Saturday, January 29, 2011

Guerrilla Consensus

I'm a consensus trainer. I've been living in a community—Sandhill Farm—that has made decisions by consensus since its inception in 1974 (which we jumped into using before we even knew what we were doing). I've been integrally involved in network organizations that have also made all their decisions by consensus—the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (1979-2001), and the Fellowship for Intentional Community (1987-present). I have been a process consultant and trainer since 1987, and the core of my work has built on a foundation of cooperative dynamics. As such, I have a deep appreciation of consensus and an equally deep commitment to promoting it.

All of that said, many groups commit to using consensus without having a clear understanding of how it works, or of the work it takes to make it work. [See blog of Dec 3, 2010, Lack of Consensus on the Meaning of "Consensus"]

Even for people who "get" consensus and actively want to promote it in the world, it is often appropriate to be cautious about walking into a group and trying to convert them into true believers. Most people will not thank you for "saving" them. What to do?

Actually, there's quite a bit you can do using consensus principles without having explicit permission to use consensus. That is, it's possible to participate in groups using consensus principles and be effective, even if no one has a clue what you're doing! Here are some ideas about how to go about it:

o Seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. While this is one of Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (#5 if you're keeping score at home), long before that it was a basic consensus principle. No one will take offense if you unilaterally start making sure you understand fully what others are saying before adding your piece to the conversation.

o Try to weave connections between comments that are related but not identical. In the mainstream culture, we've been so conditioned to think first in terms of differences, that we often miss points of commonality. If you accurately point out how one person's contribution fits well with something another said earlier, no one will jump down your throat. You just helped simplify the conversation by reducing the number of variables people have to juggle. What's not to like?

o If you see two people not understanding each other, or being reactive to one another, perhaps you can figure out a way to rephrase what Person A said such that Person B can now hear it (and Person A still recognizes it as an accurate re-framing). When you offer people with a bridge to cross a gulf of misunderstanding, nobody gets upset with the person who offered the bridge.

o When it comes time for problem solving, if you set aside advocacy and focus on how to balance all the input, you may be the first one to see a way to move forward in such a way that everyone can feel respected by the decision. While you may look like King Solomon to everyone else, you're just using Guerrilla Consensus.

While all of this thinking about what's best for others and for the group may seem like a heroic act of altruism (giving yourself up for the team), it really isn't. The beauty of what I'm advocating is that it's actually in your best interest to function as much as possible as if you're in a consensus group. You'll never regret learning to be a better listener, seeing linkages between comments, learning how to bridge people who are not connecting, or developing a talent for balancing factors.

The more genuinely you move in the direction of consensus, the more others will appreciate having you in the conversation; the more you will be trusted for your even-handedness; the more your advice will be sought about how to proceed. In short, the more effective you'll become.

Just remember: guerrilla consensus has nothing to do with pounding your chest and acting like a 300-lb anthropoid; it's about aping the behavior of people who are thoughtful, caring, and compassionate. Don't let bad meeting dynamics make a monkey out of you!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Recalling Labor Day in January

Exactly 30 years ago this morning, Annie went into labor.

Tomorrow morning—at 9:20 am to be precise—our son, Ceilee, will no longer be trustworthy. At least not according to guidelines proposed by free speech activist Jack Weinberger, who first advocated that standard back in 1964 (when Annie and I were not yet even 30 together). Annie was 30 when Ceilee was born, and tomorrow he'll be half her age (until her birthday 10 days later).
My how time flies.

Annie and I met in college during the late '60s, at the height of the societal foment spurred by the Vietnam War and the general trend to question authority and the status quo. We participated in student strikes in the spring of 1970, after Nixon invaded Cambodia. After dipping our toes briefly in the regular job market, we "retired" in 1973, traded in most of the middle class values we inherited, and sought a life in intentional community—where we could create an alternative culture based on cooperation (rather than competition), where security is based on relationships more than bank accounts, and where how you do things counts for as much as what you do.

Back in 1974, when we helped found Sandhill Farm, Annie and I understood what Weinberger had in mind when he advised not trusting anyone over 30.

Today, Ceilee is married, has a daughter who will be three in May, and is expecting a second child this summer. He drives a Cadillac and has a wardrobe that probably costs more than what I've spent on clothing in my entire lifetime. Unlike his parents, who invested in community, Ceilee—and his wife Tosca—are business owners (my entrepreneurial father is smiling in his grave), operating multiple cell phone franchises in Las Vegas. My how the pendulum swings.

Don't get me wrong. I'm proud of my son. He's a good father, a good partner, and, I suspect, a good manager. He thinks for himself, likes his life, has a solid appreciation about how his actions affect others, and takes full responsibility for what he does. That's the way he was raised and he came out fine.

