to even greater excess in the hope of enhancing the luster of her own hour(s) in the spotlight of a milestone birthday. As I doubt my wife has
ever met a lime she didn't embrace the light from, this could go either way.)

• • •
I just got home yesterday from a week in Colorado, and was eager to spend last night in the same bed with Ma'ikwe, but it was not meant to be. I depart early next Tuesday for the fall FIC organizational meetings (to be held Oct 30-Nov 1 in Berea KY) and I chastely stayed home (I live at Sandhill and Ma'ikwe lives at Dancing Rabbit, three rainy miles away) to compose as many of the five reports that I'm responsible for authoring for the meetings as possible. Whatever I don't accomplish before I enter Ma'ikwe's Birthday Blackout Zone this afternoon will have to be completed Monday.

I might have gotten a few of the reports done while I was in Colorado, but other than treading water in my email In Box, that time was fully subscribed by meetings about cooperative business consulting, and helping a friend rearrange the tables and (deck) chairs among the titanic mess that is her apartment.

I've never seen anyone with such a robust collection of empty boxes—all so that she won't have to spent much time re-manifesting them when she next decides to move. It borders on being a fetish. (Although partially peeved by the problem, I didn't presume to posit the possibility that the proliferation of paraphernalia in her penthouse has produced a predictable pattern that will plausibly precipitate the very peregrination and attendant distress that her procurement of plentiful boxes was meant to be prophylactic against.) I'm telling you, irony is wasted on some people. (While my observations may or may not be illustrative, at least they can be alliterative.)

The way I see it, these boxes—as in mounded so high they rain on your head or grab at your ankles whenever you try to access a shelf or a closet—are manifesting their own destiny and, sooner rather than later, she's gonna move.

For all that though, I had a great three days with my friend. We talked at length about her life choices (she's got to find a way to live in community again—living alone doesn't really work that well for anyone, but especially if you're 67, thrive on collaboration, and are trying to juggle multiple health challenges), we overhauled the furniture and organization of three of the rooms in her apartment (everything but the kitchen and the back hall closet—which has a density and tottering quality reminiscent of the legendary Fibber Magee's closet), and even managed to watch a video each night (making a modest dent in our near-hopeless backlog of Movies We'd Really Like to See).

Those three days were an excellent example of how time with friends is a major quality of life issue. In order to fully enjoy the bounty that close friendships can bring, you have to cultivate the garden of your relationships. That means spending time together where you are not always constrained by the need to be on task.
One of the secrets to making my life work is that I've figured out a way to accomplish that despite having a To Do List that never reduces to a single page.

While being on the road more than half the time means I'm often away from my wife and my community (things that go on the debit side), I am richly compensated by getting to do work I love (Benefit #1) with stimulating people (Benefit #2). Less obvious are the ancillary advantages of being able to regularly see friends around the edges of my work, by extending my travel to come early and/or stay late once business has brought me to a location (Benefit #3), and by making the choice to travel by train whenever possible, thereby protecting time for reflection and transition in a life that has otherwise crowded that out (Benefit #4).

So, if you want to spend time with me, you prospects are best if you to come to Sandhill when I'm home (good luck), attend an event I'll be at, or get me work in your area. There are also possibilities if you get married and invite me to your wedding, or arrange to travel with me.

Next Tuesday I'm looking forward to spending the day with Tony Sirna, as we drive together to attend the FIC meetings in Berea. That'll supply us with the luxury of about 560 miles of visiting time. Like Ma'ikwe, Tony lives at Dancing Rabbit. Though he's a close friend and lives in the same building as my wife, we rarely hang out together when we're both in Missouri. Instead—because we're both busy guys—we've gravitated to a friendship that is substantially cultivated during blocks of time spent traveling together, usually en route to Fellowship Board meetings. While that's a somewhat exotic solution, the important thing is that it works.

And in the end, that's all that counts.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Giving and Receiving

Yesterday I went out to lunch with a friend, Bill Becker, and he picked up the tab. Next time it will be my turn.

