Thursday, April 29, 2010

All That Jazz in New Orleans

Today starts the second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz Festival, and I’m leaving before the music starts this afternoon. 

I’ve just wrapped up two days in the Crescent City (and am sitting in the Enterprise Rental Office on Chef Menteur Hwy, typing today's entry as I await the four-cylinder chariot that I’ll drive to Natchitoches—pronounced, for some reason, as NACK-i-tish), and thought I'd post some reflections. I coordinated my trip to be here at the same time as my son (Ceilee) and daughter-in-law (Tosca), who are in town for the jazz festival. I was in town mainly to be with them and to enjoy the Cajun cuisine (I'm just catching the tail end of oyster season). Ceilee & Tosca have two good friends from Las Vegas, Kenny & Ricci, who just moved back to New Orleans, and we stayed at Ricci's mom's house in suburban Chalmette. As Kenny's new job doesn't start until Monday morning, he served as our tour guide.

One of the specialties of the Big Easy is frozen concoctions served up in to go cups. You can get them all over town, and the best known of these is probably the hurricane—a deadly combination of gin, vodka, rum, triple sec, amaretto, and a splash of fruit juices which is guaranteed to seed the nucleus of a tropical storm in your stomach. However, I was no sooner picked up at the Amtrak station Tuesday afternoon than we headed for the Port of Call—a hole in the wall bar on Esplanade—and a sampling of what was touted as a much superior amalgamation of alcohol and fruit juices styled a monsoon. While I didn't conduct a blind taste test, I am willing to attest that enough tastes will make you go blind. I was glad I wasn't driving.

Who dat?
After a relatively slow morning the next day (if you moved faster your head hurt), our group grabbed poboys at a nearby sandwich shop (poboys are to the South what grinders are to New England, and heros are elsewhere), and I had my first taste of a muffaletta, a regional specialty made with multiple varieties of salami liberally coated with a salty olive mix and toasted cheese. Yum! Fresh from those fortifications, we got in Kenny's car and made our way down to the French Quarter to see the sights. En route, we passed a ramshackle repair shop which displayed this hand lettered sign:

No Loitering
No Crack Dealing
No Cat Selling

I found myself wondering what series of events convinced the proprietor that he needed to post that sign and clear up any confusion about what kinds of activities were in bounds. I especially wondered about flogging felines. My imagination was further stirred by Kenny's assurance that you could show up at this place at midnight and reliably get a flat tire fixed. It struck me immediately that this establishment had a business model I had not run into before.

After struggling to find mid-day parking in the Vieux Carré, we started strolling down Bourbon St, replete with its bawdiness and hype (one of the cuter t-shirts being offered up was "I Got Bourbon Faced on Shit Street"; my other favorite was "In Dog Beers, I've Only Had One"). While I'd been hoping to make an appearance at the Acme Oyster House on Iberville (my favorite raw beer in the Western Hemisphere), Tosca was not feeling well and we staged an orderly retreat after only imbibing one round of three-for-one beers and a hand-rolled cigar (I watched the guy roll it right in front of me).

After a quiet evening of grilling at Ricci's mom's (where the hands down highlight was locally procured andouille and boudin sausage), we retried early, husbanding our energy for a second foray into the French Quarter this morning. Our plan was to enjoy a distinctive New Orleans culinary experience: breakfast at Brennan's. Ceilee's mom (Annie) and I had celebrated her 24th birthday doing this very thing more than 36 years ago, and I figured it was time to do it again.

Unfortunately, logistical snafus sabotaged our good intentions. Tosca needed to retrieve her driver's license from a not-open-early
to go frozen daiquiri shop where she'd inadvertently left it the afternoon before, and I needed to do bureaucratic battle with Enterprise Car Rental in order to get the same rate in person that I'd been promised over the phone when I made the reservation last week. (While I'd like to tell you that such corporate mendacity is isolated, this particular experience is numbingly not distinctive to New Orleans.)

In any event, common sense (and a steel will) prevailed and I was ultimately able to rent the car for the conditions I had been promised. I'm now on my way to a Creole lunch in Lafayette. I hope Tosca's day goes as well as mine, and the music is as soulful as the food.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Frog Drowning in Missouri

Tuesday through Thursday I was part of a crew working full bore to build a cistern (see my blog of April 23, Bridge Work). By Friday, we were rained out, and it’s not clear which month we’ll be able to get back to it. Sigh. Welcome to the vagaries of Midwest spring weather.

It started raining Thursday night, and continued through the day on Friday. All together we had about an inch through mid-day Saturday, which the gardens needed and was by no means excessive. But it was enough to precipitate cave-ins along the sides of the cistern pit, collapsing clumps of soggy clay and dirt atop our unsecured block walls. All of that will need to be dug out and the soil removed from block cavities before the walls can be laid true and grouted securely in place. We were about half a day from having that work done before the rain caught up with us. As it will probably require a backhoe to re-excavate the hole (if you were wondering about the possibility of manually removing wet, sticky clay from a trench over one’s head, think pyramids), we’ll have to wait for enough dry weather that the weight of the equipment doesn’t trigger more cave-ins. That probably translates to June.

Given that I need to be on hand long enough to oversee the digging out, the completion of the block wall assembly, surface bonding the walls, and pouring the concrete for the barrel-vaulted top, a peek at my calendar means that this work won’t happen sooner than July. So the rains—while good for morel and shiitake production—were untimely for cistern production.

As momentum robbing as this was for our cistern crew, our work in April will mostly still be usable in July, so it’s more about delay than loss. The news for farmers in central Missouri was more troublesome.

Saturday, Ma’ikwe and I drove down to Columbia, about 125 miles south of Rutledge. It was raining the entire drive, and it quickly became apparent that we were entering territory that had been pelted with much more rain than we had experienced in the northeast corner. (I heard a rumor that some spots had already received seven inches, with more on the way.) In the agricultural parlance of northeast Missouri, it was a frog drowner. By the time we got south of Madison, we were seeing entire fields under water. This might have been desirable if the farmers were growing rice, but this is corn and bean country.

If those fields had already been planted—which was a distinct possibility given how dry and warm the prior month had been—all that effort was ruined. In addition to the non-trivial loss of labor and fuel associated with getting the fields ready, the substantial seed and fertilizer investment was all flowing into the ditches along with the water. Ouch!

