Saturday, May 29, 2010

Asking Children to Play in Traffic

I recently got an email from my friend Becca Krantz, asking for my views on a bush-full of thorny questions about how to run effective meetings. While the list is somewhat eclectic, they’re all worthy queries and I’m inspired to offer my responses as a blog series. Here’s what she asked:

1. Setting up meeting space—what are the minimally acceptable standards? [See my May 26 blog on Meeting Architecture]
2. Children in meetings—what's appropriate for the children and what’s appropriate for the adults? How might the answer vary by topic?
3. What considerations should be taken into account when determining how informally or formally to run meetings?
4. What can be done about getting input from and building consensus with people who don't come to meetings?
5. What are the pros and cons of rules in community?
Today I'll respond to the second question, on children in meetings. I've lived in community for 36 years (which means I've been to a lot of meetings), and 29 of those years we've had children in the group, two of them my own (which means I have a lot of familiarity with this topic).
In general, kids aren't interested in meetings—they'd rather watch Barney reruns than sit through two hours of adults wading through the nuances of membership policy or composting norms. While there are notable exceptions to this, which I'll get to below, I'm going to first address your options when the kids aren't interested. 
When It's Negative to Have Kids in the Meeting 
While it's probably fine that the kids' attention is elsewhere, you would prefer that their parents or caregivers are able to focus on the meeting, and you don't want the kids to be distracting the adults. Essentially, you have two choices: have the kids attend the meeting, or have them be elsewhere.
While having kids in the meeting is a simpler choice to arrange (no babysitter fees, and no logistical hassles around making arrangements or giving care guidance), it comes with other challenges:
o How much of the parents' attention can truly be available for the meeting (how much will they be tracking their kid instead)? Obviously, this dynamic will be substantially affected by age of the child: five-month-old babies stay where you put them; two-year-olds are completely mobile and have almost no discernment about what's appropriate or safe; five-year-olds can often be relied on to entertain themselves for substantial stretches of time and to understand safety boundaries, yet they can also be maddeningly prone to inappropriate demands for attention—uncannily just when Mom or Dad is starting to get really absorbed in the meeting.
o How much will the kids' actions be distracting to other adults, because they're cute, loud, aggressive, or semi-dangerous?
o On a subtler level, to what extent might kid presence inhibit adult conversation, perhaps because of concerns about the kids witnessing disharmony or raw emotions; perhaps because of concern about exposing kids to certain kinds of information which the adults believe they are not yet capable of digesting well, or able to use appropriate discernment about who they share it with? Notice how tricky this last one can get: the parents might not be inhibited, yet some other adults may be, and this can be an especially awkward topic to explore, as it bumps smack into the sensitive issue of parenting styles.
Going the other way—having the kids be somewhere else—brings into play the question of how will the babysitting expense be borne? Groups handle this in different ways: some cover fees as a group expense; others expect the parents to handle this themselves. There can be tension around this either way, and the most important thing is to have a way to get this out in the open and figure out how your group will handle it, so prospective members clearly understand the group policy in this regard.
Possible Undercurrents at Play
Up to this point, I've focused my comments on the nuances directly related to the question of kids attending meetings. Unfortunately, it can be more complicated than that. If the group has not yet found a way to discuss more broadly how it balances opportunities for kids with opportunities for adults with opportunities for families, then the issue of kids at meetings can become a lightning rod for unresolved tensions.
I'll illuminate this dynamic by telling a story. As someone who's been deeply involved with the Fellowship for Intentional Community for more than 20 years, I have first-hand knowledge of trends in inquiries about community living. Over the last two decades there's been a steady rise in interest in community among people over 50, and, overwhelmingly, these folks want inter-generational communities, where the membership will be a mix of all ages. That said, there has also in recent years been a surge of interest in the concept of senior cohousing—communities embracing the cohousing design model where the members are all above a certain age (typically 50).
Confused about the motivation for this (given the demand I was seeing for inter-generational community), I recall being in a conversation three years ago with Jim & Brownie Leach (Jim is the principal of Wonderland Hill Development, the leading developer of cohousing communities in the US) where I asked their opinion on what was driving this trend. Brownie leaned into me without hesitation and said, "Think dinner table conversation."
The third rail that Brownie was touching was push back from the segment of seniors who have been disgruntled by how "regular" inter-generational cohousing groups have handled the balance between kid-focused and adult-focused culture. In particular, Brownie was speaking to a longing for mealtime discourse that was not dominated by fussy eaters, fart jokes, or temper tantrums triggered by the peas having commingled with the mashed potatoes without permission.
While there's no doubt that some seniors truly are happier if kids and families only have visiting privileges in their communities, I've been wondering how much of the motivation for senior cohousing is actually a multi-million dollar design solution to unresolved (and perhaps unaddressed) social challenges that have proven too daunting.
While this story was focused on mealtimes, there's a direct parallel with meeting times, and I caution groups that are grappling with the kids-in-meetings issue to step back and consider whether the conversation might be distorted by people in your group who are generally dissatisfied with the amount of adult-focused opportunities in their community life, and are using this dialog as a place to take a stand, protecting meeting time as a precious island of adult-focused social intercourse. To the extent that this dynamic obtains, what's at stake in the conversation may be much more than meets the eye.
When It's Positive to Have Kids in the Meeting
There are two angles on this:

A. When the meeting topic is about the children or policies affecting them
Depending on their age, it may be entirely appropriate to have the input of children on matters affecting them. (Note that I didn't say, "The kids get to decide"; I said, "The kids opinions are taken into account.") While it makes no sense to ask two-year-olds for their take on how adults should discipline kids acting out, it probably does make sense to get responses from 12-year-olds on this topic.
As children negotiate the semi-tortuous journey toward maturity, there needs to be a sequence of opportunities for them to try on increasing levels of responsibility.

B. When kids are curious about what adults do in meetings
When I was a child, I always wondered what my Dad did when he "went to work," and it's natural for children to go through a period of being interested in learning more about what their parents do at meetings. (For my kids, this happened most in years 5-10, yet it will vary considerably by child. I still recall fondly my son sitting patiently on my lap as I participated in a two-hour meeting of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities Assembly when he was only three years. At the end the meeting, to my amazement, he'd drawn pictures to capture the notes of what people had said. He explained it was the best he could do, because he couldn't write.)

For my money it's a great opportunity to teach by example, riding the wave of child curiosity as far as it will go. They can learn a lot of important cultural lessons by watching how adults work to solve problems cooperatively, and I think it's smart to give them every chance to explore this rich territory.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Meeting Architecture

I just got an email from my friend Becca Krantz, asking for my views on a bush-full of thorny questions about how to run effective meetings. While the list is somewhat eclectic, they’re all worthy queries and I’m inspired to offer my responses as a blog series. Here’s what she asked:

1. Setting up meeting space—what are the minimally acceptable standards?
2. Children in meetings—what's appropriate for the children and what’s appropriate for the adults? How might the answer here vary by topic?
3. What considerations should be taken into account when determining how informally or formally to run meetings?
4. What can be done about getting input from and building consensus with people who don't come to meetings?
5. What are the pros and cons of rules in community?
Today I’ll tackle the first topic, which I’m labeling meeting architecture, or how you set up the physical meeting environment. There are several things to keep in mind, and savvy facilitators and meeting planners will take these factors into account when selecting a room and preparing it for the meeting. With good meeting architecture, the space enhances the experience in subtle ways that operate mostly below the participant’s consciousness level (whereas poor architecture will often be noticeably irritating). In no particular order, here are my thoughts on what to think about:
A. Outdoors versus Indoors
While there is often an impulse to meet outdoors—especially if the weather is inviting—it is generally not a good idea, as there will be more distractions outdoors and it is hard to create a container for focusing the energy. Typically, you’ll lose half the energy outdoors that you’d be able to achieve with the same group meeting indoors. A notable exception to this guideline would be a field trip to view something in place that is specifically related to what the group is meeting to address.
B. Furniture
While there are times during a meeting when having people move or stand is an appropriate change of pace, in general people sit. The longer the meting lasts, the more valuable it is to provide comfortable seating, so that physical discomfort does not erode participant attention. In my experience it often works well to provide a variety of seating options, including cushions on the floor, rather than expecting everyone to find one kind of chair design or seat padding equally comfortable. What’s soothing for one may be fidgety for another.
Subtlety #1: Be aware of how height differential can affect power dynamics: people sitting higher than others will tend to be deferred to. Note that this caution also applies to a meeting space where the floor height varies, as in a split-level room or where some are on a stage or dais and others are not.
Subtlety #2: Pay attention to the spacing of chairs, or how many you can reasonably expect to occupy a couch. People’s comfort zone here will vary with cultural background and how well group members are connected with one another.
Should you use tables, or not? It depends. Tables can create psychic separation between participants, making it harder to connect. They can also assist with taking notes, or spreading out drawings or documents for better viewing.
C. Layout of the Room
While there are a lot of things that can work, it’s typically best to use a horseshoe seating arrangement for business meetings—a three-quarter circle with the open end facing the facilitator and any visual aids (such as a whiteboard or flip chart and easel). A closed circle (or oval) tends to be superior if your session is more about sharing from the heart (rather than problem solving, or sharing from the head). If there are too many people to accommodate in a single crescent, consider double rings.
If the room is oblong, it generally works better to orient the focal point in the middle of one of the long walls, so that sight lines to the front are shortest (a boon to those with weak eyes or less-than-robust hearing). Another consideration is whether you have wall space close to the facilitator where you can post flip chart pages, so that the group can continue to have visual access to sheets other than the one you’re currently scribing. (Note: if you anticipate wanting to post flip chart pages on the wall, be sure you have markers that won’t bleed through the paper and blue masking tape to adhere pages without putting the paint in jeopardy.)
Other things being equal, it’s better to position support functions (bathroom access, snacks & drinks, registration, literature table, and entrée to the room) in the back (best) or the side (next best); worst is right next to the facilitator, where every shift is disruptive. You should anticipate that some participants may come late or leave early, and it will be better for all if such adjustments can be made without calling everyone’s attention to them.
If minutes are going to be taken electronically, or you otherwise need electricity for technical support, find out where the wall outlets are (maybe you’ll need an extension cord, and perhaps you’ll need to protect participants from tripping over it). Plan ahead. If you anticipate the need for small group breakout sessions, are there appropriate spaces nearby to accommodate that? If the group is unfamiliar with the space, do you need signage?
D. Lighting & HVAC
At a minimum, people need to be able to see each other’s faces—we take in a lot of important non-verbal clues by reading facial expressions, and you may as well be meeting via conference call if the lighting is so low that you cannot see one another clearly. If you will be relying on visuals aids, then the lighting needs to be better than that—at least good enough for everyone to be able to see the visuals. Going the other way, if you will be showing a movie or giving a power point presentation, can you get the room dark enough to see well?
If you are using artificial lighting (as in an evening session), it’s acceptable to slant this more toward the front, where the facilitator and visuals will most need to be well lit. That said, find out ahead of time what your options are for adjusting the lighting. If the meeting is happening during daylight hours and you have natural lighting in the room, it will work better if the windows are oriented more toward the back of the room and are not behind the facilitator, where whatever’s happening outside will tend to compete for participant attention.
Finally, what are your options for adjusting temperature and air flow (do the windows open, do you know where the thermostat is)?
E. Acoustics
Check to see how sound travels and reverberates around the proposed meeting space. Can people reasonably hear one another (caution: an empty room can have very different acoustics than a full one)? If not, you may need an amplification system, or another room.
F. Size and Shape of the Room
There are nuances to assessing ceiling height in proportion to floor dimensions. When the ceiling is too high, the energy is dissipated; when it’s too low, the energy is suppressed.
Size the meeting space to comfortably hold the anticipated attendance. About 3/4-full is perfect. The energy fills the space, yet doesn’t feel crowded. It also provides a certain amount of cushion in the event that your meeting unexpectedly proves more popular than you anticipated.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Insight Like the Weather