To be sure, when the next time rolls around he might "forget" that he paid the previous time and wrestle me for the bill (maybe
that tendency in him is manifest destiny given his name, yet Bill has always been a very generous guy), so it's my job to remember and not let him get away with that. Most often, Bill—who has served as FIC's Treasurer for 14 years—and I get together at Fellowship functions, and it's not unusual for both of us to bring some beer or wine for the Board and staff to enjoy after hours. We both try to be generous, and it's part of our vocabulary of camaraderie to be quick to reach for our wallets.

After 14 years I'm pretty comfortable with this back and forth with Bill. However, there are plenty of other relationships in my life where I'm uneasy being on the receiving end. Why is that?

I like the concept of paying forward, of giving in advance of receiving—even when it's uncertain that there will be a future occasion for the recipient of my generosity to reciprocate. I like having a reputation for generosity, and I like how it feels to be helpful and doing a bit more than my share, even if my contribution is anonymous. To be sure, I don't come out ahead in every reckoning (I didn't do as much dish washing as others last weekend during the Green Eggs meeting in Denver); yet this is true in general.

The part of this equation I want to focus on is not my generosity (I like that part); I want to look at my discomfort with receiving.

My uneasiness tends to be lessened if I have a clear sense that I'm running a karmic surplus with the giver (that is, when I have "credit" in consequence of some prior generosity on my part). It's also easier if the would-be exchange occurs in the context of an established relationship, where I'm confident of still-to-come opportunities to reply in kind.

Still, I find it hard to receive. For example:
o On my birthday I try to be out of town, so I can keep a low profile (or at least a lower one).
o I frequently turn down offers of back rubs or neck massages (even when my muscles are knotted).
o When there's a special food served at
a meal, I try to not eat any (so that there will be more for others).
o I am often uncomfortable having my partner focus on my pleasure in lovemaking (I didn't say any of this was smart; it's just what I do).

The analysis of any given situation is nuanced in that I try to take into account how much it may mean to the giver that their gift is received (and
received gracefully, if at all possible). Because I can inadvertently be depriving the giver of the chance to feel good if I spurn their offer (which, after all, is how it might land with me if our roles were reversed), I try to be sensitive to this. It can be tricky navigating between what I'm comfortable with and what feels good to the other person.

Part of my understanding about how this preference developed (who knows what the entire story is) relates to my being a man living in the feminist culture of intentional community. By "feminist" I mean a culture that is cooperative, egalitarian, and not sexist. As men have much more privilege in the wider culture, I've learned to be hyper vigilant about how I might be perceived to be taking advantage of that. If I give more than I take, it reduces the risk of being seen as one more arrogant and/or oblivious male.

Another part of the story is my aspiration to be what Robert Greenleaf styled, a "servant leader." By foregoing many of the privileged trappings of power, I believe I can be a more effective as a social change agent. I'm sure that this is true, mind you, but it's how I think and it's little enough to make the experiment.

• • •
About 15 years ago I was visiting a community on the East Coast and fresh, homemade chocolate chip cookies were offered for dessert one evening. Toll house cookies are about my favorite, and I happily snarfed up a couple as soon as they came out of the oven. After I'd eaten dinner, I eagerly went back for more cookies. Halfway back to my seat I was upbraided by a community member for being a pig—what was I doing taking seconds before everyone had had firsts; how could I be so rude?

Chastened, and red faced, I put the cookies back and didn't eat any more that night.

A few years later I had a friend who was fond of making fabulous Christmas cookies. Every December she'd make batches of several kinds and then mail gift packages of assorted cookies as a distinctive holiday greeting. For a number of years I was on her list to receive this bounty. However, as good as the baked treats were (and they were terrific), I got nervous about being a privileged recipient. I hadn't forgotten the incident with the chocolate chip cookies, and I got in the habit of opening the box in the community dining room and letting my fellow Sandhillians eat the cookies. Although I was careful to send the baker a note of appreciation every year, once she found out that I was giving the cookies away, she stopped sending them to me.

