Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Papa Ward… Again

Two days ago I became a grandfather for the second time, when my daughter-in-law, Tosca, gave birth to Connor. Yeehah!

Apropos this modern era, I found out via two digital images sent by Ceilee—the proud papa—via his cell phone. No text; just an image of a glassy-eyed Connor staring in the vicinity of the camera while tilting the birthing scale a 6 lbs 3.1 oz, followed by a second image of a swaddled child nestled comfortably in the arms of a smiling Tosca. It's now two days later, and I still haven't received any phone call or text. I reckon that's also part of the modern age. Sigh.

On the other hand—and to Ceilee's credit—
his images were carefully selected to convey the main message: the baby's born and everyone is doing fine. While I'm not quite ready to agree that the two images were worth the couple thousand words I might have had in a phone call, he at least included me in the initial round of notification. (I'm thinking, why couldn't he do both?)

I was amused yesterday when my sister Kyle (in San Antonio) referenced Connor's birth in an email she'd posted to the family about a trip she's planning in September. How did she know so fast? It turned out my wife had posted the two images onto her Facebook page and my sister picked them up there. What an interesting array of options are available for grapevine tendrils to wend there way to inquiring minds these days!

I last had voice communication with my son June 19 when my daughter Jo was visiting Ceilee and they decided to call the old man on Father's Day. When I inquired about Tosca's gravidity, the thought was that Connor was likely to arrive early. While the due date was July 4 (think fetal independence in the 110-degree days of high summer in Las Vegas), the baby was full term and it's no fun trying to vaginally deliver an over-sized pumpkin. So I had been put on notice that the baby was queued up to make an appearance in the coming week, and when things came to a head (so to speak) this past weekend, I was happily awaiting word when Ceilee's images arrived in my In Box.

What's In a Name
In addition to talking with Jo, Ceilee, and Tosca on Father's Day, I got an earful from an excited Taivyn—Connor's three-year-old sister—who was getting cranked up in anticipation of her little brother's grand entrance. More than once she barged in on one of the adults as they were conversing with me to shout, "Hi, Papa Ward!"

Let me explain that moniker. First of all, I've never been big on honorifics, and have always encouraged youngsters to call me by my first name. When I had kids of my own, it was a simple matter to keep that going. When Jo was a young child though, "Laird" was a tough name to master and it came out much more like "Ward." Fascinated with how this was evocative of Ward Cleaver (the bemused breadwinner on the 50's TV classic Leave It to Beaver), that misnomer grew legs. In fact, it's now old enough to drink. Two decades later my kids still call me Ward.

Playing around with what names to teach their kids to call their in-laws, Ceilee & Tosca got creative. (I'm in no position to get huffy here, after putting "Ceilee" on a birth certificate 30 years ago.) For example, Tosca has a exuberant younger sister, Laurie, and Taivyn calls her Aunt Ya-ya. (I reckon those "L" names are just a booger all around.) Ceilee's mother is Annie, and it was a simple matter to translate her into Granny Annie. I became Papa Ward. While I'm not saying I would have suggested that myself, sometime you just have to go with the flow.

This is likely to be my final grandchild from my kids, and that's OK. My plan is simply to enjoy the ones I'm blessed enough to have. Tosca & Ceilee have announced plans to close up shop, and Jo has made it clear she's fine with two dogs. Ma'ikwe's son, Jibran, is only 14, so there are possibilities there, but who knows. Right now he's focused on becoming the youngest person to become a full member of Dancing Rabbit—Ma'ikwe and I are hoping he has no immediate interest in proving his manhood in other ways any time soon.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

How Strong to Make the Safety Net

About 12 years ago I recall the first time FIC discussed the potential for intentional communities providing a safety net for people with special needs. Under Reagan's tenure in the '80s, the federal government went through a massive policy change whereby support for disadvantaged groups was deinstitutionalized. With the Boomer population about to enter retirement age, it didn't take a math degree to predict the coming train wreck. Why couldn't communities pick up some of the slack?

There's no doubt that communities are well structured to offer this kind of help (think about the challenges of aging, mental health, developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, recovery from trauma—there are myriad populations that could benefit from the dignity and caring distinctly possible in group settings). That said, I want to explore the tender dynamics of why it's hard to take that very far, unless the community makes an explicit choice to go in that direction.

To be sure, there are a number of communities that have chosen to define themselves based on services to disadvantaged segments of the population. Here's a sampling of some well-established examples:

o Camphill Villages
Inspired by the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, these groups offer residential support for the developmentally disabled and have been around for 50 years. There are currently 13 offerings in North America, with others abroad.

o Gould Farm
This community in Monterey MA provides residential therapeutic treatment for the mentally ill. It's been around since 1913—two wall calendars short of a century!

o Innisfree Village
This community in Crozet VA offers support for people with intellectual disabilities and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

o L'Arche
Inspired by the writings of Jean Vanier, this movement started in France in 1964, got a foothold in the US in 1972, and has 17 residential communities in America today, servicing those with intellectual disabilities.

With these solid examples, couldn't the wider Communities Movement do more on a less formal basis? Perhaps.

Addition by Subtraction
For the most part, intentional communities aim to create a superior lifestyle for their members by purposefully downshifting into the slower lanes of traffic. Community living encourages members to get off the production and consumption treadmill, to slow down, build smaller houses, nurture connections
, and share more. Following this path leads to less doing and more being, crafting a quality life on fewer resources. Sure people want security, but this is increasingly being defined as the quality of one's relationships, rather than the quantity of one's bank account.

Thus, even as communities aspire to meet their own financial needs, they actively work to whittle down what those needs are, and don't particularly aspire to make much more than they need.