To be sure, we don't see eye to eye politically, yet neither Annie nor I let that spoil a loving relationship with our son. We do not expect him to validate our choices by following in our footsteps (any more than we followed in the footsteps of our parents). He's his own person and that's as it should be.

Ceilee was the first child born at Sandhill, and I recall the whole community staying up through most of the night to help Annie through the labor. It took about 24 hours for her to fully dilate and on a cold, sunny Tuesday morning, our vernix-smeared son slipped out of Annie's uterus and into my waiting hands. He was born right in the middle of our bedroom and it was one the most awesome experiences of my life (ranking right up there with the Cesarean birth of my daughter in 1987, facilitating all the plenaries at the FIC's six-day Celebration of Community in 1993, and Ma'ikwe's and my four-day wedding in 2007).

Ceilee, you were well worth the labor to birth and raise you. I just hope you can learn to trust people who are under 30 (thousand dollars in annual income).

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Skating Away from the Edge

It's snowing as I type this morning, and it's pretty to watch—big fluffy flakes floating against a backdrop of leafless black trees. It resurfaces the pathways and roads that have been dirtied by traffic. It also refreshes the cross country ski trails that take advantage of the rolling hills that characterize the geology of northeast Missouri. On the other hand, it's not good news for the hockey games that folks enjoy on our frozen pond. It's the yin and yang of winter sports on the farmstead: snow is good for skiing and bad for skating; no snow is good news the other way around.

The heart of winter occurs from Christmas to Valentine's Day. While we can get a thaw any time, it's only during those seven weeks that you can expect skiing or skating conditions. We're in the midst of that stretch right now, and the skis get used almost every day at Sandhill. Through the steady ministrations of dedicated shovellers, our impromptu hockey rink has been cleared sufficiently after each snowfall to allow the games to continue there as well.

Both skiing and skating are a terrific antidote to the seduction of vegetating through the slow winter season, sitting on the sofa next to the wood stove knitting or reading until it's time to start collecting maple sap in February.

Of course, there's also wood cutting, which is another time-honored outdoor aerobic opportunity on the farmstead in winter. In addition to gathering next year's firewood, we're collecting oak logs for shiitake propagation, cutting black locust for the structural elements of a post-and-beam house going up at Dancing Rabbit, and setting aside the occasional saw log (to eventually become dimensional lumber for home projects).

This year, I notice that I'm taking my turns running the chain saw in the wood lot, but I'm not skating. I was never very adept at it, and the pleasure of gliding along the ice or the enjoyment derived from correctly calculating the physics of passing a hockey puck from one moving skater to another no longer compensates for cramped insteps and bruised thighs.

I grew in the suburbs of Chicago where there were winters reliably cold enough for me to have grown up skating, but I didn't. Neither did I pick up roller skating as a kid. While I gamely tried to make up for my lost youth as an adult, I never got very accomplished at either, and decided to retire from these particular recreational efforts after falling badly at the roller rink a few years ago and suffering multicolored bruising that took more than a week to heal. Falling down just isn't that much fun.

While there's a part of me that rebels at the thought of "getting too old" for anything, I'm mostly at peace with the realization that there are many more interesting choices out there than I'll ever get to taste, and it's OK to let some challenges slip by uncontested (I don't reckon I'll ever learn Farsi, how to do an appendectomy, or the art of trading pork bellies futures). There's nuance between being too scared to attempt the unknown, and not being reckless. It's about developing a healthy relationship with the edge.

Sometimes, it's fine to simply enjoy watching the snow fall from the comfort of a warm chair, and to reflect at my laptop on all that that brings up.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Trying to Re-Inaugurate Tempeh into Sandhill's Life

There's a guy I know named Ron Morris who grew up in Gorin, a wide spot in the road just one town up the line along the Santa Fe Railroad tracks from Rutledge. I first met Ron right after moving to Scotland County, about 35 years ago. He's a songwriter, guitar player, and general odd duck (he has a killer recipe for habañero wine that he's trying to market to a commercial winery—how odd is that?). In one of our first conversations, he looked us in the eye and said, with great solemnity, "You know, tornadoes are real to me." How do you respond to that? For decades afterwards, he was referred to in the community as Real-to-Me-Ron.

For years, he drove around in this tricked out Subaru he styled the Tricentennial Express
(after his Bicentennial Bus blew a head gasket back in '76) which was uniquely styled with portions of the US Constitution hand-painted along the sides. Ron has always been a little different.