Driving through this zone was both awesome and humbling. I never cease to be amazed when in the presence of Mother Nature flexing her muscles, and by the power of flowing water in particular. There were several places where the sodden fields were no longer able to contain the rainfall and it was surging across the blacktop. Luckily, we were negotiating this stretch of highway in the daylight and I had time to slow down before each cascade, keeping the rooster tails under control. Near Hallsville, we saw one car that was parked in the front yard… in water above the axles and rising.

After experiencing this mid-state deluge in progress, the rain delay for our cistern work seemed pretty minor.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Bridge Work

As a professional facilitator and conflict worker, a lot of what I do is build bridges between two or more folks having trouble hearing each other. While my life in community didn't start out with this focus it has decidedly become a central part of what I do.

After 36 years of living at Sandhill Farm, my role has gradually evolved from homesteader (there was no end to what things we didn't know how to do when we bravely moved onto the land in the spring of 1974) to community networker (I became my community's delegate to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities in 1979) to nonprofit administrator (I've been the Secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community since the late '80s) to facilitation trainer (mainly through a two-year program I pioneered in 2003, where I teach others how to build bridges).

Over the decades, my life has shifted more toward meetings and report writing, and away from milking cows and swinging hammers. While I know why this has happened and don't regret my choices, I haven't lost my enjoyment of more physical tasks, and I've been looking forward for some time to this past week, where I set aside my laptop to honcho building a cistern next to my wife's house at Dancing Rabbit.

Ma'ikwe shares the leasehold of a lot (styled "warrens" in DR argot, to continue the rabbit theme) with her next door neighbors, Bear & Alyssa, and we were all on hand at first light Tuesday morning, when Luke Zimmerman arrived with a backhoe to start excavating the site. Where there had been grass and undisturbed soil at 6 am, there was a 26'x13' hole eight feet deep by 10 am. Ever-conscious of the risk of a cave in (where the digging out would be done by hand), we were poised to work as fast as we could, and were in the hole by 10:05, trying to find the low spots with a transit.

After carefully shaving down the high spots in the clay subsoil, we slapped together 2x6s sufficient to build forms for a 22'x9' slab six inches deep. After leveling and staking the forms, we laid out a lattice of 1/2-inch rebar on two-foot centers, bound every intersection with tie wire, and called for four yards of ready-mix to be delivered from the concrete plant in our county seat, 13 miles away. I had about 30 minutes of down time between the completion of the prep work and before the truck had not arrived—just enough to realize how tired and sore I already was from having worked all day with shovels,
ladders, and hacksaws (to cut the rebar). When the truck rumbled in at about 4:30, there was no time to contemplate how tired we were; it was time to work concrete.

While pouring a 22'x9' slab is relatively straight forward, I knew that this pour would be extra effort. For one thing, we didn't want the truck coming too close to the edge of the hole, where it might precipitate a cave in. That meant we'd have to push the concrete into the corners. For another, concrete is stronger (much stronger) if poured with minimal water and extra cement. Most residential jobs are done with a five bag mix (bags of cement per cubic yard), and contractors regularly allow extra water to be added to enhance workability—even though it results in a marked degradation of the 2500 psi strength that is possible if extra water is not used. I had ordered 3000 psi concrete and had told them up front that I didn't want any extra water. I knew that this was going to be the stiffest concrete anyone in the pit had ever seen.

With the help of neighbors, there were about eight people in the pit: five to push concrete and agitate it in place, two to run a screed board, and one to bull float the finished product. After the floating, we had to place 34 L-bolts at precise locations in the hardening concrete, so that the slab could be tied to the concrete bock walls yet to come. Last, I crawled out on a pair of 2x6s that we laid across the forms and I hand troweled two shallow depressions in the slab to facilitate pumping out the water when we needed to clean the cistern.

When we were finally done, we gently lay a film of polyethylene over the top to retard drying and climbed up the ladders for the last time. It was about 6:15, and beer never tasted any better. When the driver of the concrete truck came over to have us sign the work order, I asked him if he ever made deliveries calling for 3000 psi concrete with no water added. He thought about it for a second, and replied: "It's not common, but we do it for bridges."

Hah, I thought. Even when I try to go back to homesteading, I'm still doing bridge work.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Writing About My Life, But Not My Wife

Friday afternoon I got a surprise phone call from Xanthia, a woman I met five years ago at an FIC organizational meeting in Los Angeles. She’s been interested in community for years and gives me a call every now and then to catch me up on her journey toward a more cooperative life. It’s been a sweet connection in the outer orbit of my life as a community networker. 

In addition to telling me that she'll be retiring soon and moving to northwest Tennessee to live with her sister, she inquired about how my partner, Ma’ikwe, was doing with her challenges with fibromyalgia (see my Dec 14 blog Adventures in Hydrotherapy) and having a section of the roof blown off her house (see my April 7 blog The Roof Is Risen, Indeed). It turned out that Xanthia has been reading my blog and was sympathetically tracking some of the struggles that Ma’ikwe has faced in recent months. I was touched by her caring and surprised that she was following my writing so closely.

A couple days ago Ma'ikwe and I got into a tender exchange, one aspect of which is her ongoing frustration with the frequency of my critical comments about things involving the construction of her house. (It's not that I never voice compliments; it's that there's too much criticism at a time when she mostly needs support.) This dynamic is not, unfortunately, peculiar to home building, yet the house is definitely a lightning rod for this less attractive side of me.

This flare up occurred in the context of a prior difficult exchange about a different (yet energetically connected) topic that we had not yet finished digesting, and I've been swirling about how to respond—even as we get set this morning to start excavating for Ma'ikwe's cistern, the construction of which I am managing and will call for me to be on the site every day. This week I'll be focusing intensively on making sure that the cistern is solidly constructed, even as I'm a bit shaky about my relationship with my wife. While I'm optimistic that we'll get through this OK—with the foundation of both the cistern and the relationship intact—it'll be a dance.