While most groups willingly stretch to help their own members in need, it is uphill asking communities to set aside resources (or work harder to generate those resources) for the purpose of creating surplus to aid unknown future members. Groups almost never run short of good ideas about how to put surplus resources to use. And if, for some reason, they're ideas are fully funded, they're far more likely to ease off the gas and smell more roses now, then to keep chasing dollars and deferring enjoyment of the life's flower garden to some uncertain future.

Digesting this, it's understandable that communities rarely get excited about tackling additional responsibilities than the ones they've already signed on for. In trying to pioneer sustainable and compassionate culture, they don't want to swamp their life boat. While they're typically happy to be an inspiration for other groups focusing on the needs of disadvantaged populations, they're not likely to take a bigger bite of that particular apple than they already have in their mouth.

The double whammy here is that the disadvantaged groups themselves are, by definition, probably incapable of creating their own communities, and are thus at the mercy of new groups seeing the opportunities in meeting the needs of that client base as a way to ground the community's mission. While some do, it's not enough to make up for the (in)difference of contemporary public funding.

We need a different answer, and I think our best hope is for groups to be an inspiration for the neighborhoods and wider communities in which they're embedded, where the support that intentional communities extend to their members is inspiring for how the many can humanely support the few—without reliance on governmental subsidies.

In an effort to fashion better safety nets, I don't think we need communities to be salting away more dollars, so much as we need communities to be peppering their neighbors with ideas about how we can create robust services on the local level, built mainly on connection and common sense—giving up on our dependency to a connection with common cents.

Not only do I think we can do it, I think we must.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Well-Aged Beef

I was recently in a conversation with about a dozen folks who got together to discuss aging in community. It's a tricky topic.

Mostly, when people start an intentional community they're thinking about how to meet the needs that members have in the here and now—not necessarily anticipating the challenges that will come over time, as the community succeeds. At the outset, members are much more focused on survival than on how needs will morph with an aging population.

On the one hand, you can never fully prepare for what the future will bring, and perhaps the best strategy is figuring out how to make it as easy as possible to periodically reassess and make adjustments to evolving conditions. On the other, getting older is not an option in the same way that you can buy a new car or a better washing machine, so why wait? While there's considerable variety about how rapidly and gracefully people age, it's irrefutably a one-way street.

Physical capacity will inevitably deteriorate; recovery from minor traumas will take longer; stamina will degrade; there will a higher incidence of health challenges. Sometimes dementia is a factor. While these are tender topics in their own right, the conversations are made much harder to approach for two complicating factors:

a) We are steeped in a culture that tends to deny death and fears being put on the back shelf in our final years. As a result, there's a lot of whistling in the dark and a general reluctance to look aging straight in the eye.

b) We're afraid to come across as needy, and even if we can find the courage to ask for what we want, it's terrifying to face the possibility that we might be turned down. Some prefer to not ask.

Community generally offers better prospects for aging than what's available for all but the rich in the mainstream culture.
There is, for example, strong evidence to suggest that quality of life in the end years can be dramatically enhanced by:
o Being active, both mentally and physically—in community there's always plenty going on.
o Continuing to contribute in useful ways—in community there are myriad ways that seniors can keep an oar in the water; maybe they can't pull as hard as they used to but there are many tasks that don't require the strength of youth to be genuinely contributing (cold turkey retirement is often a death sentence unless the retiree is self-reliant, resourceful about reinventing themselves, or has established outside interests).
o Having meaningful social relationships—in community, seniors can have connections that are valued across the entire age spectrum, enriching lives in both directions.
o If there are many people involved in home care support, it needn't be such a strain on any one person—in community this broad base of support is far more available.

• • •
While this is good news and community tends to make things better, it does not eliminate challenges, or stop aging. You've still got to talk about it, and what came out in the recent discussion was how difficult that was to accomplish—even in community.

Several people reported, with poignancy, how difficult it was to get traction on this topic in their home communities. In one group, when a cadre of folks who were 55 and up asked for a plenary focus on the needs of their aging cohort, the younger crowd either skipped that conversation or else allowed the topic to die without supporting agreements about what might be done. Ouch! By the time these folks were sharing their story with me, they had a well-aged beef about how their community had let them down, and were still licking their wounds.

Contemplating their pain and confusion, I am inspired to offer the following guideposts for how to get traction on this issue. Some of my suggestions apply generically to any tough topic; some are peculiar to aging.

Having the conversation at all
You can't let anxiety about how people will respond paralyze you into not making the attempt. It doesn't get better as a consequence of not talking about it. In addition to hesitancy that may surface among the seniors, the younger folks may also collude to avoid the topic, for fear that what will be requested will exceed what they're willing to provide, and they'll be trapped between the shoal waters of lukewarm commitments and the whirlpools of guilt (both the kind that we carry inside and the kind that are projected onto us) if they limit their support in the name of tough love. It can get messy.

Navigating the emotional mine field
In addition to the potential for guilt trips and martyr candidacy, aging folks can be in denial about their declining abilities (it's not easy to see clearly through the distorting vapors exuded by fear of loss on control; loss of dignity; loss of relationship).

If anyone in the conversation presents in serious distress, it's important (essential?) that you first bridge to that person's emotional reality—even when they're lashing out. In situations like that I hold the image of the upset person as drowning. While they may hurt people as they're thrashing about, they may be totally oblivious to that as they struggle for oxygen. You can accurately hold their feelings without necessarily acquiescing to any demands that are packaged with the distress.

Making sure all the players hear what's being said
While this admonition applies to any conversation, I'm emphasizing this point because of the tendency to not near what we don't want to hear. Hint: write it up afterwards. That way, if there's backpedaling, at least you can catch it early.

