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.

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