At the end of the first difficult conversation (on the topic I'm being vague about), Ma'ikwe asked me to not blog about it. As my commitment to my marriage supersedes my commitment to this blog (by only eight months mind you, but it does
come first), I agreed. While there are any number of occasions in my life when I've chosen to not disclose a thing or to discuss it openly—and felt good about that decision—it generally rubs me wrong. I have a deep-seated mistrust of taboo topics and have come to the view that not talking about things often results in greater relationship damage than the decision was meant to prevent.

Given all this, I am uncomfortable letting others decide for me what I'll write about, and that includes my wife. While I believe firmly in discretion and discernment—in being sensitive to how disclosure will land with others—I bristle at censorship. Taken all together, and my dread of a potential future where I'm periodically wrangling with my wife over what I can write about, I think it's for the best that this be my last blog about dynamics with Ma'ikwe. Then we can lay that irritant down. Luckily, there's still plenty of other interesting things that catch my attention and I'm not worried about running out of material.

In the future, Xanthia, you'll just have to ask about Ma'ikwe on those phone calls.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Importance of Feeling Excited about a Member Prospect

In the spectrum of intentional communities, Sandhill Farm is more of an intentional family than an intentional village (such as our neighbors, Dancing Rabbit, who have a population of 50 going on 500). That said, we nonetheless have been serious about growing—just not as much or as fast.

Sandhill has 12 bedrooms, yet we only have five adults living here as members now, with a couple and their two-year-old son slated to join us in June. That will still leave us with immediate openings, and begs the question about how selective we should be in choosing among prospectives. Because we'll never be large, each member has a decided impact on the group's flavor, and the nuance we wrestle with is how important it is that we're excited about a candidate, as opposed to there being no red flags. It's the difference between insisting on being positive, versus settling for the absence of dissonance.

While my group is not of the same mind about this, I lean toward a minimum that at least one other member really wants the person to join. Absent that, I'm worried about the dynamic where the new person holds a strong view on some issue that no one else agrees with. While a person could live here for 10 years and never be in that position, if it does occur, what will sustain us through the awkwardness?
Knowing that the relationship with that person is genuinely valued by someone I already have a commitment with to work through tough issues, will help me respond with compassion—instead of with irritation—when there's tough sledding. While I don't expect to be best friends with all community members, I want to feel optimistic about our prospects for being allies in the creation and sustenance of cooperative culture.

Over the years, we've learned that one of our most important criteria in assessing a candidate's prospects for being a good fit is not how well they match up with the community's values (very few get as far as an extended visit unless the match is excellent), but how well we think we can work out tensions and resolve disagreements with them. We look closely at how well the person takes critical feedback when someone has a problem with their behavior. We look more at a person's capacity to work constructively with differences than for signs that there will be few occasions to find out.

Why will you labor with someone when there's tension? Because you care about them and value your relationship. If you're not sure whether you'd hang in there with someone when you disagree, think twice before saying "yes" to having them as a fellow member, where you'll be largely obliged to make a good faith attempt to do so.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Deep in the Heart of Taxes

It's that time again. When the enticement of balmy April weather must be firmly resisted in favor of wrestling at the dining room table with the thicket of schedules and forms that stand between me and the avoidance IRS penalties. All of which is to say, taxes must be postmarked by Thursday. Thus, I went into total immersion yesterday morning (pausing only to send up this flare to my blog constituency).

I do the taxes for the whole community. That means that I start by preparing Sandhill's corporate return, parlay that into completing every member's 1040, and conclude by doing returns for the state of Missouri. (For nuances about the favorable tax options available to us as an income-sharing community, see my blog of last year, Mining the Tax Code. For more about how I relate personally to being the Designated Tax Matters Partner, see my blog of two years ago, The Tax Man Cometh.)

Every year there's a sequence to this treasure hunt:

a) Pore over the electronic accounting to see that things have been entered properly (Hint: they're never completely right). It's kind of like an Easter egg hunt, where you're looking for anomalies
, trying to discover as many as you can before you hand in your basket to the judges.

b) Pull together the oddments of accounting that are needed to create a complete financial statement and balance sheet (accounts receivables as of Dec 31; market value of all our bank accounts, loans, and investments; how many days of last year each person was a member—fun stuff like that).

c) Calculate depreciation and complete Form 4562. (For this I need the odometer readings on all our vehicles when the clock struck midnight Dec 31.)

d) Fill in Schedule F, where the farming aspects of community operations are catalogued. (I needed the depreciation numbers for line 12, where we use the standard mileage deductions for business use of our vehicle fleet.)

e) The bottom line on Schedule F becomes our answer to line 5 of Form 1065 (we file a partnership return because, as an income-sharing community, the corporation is tax exempt and net profits are passed through to the members on a pro rata basis, reported as dividend income on their 1040s).

f) On Schedule A (I'm still on Form 1065), I summarize the non-farm business expenses, which mostly fit comfortably under the umbrella of Sandhill Outreach. The three workhorses here are administrative work for the Fellowship for Intentional Community, Stan's career as an organic inspector, and my efforts as a process consultant.

g) I wrap up the 1065 by tackling Schedules L & M. This covers our balance sheet and the members' capital accounts, which is a bit of fiction needed to make everything add up. That's as far as I got by midnight last night.

h) Today I take each person's pro rate share of our reported net income and plug into seven different 1040s. I'll send an email to Käthe & Michael Nicosia (who left the community in October) giving them what number to use on their 1040s. Sandhill will cover any taxes due as a result of their having lived here part of the year.

i) I'll reserve my personal 1040 for last, as it's complicated (is anyone shocked?). The straight-forward part is that I file jointly with my wife, Ma'ikwe. The curve ball is that she doesn't live at Sandhill and thus is not part of our income-sharing collective. Half of the money I earn as a process consultant goes to Sandhill, and half goes to my marriage (the rest of my economic activities flow wholly to Sandhill). This second half needs to be combined with Ma'ikwe's earnings before I can crank out our joint 1040.

j) The last calculating hurdle is to do it all one more time for the state returns, which is not hard as Missouri returns key directly off what you send the feds.

k) Last, I print out copies, chase down everyone's autograph, write checks (if necessary), and consign it all to the US Post Office. Whew.

Then I can return to my regularly scheduled life, probably sometime on Thursday. Can you see why I love it so much?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Springtime in Michigan

I'm in Kalamazoo this weekend, doing a series of training workshops for students at Western Michigan University (they've asked for power, delegation, facilitation, membership, and conflict—pretty much a full smörgåsbord).