Tracking to see that agreements are kept
If people make agreements, check to see that they're following through. (If seniors with cataracts say they won't drive any more, make sure they don't. If teens agree to clean a senior's gutters each fall, see that it happens.)

Establishing markers that indicate care levels need adjusting
Even if you assessment of today's aging needs is exquisitely accurate, conditions change. Try to determine ahead of time what the observable signs are that a person may need a greater degree of care than they're currently getting… or possibly than they're willing to admit.

Letting the barriers down
You want the least possible obstacles to people asking for what they want. Going the other way, it has to be possible for people to say "no" and not get creamed. Without these two elements in place, the conversations will consistently be incomplete and you'll just be guessing when making agreements.

Balancing the demographics
It probably won't work to have 70% of your population in wheelchairs. Just as it probably won't work to have 70% under the age of five. You need an age balance, so that there are enough able-bodied folks to assist those needing help. This requires looking ahead of the curve. If you wait until you can't support everyone without unsustainable efforts from the able bodied, it's too late. You have to start tweaking your recruitment profile before you're in trouble.

With smaller groups, just a few people can shift the balance. With larger groups, there's more stability, yet it's harder to turn the ship if the ages list to far in one direction.
• • •
These guideposts will not be foolproof in tackling the age-old issue of aging, but they should help tenderize the beefs.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Potholes on the Road to Clear Communication

This past weekend I've been at the national cohousing conference in DC, and one of the breakout sessions I facilitated was on the topic of communication. As I reflected beforehand about where I saw the pitfalls in this arena, I was surprised that I could name so many…

There are a bewildering array of options about how to communicate these days, and it's only getting worse. Here's a pass at some of the more common choices:

—Face-to-face Conversation
o group meetings
o over meals
o one on one
o structured, facilitated dialog

—Electronic Media
o email
o listserves
o Google documents
o wiki
o instant messaging
o texting
o Facebook
o Twitter
o other social networking
o phone
o skype

Physical Writing
o bulletin boards
o minutes
o handwritten notes
o internal mailbox letters (pages stuffed into your cubby)
o postal letters

(I'm leaving out semaphores, seances, smoke signals, and ouija boards.)

The larger your group, the greater the probability that everyone won't agree on a single channel of communication that everyone is expected to use, and there will be tension between ease and inclusivity. The dominant mode of group communication in most intentional communities today is email (in some form), yet even there it's hardly unusual to have a few folks who plain don't like it and may not even own a computer. While the group doesn't want to leave anyone behind and doesn't want to ram something down anyone throat, it can be frustrating making sure that copies of all electronic communication are printed out and distributed to the Luddites.

If you develop the notion that only "important" communications need to be printed out, who decides where the boundary is (or what's important enough from the perspective of computerless member)?
At some point it gets sufficiently complicated that people will start choosing to not communicate about a thing at all, because the benefit of letting folks know has been overtaken by anxiety over the possibility of being accused of not reaching out to everyone equally and it's safer to tell no one! Not good.

Almost everyone will agree that communication should be done respectfully… but what does that mean? One person's respect may emphasize directness and honesty; another may prefer kindness and appreciation. It doesn't take too much imagination to see how two people operating from different ends of that spectrum are on a collision course. And this is where people are trying to be respectful.

How the Message Defines the Medium
To what extent does the choice of the medium depend on the nature of what you want to communicate? For example, it's generally a terrible idea to give someone critical feedback via email (unless you have a very solid relationship with that person). Going the other way, it's typically a poor use of group meeting time to read reports (it's great to discuss issues in meetings, but mere reports are better handled on listserves or bulletin boards). Some people prefer that delicate conversations occur one-on-one; others feel safer in a group.

How the Medium Defines the Message
Over the years I've observed that many people preferentially respond to communications based on the medium, rather than the message. That is, if they are comfortable with email, they might open and respond to those messages first, independently of whether a phone call or bulletin board message was more urgent. If you know this to be the case with someone you want to communicate with, it's smart to take into account not just how you like to send messages, you need to think about the receiver's preferences as well.

Transparency vs Discretion
In most cooperative groups there's high standard of disclosure and letting everyone know what's going on. This leads to a value of transparency in operations. Having said that, there are still matters in members' personal lives that are private. When private actions have an impact on the group, is there a way to talk about it that doesn't come across as indiscreet?

What's more, this issue comes in different flavors. In addition to how group members handle this, what, if anything, is appropriate to share with prospective members, with family and friends, or with the wider public? When does a commitment to transparency become an excuse to gossip? It gets tricky.

Courtesy vs Authenticity
In general, cooperative groups intend that members be both civil and real, yet these two values in comportment don't always lead to the same conclusion. If someone is angry and expresses it passionately, this may come across as eminently authentic and extremely discourteous at the same time. Now what?

Clarity versus Authorship
I've witnessed moments where one member argued that it's better to allow something they've written about the group for public consumption to stand, even though another member has suggested rewording that everyone agrees is clearer. The person defending the original version felt it was important that other voices by heard and the benefit of plurality and diversity trumped clarity. What do you say to that?

• • •
I want to impress upon you that no one needs to be wrong or pigheaded in order to fall into any of the pitfalls illuminated above. Ironically, the best way I know to successfully negotiate this morass of communication pitfalls is to figure out ways to talk about talking—before you're in the pit.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Placing at Saratoga

Monday and Tuesday of this week I was in Saratoga Springs NY, noted for its healing waters, fast horses, and a revolutionary war battle—alliteratively encapsulated in city promotional guides as "health, history, and horses."

This quaint town (pop 26,000 and change) is about 35 miles north of Albany and hosts an annual regional bridge tournament, which was the real reason I was there. (I know that lots of people love horse racing, but I just never saw the appeal of watching animals—or cars for that matter—run around in a circle.)