The reason Ron popped into my head is that I'm making tempeh today. In one of his songs about cultural commentary, he wrote the refrain, "a bean, a bean, a human bean" and I always found that kinda cute (being the word play connoisseur that I am). Since tempeh is essentially a cultured bean product for humans, it wasn't hard to connect the dots.

• • •
Today is the first time I've attempted a batch of tempeh since last summer, and it's an experiment to see if we can revive what had once been a thriving minor industry for Sandhill. The August batch yielded a promising 90% salable pieces and that encouraged me to attempt a more rigorous trial this winter (ostensibly when I have more time). Today is the start of that trial.

Our tempeh adventures began about 25 years ago when Craig Green (currently living at Shannon Farm) lived with us for a time and brought the idea (and the incubator) with him from California. Though Craig didn't stay with us long, the tempeh business did.

Over the years we gradually built it up from something we did occasionally for ourselves (to augment the non-meat protein options in our diet), into a steady business with $8000 in annual sales. We had no problem marketing all of our tempeh regionally as frozen 8-oz pieces, where our hand-crafted product would out-compete the industrial competition from Lightlife (Greenfield MA) and White Wave (Broomfield CO).

We had worked our way up to a regular routine of cranking out two batches of about 70 pieces each per week. If pressed, we could do three. While every piece wasn't salable, most were. It was a great example of applying the value-added principle to food production. Instead of selling soybeans—where an acre of 30 bushels of organic soybeans might gross $450, after turning it into tempeh those same 30 bushels would blossom into $9000. Of course, there was a lot of labor devoted to tempeh making, so this was not a get-rich-quick operation. Still, we were in control of the price of the finished product (which is not the case when you sell raw products) and we could produce the same dollars on one acre that a traditional farmer needed 20 acres to generate—which translates into needing less land to make a living from agriculture.

After two decades of steady market development, we hit a major glitch about three years ago, when an unknown contaminant started disrupting the quality of our finished product. Though we wracked our brains, tested our soybeans,
changed our inoculant, consulted with William Shurtleff (author of The Book of Tempeh), and bleached & cleaned all of our equipment within an inch of its life, nothing solved the problem. We began to suspect that there was an air-borne yeast that was infecting every batch, interrupting the mold pattern enough to render most pieces unsalable. In frustration, we suspended operations two years ago.

Now, after that respite, I'm trying a few batches to see if things are better. Maybe that which mysteriously appeared, will have mysteriously departed. The worst we are out is two gallons of soybeans, and a day's worth of my time.
• • •
As a closing aside, I note that today is hump day for President Obama. That is, he's completed exactly as many days in office as there are remaining in his current term. Do you reckon he's tired of drinking from the fire hose yet?

Whenever I think about having too many balls in the air (which is something I pause to reflect on every so often), I take solace from the knowledge that there are some—Obama being an excellent example—who have it much harder than I do. It's a challenge to understand why anyone would seek out that pressure and that pace.

Monday, January 17, 2011

An Eventful Year Ahead

Most years I participate in three events that offer the public a chance to learn about cooperative living. This year, the opportunities will be doubled—which is great for riding the wave of surging interest in community. I'm psyched. Here's an overview of what's on tap for 2011, posted in chronological sequence:

1. May 21 • Art of Community Day
in Chicago IL, hosted by the Fellowship for Intentional Community
This will be a one-day event on the north side of the Windy City, immediately following FIC's spring organizational meetings, May 18-20. There will be workshops, networking, and more fun than you can shake a stick at. Community Bookshelf will be there, and the day will culminate after dinner with a raucous benefit auction, followed by live music and dancing. Registration is open now.

2. May 27-29 • Communities Conference
in Summertown TN, hosted by The Farm
Visit one of the best-known and longest standing intentional communities in the US and get
a boatload of information and inspiration about cooperative living over Memorial Day Weekend. Contact Coordinator Douglas Stevenson for details: .

3. June 17-19 • National Cohousing Conference
in Washington DC, hosted by the Cohousing Association of the US
This annual event happens on the weekend nearest summer solstice. It brings together seekers, forming groups, representatives of built cohousing communities (there are over 130 in the US), and professionals for a packed weekend of workshops, speakers, and mixers. This year the event will be held at a hotel in suburban Virginia.

4. Aug 19-21 • Communities Conference
in Louisa VA, hosted by Twin Oaks
This is another annual event, located at a well-known and well-established community. In contrast with the cohousing weekend, this is a camping experience, which significantly reduces the cost. Twin Oaks has created a conference site nestled into the woods on the edge of their property, where everyone plays together for the weekend. While there will be the familiar array of workshops, Community Bookshelf, and chances to meet with representatives of regional communities, there will also be fire circles, community tours, and potluck meals.