When I left home in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday (to catch the 6:12 choo choo out of Quincy IL), the sky was clear and spring was raging ahead after being delayed by winter's reluctant departure from the Midwest. You could almost watch tree buds and flowers open up as warmth surged back into the soil. I debated whether to bring my fleece vest on this trip or not. Temperatures the past two weeks had been steadily pleasant, even flirting with the low 80s on occasion (which is showing off this early in the season), and who needs to schlep extra clothing? Given that it was only 40 degrees at dawn in Quincy, I decided at the last moment to bring the vest, and I was plenty glad I did when I arrived in Kalamazoo.

While the trees here are in early leaf (offering smudges of chartreuse to contrast jauntily with the browns and grays that had dominated the winter palette), the temperatures were retro—a throwback to late February. In town, the Bradford pears and cherries were decked out in dress whites and the grape hyacinth was out in numbers (just like in Missouri), yet spring was in a state of suspended animation. There was a weak sun trying to poke out of scudding clouds and remnants of two days of steady rain occasionally shifted back into wet snow flurries.

In the north, spring just takes a little longer and its progress is more sketchy. Though Kalamazoo is located smack in the middle of southwestern Michigan—the garden spot for the wolverine state—Michigan is still a northern state, and Mother Nature was just sending a reminder.

On the good side, cold weather tends to help with workshop attendance. As the pale locals, antsy to break their winter hibernation, are not so anxious to be doing vitamin D therapy in a blustery 40 degrees, they are more content to sit in a warm room and be regaled by the raconteur from Missouri.

Working with students, trying to instill in them excitement about terra forming cooperative culture, is one of the more fun things I get to do as a traveling consultant. I gives me hope for the future. Just as there's potential of the summer to come in Michigan Aprils, there's the hint of better days ahead in today's inquisitive youth.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Roof Is Risen, Indeed

Three days ago, on Easter Sunday, Ma'ikwe lost the northwest quadrant of her roof in a thunderstorm. It was pretty wild.

The storm came up suddenly from the west (which is always where they come from) and when the rain hit, it blew open the door on that side of the house, because the strike plate was mounted a little high and the bolt doesn't quite catch. In the fierce wind, it took both Ma'ikwe and Kay (her mother visiting from Jackson MI) to push the door shut against the driving sheets of horizontal rain. In the chaotic moment, amidst the freight train howl of the wind, the two women were wholly focused on protecting the kitchen and Ma'ikwe's bed from getting soaked and no one realized for a time that the wind had been working on the roof as well as the door... that is, until Duncan (a neighbor boy visiting Ma'ikwe's son Jibran) said he thought he heard a noise up above while the women were wrestling with Zephyrus on the ground level. When Ma'ikwe glanced out her south window to investigate, she was gobsmacked by the vision of several of her roof panels roosting in a tree 75 yards downwind.

A Good Place to Be in a Storm
By the time Ma'ikwe got through to me by phone (I was at Sandhill, three miles away, when the storm hit and our phone was tied up with a community member on a conference call) and I was able to get over to Dancing Rabbit (not knowing how bad the damage was or how many buildings had been affected), it was immediately relieving and heart warming to see at least 15 neighbors swarming around the house removing stray screws and nails, placing temporary tarps over the hole in the roof (which saved the ceiling drywall), gathering up the errant roofing, and giving Ma'ikwe consoling hugs in unlimited quantities.

Fortunately, no one was injured worse than Jibran, who had opened up a cut between his toes when he stepped barefoot on a stabilizing chevron poking out of the ground at the bottom of a metal marker post in Ma'ikwe's yard, as he was racing around trying to help get the roof covered. This ultimately required a tetanus shot (and the inconvenience of his wearing shoes), but he'll heal fine.

While no one wishes natural disasters to happen, they do anyway. Given that one befell my wife, it was very fortunate that it happened in community, where friends and neighbors were immediately there for her, to help contain the damage and help her pick up the pieces, both physically and psychically. This kind of experience highlights the ways in which relationships are the ultimate security.

Improvisational Art
Ma'ikwe had chosen to insulate her ceiling with blown-in cellulose. While this is generally installed with the intention of its being a one-way application, we enjoyed the novelty of experiencing blown-out cellulose. After the storm, the exterior of Ma'ikwe's house looked like someone had crudely attempted to paper mache it, with little wads of gray-flecked newsprint uniformly distributed over every surface. Kind of arty, but we'll be glad it'll be cleansed by the spring rains to come.

As it turned out, our county had been under a tornado watch during the storm—meaning that conditions were favorable (an interesting turn of phrase) for a one to develop—and as near as I can figure, Ma'ikwe's house must have come pretty damn close to experiencing tornado force winds (you should see some of the pretzel-like curlicues that her metal roofing was wind-sculptured into). Her house was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately, intense destructive winds like that are highly localized and hers was the only building that sustained damage in the storm (a canvas army tent erected just 20 feet to the north of the damaged roof was capriciously left untouched).

What Went Wrong?
One the one hand, there's a practical limit to how strongly anything should be build, and it's hard to fault anyone for not constructing a roof sufficiently stout to survive a direct attack by freakishly strong winds. That said, the weak link in the roof system was that the purlins had been nailed—not screwed—into the rafters, and when the wind started lifting under the corner of the overhang (where the fascia and soffits had not yet been completed because the 2009 construction season ended before the house was finished) it pried the purlins out of the rafters with the metal roofing acting like a sail. Kind of like a giant pop-top.

You can be sure that when Ma'ikwe rebuilds next week that she'll screw in the purlins this time around.

Chutes and Ladders: the Construction Version
As it happens, Ma'ikwe is uneasy with heights, and she was thrilled last fall when she thought that roof work was completed. Surprise! Now she gets to do it some of it again.

While she woke up Monday morning with considerably more to do to complete her house than remained when she woke up the day before, the good news is that it only takes time and money to correct. We're already able to laugh about it (some), and glimpse the enjoyment we'll get out of this story in years to come—when we're telling it to folks gathered around the wood stove on a snowy winter night with the wind howling outside and we're cozy under the warm, secure roof.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Voluntary Simplicity

This morning I answered a questionnaire about voluntary simplicity that a student in France sent to Sandhill asking for volunteers to respond (even though the questions were not simple to answer). I liked the questions, and thought I'd share my answers, making the work I did composing responses do double duty by serving as today's blog entry as well. 