Over the span of 27 hours, I got to play 96 hands of cards with an old friend, Cecil Scheib, who also happens to be one of my favorite bridge partners. What a terrific way to while away the days between my consulting gig in Berlin MA and my participation at this weekend's national cohousing conference in DC.

The only glitch in this otherwise idyllic plan was the need to roar back to the Big Apple after the last hand was played Tuesday night, so that Cecil could sleep in his own bed and be ready to go for a 9 am meeting at New York University (where he is the Director of Sustainability). Because of the logistical shenanigans involved with a rented car that needed to be turned back to Avis in New Jersey, we had to negotiate not-one-but-two commuter trains at 2 am to get within walking distance of Cecil's 5th St efficiency in the East Village. (I'm telling you, this sustainability business is not suited for those who are squeamish about public transportation.)

By the time we (finally) entered his apartment, made up the air mattress, split the last cold beer in his refrigerator, and talked ourselves down enough to be able to go to sleep, it was 3:30 am. Ufda. So we were both operating Wednesday on short rations of sleep.

It seemed to me the alarm went off only an instant after I had set sail for the Land of Nod. After abbreviated morning ablutions, we hugged goodbye on the sidewalk outside the apartment and Cecil headed west for his morning meeting while I headed east to start my trek to DC. I retraced my steps to the subway stop, bought a Metra card, caught the northbound F train to 34th St, schlepped one block to Penn Station, grabbed a cup of coffee, took Amtrak's northeast regional train to DC, caught the Red Line for Silver Spring, walked the last mile to my digs in DC, and took a nap. Whew. Vacations at that pace that can flat take the starch out of a fella.

• • •
Trial by Cards
Still, it was worth it. It had been two years since I'd played in a bridge tournament (and more than four since I'd played with Cecil), and it was great getting back on the bicycle.

We had a choice of playing in a pairs game or trying to pick up partners for a bracketed knockout game that would run for four sessions. Rolling the dice, we opted for the knockouts and filled out a card at the partnership table (where the organizers try to match you with players in the same ballpark regarding masterpoints). Ten minutes before the opening bell, we were paired with Loretta and Elaine from the nearby area.

As none of us were that accomplished, we were placed in the bracket with the least masterpoints and away we went. The format is fairly straight forward. There are 16 teams in a bracket and you play 24 hands head-to-head against another team. If you lose, you get knocked out (hence the clever name); if you win, you advance to the next round. After four rounds of this, there is only one team left standing and they earn a boatload of masterpoints (which have no value whatsoever in this Vale of Tears, excepting the prestige you garner in the arcane world of duplicate bridge—as my father was wont to say, all those masterpoints and $3 will buy you a good cup of coffee).

We started off rather rocky, as Cecil and I scraped some rust off our game. Halfway through our opening contest we were down 28 points, and were thus facing a steep hill to overcome in the next 12 boards, or suffer the ignominy of being knocked out in the opening round (which, of course, half the teams were going to be—but surely it wouldn't happen to us, would it?)

Fortunately, our opponents had a bidding accident and botched an easy slam that our partners converted, and we roared back in the second half with 41 points to overcome our deficit and advance to Round Two.

The next morning we were at it again, and once more we fell into an early hole—though not so deep this time. Were down a modest three points at the halfway break. And once again, it was slam management in the second half that spelled the difference. We picked the right strain on a vulnerable diamond slam and they missed a lay-down heart slam that our partners didn't. Those two boards produced a 29-point swing and we won by a comfortable 22.

That got us into the semi-finals which guaranteed us gold points (each person needs 25 gold as part of the 300 points necessary to achieve Life Master status and only the only way to earn gold is by placing well in regional and national tournaments. In knockout events, only the four teams reaching the semi-finals earn gold. Thus we'd already had a successful tournament and and there were still two rounds in front of us!

Of course, by this time, the competition was getting stiffer as well. In the afternoon session we played against Tonette and Glady. Unlike the prior two rounds, we had a solid opening half this time, and would have had a commanding lead if I hadn't overreached on a club slam and dropped 10 points on the final hand. Oh well, we still led by 12 points at half, and then salted away the victory in the second half by miraculously converting a heart slam off three aces. Cecil referred to this gem as our Mr McGoo hand. Here's how it went.

I have:
spades: K x
hearts: K Q J x x x
diamonds: K J x x x
clubs: void

Cecil has:
spades: x
hearts: A x x
diamonds: Q x x
clubs: K Q J x x x

We got excited about our heart fit, and I started thinking slam. When I asked for aces using Roman Key Card Blackwood, Cecil indicated he had one or four key cards. Since I'm aceless, I figured he had four and I bid six hearts. Of course, as it turned out, we were missing three aces and things didn't not look so good, excepting that the opening lead was providentially the ace of clubs. I neatly ducked this, roughed it in hand, drew trump in three rounds ending on the board, and all the clubs in the Western Hemisphere came raining down upon the heads of the frustrated defense. I only lose the ace of diamonds and it was 13 more points our way. Sometimes, the stars are just aligned right.

In the final, we ran out of magic and lost by 25 points to a solid quartet from the local area. They clearly outplayed us and deserved to win, yet it was still a great run, and Loretta & Elaine were thrilled to each get 3.95 gold points.