5. Sept 23-25 • Art of Community
in Occidental CA, hosted by FIC
This event will be held at Westminster Woods, tucked into the coastal redwoods of southern Sonoma County, only 90 minutes north of San Francscio. We're expecting hundreds of participants to join us for a weekend focused on Creating Sustainable Culture Through Cooperation. Workshops and activities will emphasize interactive opportunities and experiential learning.

6. Nov 4-6 • NASCO Institute
in Ann Arbor MI, hosted by the North American Students of Cooperation
This annual event is held at the Michigan Union, right on campus, in the middle of downtown Ann Arbor. Most of the participants come from student co-ops around the US and Canada, attracting those who have been most inspired by their first taste of cooperative living. There are workshops, banquets, parties, and caucuses—all geared to making a good thing better.

• • •
While I'll only be able to attend five of the six (I was already booked to conduct a facilitation training over Memorial Day Weekend, when Douglas announced this year's conference at The Farm), I love getting together with people hungry for information about community, and am excited to have so many chances to share my enthusiasm about cooperative living with so many folks in one year.

This year, FIC's events cup runneth over. I invite you to mark your calendar now, so that when the time comes, you can runneth over and attend one or two of the events nearest you. We can also use your help in banging the drum to let your friends (and listserves) know about this great lineup of community events—before time runneth out.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Unintended Effect of Working with Affect

I was in a meeting at home the other day and one of the topics on the agenda was a proposal I'd circulated a few days ahead of time about how to use a chunk of money that came my way unexpectedly. It was the first time we'd talked about it as a group and there were some critical reactions among members about my proposal—both about what I wanted to do with the money, and about my having stated my preferences before the group could discuss it together.

While how to make the best use of windfall money is an interesting topic, that's not what I want to write about today. Instead, I want to describe the confusion we experienced when I tried to establish that I'd heard what people were upset about.

In sequence, three members told me about the negative reaction they had to my proposal. After each spoke, I was asked to tell that person what I'd heard—active listening. When I did, I tried to deliver my reflective statement with the affect that I thought best matched the feelings that that person had reported. While this is something I do regularly as a professional facilitator (and have a lot of success with), it didn't go very well at home. Let me walk through the confusion...

o Part of the problem is that all three speakers were being careful about how they expressed themselves, and I was being less careful in trying to connect with their hurt feelings. Thus, they were getting back something more strongly worded and forceful than they'd stated. So there was a question about whether I was overreacting, or correctly reading what they had been soft-pedaling.

It's easy to understand how people learn to be cautious about opening the throttle when expressing upset. Most people don't handle critical feedback well, and it only gets more volatile when the expression comes in a raw package. If something doesn't work well, you learn (eventually) to do it differently. Thus, all three people who were giving me feedback had developed a style that was well-modulated, careful, and deliberate when expressing irritation—especially remembered irritation (as opposed to fulminating upset, which is much harder to contain).

In turn, they were naturally uneasy when hearing it reflected back to them with the kid gloves removed. I wasn't trying to be provocative; I was trying to be accurate. I was trying to recalibrate their distress knowing that they were deliberately toning it down. It's tricky business.

o While that was confusing all by itself, it was worse than that. All three people at first thought that my expression of affect was an indication of my upset, rather than my attempt to mirror theirs. Partly this was due to my having stated things more baldly than they had, and part of it is that most people are not used to active listening as an aerobic activity.

In fact, most people are conflict avoiders, and prefer to keep a lid on how they express upset, for fear, as I mentioned above, that fully expressing it will inspire a spirited defense that may quickly spiral out of control. So they were trying to do two things at once that were not blending together easily: a) matching my words with their words to see if I got the concepts right; and b) inferring my mood from my energy—rather than checking to see how well my energy was an approximation of what they were feeling. It got pretty confusing.

Fortunately, we had an outside facilitator helping us run the meeting and she was able to see the confusion before it got too far out of control. People were surprised when she pointed out that I was not expressing my feelings; that I was only trying to include the emotions
of others (as I'd understood them) in my reflective statements.

o The water was further muddied by the fact that I did have some upset feelings about how people were reacting to my proposal, but I was delaying sharing those until the others felt heard. What a swirl! Though there is nervousness that going into feelings that deeply might cause irreparable relationship damage, I'm more concerned with the damage that will ensue if we don't go there.

The case for caution is built around the notion that the trauma of receiving unedited critical feelings can cause a relationship rift so serious that it can never be repaired. It is based on the idea that the receiver may not be able to accept that someone else is that upset with them, or that the giver may be judged too scary to be close to if they are capable of that level of upset. Either way, it's safer to moderate what you share.