I'm in Portland OR for the Fellowship for Intentional Community's spring organizational meetings, and this is my fourth day immersed in the crucible of our deliberations. Board members have gathered from all over the country and there are about a dozen non-regulars who have joined the party, both to renew connections and to find out what FIC is up to these days. Some come with memories (Tree, Bindi, Jeff); some come with curiosity (Terry, Wayne, Lincoln); some come with burning questions (Bob, Deborah, Craig). All are welcome.

The rhythm of the meetings is a lot like the weather, where there's a sense that time has accelerated. While Portland is famous for its precipitation, I don't think I've ever experienced so many cycles of rain squall, alternating with bursts of sunshine—we've gone through more than a dozen in 72 hours. It feels like we've had a month of weather in three days. As I reflect on it this morning, the mercurial skies have supplied an analogous backdrop for our networking deliberations, where there are frequent surges of insight and intense focus on issues, interspersed with meals, coffee breaks, and the easy laughter of friends reconnecting.

Brainstorms in the room have mirrored the pace of the rain storms outside the room. Progress is not always linear, yet we trust the process—that bringing passionate and purposeful people to parlay will produce potent plans and possibilities (not to mention alliteration).

Each meeting has its own flavor, as the exact mix of people is never the same. Often, people we were expecting don't arrive (this time Caroline Estes and Parke Burgess), and others we weren't expecting to, do. Regardless, we dance with whoever comes to the party, and meetings, unlike baseball games, never get rained out.

While there's considerable expense in time and money to getting everyone into one place every six months, we've found that it's precious to have regular face-to-face meetings where we can synchronize our electrons. It's important both to bring everyone up to speed on what's happening in FIC's far-flung enterprises (our bones), and to invigorate our personal connections (our blood). In the past few days we've tackled the following:
—What can the Communities magazine Production Team do to boost ad revenues and subscriptions?
—The Event Team's proposal to host an Art of Community weekend in northern California next spring.
—Supporting the Personnel Committee in its search for fresh blood to manage our family of websites.
—Hearing what the Development Team is doing to enhance the long-term prospects for the Fellowship's financial health.
—How settled in the job is our new manager for Community Bookshelf?
—How can we better support the formation and success of regional community networks?
—How can FIC reach out to the myriad folks who live in informal shared housing and may not be aware of how the experience of intentional communities may be an excellent resource and inspiration to what they're doing?

While we don't always have brilliant responses to our issues, we always have engagement, and we come away from our meetings with a rejuvenated sense of being in it together.