I was uncomfortable receiving a special favor, and she was displeased that I wasn't eating the cookies myself. Sigh.

These days, I'm pretty cautious about eating cookies, and I tend to steer clear of the dessert table on potluck nights. It's much safer that way.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Post-Harvest Exhalation

At Sandhill we had our first killing frost a week ago, and we finished milling and cooking down the last of the sorghum harvest Tuesday. While there are still untold buckets of produce spread across the floor of our walk-in cooler (the physical manifestation of our abundant gardens), for the first time in months we can linger over that first cup of coffee in the morning, because our days are not so packed with pressing work.

It's life on the farm.

The crescendo of the highly orchestrated days of fall has suddenly given way to the lingering days of Indian summer—where there is time to savor the dwindling warmth and walk among the fallen leaves swirling in the autumn breeze. The Earth is turning toward dormancy and there is time to exhale and reflect.

For all of these reasons, fall is my favorite time of year. I love having a full and busy life, yet cherish also these seasonal pauses that Nature periodically inserts into the calendar.

I'm in Colorado this week, gathered with five compatriots who together with me comprise the half dozen principals of Green Eggs (Guild for Relational Economics: Experts in Neighborly & Entrepreneurial Growth that is Green & Sustainable)
. This consortium is exploring whether we have a viable business specializing in services that marry healthy economics with cooperative dynamics. [See my blog of July 26, 2009 for more on Green Eggs.] It's a great group, and we're optimistic that some of our creativity will translate into income streams—both for our clients and for us.

Before I left home for this junket, I had enough post-freeze time to finish reading a library book (which is a novel way for me to spend time during harvest), make my final batches of tomatillo salsa & hot pepper relish for the year, and craft a custom-made threshold
for Ma'ikwe's new house from Sandhill's stash of seasoned 5/4 white oak—which I delivered to the house site Thursday afternoon, en route to the train station for my overnight ride to Denver. (Though I love working with wood, it was a rare treat to be able to spend time with a plane in my hand, beveling the quarter-sawn oak board to highlight the ray flecks.)

When I return home next Thursday, I'll help Ma'ikwe install the triple-wall stove pipe for her wood stove, and maybe lend a hand with building the cob wall in the southwest corner. Better yet, I'll get to spend more constructive time with my wife—not just more time with my wife's construction. I'm looking forward to that especially.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sandhill's Demographic Transition

This morning, long-term Sandhill members Käthe & Michael picked up a U-Haul truck in preparation for their departure from the community early tomorrow. After seven-and-a-half years, they're "retiring" to land they own in southern Missouri, to be nearer Käthe's adult children, Molina (in Columbia MO) and Andrew (in Fayetteville AR).

While it's always hard losing people who've been part of the family for so long (in 35 years we've only said goodbye to a handful of people who lived here more than four years as adults: Grady, Jules, Annie, French, and Bekka), Käthe & Michael's departure also signals a sea change. In the next few months, Sandhill will get significantly younger.

Käthe & Michael are both near 60 (as are Stan and I) and Gigi is in her late 40s, we added Apple as a member last year and she's only her late 30s. Emily joined a month ago and she's hasn't yet reached the age that Jack Weinberg said (circa 1965) that you couldn't trust anyone past the age of. This winter we're expecting Trish & Joe to move up from St Louis and they're a couple in their late 20s with a one-year-old son. By spring, for the first time in two decades, a majority of our adult population will be under 40. Our average age will be in free fall, plummeting from somewhere around 57 to 42. I'm excited about this. We're nearing the end of our first generation of members, and we need to be thinking about what's going to happen next.

Instead of having almost everyone approaching senior status—which is where we were headed about five years ago—we'll be much more intergenerational. This bodes well for Sandhill's ongoing viability as a community. An unbalanced age distribution is one of the trickier things for small groups to manage as they mature. There are some groups—such as Springtree (Scottsville VA) and Christ Church of the Golden Rule (Willits CA)—which have essentially gotten too old to continue beyond the current membership.