The case for full disclosure is based on the idea that when you hold back you don't move on; that unexpressed upset will tend to fester rather than heal; and that withheld distress is associated with distortion that will undercut problem solving. To be sure, sometimes people are successful in working through upset unilaterally, and it isn't always necessary to express it to the person whose words or actions triggered it. However, what happens when you're not successful?

On the whole, I'm persuaded that it works much better for people to learn that conflict is a normal part of human interactions and that the measure of a group's maturity is not based on how much conflict they experience; it's how well they work with it when it emerges.

This depends on encouraging people to fully express what their experiencing, and then the group holding compassionately both the giver and the receiver. While this is not necessarily easy to do, it's possible, and the rewards are large. In my experience, once non-trivial upset enters the equation, real problem solving cannot begin until all the relevant distress has been brought to light.

While my community is not necessarily good at finding the light switch, I'm pleased that we're at least regularly groping for it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Full Contact Phone Tag

I have a tendency to interrupt people. Once I think I know how their sentence is going to end, I'm ready to move on. Not surprisingly, this gets me into hot water on a regular basis (even though I usually get the meaning right, it tends to piss people off).

Mostly, I think, I lack enough patience. Sometimes this happens when I get excited and just want things to move along more quickly. Sometimes I do this to redirect a conversation that is starting to stray (from what I think is most interesting or pertinent). Sometimes, as a facilitator, I do it because the speaker has completed their thought and is circling around to say it again, and I break in to bump the needle out of its play/repeat groove.

While I've made some progress over the years in being more mindful about my tendencies—and achieving greater control over my urges—I'm still a work in progress. Over the holidays I got anonymous written feedback from participants at a series of workshops I did in November at NASCO Institute, and perhaps 4% commented about my interrupting as a presenter. So perfection is still some distance off...

What's more, making progress here is more nuanced than merely learning to keep my trap shut. The other day, I achieved new heights (or is it new lows?) in the kind of trouble this can lead to. I was having a one-on-one exchange with a close friend who had already given me feedback about not wanting to be interrupted, when a tricky moment came up that I didn't know how to handle.

We had been working in different buildings and I knew that my friend was expecting a phone call. When the phone rang in my building and it was the anticipated call, I directed the person to try the number in the other building. The caller, however, reported that they'd just done that and no one picked up. Hmm. I was pretty sure my friend was there, but I didn't have anything better to suggest and I agreed to pass along the message that the caller no longer had time for the conversation that day and would prefer to set up a date for another time.

I subsequently went over to the other building and tried to relay the message. I reported that I had handled a call from the expected person, that they had first tried to reach the building we were in, and that no one picked up the phone. I was poised to pass along the message that the caller now preferred to talk the next day, but my friend was eager to explain why they hadn't been able to hear the phone. Now I was at the delicate moment.

While my instinct was to break in with information about the request to reschedule (which was more important, I thought, than details about why the call was missed), I was mindful of my friend's irritation with my tendency to barge in, so I held my tongue. Instead I simply tried to breathe and give my friend all the air space they wanted to tell their story. After a time though, I got in trouble anyway, as my friend could tell what I was doing and accused me angrily of waiting for them to get done talking so that I could respond.

What could I say? They were right! I felt completely trapped. Here I was trying to be responsive to the original feedback, but I wasn't being quiet pleasantly enough. Ai-yi-yi!

No doubt impatience was leaking into my countenance, or was reflected in the way I was holding my body. But I was dismayed to realize that my friend's irritation was probably enhanced by my having not interrupted. (I naively thought I had been making progress on my impatience.) It meant, I guess, that I was aware of the urge to interrupt yet still managed to convey disdain. Where was I to go with this? Must I pretend to be interested in what anyone around me says, whether I am or not? Yikes!

This is a tough one, and I'm still unsure how to do better next time (though I am sure that there will be a next time).
Somehow, I have to find a way to be in a state of greater neutrality or acceptance. I need to move beyond my obsession with accuracy and authenticity; I need to embrace listening as a meditation—as a way of building relationship through presence rather than words. It adds depth to the concept of "active listening."

It's a good thing that I typically enjoy personal growth challenges such as this, because I don't seem to be able to conduct my life in such a way that the next opportunity isn't available momentarily.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Solar Gain Saturday

You know it's cold in the house when your cat crawls into your empty suitcase to get warm.

I slept over at Ma'ikwe's house last night, and we were awakened by Kyre clawing her way past the zipper to get into my wife's Samsonite. It was a first for me. Temperatures got down to around 10 degrees (outside) and after a cloudy day Friday, we were happy to see the sun peek in around the insulated curtains once we peeked out from under the covers. It was going to be a solar gain Saturday! While there was no frozen water in the house this morning, that first cup of coffee sure was nice to wrap my hands around.