While the skies are cloudy as I write, we understand that the predictions are for warmy, sunnier weather just ahead—which seems the perfect forecast for concluding our organizational meetings.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

When How Is Not Concordant with What

I’ve been working as an administrator for the Fellowship for Intentional Community over two decades. Like all nonprofits, FIC is always looking for fresh energy, and we regularly invite newcomers to attend our organizational meetings (which occur semi-annually—the next one starts tomorrow and runs through Sunday, hosted by Daybreak, a newly constructed cohousing community on Portland’s north side) as a way to cast the net.
While we’re regularly discussing organizational openings with candidates who might fill them, there is a particular kind of challenge that is harder to handle than any other. It is when the candidates clearly possess appropriate ardor and skill, yet have a style that is aggressive and demonstrably devoid of a collaborative attitude. Such well-meaning eager beavers come across as more interested in air time than in avoiding error time. While hard working and bright, they are overly enamored of their own thinking and less interested in how that might be further enhanced by the contributions of others.
Over the years, we’ve learned to pay close attention to such mismatches, and to back away from such associations, where their actions, as FIC ambassadors, would broadcast a very different message than the cooperative values our organization is dedicated to espousing. In short, we’ve learned that how we conduct business is every bit as important as what business we’re conducting (to paraphrase communications guru Marshall McLuhan, "The medium is at least half the message"). In recognition of this, we've learned to evaluate both when assessing someone for taking on responsibility in the Fellowship’s name.
In situations where this discordance emerges, I have a personal commitment to offering reflections about it, to see how candidates respond. Are they interested in the feedback (and able to step back and look for what might be true and useful in the observation)? Or are they dismissive and immediately launch into why my perceptions are off-base (warning: here be dragons!)?
We figure that all those who argue that the end justifies the means are not the kind of people we want to be attempting to effect social change under FIC’s banner. We figure the presence of such an attitude means it's time to end our association. In consequence, we occasionally pass up hare-brained opportunities for brilliancy, preferring a more tortoise-paced approach with a more integrated message and a surer foundation. It's a long road, and important to build it well.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Taking Pot Shots at Consensus

OK, I've had enough. I'm tired of people trashing consensus based on initial poor experiences. While I can appreciate how this has happened, who promised that changing the world was going to be easy?

In the world of Cultural Creatives (the term coined by sociologist Paul Ray to describe the substantial—and growing—segment of the population who are moving beyond traditional and conservative paradigms to create a different, and hopefully better functioning & more humane society), there is a broad-based analysis that mainstream decision-making sucks. It favors the people with privilege, the people with money, the people with power, the people who are quick, the people who are articulate, and those good at competing. There is a strong impulse to move toward more collaborative and inclusive processes for solving problems—especially when the stakes are high.

Consensus, in one form or another (see my blog of March 17, The Many Flavors of Consensus, for more on this), is among the most popular choices for groups trying to address the challenge of finding a a more cooperative way to make decisions. Unfortunately, having an analysis about the need for something different, as well as the will to do something about it (both of which are excellent things), is not sufficient to guarantee a good result. Bummer.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the need for cultural change, it's naive to expect to achieve it merely through rewriting the rules for how you make decisions. If you expect a rules change to manifest more cooperative behavior, you're just not getting it. It needs to work the other way around, where you first commit to creating a more cooperative culture and then embrace a decision-making process that reinforces that commitment
(consensus anyone?). If you don't—and I'm here to tell you that there are untold numbers of well-intended progressive groups that have fallen into this trap—consensus gets transmuted into unanimous voting, where groups unwittingly recapitulate the competitive environment of adversarial politics with a very difficult standard for reaching agreement (no dissent is much harder to achieve than a 51% majority in this atmosphere). While it's not too hard to get everyone to dress up as sheep for the meeting, if the topics are close to the bone, the inner wolf emerges and there is no form of bloodletting quite so poignant or outrageous as pacifists cutting each other to ribbons (with the blunted knives of "I" statements).

Over the years I've been a part of a number of groups which use consensus, beginning with my joining others to found Sandhill Farm in 1974. After 36 years I've come to understand it as an amazing and hopeful process. However, that understanding took years to mature and did not come all at once. Like many groups committed to cooperation, at the outset we did not have a very sophisticated understanding of what it took to create and nurture collaborative culture. We stumbled our way through until we got better, and in the early years we weren't even smart enough to ask for help.

I tell this story both to establish my credentials and my sympathy for others whose pioneering wagons have fallen into the same ruts that ours did, committing to consensus without really knowing what the hell we were doing. I totally get it how consensus can be an exhausting and debilitating experience when practiced by the unpracticed. My remedy for this is to take a closer a look at what it means to commit to culture change, and to commit to getting training in consensus.