1. One can define "voluntary simplicity" as follows: a preference for country life; a desire for maximum personal self-reliance and creative leisure; a certain hostility toward luxury; a belief that the primary reward of work should be well-being rather than money; and a taste for the plain and the functional. To what extent do you identify with this? And to what extent do you live a simple life? 

I don’t think voluntary simplicity implies an agrarian life, though it may well imply a slower, more deliberate one, and that, of course, is typically associated more with rural lifestyles. I don’t link voluntary simplicity with self-reliance or hostility toward luxury, either. I am drawn to the association with creative leisure though, in the sense that one who espouses voluntary simplicity needs to find happiness independent of the accumulation of money or possessions. Better for me though, would be a creative way to find joy and inspiration in everyday things; I prefer the approach of blurring the distinction between work and play. I am drawn, in part, to living in intentional community because of the leveraging possible around accessing resources (through sharing) instead of accumulating the money needed to buy them.

I live a life of voluntary simplicity in that I have little money or possessions in my name, yet believe I lead a life rich in opportunities and experiences. One of the secrets to leading a happy life is to be able to find joy in many things.

2. How has your upbringing influenced you on your path toward simplicity and human evolution?

I grew in a middle class family. While not rich, I never experienced any serious privation as a child and that helped me see at an early age how little money can do for you. Thus, I was able to get off the materialistic treadmill as a young adult. It is very hard to tell people who have not yet experienced the limitations of money that it is not worth pursuing.

3. What does the ideal simple life look like in your eyes?

I think the most important elements are creating a life of joy and stimulation that depends minimally on consumption of non-renewable resources, and has a minimally disruptive influence on the choices of others. For me, opportunities for relationship with and service to others are important, yet I can accept that this may not be so for others. For example, Thoreau at Walden Pond was living a version of the simple life that was much more reclusive and contemplative than mine.

4. Master J. Krishnamurti is quoted as saying, "What you are, the world is. And without your transformation, there can be no transformation of the world." It is a question perhaps as old as the spiritual life itself: Do I change the world or do I change myself? Given our current evolutionary crisis, how do you understand the role of individual evolution versus that of collective change? For those individuals who have a powerful spiritual calling and who also care deeply about the state of the world, where should they put their energy and attention?

I think you need to work at both, yet of the two, only personal transformation is essential. I don’t believe it’s possible to effect lasting social change unless the inspiration and energy for one’s efforts are rooted in personal work and transparency. If you are not living the change you are exhorting others to embrace, it will ring hollow and your efforts will founder, regardless of how persuasive your tongue.

Regarding how much spiritual people should be engaged in social change work, I think that is a personal choice. Nothing works well unless your heart is in it and yet the heart can lead in widely divergent directions. Either social change work is a personal calling, or it is best left to others.

5. How important is spirituality to your life?

I don’t know. While it is not an aspect that I spend much time focusing on, it has gradually become a more welcome element in my consciousness. Increasingly, I see it as interwoven in the fabric of everyday life (rather than as a thing brought out of the closet every Sunday or on holy days), and I like the philosophy of Creation Theology which sees the divine in all of us. The challenge is learning how to access and nurture it. This calls for humility and an acceptance of the unknown that is often uncomfortable. That said, I now believe that my best work comes when I’m spiritually or energetically attuned to what’s happening and what’s called for in a given situation.

6. Do you practice yoga? What kind of physical activity do you prefer?

Yes. I aspire to do Hatha yoga every day. I come close to this ideal when at home (about 40% of the time) and am much poorer at it when traveling. 
I like working with my hands (woodworking, masonry, food processing, cooking). Occasionally I go camping (wilderness canoeing or hiking). There have been stretches in my past where I ran three times a week, but I am not doing so now.

7. One advantage to material wealth is the ability to surround oneself with beautiful objects. How does aesthetics fit into the life of voluntary simplicity?

I believe aesthetics are important, yet just as I wrote above about finding joy in the mundane, so too can you find beauty in the inexpensive.

8. Can the media and the new technologies (Internet, iPods, etc.) be a positive influence in a quest for a simple life? What is your personal relation to new technologies? What devices (TV, computer, stereo...) do you have and what use do you make of them?

While electronic gadgets and media allow for connection with minimal travel (saving time and fuel), they come at a cost of complexity. Email and text messages are only a fragment of what transpires in live conversations and I worry about a cheapening of relationship and people gradually not even knowing what they’ve given up. I also worry about a trend I see where people preferentially respond to messages based on the medium through which they arrived, rather than on the urgency or importance of the message.

I rely heavily on my laptop and use email as my primary mode of communication with people I don’t live with. (It is, of course, how I am answering this questionnaire.) The good side is that I am able to easily reuse well written material and to reach many more than I could 20 years ago through just letters, phone calls, and personal visits. Still, I try to be aware of the trade-offs and my mind is not made up about the balance of benefit and damage. I don't live with a television, yet I enjoy listening to the radio and to music.

9. Do you think we should continue to develop faster, smarter, more independent machines?

I think it is inevitable that we will. Whether it is wise is a much trickier question, for the reasons I gave in the previous answer.
10. What are the three most important things you possess?

In no particular order: the ability to feel, the ability to think, and the ability to love.
11. What do you think about the self-help movement’s version of simplifying: for example, a book like Elaine St. James’ Simplify Your Life, which offers a collection of quick fixes, such as how to reduce clutter in your house?

I have nothing against people offering to others what has been beneficial to them. I also have no illusions that any of these offerings are panaceas. Those with personalities and values similar to the author may well benefit; others will not.
12. Voluntary simplicity is not always the easiest choice to make and this way of life can be difficult sometimes. What motivates you to stick with this way of life when it gets tough?

That’s easy: because voluntary complexity doesn’t make things better.
13. It seems to me that time in nature goes on a slower pace. Do you agree with that? Can you feel a difference between time in nature and time in city?