Cecil and I are already scheming about where to find the next alignment of our schedules, such that we both have a free weekend, and are conveniently near to both each other and a bridge tournament. Next time, we don't want to just have a good showing, or to merely place; we want to win!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Porch Crawl in New England

I've just finished a weekend of process consulting at Mosaic Commons, a recently built cohousing community in Berlin MA. My work with them was a quid pro quo for their hosting the FIC organizational meetings last November. They didn't charge us for room accommodations for our out-of-town entourage and graciously surrendered control of the great room in their common house for three days. In exchange, they got a weekend of free consulting. Barter arrangements like these ease everyone's pocketbook, and we all get to know each other better. It's a pretty good deal.

Mosaic had the misfortune of building all of their units smack in the midst of the mortgage crisis and they still have eight or so units unsold. This unintended circumstance creates a substantial financial burden for the folks on the hook for development costs, as the carrying charges on the borrowed money are not disappearing fast enough and are spread across too few backs. (Cue up Janis Joplin, circa 1968, "… and it felt just like a ball an chain.")

Despite being dealt some low cards, I'm quite optimistic for this group ultimately holding a full house, because of their robust joie de vivre. They like their community and (mostly) enjoy living together. Sure they have the typical array of community issues, and I was hopefully able to help them see how tightening up the way they function together could be enhanced, but the main thing is that they're spunky and laugh a lot. That's gold.

Nothing exemplified that better than their second annual Porch Crawl (picture a pub crawl where you never actually go indoors), which I was fortunate enough to be present for last Saturday evening, 5-8 pm. While the weather was unseasonably cool (think jackets) and threatened rain, nothing dampened the flow of spirit (or spirits) as members wandered casually up and down the community pathway munching on hors d'oeuvres and imbibing exotic drink options (slightly lethal for the adults and just fruity for the kids). I do not care to contemplate the crazy conglomeration of comestibles and concoctions that was commingling in my corpus when the crawl concluded.

Everything was served on porches, with each participating household offering up at least one finger food option, one spiked drink, and one that was defanged. We started at one end of the community and casually worked our way around, visiting porches in clumps (typically three at a go, so that there was enough room for everyone to stand and still feel part of the mob—you couldn't reasonably pack 30+ people on one porch—and have easy access to the hospitality. The evening was a constant flow of convivial conversations in ever-changing configurations.

While I never saw anyone miss a porch step or actually crawling, I had the definite impression that it was a good thing that no one needed to drive home.

This is a community that seriously enjoys having fun together. While that does not substitute for having great meetings, in my book it counts every bit as much.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mixed Bag in the Mail

As an activist and all-around busy guy, I get a lot of email. It goes with the territory. Yesterday though, I had a stand out day regarding what arrived in my In Box—not for quantity, but for range.

Over the course of a 24-hour period, the 40 or so electronic communications I received included the following (of course I'm cherry-picking; there were any number of emails that did not cause my eyebrows to twitch, my blood pressure to spike, or my voice to break out into song):

Communication A
I received an irritated response from Person A (we're in a group together) about how they were troubled by my participation in a recent meeting. There were three specific complaints:

a) This person had informed the group ahead of the meeting that they felt overburdened by their workload (in the context of the group) and needed a shift. Their preference was that they retain as much management responsibility as possible, while offloading some of the grunt work. In particular, they asked other group members to shoulder more of the grunt work.

The matter was complicated by A's report being accompanied by a request that the issue not be processed in a group setting, as A didn't trust that that would go well for them. So, going into the meeting we had been given this heartfelt communication about a group issue (how could we best support A and still get the group's needs met), yet had to navigate how to accomplish that without explicitly discussing it in the group (or at least not yet). It was problematic.

During the check-in (time set aside for people to share about their emotional landscape—where clarifying questions are OK, yet discussion is discouraged) Person A chose to use that time to repeat much of what had been shared in their written communication, and the rest of us listened. An important piece of the story was that A felt that another group member (let's call them Person X, who was present in the room) had recently been shirking their commitments to support A, contributing directly to their sense of overwhelm.

When it was Person X's turn to check in, they had a different story about the dynamic in which they'd been named critically by A, and choose to use their time to tell their version. In that telling, it was Person A who had let X down. Oh boy.

Given that we were: 1) still in check-ins; 2) had not agreed to discuss the issue (and were aware of A's express request not to); and 3) had entered into a tit-for-tat exchange, I stepped in to offer the observation that both A & X had parallels stories about how the other person had been the first to not meet commitments made to the other. At the time, I thought I was being fairly even-handed and not taking sides.

It turned out that Person A didn't see it that way. For A, they had simply told the truth and then Person X slandered them. Seen through that lens, my attempt to stop the he-said-she-said merry-go-round was not even-handed or deescalating; instead, I was perceived as taking X's side and unfairly attempting to curtail A's right to defend themselves against untruths. When A insisted on telling their version of what happened again (peeing on the tires), I had a pained expression on my face and A felt disrespected by that. So much for trying to be a peacemaker.

b) During my check-in I acknowledged that I thought Person A's issue deserved group support yet did not see myself as having time available to pick up any appreciable amount of A's workload. In the email I got from A, they were worried that I was saying I didn't have time for A and also felt hurt that I wasn't picking up any of their work (when other group members had been willing to do so)—didn't I care about the group or about them? Ouch!

In my reply I went back and tried to make clearer that I cared a lot about A's happiness and supported the group giving that issue attention; I just wasn't going to promise that I'd take up any of their workload and I was still trying to figure out how to discuss this group issue when we were asked not to do so in the group.

c) Later in the same meeting, we were tackling the topic of how well the group integrates new people—we had just had someone exit the group abruptly and it was cause for us to pause and look at how we were doing. With limited time remaining (about 10 minutes) I suggested that we spend that time hearing from the two newest people in our group, to get fresh data about how we were coming across relative to our openness to new members and interest in who they were.