A good many others, however, have taken a different approach, and that's where I'm focusing today's blog. They prefer to look critically at the process, rather than at the orientation and understanding of the practitioners. Thus, if you look at Sociocracy, Holacracy, or the Transition Town movement—all of which are excellent, vibrant examples of good faith efforts to promote positive cultural change—each one has a naive critique of consensus, primarily playing off the frustrations that are commonly experienced by the newly converted. Each offers a "new and improved" process for making decisions which attempts to push consensus into the mud as a stepping stone to navigate the quagmire of how humans—with all our messy complexities—make decisions when the stakes are high and people disagree.

Further, I recently read
James Surowiecki's intriguing book, The Wisdom of Crowds, which offers valuable insights into how groups can be consistently relied upon to find better solutions than experts so long as the individuals in the group offer their thinking independently and have access to diverse sources for their opinions. In this book, Surowiecki criticizes consensus for its tendency to undercut the independence of the individual opinions to the extent that the group values conformity and harmony above inquiry and breadth. While consensus can be practiced that way (justifying the author's comments), that does not mean it must be or should be, and I was frustrated by Surowiecki's critical conclusions regarding consensus. He could just as easily have gotten excited about how consensus offers unusual promise for surfacing differing views in a supporting environment, but it doesn't seem to me that he has a very thorough understanding of consensus. (Do you see the theme here?)

I am not here to do the reverse, to trash the ideas being generated under the banners of others (and thereby attempt to elevate the flag for consensus). I find many of the ideas offered by those named above to be intriguing and deserve to be tested. It seems appropriate to me that Cultural Creatives, after all, ought to be creative in their search for new culture, and I fully support trying out new ideas. That said, consensus is a richer and more robust process for supporting cooperative culture than it is being given credit for, and I'm standing up for it.

While I cannot tell what, in the end, will work best for making cooperative decisions (it may well be a variety of approaches, with choices tailored to the application), I am certain that we will not manifest lasting, positive cultural change by simply adopting a new operating manual. Shifts of the magnitude we seek (and need) will only succeed when accompanied by an understanding that we need to work much more holistically in tackling problems. We need processes that work with our hearts and our spirit as well as with our heads. We need magic and intuition as well as courage and good thinking. We need more curiosity than casuistry; more humility than hubris.

Can I get consensus on that?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ascension Day

Yesterday was Ascension Day, commemorating when Jesus went upstairs, departing (in physical form) this vale of tears for the last time. In the spirit of the occasion, I gained considerable altitude Thursday myself.
On board the California Zephyr, in the space of 90 minutes we rose from 5,280 feet in Denver to the Moffat Tunnel—at 9,239 feet it’s the highest elevation reached by any train in the Amtrak system—where we bored through the Continental Divide via the six-mile tunnel.
I left Denver in the cool, gray remnants of the rainstorm we had barreled through the night before. To my surprise, 30 minutes out of Denver we hit patches of snow. Within an hour of continual climbing, the occasional streak of white had turned into 4+ inches of wet, glompy frosting on all the trees. Though the snow was melted on all the roads, the solar panels deployed to power the switches in remote high altitude locations were completely blanketed. We had ascended back into winter!
We rose through the low ceiling and then through it into patches of sunshine. In the foggy part, it was hard to discern the engine on curves, just eight cars ahead. At one point, I saw three deer scratching in search of the tender green shoots that had been ubiquitous just the day before.
Appropriately enough, our first stop after Denver was Winter Park, where we were treated to the artistic curling of wet snow as gravity had its creative way with it, easing off the steep pitched metal roof of the open-air waiting shelter at the Amtrak station.
Laird's Loop
As the train paused to take on diesel in Denver, I paused as well, to take on caffeine at the Tattered Cover Bookstore, an easy stroll down Wynkoop from Denver’s Union Station. Sipping my latte it occurred to me that I was beginning a circular trek of epic proportions. Leaving Denver May 13, I expected to return the evening of June 15—33 days and 9,090 miles later, 92% of which I’d traverse by choo choo, never crossing my route once. In the course of this journey, I’ll board eight different trains, logging time on most of Amtrak’s better-known routes. In sequence, my Tour de Amtrak will take me through 29 states on the following routes (with train miles in parentheses):
California Zephyr (1,400)
Coast Starlight (721)

Empire Builder (2,256)

Capitol Limited (481)

Pennsylvanian (188)

Crescent (1,152)

Sunset Limited (1,493)

Southwest Chief (706)

It was amusing to realize that the last leg of this train odyssey would deposit me right in front of Denver’s Union Station—within sight of where I sat yesterday checking email. Think of it: I'll have gone 8,393 train miles and wound up in exactly the same spot. If Amtrak ultimately goes out of business, it won’t be my fault.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Consultant's Time Warp

Tomorrow evening I board the California Zephyr in Ottumwa IA, westbound for the Bay Area. It's the start of a 41-day road trip. At home today it's rainy and cool. The sorghum seedlings are struggling with the low temperatures and Stan is anxious about getting into the fields as we slide past our frost-free date. The black locusts are still in bloom and the black raspberries are just about to flower.