The pace of Nature is all over the map. Some, such as geologic time, is much, much slower than urban human pace. For a hummingbird or honey bee though (both rural and both “natural”), the urban human pace is quite leisurely.

That said, I prefer the slower pace of rural life to the frenetic pace of urban life. It allows more for cycles and protects periods of reflection. The bucolic life also tends to offer easier ways for humans to feel a part of Nature rather than separate from it.
14. Do you feel like you are the master of your time? If not, why?

People face a fundamental choice in how they organize their lives: because obligations and opportunities come in surges (rather than in a steady flow), you can either set up your life so that you will not be swamped in the busy times, or not be bored in the slow times.

I have chosen the latter strategy and that necessarily leads to periods of overload (or at least near overload). I am the master in that I have made intentional choices about what claims I accept on my time. However, that does not always mean I have chosen wisely or that I am always in control.
15. Have you found a balance between your inner biological rhythms (sleep, eat, work/rest...) and the imposed deadlines that each of us has to meet everyday?

I feel I do pretty well in this regard (though I worry about not getting as much regular exercise as would be good for me, as my work has drifted more toward the cerebral and emotional, and away from the physical in recent years). One thing that helps me a lot in this regard is that I have a great deal of choice around how I organize my time and can easily switch from one task to another whenever I get bored or stale with what I’m doing.
16. What are your daily eating habits? And what kind of food do you eat?

In general, I start the day with just a cup of coffee. I eat either once or twice a day, averaging perhaps 10 meals per week. In warmer seasons I’ll drink a lot of milk, tea, or water during the day; much less in the colder times. At night I typically have one alcoholic drink.
Our community diet emphasizes food we grow ourselves, heavily slanted toward whole grains and fresh vegetables. This diet is harder to regularly find when I’m on the road.
17. Do you wake up early? What do you think of the morning hours as opposed to the late evening hours to work? Which do you use best?

I typically wake up around 7 am and go to bed around midnight. Mornings are best for me when it comes to focused mental work, such as writing or problem solving. Evenings work well for routine work and reading.
18. Today many Americans buy organic food because it is healthy, many others are what we call “locavores,” many others are vegetarian. In a way, it has become fashionable to eat organic, and magazines emphasize that trend by depicting famous persons’ vegetarianism, etc. What do you think about it being a trend? 

My community has been committed to growing its own food and growing it organically since we were founded in 1974. It has been heartening to see the dominant culture move in our direction. While I think it’s unclear how much society will continue to focus on organic, low-meat, and local diets (that is, I think there are some aspects of what is happening today that are a fashion trend rather than a sea change in society’s consciousness), I don't think we’ll ever go back to the mindless consumption of heavily processed foods that characterized US society’s eating habits back in the '70s. 

19. Should the responsibility for changing the food system lie more with the consumer, more with the producer, or equally with both?  

This has to be consumer driven. Producers will quickly adapt if customers change what they buy. 

20. What brought you to live in this community? How were your first weeks there? 

I was a founding member of my community and I was seeking to recreate the spirit of stimulation and support that I had experienced in college dormitory life. As I recall the first few weeks, they were filled with wonder of the unknown. As a suburban-raised child, rural life was totally new to me and it was an adventure—like being in a foreign land. 

21. Do you have particular duties to accomplish for the community? If so, what are they? 

Yes. I do the accounting, taxes, electrical work, masonry work, some of the food processing, and generate much of the income through work as an administrator for the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) and as a process consultant. 

22. What are the advantages and the drawbacks of this way of living? 

Positives: Through intensive resource sharing it’s possible to have a great life without making so much money that we have a tax liability. We spend a minimum amount of time doing work we don’t care to do, yet we are not asking others to do our scut work for us. We are creating a model of how to live sustainably, and building quality relationships in the process of getting our work done. 

Negatives: It is very challenging figuring out how, as equals, we can successfully live together, learning how to constructively navigate conflicts and hurts. There is a much higher standard of communication and transparency when lives are shared this closely and it can be exhausting at times. 

23. Have you found a balance between your need for a life in community and your need for solitude? Is it difficult? How do you achieve it? 

Yes. I protect time alone with a number of strategies. My wife does not live with me; she lives in a neighboring community three miles away. That means we’re only together about half the time, protecting many nights alone. In addition, my work in my community is often done solo. Finally, in my job as FIC administrator and as a process consultant I travel to work and events and often go by train (rather than flying). In part I make this choice to protect time for reflection in an otherwise very full schedule. 

24. Do you like reading? Which authors have influenced you the most? 

I love reading! I read a mix of fiction (John Barth, Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have been influential) and non-fiction (Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Jay Gould, James Surowiecki, Bill McKibben, Jane Jacobs, and Tracy Kidder have turned my head). 

25. Do you know Henry David Thoreau’s and Helen and Scott Nearing’s writings? If so, what do you think about it?  

Yes (I referenced Thoreau in my answer to Question 3). They both wrote thoughtfully about rural homesteading and society, while modeling a deliberate balance between the physical and mental planes of life. While I’ve been inspired by what they’ve had to say about balancing, and the responsibility of the individual in society, my life is much more focused on relationship and group dynamics than there’s was. 

26. In “The Good Life”, the Nearings said they were perceived as originals and had never really been part of the community. Does your entourage—outside of the community—happen to think of you as of an original? 

I have little sense of my reputation, yet I know I’m an acorn that has wandered far from the tree I was raised on and must appear mysterious (and perhaps original) to those who knew me earlier in my journey. 

27. Do you write (diary, poetry, other)? If so, what does writing represent to you? Why is it important in your life? And do you have a writing routine? 

Though it was never my intent to become a writer (I was plagued for many years by the question of how to know when I knew enough about a thing that it was worthwhile for me to share my understanding with others), at age 60, I now write almost every day. This includes correspondence with friends, business communications, proposals, reports for clients, and a blog I contribute to every three days. Writing is a discipline that helps me hone what I’m experiencing (where the benefit is personal), and has increasingly become a medium for passing along what I’ve learned (where the benefit is for others). I expect to work this summer on a book about cooperative group dynamics. 

28. Do you do other artistic activities (painting, whatever)? And what does creation mean to you? 

Consistent with my answer to Question 1, there are opportunities to be creative and artistic all around us—not just in what is traditionally labeled “art.” Thus, I enjoy being creative with my cooking (meals should be beautifully presented, not just delicious and nutritious), woodworking, teaching, and facilitating. 