While Person A thought that was ultimately a good way to use the final minutes, they were bothered by my having made the suggestion when another person was serving as the designated facilitator. The concern here, as I understand it, was that I was usurping power that wasn't mine, and A wants me to be quiet about how to spend meeting time if I'm not the facilitator. Sigh. Even when my suggestions are sound and things go well, I can get in trouble.

I'm not sure what to do about this, and will need information from other group members about whether they want to hear my suggestions for a good way to focus conversations when I'm not the designated driver.

The hardest part of this exchange is that I felt good about all of my contributions in the meeting, and didn't feel I was unfair or disrespectful to anyone. Sobering.

Communication B
In the same batch of email I got a lovely note from an acquaintance in New Mexico (Robert Griffin) we wrote to share the beneficent impact that my May 11 blog, Dark Nights of the Cooperative Soul had on him, where I explored my painful journey in dealing with persistent stuck dynamics. Robert reported on his parallel efforts to work more with silence as an aid to immerse himself in the other person's reality without judgment. It was a touching exchange.

Communication C
I got a note from a compatriot in another group I'm part of (who I will cleverly label Person C) relating details about a conversation they'd had with someone outside the group (Person Y) with whom we both have had cooperative dealings. I didn't have a good reaction to what I'd learned.

The occasion for the communication was that Person Y had recently approached me to get a benefit that was under the control of Person C. When I touched base with C about whether they thought it was good idea, they balked: "Our group had already extended benefits to Y and where were we going to draw the line?"

What I learned was that in securing the prior level of benefits from C, Person Y had implied that our group "owed Y" for having previously extended some comparable "unspoken" benefits to me. This didn't go down well on a number of counts:

a) There was nothing "unspoken" about what I had previously negotiated with Y; it was the result of deliberate communications that took months to conclude.

b) In exchange for what benefit I was receiving from Y, I was delivering a considerable package of work that directly supported efforts that Y was responsible for—both in terms of energy and in terms of dollars generated for Y as a result of my contributions. In short, Y had been paid in full for benefits that had been extended to me, and there was no "credit" on the books (psychic or otherwise) to be repaid in kind.

c) While Y was asking for a benefit from C that was comparable to what I had earlier received from Y, they were not making any comparable commitment to C about what they would do in exchange. They apparently neglected to share that part of the story, implying that our group owed them a back scratch. Grr.

d) It didn't land well with me that Person Y thought they could get away with this kind of shenanigans—that C and I would not talk and compare notes.

While I don't think Person Y is a bad person, I'm now more guarded about our current and future arrangements. Is this the way to build cooperative culture?

Communication D
I'm busily soliciting benefit auction donations for next week's national cohousing conference, happening June 17-19 in DC. It's a fun thing to do, lining up donations from supporters that simultaneously promote a product or service they're proud of with a cause they believe in.

Two of the folks I approached for support (I sent out about 200 solicitations) were my friends Lou & Joan Burrell at Manzanita Village in Prescott AZ. I first met them seven years ago when their project was stalled out, half-built and mired in internal strife. I worked with them three times during 2004-2005, and Joan sent this note along with their offer for the benefit auction:

Here's the flyer offering two nights in Manzanita Village that you can use for the conference. Hope somebody will choose to come out to visit us! You wouldn't know the place. It has finally become what we've dreamed about for years. Not perfect, certainly, but so much healthier than when you were here to help. All lots are sold. No more LLC Development Committee. 31 of 35 homes built and lived in. We're finally having fun together. One or two units for rent or sale. We look back to your being here as a turning point for our community. If you ever pass this way, please know that you're welcome to stay. We'd love to see you.

Does it get any better than that? I don't think so.

Communication E
Among other things FIC distributes literature through Community Bookshelf, our mail-order bookselling business that's also a regular feature of events we attend (such as next week's cohousing conference). In addition to the handful of things we publish ourselves, we carry other people's work that fits in our niche of cooperative living, right livelihood, sustainability, and group dynamics.

From time to time, people approach us to carry their work and last year I spent considerable time negotiating with a European author (Person E) about what role FIC might play in distributing their work on the theme of sustainability. We eventually came up with a scheme whereby we'd pay to have copies of E's work printed in the US in exchange for exclusive rights to be the distributor. For every copy of E's work sold, we'd pay a 30% royalty.

We would be risking money on the venture,
E would not put up any money, we would promote the product in the US market, and E would get a royalty. We would sell the product both retail and wholesale (to other distributors interested in carrying E's work). We signed the deal and things went well for the first few months. Sales were better than anticipated and everyone was happy.

Then E got the idea to offer their work as an electronic, downloadable version. It was easy to understand why this was attractive—not only would this enhance distribution, it would make more money. However, instead of discussing the idea with us, whose market would be affected by this competition, E signed an exclusive deal with someone else and we discovered it by accident. We were not happy.

While E admitted that this was a mistake (and certainly not in the spirit of the deal we'd signed just months before), we've not found it easy to figure out what the best remedy is. E is not willing to consider breaking their agreement with the download people, and we've been scratching our collective heads about how to proceed.

In that context I was dismayed yesterday to get this offer from E, which he characterized as eminently fair to all:
o E will pay us the production costs of all remaining unsold copies of their work (which amounts to about 75% of the production run). This amounts to about $1500.
o In exchange, E's royalties will double from 30% to 60% (looked at from our end, our return per copy would shrink from 70% to 40%).
o FIC can continue selling its remaining stock of E's work under these new terms.
o E would take back the exclusivity rights and then be free to make whatever deals they want with other North American distributors.

Given that gross sales of E's product were greater than $6000 in the last half year, and that loss of exclusivity will severely cripple our future sales, it was hard to understand how E thought this was a fair offer. (E was proposing that $1500 now and a flooded market would be fair compensation for holding exclusive rights with the potential to earn about $15,000 if every copy sold retail.) What was E thinking? I don't know.