By the time I return from this monster road trip, the days will be at their longest, the gardeners are likely to be looking for rain, and the black raspberries will be ready to pick. I am departing in the midst of spring, and will be returning with summer fully regnant. While it's a lovely time to travel (and I'll thoroughly enjoy my cross country treks—nine days of which will be by train, with their lovely observation cars sheathed in wrap-around windows), I'll nonetheless miss the unfolding of the growing season at home. I won't be here for the first peas and new potatoes (we just enjoyed the last of the 2009 crop at dinner last night). Everyone will have put their sweatshirts into the back of their closet by the time I return, while my shorts will still have winter dust on them.

While there's sadness for me in this, no one has twisted my arm. I travel because that's where I can best deliver the work I love and feel called to do. To be sure, the Internet allows me tremendous capacity for communicating inexpensively and in depth with folks anywhere, and from the comfort of a seat in my bedroom. Also, there are times when I can facilitate by phone. (I just finished a contract with a disbanding group, for example, where I facilitated a series of a dozen conference calls over 12 months, helping members gracefully disentangle themselves—I drafted the agendas, wrote up the minutes, crafted the buyout agreement, and handled escrow during the exchange of checks for people giving up their share certificates. I did everything but shine shoes, yet never had to travel once.)

For all of this though, it's often highly valuable to meet with people in person. Whether it's connecting with FIC donors, giving a workshop on consensus, or laboring with groups trying to get out of the mud, there is a richness and dimensional quality to face-to-face conversations that electronic wizardry cannot substitute for—though I'm mindful of the startling advances in video conferencing and webinar technology. There are times when it's important that people can smell each other and see the nuances in facial expressions and hand gestures. The world of community is built on the bedrock of relationships, and it rarely works to just mail it in
or send pictures.

One of the ironies of my life is that it's built around community, yet half the time (or more) I'm on the road promoting it and offering guidance about it, rather at home living it. I think there is an essential and vital quality about my work that derives from my maintaining a living link to community (rather than coming solely from remembered prior experiences), yet I strain that link by being away so much. It's a delicate dance, having a foot in two worlds.

It's also somewhat lonely, in that it's hit or miss whether I've close friends at hand when I want to share what's challenging for me. Sometimes I have to wait, or rely on what's possible with email or phone. Luckily, as my field is community, there is often a wealth of good people nearby—even if I haven't met them all yet. It's a world full of possibility and surprise, and I wouldn't trade my particular brand of craziness for anyone else's.

So tomorrow I'm outbound for six consecutive weekends. "Ahead warp factor six, Mr Sulu."

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Happy Birthday, Sandhill!

Today is National Train Day. You can earn quadruple Guest Reward points if you can arrange to be on the choo-choo this day. Much as I love the train—and I do—I will happily be at home instead, celebrating Sandhill Farm's 36th anniversary.

Sandwiched delicately between Beltane and Mother's Day, I like to think of it as a bridge party, drawing on both: a) the raucous pagan energy honoring the surging growth of the Earth in spring; and b) the supporting and hearth energy that are the quintessential qualities of mothering. Today, you might say, we're honoring both nature and nurture. Also, we'll be eating and drinking a lot.

Mostly, today is about camaraderie, and suspending our normal routines to indulge in visiting with friends and neighbors (many of whom are both). We expect a crowd of about 60-75, with people coming from as far away as St Louis and Madison. Many will stay the night. Festivities officially begin in the afternoon, with a few semi-organized activities to punctuate the progression of the day:
—A Maypole at 3 pm
—Potluck feast at 4 pm, preceded by a welcoming circle that will fill the entire side lawn
—Contra dance (after digestion has proceeded far enough to no longer inhibit free movement), featuring live music and even livelier calling
—Sweat lodge, staring around dusk and continuing in rounds (we can take about 10 at a time) until everyone has had enough or the wood runs out

By tradition, my role today is at the sweat lodge. I made a couple contributions to the potluck yesterday (Sri Wasano's Infamous Indonesian Rice Salad from Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook, and Mushrooms Berkeley from Thomas' The Vegetarian Epicure, featuring our own shiitakes), so my culinary duties are already complete. Today I am the fire master. As soon as I consume enough coffee and compose this blog, I will head down to the fire circle and begin. We had 2+ inches of rain Thursday night and the ground is spongy (thus, Smoky Bear can stand down today).

From a cold and wet start, I will spend the next 12 hours tending the fire, slowly building a huge bed of coals in which I'll insert large chunks of metal and firebrick. By the time they're needed for the sweat lodge, they'll be glowing red. Meanwhile, the fire ring will be a side show in the social milieu, where people can get warm (the high is supposed to only be in the low 60s, unseasonably cool for May 8) and hang out with me. In the course of the day, most people come by at some point and I'll have a flow of lovely connections over the spaciousness of the entire day, all happening spontaneously (no appointments!).