While fading into the sunset is not necessarily a bad thing, it's more satisfying handing the baton off to a younger generation, to build on what we old fogies have begun. (In Sandhill's case, hopes for the continuation of our beachhead of cooperative culture in southern Scotland County is immeasurably strengthened by the vibrancy of our neighboring communities, Dancing Rabbit and Red Earth Farms, and does not rest solely on the shoulders of Sandhill. We have the luxury of not having all of our cooperative eggs in a single basket.)

Still, there are challenges ahead. Having a clutch of younger folks join gives us prospects, but that's not the same as a sure thing. We have to integrate these new folks into the community, enhancing the chances that they'll become the core of the long-term membership that will be here 25 years from now. Crucial to this succeeding will be the ability of the remaining long-term folks (Stan, Gigi, and I) to create genuine openings for the newer members to do things their way and to establish variations in the community's rhythms. We have to do better than simply "allowing" them to do what we did; we have to support their making changes. In short, we have to midwife the transition of Sandhill becoming their community (and not roll our eyes when they suggest overhauling long-established routines). If we insist they wait until we're dead, the community will be dead.

These challenges notwithstanding, I'm optimistic about what's ahead. We offer new members a community with built facilities, no debt, and established income streams. We're living in the midst of a three-community neighborhood that's thriving, have good local relations, and abundant gardens with topsoil we've been amending and nurturing since the day we first arrived in 1974. (As far as I'm concerned, healthy topsoil is better than money in the bank.)

• • •
Käthe & Michael's leave-taking seems propitious. They're departing on good terms to a new life adventure that they're eagerly awaiting. Simultaneously, Sandhill will be turning a page, and opening a new chapter in its future, seeing if it can reinvent itself. It should be interesting times all around.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Time Zone Traveler's Wife

Every so often you read a book just at the right time—when the themes of the book are in laminar flow with what's happening in your life. I just had that experience with Audrey Niffenegger's bestselling novel, The Time Traveler's Wife. Though this was written six years ago, I only just got around to picking it up while visiting friends in the Bay Area two weeks ago. I've never read a book that does a better job of exploring the complexities of intimate relationship.

Aside from the clever concept of Henry as a Chrono-Displaced Person—a fictional emerging anomaly in genetic accidents, this is book is about intimacy. In particular, between the two protagonists, Henry and Clare. Henry is eight years older than Clare, and they have 15 years together, interrupted periodically by Henry's uncontrolled habit of responding to stress by transporting himself in time (for periods lasting from minutes to days), either forward or backwards in his life. Most commonly he visits people important in his life, and sometimes himself. In particular, he visits Clare, and this is part of the discontinuous fabric from which their relationship is woven.

Henry and Clare are deeply in love with each, and one of the most powerful aspects of the book is the exploration of anguish and fragmentation that can occur between partners, despite their being deeply in love. It is heart rending when Henry wants to stop trying to have a baby after the fourth miscarriage (for fear of losing Clare) and Clare wants to persist, because she desperately wants to continue what they have created into another generation. Being untied does necessarily mean being of one mind, and this is the real stuff of intimacy.

I resonated with this book so strongly because the last five months I've been actively looking at the meaning of intimacy
and partnership with my wife, Ma'ikwe. Like Henry & Clare, we've been grappling with when and how to talk about touchy subjects, with what it mans to be fully partnered, with how to use awkward moments as a springboard into deeper water (rather than as a signal to get out of the pool), and with how to reconnect after repeated temporal separation (while I don't leave the present in the same spectacular way that Henry does—for one thing, I keep my clothes on; for another, I usually take Amtrak—I nonetheless am on the road half the time and am often in a different time zone than my wife). On top of that, Ma'ikwe lives three miles away from me—so even when we're in the same zip code, we often have occasion to recalibrate our electrons to get them into a synchronous orbit.