What happened to trying to promote a more cooperative future where everyone benefits? Was this simply about how he could make the most money and wanting us out of the way now that we'd demonstrated the commercial viability of E's work in the US market? It's discouraging when things unravel like this—and this was a success story.

I'm still shaking my head, trying to understand what's going on.

• • •
Yesterday reminds me of the joke about the guy who has one foot in a pot of boiling water and the other in a bucket of ice water. While he was doing fine on average, it was not a comfortable experience. I hope your day was somewhat less confusing.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Cicadian Rhythms

It's that time again. Locusts!

It's plague #8 if you're thinking biblically, but I prefer to view of the cicada arrival as the insect circus coming to town, complete with their own marching band of merry males making mighty mating music. Mmm.

Cicadas, it turns out, come in your run-of-the-mill annual variety (also called dog-day cicadas—which must not do much for their self image) and a periodical variety. It's the periodicals that get front page attention, and are the occasion for this blog. After years of dormancy an entire brood comes boiling out of the soil in a two-week rush, climbing all over everything and making quite a mess. Fortunately they don't bite (though they can visit considerable damage on young trees whose tender bark they slit in order to lay their eggs in preparation for the next cycle).

Interestingly, the periodicals come in both a 13-year and a 17-year flavor (the math major in me observes that both cycles are prime, but it's hard to imagine that these little fellers can even use calendars, much less do math—how do they all know when it's time to pop up?)

This year, we're blessed with the 13-year variety (not that I could tell them apart), and the air is filled with the cacophony of the male's chirring call. As the temperatures rise, so does the pitch and intensity of the song—to the point where it's hard to hear yourself think if you happen to be outdoors during daylight hours.

As it turns out, our 13-year manifestation in northeast Missouri is modest compared with the inundation they're experiencing in central Missouri. Sandhill member Trish was just outside St Louis for a co-counseling workshop last weekend and she reported that she couldn't walk outdoors at the retreat site without stepping on cicadas. They were literally everywhere. When she looked at trees, they appeared to be moving because of all the cicada traffic up and down the trunks. Now that's a showing. The engagement lasts for about five weeks, with performances daily. Right now we're smack in the middle of it.

Think of it as the entomological equivalent of a lemming migration—where the normal landscape is suddenly overwhelmed by one particular species showing up in untold abundance. Yeehah! It's one of Mother Nature's more quirky surprises and I enjoy the goofiness of it.

Next up for us in northeast Missouri is the 17-year brood, booked for a concert in 2014. Good seats are still available!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Black Currants Passing in the Night

Last night I participated in an hour-long interview for a thing called the Prepper Podcast, talking with Pat Carson from Wild Horse Ranch (a quarter section located in Sandy Lake, about 35 miles northwest of Edmonton, Alberta—which Pat refers to as "the land of oil and money"; a shibboleth updated from "the land of milk and honey").

The Prepper Podcast is a network of radio hosts promoting survival, preparedness, and sustainable living lifestyles, and I was solicited by Pat to be the guest for his Life on a Wild Horse Ranch program, which holds down the 8-9 pm slot every Friday. As always, it was fun talking about community, the FIC, & sustainability, and the hour went quickly. Pat was an enthusiastic interviewer and it was easy finding the intersection between intentional community and his homestead ranch.

It turned out that Wild Horse Ranch is an intriguing amalgamation of interests, offering a distinctive trinity of foci:
a) preservation of the Carson Breed Mountain Horse.
b) development of wild black currants as a vitamin-packed food source with excellent medicinal properties.
c) a retreat center for Japanese interested in experiencing a taste of the "Western lifestyle." Yeehah! (I knew right away I was onto something unusual when I went to their URL and the opening page—for a remote location in northern Alberta, mind you—offered me a choice of continuing in English or Japanese.)

I feel reasonably confident that this particular trifecta is not duplicated anywhere in the universe. In fact, I seriously doubt you'd find any two of these specialties combined elsewhere.

I wound up on the program because I'm a spokesperson for the FIC and Pat wanted to talk about intentional communities. Fair enough. Unexpectedly, we also had a lot to share about homesteading. Though Sandhill Farm only goes back to 1974, Wild Horse Ranch goes back to 1887. Both places place an emphasis on practicing self-sufficiency, using technologies that we can maintain ourselves, and growing a high percentage of our own food.

Current Affairs
Most improbable of all was stumbling onto Pat's passion for black currants. (Apparently wild horses augmented—as opposed to holding back—his enthusiasm for Ribes negrum.) Currants, both red and black, are native to northern Canada, so it didn't surprise me that it was a feature of their homestead. What was surprising was how fond he was of them and what a long and special tradition his family has had with this relatively obscure fruit (apparently his family exported black currant jam to England during the Depression—which is analogous to exporting orange juice to Florida).

We have a thriving stand of black currants at Sandhill that has been highly emblematic of our homesteading tradition. The rootstock came from cuttings lovingly obtained from my Aunt Hennie's house in Elmhurst IL—a house that had been in my family's ownership from 1899 until it was sold in the 90s, after my aunt and uncle passed away. The Sandhill patch occupies a position of honor, right between our greenhouse and our main garden plot.

For many years, the sale of black currants was banned in sections of the US where white pines were being managed for commercial forestry, because it's a favored alternative host for the fungus that causes white pine blister rust. While this approach to control has since been discredited and the ban has been lifted, black currants remain a relatively unusual component of farmstead fruit production. While the plants need little care and are easy to propagate, there are two main reasons that folks are able to contain their enthusiasm growing black currants: a) the fruit comes ripe over a three-week period which complicates the harvest—you have go over the bushes multiple times to gather all the little darlings; and b) most people find the ripe fruit too tart to enjoy raw, preferring to employ them as the featured ingredient in jams and wine—which translates to more work. (When Julez was a member of Sandhill, she used to refer to black currants as dog breath berries—which was not meant as a compliment.)