It's the only day of the year that I totally devote to fire (and reflection), and it has taken on a sacred aspect for me.

A Word about Our Sweat Lodge
While I've always thought I'd build a sauna (the Finnish bath I was first exposed to as an eight-year-old at summer camp in northern Minnesota), I'm chagrined to realize that after 36 years I still haven't moved it up to the top of my To Do List. Partly, that's because we've had a sweat lodge for more than 25 years, which is a fair approximation of the sauna experience.

While the sweat lodge has a strong Native American tradition, no one at Sandhill has any training in that and we make no pretensions about it. It is simply our tradition, involving heat and getting naked together in a confined dark space. The current incarnation of our lodge (there have been many over the years) is a hexagonal wooden framed structure built on a floor of sand. The ceiling is composed of slightly arched interwoven branches. The whole is wrapped in a sheet of 6 mil polyethylene and then covered in cane pummies (the spent stalks of sorghum after they've been through the mill) for insulation.
There is a brick-lined pit in the center into which the hot metal and firebricks are placed at the outset of each round.

Once everyone is situated in the lodge, the door is sealed. One person is in charge of dribbling water onto the hot metal and bricks. This produces bursts of steam which rush upward, spread across the ceiling and flow down the sides, bathing the participants. If the enclosure is tight enough (few leaks at the seams) it doesn't take long to start sweating. As the heat in a sweat lodge is highly stratified, there are options to control your experience. The thermophilic can lean closer to the pit and raise their heads into the branches; the more squeamish can stay back toward the sides and keep their heads down. A round lasts until the heat has been fully extracted from the pit—about 20 minutes—after which a procession of steaming sand-smudged bodies emerge from the lodge, like so many squinting moles. The braver ones jump into the nearby pond, washing off the sand and instantly closing the pores that have been so recently wide open in an effort to maintain homeostasis in the sweat lodge. It's quite a rush, and for those with a taste for it, they go again if there aren't enough first-timers to fill the next round.

Each round in the sweat lodge has a personality that is defined by the participants of that round. Sometimes it is all silence; sometimes there is conversation; sometimes there is chanting. Each group makes of the ritual what it wants. There are no rules. Kind of like life.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Home, Sweet Home

I woke up in my own bed this morning, with the cool spring air redolent with the sweet odor of black locust blossoms, which are just now popping open here in northeast Missouri. It's one of only two local flowering trees that I unabashedly enjoy the scent of (the other is wild plum), and I'm glad I didn't miss it. (For more on my love affair with black locusts, see my May 21, 2008 blog, Bloomin' & Perfumin'.)

Yesterday morning I was inbound from Louisiana, chugging north on Amtrak's City of New Orleans, and the last stop before Chicago was in suburban Homewood. I laughed when I saw that the city's water tower had been intentionally emblazoned with the slogan, "Home, Sweet Homewood."
I've always had a weak spot for wordplay, and here was a whole town that was willing to pay homage to whimsy in the municipal budget! In addition to playing off of a timeless cross-stitch catch phrase, it's evocative of Robert Johnson's famous blues tune, Sweet Home Chicago (it was first made popular by Eric Clapton, and then featured as one of the songs in the 1980 Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi cult hit musical, The Blues Brothers), which is all the more potent for me as the lyrics are about coming back home, and suburban Chicago is my home—or used to be, before I settled at Sandhill Farm in 1974.

Of course, as an inveterate train traveler, I'm always going home to Chicago (whether Thomas Wolfe thinks that's possible or not), as this country only operates a skeleton intercity train system these days and there's only a single way (three times a week on the Sunset Limited) to cross the Mississippi River that doesn't go through Chicago. Luckily for me, I cherish layovers in the Windy City, with its showcase 20th Century architecture, major league music and museums, and as an exemplar of the unpretentious salt-of-the-earth Midwestern ethos. This melting pot city brags of having a Polish population second only to that of Warsaw. This is at once the city that Carl Sandburg celebrated as "hog butcher for the world" and currently boasts one of the finest collection of French Impressionist paintings in the world at The Art Institute on Michigan Ave. All together, Chicago is where I come from.

Saturday night, after a Cajun grilled dinner in Natchitoches LA (think andouille sausage and the lesser known but no less prized boudin) my Green Eggs group (see my blog of May 2, An Ill Wind for Louisiana) settled into our host's living room to watch a movie. What was on TV? Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas, and Candice Bergen in Sweet Home Alabama.

Apparently, sweet homes, like a number of things, tend to come in threes.

I have a week to enjoy my Sandhill home—sandwiched around our 36th anniversary party this Saturday—before I embark on my longest road trip of the year. I'll be gone 41 days, working at least two gigs in every time zone except the one I live in. Ufda. Mindful of what's to come, I'm happy to anticipate how much fonder my heart is about to grow by savoring my sweet home now.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

An Ill Wind for Louisiana

April 20, a-state-of-the-art BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The uncapped well is located about 50 miles offshore and is estimated to be spewing around 5,000 barrels—more than 200,000 gallons—of crude oil into the gulf daily and the massive oil slick is just now reaching the shores of Louisiana, driven by a strong south wind. While there are massive efforts underway to stop the leak and to contain the spilled oil with booms, choppy seas are hampering the deployment.