29. Do you think of yourself as an idealist? Why? 

I am in the sense that I act and accept limitations on my choices based on my beliefs. Further, it is my express intent that my behaviors will be inspirational to others. Having said that, there is also a sense in which I am not an idealist. As a nonprofit administrator and as a professional facilitator, I am constantly dealing with what is possible in the moment, and it is not uncommon for practicable solutions to fall painfully short of one’s ideals.  

30. Do you have today the same ideals as those you had before? What evolution can you acknowledge? 

This is a good question. I don’t think there’s been much change to my commitment to organic, wholesome food in the last 30 years, nor in my steadfast dedication to living and raising children in an income-sharing community that I hope will be an inspiration to others. On the other hand, I can name three ways in which my ideals have shifted substantially over the years.
—I’m now much more satisfied with incremental success in moving toward the creation of more cooperative culture (see my answer to the previous question). That is, I no longer expect to hit a home run every time at bat.
—I’ve considerably broadened my definition of cooperative culture. Where I used to focus solely on income-sharing communities, about 20 year ago I expanded that to include all forms of intentional community (the vast majority of which do not fully share income). In the last five years I’ve moved beyond that to embrace cooperative ventures in the context of the workplace, neighborhoods, nonprofits, churches, and schools.
—In the beginning of my community experience I thought that success meant that others would join you or emulate you. Now I think that success is an invitation to share with others what I‘ve learned about how to make cooperation work. Instead of hoping people will come to me, I now gladly go where others invite me. 

31. What things have you achieved that you never thought possible?

—Back in the mid-90s I actively recruited Dancing Rabbit to locate their forming community next to Sandhill Farm. While I had a vague idea at that time about the advantages of clumping like-valued groups in one place (and how it would benefit Sandhill socially), I had no clear picture of how successful our enclave of communities would become—we have now grown to three with the addition of Red Earth Farms in 2005, with a combined population approaching 70 people. Today, the adults in our three groups represent nearly two percent of the voting population of our county. In another 10 years, that might become five percent.
—I began volunteering to help groups with their cooperative processes back in December 1987. Today, 
22 years later, I am amazed that I’ve been able to parlay that initial toe in the water into a national reputation that earns as much as $1200/day (if the group can afford it), and I get calls from all over asking for help.
—I began experimenting with writing a blog in December 2007, with the aim of trying to drive web-based traffic to the FIC, using a medium that is more accessible for younger generations. I had no idea at the outset how I would relate to the standard of creating fresh content twice a week. Now 29 months into it, I am astounded to find that I have created over 250 entries and thoroughly enjoy the discipline of posting something fresh on a regular basis. While I’m unsure of how much attention I’m drawing to FIC, it’s been an easy way to keep friends apprised of what I’m doing and it encourages me to practice my craft as a writer. 

32. What are the main values that you try to pass on to others in general, and the next generation in particular, to your children if you have children? 

To be courageous, to be generous, to be mindful of how your actions affect others, to be productive, to be in service to a better world for all, to be loving, to be fair, to be honest, to have fun. 

33. Could you describe what you think life is going to be like in the United States in, say, 2030? 

I think we’ll face a fork in the road before then, where the society either turns toward being much more cooperative or much more brittle. There is a growing squeeze on natural resources (think oil and water, in particular) that means we’ll have to face the music on the limits of the capitalistic model advocating growth, growth, and more growth. If we turn in the direction of learning better how to share more and make do with less individual ownership, there will still be a sense of a world of abundance (though differently defined and more in the direction of voluntary simplicity that is the theme of this questionnaire). To accomplish this we’ll need to become much more accomplished at solving problems cooperatively. 

If we take the other path, there will be a widening gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots, there will be more restrictions on civil liberties, there will be more civil unrest, there will be more guns sold, and the world will be a meaner place to live in. 

In either scenario, I think the US will need to give up on attempting to be the world’s policeman—a role it can neither afford nor successfully accomplish. 

34. The Nearings left Vermont for the Maine woods because they were invaded by the modern world they had fled—a ski resort was being built... At the end of Helen’s life in Maine, modernity was once again transforming her beloved wild landscape into something more tame and urbanized. Do you think it is going to be harder and harder to find wild spaces in the USA for those who loves solitude and stillness?
It is already the case in France, all the more since it is such a small country as compared to the United States, and I wish we could find anywhere in France some place from which you cannot catch sight of a telegraph pole. Do you feel the threat of “over-urbanization” where you live?  

The US is not close to achieving zero population growth, and in any event, I doubt we have the will or awareness to aim for it yet. Thus I expect the population to grow substantially—both through births and through immigration. This will inevitably increase the pressure on wilderness areas. 

To be sure, there are still vast amounts of Canada that offer wilderness experiences (in aggregate, I have spent close to year of my life doing wilderness canoeing in Canada, so I’m thoroughly familiar with what’s available), yet there are few places in the US where I’d drink the water without filtering or boiling it first. Most Americans have never spent a night in a tent in a wilderness area. It’s hard to know what effect this has on the psyche of humans. 

For those desiring quiet and solitude, I think they’ll need to settle more for quiet rooms and retreat center experiences, and rely less on access to true wilderness. 

35. What do you think about living in town? Have you ever? Do you like it? Would you? 

I grew up in La Grange IL, a suburb of Chicago, and enjoyed that life fine, though it was the only one I knew for the first 17 years of my life. After I left for college in small town Minnesota, my only urban experience was two years in Washington DC, after graduating from college. After that, my search for intentional community brought me to the country, where I’ve lived ever since. Today, as someone who travels 60 percent of the time, I visit urban areas frequently and have come to enjoy the stimulation and cultural opportunities peculiar to urban life—though I always look forward to going home, where I can hear the frogs and crickets instead of sirens and airplanes. 

36. Emerson wrote that the challenge of a nature lover was to maintain the silent mind obtained in nature while being in a crowded area. I used to ask people if they thought this was doable. I am now wondering if that even is the point. Why struggle to stay serene in town, for example, while you know how your mind can easily turn into a peaceful lake when you reach a wild area, as soon as you just move away from society. Have you found a compromise? Is there one? Is it only worth searching for one? 