How amazing is it that Pat and I are both black currant aficionados rooted in a multi-generational family tradition dating back to the late 1800s? It's such a delight when you happen upon a serendipitous discovery like that. I just hope someone got some useful information about cooperative living on last night's podcast, interspersed in the midst of our spontaneous black currant love fest.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

When Values Collide

As a for-hire facilitator, I'm typically brought in to navigate one of two kinds of dynamics: something volatile, or something complicated. Of course, there are times when it's both. I encountered an excellent specimen of the combination plate special just last weekend, when my training class was facilitating quarterly meetings for the School of Living (SoL) in central Pennsylvania...

Two of the sessions we facilitated were meetings of the Land Committee. They had a proposal in front of them to execute long-term lease for a piece of property that SoL had owned for many years yet had experienced persistent trouble in finding a stable leaseholder for. The candidate was someone known to the organization who had been a caretaker on the property for the past half year and had already accomplished a considerable amount of clean-up and repair (to buildings that had been seriously degrading). Thus, the lease prospect had already established a good track record for herself as a motivated hard worker. On top of that, she is a permaculture teacher and wants to use the land as a demonstration site for sustainable land use practices.

As the School of Living wants long-term leaseholds for the property it holds in trust, they were happy to have a bona fide applicant, and in the afternoon we were able to establish to everyone's satisfaction that there was a sufficiently solid match with the woman's plans and the the school's mission around promoting education and community.

The trouble came in the evening when we discussed the financial details. The applicant has steady income as a working professional and was willing to commit tens of thousands of dollars in personal funds over the course of the next decade to renovating the dilapidated farmhouse. Understandably, she didn't want to embark on that ambitious program until terms had been negotiated with SoL.

In the SoL model, it's fine for the leaseholder to own the improvements on a piece of property while the school retains ownership of the land. Both because of the run-down condition of the buildings and because of the major commitment of personal funds that would be required to effect an overhaul (we're talking major leaks, rotten sills, multicolored mold, broken windows—you get the picture) the woman proposed that SoL sell her the buildings for $1. In exchange, she'd commit to the repairs mentioned above and provide the organization with a no-interest mortgage worth $80,000. (The amount was derived from a recent estimate given by a building inspector who thought that with $50,000 worth of repairs that the main farmhouse would be worth $130,000 in the current market.) On top of this deal for the buildings, the woman would pay a monthly lease fee for the land, over and above the cost of taxes and insurance.

As long as the woman held the lease, she would owe nothing on the mortgage. If the lease passed to someone else, the new leaseholder would be responsible for paying SoL $80k. This kept the woman's financial burden to acceptable levels and offered SoL the prospect of turning around the fortunes of the property. What it did not do was offer SoL a clear short-term path to recovering its substantial investment in the property.

While there was considerable support for this proposal (people were overjoyed at seeing any light at end of what had been a tortuous tunnel connecting acquisition and functionality), the proposal foundered over upset that emerged from a couple who had an SoL lease for a different piece of property on markedly less favorable terms. Why, they wondered, should this new woman get such a good deal when SoL made them cough up the money for all the improvements on their property? They demanded that either the woman pay the $80k (or something close to it) for the current value of the improvements, or give them the same deal for a no-interest mortgage. Fair is fair.

Now it was getting interesting.
Even though this was all unfolding in a room where everyone was getting along and there was an atmosphere of deep respect for everyone's good intent and diligence on behalf of the school's values, we had now uncovered the Daily Double of high emotions and no clear pathway about how to proceed. Yikes! It's instructive to walk through how we tried to work with this.

As the facilitation team, we were the ones behind the wheel when we hit the bump, and the first thing we did was pull over, temporarily suspending our focus on the lease proposal.

1. We first checked with the upset couple about their emotional response, making sure they felt heard by us.

2. Next we gave all members of the Land Cmtee a chance to respond to what they heard. As often happens in such moments (especially with groups not used to working together emotionally during business meetings—which damn few are), the comments, while heartfelt and sincere, focused more on what to do than on what was heard.

3. When the Go Round was complete, we checked with the couple about whether they felt heard and they replied that they didn't think so. Oops. When I had connected with their upset I made a point to raise my energy to match theirs and the couple reported that they felt heard by me—they just weren't sure that anyone on the Land Committee had truly understood their anguish. (Hint: bridging effectively to people in distress is just as much about the affect as about the words.)

4. After establishing the primacy of making an emotional connection on a deeper level, we laid out the essential challenge the group was facing: how to balance three different values regarding money—all of which were legitimate, yet didn't play well together in this dynamic:

o Financial fairness (treating similar situations similarly)
o Financial accessibility (making deals that good people with good plans could afford)
o Financial replenishment for SoL (so that it would have adequate funds to make additional good deals in the future)

5. Next we put it back on the group: "Who had ideas about how to balance all three?" While it had taken us three hours to get to this point in the conversation, we'd finally hit bedrock. This was one of the richest moments of the weekend—where the organization needed to address how it would balance core values with sensitivity and care.

Even though the matter was not resolved on our watch, I was happy that we'd gotten to the heavy lifting and were able to unpack the tensions without losing anyone or pretending that strong feelings weren't present (those kinds of meetings drive me crazy).

As a trainer, it's deeply satisfying to give groups the tools needed to navigate road hazards, and not be afraid of the occasional blow out.