Ma'ikwe lives at Dancing Rabbit, where all power is off the grid. As hers comes from photovoltaics (others use wind generators instead of—or in addition to—solar panels for their line power, and wood stoves for space heating) it's all about the sunshine. With an array of eight 175-watt panels, she can handle cloudy days better than some. Her system is geared to supply the electric power for three houses, but the second one is not yet occupied and the third hasn't even been started. Thus, she doesn't have to share what her panels crank out this winter. With care, she can go about three cloudy days in a row on battery power (supplemented by the minimal solar gain that trickles in even through complete cloud cover) and still have power enough for reading at night, checking her email, and keeping pace with her 700+ Facebook friends.

The beauty of relying on solar panels is that the need for juice is greatest when the temperatures are lowest, and the temperatures are lowest on clear days—meaning the solar gain is greatest when you need it most. In fact, if she gets two clear days in a row, she's able to "float," which means the panels are producing electricity fast enough that the batteries have been topped off and the extra energy is just being spilled. In those conditions she'll run an electric space heater to augment the BTUs generated by her overworked wood stove (more about that below).

This is fairly amusing in that electric space heaters are generally considered the spawn of the devil among people serious about energy conservation. Electricity is a highly concentrated energy and using it for space heating—a low grade use—is generally considered incredibly wasteful.

With grid electricity it would work like this: in our rural area, power is delivered via the distribution lines of a local power co-op: Tri-County Electric. They, in turn, buy power generated by Northeast Missouri Power, which supplies eight regional co-ops. Northeast Power's nearest generators are a trio of coal-fired plants located in Moberly, 86 miles away. The heat derived from burning the coal is used to drive turbines that generate electricity. The juice is then stepped up to high-voltage and transmitted via high wire lines to Tri-County Electric, stepped down to line voltage near the final user, and then converted to heat through resistance in a floor heater. After all these shenanigans only a fraction of the heat generated by the lumps of coal in Moberly are translated into sensible heat in houses near Rutledge. You can begin to picture why environmentalists want to throw up when asked about electric space heaters.

However, the equation is completely different in Ma'ikwe's case, where the electricity is generated about 25 feet from where it's used; and once her batteries are floating, it's use it or lose it.

All of that said, it's only an occasional luxury that Ma'ikwe can use her space heater to boost her indoor temperatures in short spurts on January days. Her main strategy for space heating is hydronics: radiant heating that comes from circulating hot water through polyethylene PEX tubing buried in her concrete floor. Although the floor slab (with tubing in place) was poured in spring 2009, she has yet to start the building that will house the wood-fired boiler that will generate the hot water for the system. Thus, for the last two winters she's relied solely on her wood stove, which was sized to be the auxiliary heat source—not the primary one—resulting in a lot of chilly mornings.

Maybe what we need to do to get through the winter is figure out how to use the cat as an auxiliary heat source… if we can ever get her out of the suitcase.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Powers of Ten

When my kids were young (under 10) they'd frequently sleep with me, and I'd typically read with them before turning out the lights. One of my favorite books for this purpose was Powers of Ten (subtitled, About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe) by Philip & Phylis Morrison, published by Freeman & Co in 1982 (they're the folks who put out Scientific American).

The book considers a spot in a Chicago park alongside Lake Michigan where a couple is lying on the grass, snoozing after a picnic lunch on a summer day, and considers what you'd progressively see if you changed the perspective by a power of 10 in each direction—from the astronomically large:
1025 meters (where there is only the tiniest amount of light discernible amidst the vast emptiness of outer space) to the sub-atomically small: 10-16 meters (where the scale is less than the diameter of a proton, and it's only a guess what it might actually look like). Incredibly enough, some of the perspectives at the extremes are pretty much the same. In between though, there's a lot of shift.

In the last few days I crossed a couple of milestones on the odometers of my life and that got me thinking about how I might relate what I do to the powers of ten. One of those was with Facebook and the other was with the Red Cross. While I won't attempt the same range as the Morrisons did, I'm inspired to walk six up and six down from the unity, and see how well I can paint a picture of my life with 13 different snapshots:


The FIC is fast approaching one million annual visits to our family of websites. That's an awesome number, and a hopeful sign that people are increasingly eager for information about cooperative alternatives in our fragmented and tumultuous world.


FIC became the publisher of Communities magazine in 1972. Since then we’ve cranked out 71 issues (#79-149), breathing life into a dead-in-the-water quarterly. With an average subscriber base of about 1400 over those years, that means we’ve delivered approximately 100,000 copies to subscribers during our tenure. That’s a lot of good reading.