I've never been closer to another human being, and I am both grateful and in awe that Ma'ikwe feels the same way I do. This is the miracle of love. Somehow we've stumbled onto this same rare thing that Niffenegger has described for Henry & Clare. And it is all the more precious in that it's not a fairy tale. It is the culmination of daring to be vulnerable, celebrating each other's successes, stubbing our toes, saying the hard thing, holding each other during the scary parts, licking each other's tears, hanging in there, making love to exhaustion, and laughing until we can hardly breathe.

Like Henry & Clare, I am older than my wife, and will likely die sooner. My father died at 72. If my hourglass runs out of sand at the same time his did, Ma'ikwe and I will have had 16 years together—just one more than Henry & Clare had. Ma'ikwe will then be a widow at 52, with much life still ahead of her.

Emily, who lives with me at Sandhill, told me that The Time Traveler's Wife was one of her all-time favorite books and she cried a lot while reading it. While I totally get how Niffenegger touches readers in the heart, I've had a different reaction. Instead of grieving that Henry & Clare only had 15 years together, I am filled with joy that they used those 15 years so fully. What a gift to be reminded that time is always limited, and it's never a good idea to put off what's important until later. One of the secrets to a happy and fulfilled life is to insist on living the life you mean to live right now. Don't wait for the movie, or worse, your obituary to see how it all comes out.

Thank you, Audrey. Thank you, Henry. And thank you, Ma'ikwe.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sounds of Silence, Part Two: Silence on the Road to Speaking

Communication is a huge field, and obviously integral to understanding cooperative group dynamics, which is where I work and play. In this field, one of the trickiest things to accurately interpret is silence. I want to talk about what it means when people aren't talking, and I'm offering this as a four-part harmony, one blog at a time:

Part One: Silence in Conversation (Oct 1)
Part Two: Silence on the Road to Speaking
Part Three: Silence in Consensus
Part Four: Silence on Email

In this second installment I'll explore the kind of Silence where a person intends to speak (or is at least open to it), but is just not there yet. This is where the silent person is actively working with what's going on and is not shut down. I think there's a sequence of three questions that a person is addressing
(or ought to be) in this situation. Though not everyone asks all of these questions (in fact, you probably know people who don't even stop to ask any of them), I suggest:

Step 1: What Do I Think (or Feel)?
A person's response to an occurrence, or to a comment or revelation is not always automatic (thank goodness). Sometimes a person needs to roll it over, let it sink in, or chew on it before knowing their mind (or knowing the response in their belly). There are times when this can take hours or even days, depending on how familiar or scary the territory is, and how high the stakes run.

Note also that knowing one's mind can be quite a different thing than knowing one's feelings. Which kind of response is called for? Maybe you're unsure. It can all be pretty confusing.

However, let's suppose you've figured this out. Now it's on to the next question:

Step 2: What's Appropriate for This
Regardless of whether you're in an casual conversation or a formal meeting, there is a context that should be taken into account when deciding what to share. Maybe it's TMI (too much information—not every audience is the right one for certain levels or kinds of sharing). Maybe you'd like to share but you're scared or unsure.

However, even after you've sorted this out, there remains a final question:

Step 3: What Should I Say Now?
Maybe you're response is off topic. Maybe you'd like to share at this level, but your audience isn't there yet. Maybe there's not sufficient trust to reveal your response. Maybe the right people aren't in the room.

• • •
This outlines one strain of why people are silent—even when that's not their intent, and they're hoping to break through. It can be a reason why it's good that people are silent (rather than blurting out the first thing that pops into their head). Of course, if you're on the receiving end of the silence, it may not be apparent that this is what's going on. You may be imagining much less productive possibilities.

The good news is, if you're unsure, you can ask.
If the silence signals distress, you're likely to get a surly response… or none. If, on the other hand, the silent person is on the road to speaking, you're likely to get a more even-handed response such as, "I'm thinking about it," or "Give me a while to sort this out."

A lot of times, the ambiguity of Silence is compounded by the people observing silence in others not talking about how they're interpreting it. When everyone is guessing, it's that much harder to get it right!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Bag Ladies (and Gentlemen) of St Louis

Yesterday I attended the Homegrown Urban Country Fair in St Louis—celebrating local food, wholesome food, Farm Aid, and, apparently, oxymorons.