I think this is a very personal question and not one to which there is a universal correct response. I think everyone goes through waves of intensity and lull (see my answer to Question 14) and I think everyone naturally goes through periods of action and rest; engagement and reflection. What Emerson is referring to could either be useful when trying to stay centered and focused in the midst of chaos and stimulation (in the action phase), or as an aid for dropping into mindfulness during the contemplation phase. While I’ve no doubt that time and familiarity with Nature can help one in both ways, I don’t think it’s the only way to get there. 

37. If there were one thing you could do today to make your life more peaceful, what would that be? 

Take time for more walks. (It helps, interestingly, that my wife lives three miles away and it’s a nice walk to be with her—which is a serendipitous byproduct of our both choosing the community environment where we’d each thrive best, despite our preference for being together.) 

38. There is today a "schizophrenic" trend among young people who are torn between the appeal of new technologies (computers, Internet, iPods, etc.) on the one hand, and on the other hand, a need for stillness and nature, a need to know who they really are. Can you comment upon this situation? 

I don’t think this schizophrenia is unique to the young, nor do I think that Nature is the only way to access stillness (see my answer to the previous question). I think everyone faces some version of the challenge of knowing who they are and making decisions about how and where to invest one’s life force. Further, I don’t think knowledge is any less legitimate or substantial because it was accessed electronically. There are, to be sure, limits to what can be accomplished electronically, yet it doesn’t necessarily follow that the information or experience is flawed or otherwise at odds with something accessed “naturally.” 

39. For us young people, is it possible to reshape our thinking in baby steps or must we make sweeping changes? 

I think all change is made through discontinuous steps. Though some are baby steps and some are canyon spanning, it is all a sequence of Aha! moments, where you shed the skin of one reality and emerge into a new one. Further, I don’t think this process changes as you age, though it’s not uncommon for people’s enthusiasm and availability for new information to atrophy as time goes by (as people become increasingly prone to defending the reality they’ve already invested in). 

40. What do you think of the new generation's relation to nature; and their involvement or lack of involvement in ecological matters? 

I don’t have a good feel for this, because my field of focus is so narrow. My community, Sandhill, has had an active intern program for 15 years and we see a steady stream of young people interested in organic farming, sustainability, and community living. Also, for the past 13 years I’ve been on the faculty for an annual conference of student co-opers, where I’m teaching 3-5 workshops on various aspects of group dynamics to people 17-22 years old. Based on those highly limited data points, I haven’t noticed any significant shifts in the interest among young people in Nature or their commitment to ecological consciousness. 

41. How can youngsters and young adults be encouraged to stay home and still be fulfilled when they've gotten into the habit of fleeing it, either by traveling or by choosing the virtual reality of a computer screen at the expense of the reality that surrounds them? 

For choices to end well, it’s generally better if they are made thoughtfully and voluntarily (rather than hastily, by whim, or through lack of alternatives). I think the best that can be done to encourage today’s youth to consider the option of a life of voluntary simplicity is to offer them models of people who have had a great and satisfying life through having made that choice. 

For this, they’ll need to have experienced it first hand (mainly through travel that has likely been focused through Internet research). Thus, these parts you’ve provocatively placed in opposition can instead be blended to work collaboratively. And, as a corollary to the point I made about materialism in answer to Question 2, it is nearly impossible to sell the idea of staying at home to someone who has never traveled and understands viscerally the limitations and drawbacks of such an exotic existence.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Jibran is Growing Up, No Foolin'

Today is my stepson 13th birthday. While Jibran grew up detesting that his April Fools birthday provided everyone with a ready-made joke at his expense, he nonetheless woke up this morning officially a teenager. While I'm not sure this is much a deal to him, my wife, Ma'ikwe, has been leaking traces of anxiety about what the teenage years will bring.

Both of my kids—Ceilee (29) and Jo (22) went through this particular gate long ago, and while there was a certain amount of distancing from Dad's eyes and Mom's skirts (not that Ma'ikwe ever wears them, but you know what I mean) in and around this milepost, I don't look for Jibran to be rebellious in the Lord-of-the-Flies manner that is the heart of a mother's nightmares. He's a thoughtful, creative kid who's taste for autonomy matches well with Ma'ikwe's laissez faire parental style. (What's to rebel against?)

Jibran has been homeschooled most of his life (there were brief stints in a series of charter schools in Albuquerque, but none of them seemed to hold his interest), and it wasn't until this year that he's really gotten into the self-discipline of learning. Under the tutelage of Sharon Bagatell at Dancing Rabbit (his and Ma'ikwe's home) he and two other peers are thriving. Some of the other kids at DR go to public school; still others are going free lance, or "unschooled" in loose association with their parents. DR is nothing if not a poster child for educational eclecticism. The trick, of course, is finding what degree of structure and peer association works best for each kid.

Jibran has a close and rich connection with his father, Marqis, so my role as step-dad is more that of a readily available uncle (and confidant of his mother when she wants to chew on a parenting question). This is the fourth time I've been on hand for Jibran's birthday and my role has setled into that of dessert maker. The cheesecakes are cooling and the chocolate mousse is setting up under refrigeration as I type this, both en route to delivery for the ritual sugar buzz queued up for 4:30 this afternoon. This is to be followed by pizza and a movie. (If you do the dessert first, you eliminate the awkward possibility of over-consuming pizza to the point where the cheesecake & mousse cannot be properly enjoyed. This, I believe, evidences advanced strategic thinking.)

It's a measure of Jibran's burgeoning maturity that he's allowing the adults to pick the movie tonight, Julie and Julia, which is not exactly teen fare. Jibran, after all, is not just Ma'ikwe and Marqis' kid; he's also a community kid, and, fortunately, they learn pretty early that give and take is a better strategy than mine, mine, mine. Even on their birthday.

Ma'ikwe's mom, Kay, has joined us from Jackson MI for the celebration (and to enjoy the arrival of 80-degree weather in northeast Missouri and the increased livability in Ma'ikwe's new house). I am hopeful that we will all enjoy malted beverages with the pizza tonight and revel in the weather, the companionship of family, the delight of watching a movie about great food right after consuming it, and the miracle that children grow up.