This is the number of lakes that Minnesota advertises on its license plate. (While the state DNR claims the actual number of named lakes of 10+ acres is 11,842, why quibble.) While I’ve only canoed a small fraction of that number (mostly in the Superior National Forest, tucked up on the Canadian border), wilderness canoeing in freshwater lakes and streams holds a special place in my heart and I can’t see the number 10,000 without automatically thinking of being in a canoe.


As of New Year's Day, Communities magazine reached the 1000 friends plateau on Facebook, the Web's most potent social networking platform. Yeehah! Now if we can only translate about half of those "likes" into "subscribers" we'll be in high cotton. This is also how many days I've been authoring this blog (it's actually 1119, but hey, as an author I get to claim poetic license), and the number of North American communities listed in FIC's most recent edition of Communities Directory, just released in November.


Yesterday I went into our county seat to support the periodic visit of a mobile Red Cross blood collection team out of Columbia MO. It turned out that I gave my 100th pint, representing donations spanning more than 40 years—and enough aggregate gore to make a vampire drool. This is also a good approximation of the number of cooperative groups that I've worked with as a professional process consultant, where my main task is to stop the bleeding.


This year marks a decade since 9/11, and a decided shift in US culture toward fascism and away from civil liberties. Cooperative problem-solving—of the kind that intentional communities are pioneering—is needed now more desperately than ever.


This is the number cycles I’ve completed in the Chinese astrological system. There are twelve animal totems (monkey, rooster, dog, pig, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, and sheep) and five elements (water, wood, fire, metal, and earth). Born in Oct 1949 I am an Earth Ox, and we just came around to that combination again in 2009. It's also the number of communities I've lived in, and the number of times I've been married. Jacqueline Susann notwithstanding, sometimes once is enough.


In days, this is how long it typically takes me to compose a blog entry (about 2.4 hours). In years, this is the fraction of time I spend annually riding Amtrak (36.5 days) to and from my work in the field.


In days, this about the time I devote to my diurnal ritual of starting each new calendar entry with a fresh brewed cup of coffee (whitened with half and half): 14 minutes. In years, this is the amount of time I devote to each of FIC's semi-annual organizational meetings: 3.6 days. (The next one will be in Chicago, May 18-20.)


In years, this is the average amount of time it takes me to compose a thorough report for a client after a weekend of facilitation and consulting (about 8.7 hours). Last year, I did this 13 times.


In years, this is how long it takes me to scrub the kitchen floor on my hands and knees (52 minutes). This has been my regular cleaning chore at Sandhill for about a decade (we divvy up all non-daily stuff among the members, and this is my task of choice). It's a ritual I accomplish about once a month. This is also about the time I need to make a batch of home-made pasta, starting with a dozen-and-a-half eggs and 12 cups of flour, freshly ground from our own wheat for the occasion.


In years, this is about how long it takes me to prepare a jar of sorghum for shipment through the mail: five minutes. I've always loved shipping, and it's one of my regular on-farm duties, seeing that all of our web-based orders for food products are safely consigned to the US Postal Service. This is also the amount of time it takes me to play a hand of duplicate bridge (one of my favorite recreational pastimes this past decade) if I'm the declarer. While the ACBL allows 7.5 minutes/hand at tournaments, I always claim early, once all the mystery has been removed from a deal.


In years, this is the outside edge of effective facilitation. In an average two-hour meeting there are perhaps two or three opportunities to make a major difference in the conversation—the difference between sliding into the abyss of acrimony & diffusion, or inspiring the participants to their higher capacity as compassionate human beings. At the most, you have about 30 seconds to recognize those opportunities and come up with an effective choice about what action to take that will authentically and accurately hold all the players. If you miss those moments, it can be a long, hard slog back up the hill.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Wringing in the New

Yesterday was 1/1/11. It's hard to look at that and not think of fresh starts. (I guess you could look at that and think of stuttering, but that hardly seems the stuff of inspiration.)

Of course, toward the end of the year we'll get a chance to experience rampant 1s again, on this year's anniversary of Veteran's Day: 11/11/11. However, it seems more auspicious to reflect on beginnings now, when ringing in a new year, tearing the cellophane off a spanking new calendar, and celebrating the incrementally longer days since the Earth made its ponderous turn past winter solstice. November seems more suited for exhalation than exaltation, so let's not wait.