The oil—so prized for the petroleum products we can manufacture from it when it arrives in tankers—is a deadly threat when it arrives as an amoeba-like blob, and the Gulf States are bracing themselves for hard times to come. It's bad news for birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—locals are gearing up for a total loss of this season's newborn—and will make a mess of the beautiful beaches, seriously undercutting tourism.

Among other things, the spill threatens to smother the most productive oysters beds in the US (Louisiana serves up about 250 million pounds annually, about one-third of the US harvest), perhaps shutting them down for years. I was glad to have enjoyed some gulf oysters at a raw bar this week. Who knows when I'll be able to enjoy them next.

Stopping the leak is going to be very difficult. The well penetrates the seabed at a depth of more than a mile and the break in the pipe occurred at around 5000 feet down. In the end, this incident may become the largest oil spill in US history, surpassing that of the Exxon Valdez, which leaked around 11 million gallons of oil into Alaskan waters in 1989.

I'm visiting this weekend in Natchitoches LA (about 55 miles northwest of Alexandria) to gather with the other principals of the Green Eggs (a consortium offering business consulting to cooperative groups—see my blog of July 29, 2009, Incubating Green Eggs) to discuss our work. Our host is David Waskom, who runs an accounting firm in town and is well known locally. At lunch yesterday, state representative Rick Nowlin (who has an office in the building where David runs his business) stopped by for a few minutes and gave us a snapshot of how difficult this oil spill is going to be for state government. It's a triple whammy of a huge one-time need hitting while the state economy is still not recovered fully from the last one—Katrina in 2005—or from the national recession.
Rick has a tough job.

• • •
Amidst this impending doom, I've had productive conversations with the Green Eggs group (as they say, it's an ill wind that blows no good). The warm and humid weather hints of the oppressive heat to come (I have no idea why anyone would visit Louisiana in July or August), yet it's on the upper end of pleasant right now, with temperatures well into the 80s. In contrast, Green Eggs participant Susan Short slogged through four inches of wet, heavy snow to get to the Denver airport Thursday to fly to these meetings, emphasizing that spring arrives discontinuously and not everywhere at the same time.

This is the third time the group has met face-to-face (first in Ann Arbor last July, and then in Denver last October), and one of the joys of our getting together for a few days is that there's enough time together to synchronize electron orbits and get into a creative groove. We mix up how we spend the time: listening to presentations, going out to eat, seeing the local sights, and focusing on aspects of cooperative business—defining our client base, identifying business ideas, and concocting marketing plans. At the end of a conversation we select the most promising ideas and test to see if there's energy in the room to develop them into full-blown proposals. Every session, like Christmas, something surprising and potentially remunerative pops out of the rapid-fire dialog. It's fun.

One of the most intriguing topics we explored is an age-old one for consultants: a) how can you identify those clients who are most available for making changes in their lives; and b) how can you deliver advice—advice that the client paid for, mind you—in such a way that it's most apt to be used?

Who's Ready to Change?
We figure that there's two parts to this. From our end, we need to put out the clearest message we can about what we think is our area of expertise and what our motivation is, so there's minimal ambiguity about what's to be gained by making a change. From the potential client's end, we need to be firm about limiting our work to those clients who seem to most accurately understand what we're talking about, and are ready to look at themselves (and not just others) in considering what it will take to effect lasting improvements.

Digesting this leads to the conclusion that it's about quality more than about quantity, and that it behooves us to focus tightly on the people we think could benefit most from what we have to offer. Our marketing should be geared toward cooperatively leaning entrepreneurs, or toward community-based folks who are fine making money in cooperative markets. Our marketing should not be slanted toward convincing people that these two values can (and should) be married.

How to Enhance the Likelihood That the Client Will Use Our Advice
While the consultant should get paid whether the client decides to follows our advice or not, we're not in it just for the money; we're in it to build a more cooperative world. We figure that the client will be much more likely to seriously consider the changes we recommend if we make the effort to thoroughly understand the client's frame of reference and offer our suggestions in a language and sequence that matches well with what the client reports being interested in.

Further, we've learned that multiple, reinforcing visits tends to be much more effective in midwifing change than one-and-done raise-the-dead weekends. We need to break down the implementation into bite-size, digestible chunks, so that each step seems doable and within reach.

It is not enough to want things to be better and to believe that you have advice that's useful in that endeavor—you also have to serve it up in dishes that look appetizing, will be picked by people hungry for something new, and will taste good to others when they're ordered.
• • •
I like to think that good things will hatch from our Green Eggs weekend in Louisiana, in some small way compensating for the Pelican State being given the black marble twice in six years.