Excepting the part where I had to get up at 2 am (after going to bed at 1 am) in order to get there in time to set up, and the part where it was in the low 40s in St Louis at dawn and we had to wait around in the shade for a couple hours before the customers started showing up—rendering an ordinarily simple task like making change a challenge in dexterity, it was a fun day. The sun, shy in the morning, finally made its full appearance in the afternoon and the temperature obediently rose into the more congenial (and less congealing) 60s. The crowd was boisterous, and we were just the right distance from the amplifiers to enjoy the live music without having it disrupt customer conversations.

The fair was an amplification of the Tower Grove Farmers' Market, which is a regular feature of Saturday mornings in St Louis during the growing season, and Sandhill Farm was invited as part of the expanded vendor list. While you might reasonably question whether food grown 175 miles away still qualifies as "local," at least we were in state. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the main coordinator (the self-styled Homegrown Shepherdess), Cornelia, is based out of Massachusetts! It was a day of contrasts.

As an
intentional community committed to sustainability—especially when it comes to food—Sandhill participates in many weekend festivals during the harvest season (next weekend we'll be in Keosauqua IA for the Fall Scenic Drive Festival, and the one after that in Hannibal MO for Historic Folklife Festival). For economic, as well as sustainability reasons, we mostly stick close to home and driving to St Louis for a half-day event was a stretch. However, I made the most of it, delivering two buckets of organic sorghum to Black Bear Bakery, giving a ride down to a farm organizer named Severin (also from Massachusetts, oddly enough) who was tabling at the fair, and giving a ride back to Jon, who will be visiting nearby Dancing Rabbit for a week. (Given how little sleep I'd had the night before, it was a godsend that Jon was with me on the return. The fair adrenaline had worn off by 4 pm and I gratefully turned the wheel over to him for most of the drive north.)

While it's true that sustainability was one of the themes of yesterday's fair and you'd expect the crowd to have a greener, above-average crunchy granola flavor to them than those who typically attend your plain old vanilla fall festival, something happened yesterday that I didn't expect to see in my lifetime: not a single person asked for a bag for their purchases. I was blown away. It figure it was the equivalent of walking along a mile of highway and not finding a single aluminum can.

I've been doing fairs for more than 30 years (which translates roughly to 100 events), and that has never occurred before. In fact, we are so used to the request that we stockpile all the plastic bags that inevitably accompany our mainstream purchases during the year just so that we'll be able to reuse them during the fall fair season. Yesterday I had a large supply of recycled plastic tote sacks on hand, and I didn't use a single one of them. True, two people accepted an empty cardboard box to hold their booty, but nobody wanted plastic. I think there's hope.

• • •
I have one more story about the fair. We were given the option to have our booth fee waived if we committed to giving a public talk during the event, and I jumped right on it. Cornelia asked me to talk about intentional community for 15-20 minutes, which is something I can more or less do in my sleep. As it turned out, my turn at the mic followed a discourse on vermiculture. While the "crowd" for my talk (encouraged by public announcements and a ring of straw bales placed suggestively around the stage) barely outnumbered the media recording it, I'm pleased to say that I easily outdrew the worm lecture.

That said, it's an open question who got upstaged by whom. Later in the day, Cornelia came by with a tape recorder and cameraman, hoping to get interviews of interesting people. Having appreciated my talk, she approached our booth and made her request (I graciously agreed, of course), and was just about to get started when she suddenly realized that her crew needed to dash off for another opportunity—a worm race.