Like many others, for most of my life I've periodically pondered the Question, "What do I want to do when I grow up?" Even as the years have steadily mounded up and I'd already established a satisfying career as a community builder, there has always remained a residual wanderlust, to consider the roads not taken. As full as my life has been (and I'm not complaining) it's been pleasurable to pause now and then to look out the window and ask, "What if… " following in my mind's eye those blue highways leading away from my marked path in enticing directions.

By degrees, I've come to accept that I will probably never be a cabinetmaker,
a US Senator, or a contestant on Iron Chef. I may never see the geysers of Iceland, Ayers Rock in Australia, or the Inca engineering miracle of Machu Picchu. I don 't know if I'll ever get to canoe the Thelon River in the Northwest Territories again. Gradually, I've come to accept that I'm probably as grown up as I'll ever be. At 61 years old, The Question has morphed into: "What do I want to do with the rest of my life?"

I want to write more
For a long time I was hung up on the conundrum: When have I learned enough (and become articulate enough) that I have something to write about? Or perhaps more to the point, when have I digested enough of life that my collective attempts to share my observations are a worthy addition to the blogosphere? How can I tell when my contributions are worth their weight in electrons?

While I'm still unsure of the answer, the die is now cast and I'm willing to take my chances as a writer. Three years into my career as a blogger, I am no longer afraid I'll run out of things to write about, and am pleasantly surprised to discover that something interesting to reflect upon happens as a nearly daily occurrence. (Why didn't I notice this amazing fact earlier!) Now, even as I'm striving to enhance my ability to be current in the moment, there's also a small part of my consciousness that's regularly devoted to observing the moment (in contrast with experiencing it), tracking potential topics to write about. These days I talk less and reflect more, and I like this shift.

I want to teach more
As a social change agent, I regularly ask myself, "In what ways can I most effectively contribute to creating a better world?" After years of steadily developing a career as a group process consultant, it occurred to me that I'd reach a lot more people if I could teach others to do what I do. Thus, eight years ago I began an experiment to see if I could teach the kind of dynamic facilitation that I could practice. I needed to know if my approach was a circus act (watch the amazing man extract golden nuggets from the apparent dross and snarl of anarchistic chaos!) or something that could reliably be passed along to others. That is, was I a freak or an inspiration?

After completing four rounds of my two-year facilitation training, I now know that my skills can be learned (I really didn't want to be a freak anyway) and teaching group process has become my greatest passion as a consultant. While I still need to keep my hand in as a practitioner (it's both my greatest recruitment tool for attracting students and keeps me on my toes), I want to teach as much as possible. I feel incredibly blessed to have so much to offer while I still have the energy and constitution to deliver it.

I want to hand off my work well
Over the years I've accumulated a lot of responsibilities. Now, while I'm still high functioning, I need to be more deliberate about planning for my replacement. In addition to finding candidates with the appropriate qualifications (the right mix of skill, availability, and motivation), I need to manifest the income stream sufficient to compensate people at rates more reasonable than the pittance I can operate on as a member of an income-sharing community with no debt.

I've already largely succeeded in getting myself out of being essential to operations at my home community, Sandhill Farm. Now I have to accomplish the same thing as the main administrator for Fellowship for Intentional Community. In the process field, my students will continue my work, adapting it as appropriate. Or, if my body of work ultimately proves to be less potent than that of others, then it will fade away and that's as it should be.

Mind you, this is not about stopping working, or even easing my foot off the gas; it's about not being essential, which is really just an ego trap.

I want to travel more
I'm already on the road 60% of the time, yet the vast majority of that travel is work related. This past summer I took two weeks off with Ma'ikwe to enjoy Drummond Island in the northwest corner of Lake Huron, with a cook's tour of upper and lower Michigan thrown in for good measure. It was a wonderful time and I'd like to travel for pleasure more—preferably with my wife. While this will probably have to await the manifestation of greater financial abundance, it's always a good idea to state the intention.

I want to love more
Who do you know who truly loves as if they've never been hurt? As fearless as I try to be as a professional facilitator and community builder, I'm more cautious in intimacy, where I identify more easily as damaged goods.

One the most precious aspects of my partnership with Ma'ikwe is her constancy in inviting me to intimacy without pretending that my feet are made of anything other than clay. The miracle of her love is that she sees me as stubborn and arrogant as well as tender and compassionate… and loves me anyway. While I don't understand such love, I'm in awe of it and am inexorably drawn toward it. I want to spend a goodly portion of the next few decades gamboling in the meadows of our love, exploring, laughing, and breathing deeply.

Life is Not a Dress Rehearsal
I identify with this bumper sticker, which neatly encapsulates my view on reality. I'm not saving the champaign until all the bubbles go flat, and I'm not banking on there being another time around. I intend to wring as much out of this life as I can.

Today, I think, is a terrific day to begin.