Adding insult to injury, the race was apparently sufficiently distracting that she never did make it back for that interview. Sigh. Such is the ephemeral quality of fame.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sounds of Silence, Part One: Conversation

Communication is a huge field, and obviously integral to understanding cooperative group dynamics, which is where I work and play. In this field, one of the trickiest things to accurately interpret is silence. I want to talk about what it means when people aren't talking, and I'm offering this as a four-part harmony, one blog at a time:

Part One: Silence in Conversation
Part Two: Silence on the Road to Speaking
Part Three: Silence in Consensus
Part Four: Silence on Email

It seems to me that the place to start is by exploring the many-faceted role of silence in informal conversation, which is the fundamental building block of all communication—it's how most of us communicate at least 90% of the time, and it's where we form our communication habits. Thus, this opening piece will be on Silence in Conversation. Here are seven different ways that silence manifests in everyday face-to-face discourse:

A. When people are lost in the conversation
There is a tendency for many of us to get silent when we find the conversation too complicated, too fast, or too esoteric. We also tend to get silent if we're distracted, tired, or didn't hear what others have said. While this may or may not be irritating (see G below), the conversation has passed you by and you're responding passively.

B. When people go inward
There are times when a person gets quiet as they take in deeply what another has said, chewing it over in their mind (and body) to see what fits. This is an active response; just not a verbal one (at least for now). There may be a response coming later, or maybe not. There is an exploration going on (often related to insight) and the silent person may have no idea at the outset whether that inquiry will lead to a sharing.

C. When people are unsure how to respond
While related closely with B, in this case the silent person is actively trying to form a response, and is only quiet because of uncertainty about what to say or how to say it. The person knows that some kind of response is called for and is groping to figure out the best way to proceed. It may include elements of frustration or fear (see G below).
Sometimes the speaker understands this is happening and it leads to a pregnant pause, affording the respondent time to gestate their response. Sometimes the speaker is oblivious, as when there are too many people in the conversation to track them all, or when the speaker is self-absorbed.

D. When people are bored or uninterested
Essentially, this is when people check out and their attention drifts. It's different from A in that they don't care. While this is generally a passive response, there can sometimes be an aggressive edge here, where the silent person is hoping to starve out the topic by intentionally denying the speaker fuel.

E. When people are observing or being receptive
This is the situation where the conversation is going fine, the listener is engaged and simply doesn't have anything to say at that point. This is an active silence, often characterized by a nodding head.

F. When people are enjoying a stretch of companionable non-talking
This phenomenon is most common when people are together without time pressure, or without the desire or need to communicate.
It can occur regularly among close friends or partners as a way they enjoy time together (or among more casual acquaintances on a long car ride). Periods of silence can also naturally arise among people working together. While it may or may not be connecting, it's peaceful.

G. When people are reactive
I've saved this one for last. This is where the person is emotionally triggered. Unfortunately, it can be the outward manifestation of a wider variety of feelings than prizes in a box of Crack Jack. Included are:
o Anger (the person is upset, yet unable or unwilling to express it)
o Frustration (the person may be tongue-tied, or uncertain what to say that will illuminate what's happening)
o Fear (the person feels unsafe and is quiet to protect themselves or others)
o Sullenness (the person does not speak because they're sulking; they feel isolated or misunderstood and are withdrawing their energy)
o Depression (the person lowers their energy and gets passive in response to despair, or feeling overwhelmed)
o Overwhelm (the person is experiencing an intensity of feelings—it could anything: rapture, acute pain, massive confusion, rage—such that they are paralyzed in the moment)

As you might imagine, more than one of these feelings may be in play at the same time, greatly complicating the diagnosis.

• • •
Even if you assume that I've fully delineated the main reasons for people being silent in conversation (which I doubt) and I've convinced you that it's complicated, it's actually much worse, because many of these meanings can be combined. Talk about a hair ball!

For the most part we depend on non-verbal clues to help categorize which of the above meanings to assign to a person's silence. Often, facial expressions alone will tip you off. However, depending on propinquity, perspicacity, and lighting, it doesn't take much to get it wrong. Whence the popular admonition: when in doubt, check it out.

In fact, given how much of a rat's nest this can be, it's often a good idea to check it out, even if you aren't in doubt, the better to establish a sound foundation for where you want to take the conversation next. Keep in mind that just because you're talking doesn't mean you're communicating. Just a thought.