Sunday, July 31, 2011

My Summer of Sustainability, Part II

Sometimes all roads seem to point in one direction. This summer I've been having that experience with the concept of sustainability: assessing where we are now, what will be possible in 30 years, and how do we get from here to there.

The basic premise I'm working with is that humans are rapidly exhausting our supply of accessible resources, such that something has to give. That is, it is not even remotely possible that we can continue for another generation the materialistic lifestyle we're become accustomed to in the US—unless we're willing to forcibly deny the
equitable distribution of what's left and to tolerate massive suffering elsewhere in service to the status quo. Rather than continuing the charade that underlies the bumper sticker "How did our oil get under their sand?", I've started looking at two questions: a) How to create a vibrant, satisfying lifestyle that uses only 10% of the resources that the average American is currently consuming; and b) How to peacefully navigate the social challenges that such a massive shift will require.

These questions affect me both on the personal level (how will I live, and what am I called to do to help society to a softer landing in the decades ahead) and on the professional level (what role should FIC play in education and preparation; what is my role as a process consultant to better prepare groups to handle what's coming).

When thinking about sustainability, I like the metaphor of a three-legged stool: there's a ecological leg, a social leg, and an economic leg—and you won't have a very stable piece of furniture unless you have three stout legs. I am interested in what it takes to develop strong legs, and also the integration of the whole, so that the stool will be a tool.

As this is a big, all-encompassing topic, I'm going to tackle it in a six-part series, roughly in the order in which I've been bumping into this conversation over the past two months. Here's the outline:

Proposal to build a working model of sustainability
II. The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World by Ted Trainer
III. Sustainability and Cohousing
IV. EDE Course at Dancing Rabbit in 2012
V. Increasing sustainability offerings on campus
VI. Transition Towns

• • •

The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World by Ted Trainer

Trainer is an Australian and futurist who works at the University of South Wales and has been writing for a quarter century about sustainability and the need for drastic change in contemporary lifestyles. His most recent book was published in 2010 and I was given a copy to review for consideration of inclusion in the offerings of Community Bookshelf.

It is a big book (in imagination, not pagination—it's only 330 pages, counting the index) and I took a couple weeks to digest it, making notes as I went along. First of all, I struggled with it because it's poorly written and poorly edited. As a writer and editor myself, I'm a snob and it irritates me when authors are sloppy like this.

The argument is highly repetitive, the metaphors are wooden, overused, and often confusing—and it's not apparent that the text was ever copy edited. I had the sense that this work was just carelessly rushed to press, which is a shame because the message is important.

Moving on to the content, which I liked much better than the delivery, the essential argument of this book is that humanity is out of control and headed for a very rude awakening in the next 30 years unless we start doing something about it now. The something that Trainer advocates is embracing what he styles The Simpler Way, the essential elements of which I'll explain below.

Trainer comes across as a scientist who has done careful work in analyzing what resources it will take to sustain the current Western lifestyle (which developed countries have already achieved and which developing countries—notably China and India—still aspire to) into the decades ahead, based on projected population levels. This is not just a question of Peak Oil; it's also a question of Peak Water, Peak Timber, Peak Arable Land, Peak Greenhouse Gases, and taking a peek behind the curtain to glimpse the upcoming natural limits on many basic resources.

The challenge is of such magnitude that it will not be solved through minor adjustments, techno-fixes, or the miracle (mirage?) of supply side economics. Trainer makes a persuasive case for our needing to reinvent our culture, where we value conservation over consumption and are able to build vibrant, fulfilling lives based on consumption that is only 10% of current levels. This is huge, folks.

He postulates that federal governments will largely be irrelevant and that day-to-day decisions will need to be made overwhelmingly at the local level, where needs and conditions are best understood. He goes on to say that we'll need to move toward a much more cooperative culture (read less competitive) and that community and relationships will be the fundamental building blocks of a sustainable society. With less resources, we'll need to share to a much greater degree and hence the need for a more cooperative attitude.

Trainer does not believe that capitalism and the free market can lead us to anywhere but ruin (as the pursuit of profit is inimical with the objective of creating a sustainable or just future). In particular, Trainer points out that there are three key stakeholders who invariably possess little or no market power today: the poor, future generations, and non-human species. How can we manifest a decent future relying on an economic system that consistently short changes these segments?

I buy his analysis of the problem and the need for drastic change, and I agree with his prediction that we'll need to focus much more locally. That said, I am less sanguine about his prescription for how it will all work. Cooperation isn't for wimps.

Trainer blithely posits that anyone can be a good decision-maker and that well-intentioned locals should have no problem sorting things out sensibly (just look at what the Anarchists were able to achieve in Spain in the late '30s, or the bootstrapping accomplished by the Mondragon system in Basque for a more contemporary exemplar). I know better. I've been a process consultant to cooperative groups for the past 24 years and good intentions and correct analysis (assuming for the moment that a consensus on that is attainable) are not nearly enough to guarantee good results.

As I sat with Trainer's decentralized vision, it occurred to me that some local groups will be far more successful in making the transition to cooperative culture and high-functioning local operations than others. When I coupled that realization with the analysis that competitive cultures tend to squeeze out cooperative ones (reference Diamond in his seminal anthropological work, Guns, Germs, and Steel)—especially when the cooperative culture possesses something the other culture wants—it gave me pause. The journey to sustainability is going to be fraught with road hazards.

Trainer bravely suggests that we need to move from a market economy where monetary capital is accumulated, to a local economy where social capital is accumulated. While I like this picture, it's not at all clear to me how we'll get there. The market will not simply go away. Look how hard it is to get people to stop buying from Walmart, even after it's been well documented that that conglomerate is driving locally-owned businesses into bankruptcy, and quality of life is degraded when profits are siphoned away from where shoppers live, to reward faceless stockholders living elsewhere.

The power held by the rich will not evaporate overnight (it may, perhaps, be handed out for doing favors for the Party; but it is not handed out like party favors); political control will not pass seamlessly from US Senators to county commissioners.

What's more, the issues of mendacity and power abuse will not suddenly go away just because the scale shifts from national to local. While the stakes may be different, I don't believe that local politicians are inherently more trustworthy or less likely to be self-serving than national figures. For my money, we have still not done a decent job of creating positive models of cooperative leadership, and this will be a crucial step.

For the social part of his analysis, I think Trainer is whistling in the dark. On the positive side, he looks to both intentional communities and Transition Town initiatives (I'll have more to say about them in part VI of this series) as hopeful signs for a constructive social response, and I do, too—though there's plenty of road building ahead.

In short, while I think Trainer's writing is in transition (at least I hope he can do better), I think he's offered a powerful and useful framework for understanding the transition needed by our culture in order to achieve sustainability. Further, I think he's pointing us in the right direction by emphasizing cooperation, community, and relationships. While I expect a bumpier road on the social side than he, I think he's at least pointing out the right path.

I have devoted most of the last 25 years to better understanding the social road to sustainability and the FIC believes that's the singular gift of intentional communities to the wider society—learning how to tackle tough issues, getting everything out in the open, and not moving forward if you're going to leave people behind. While it's too early to tell whether we're learning enough fast enough, at least we have our oar in the water.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

My Summer of Sustainability, Part I

Sometimes all roads seem to point in one direction. This summer I've been having that experience with the concept of sustainability: assessing where we are now, what will be possible in 30 years, and how do we get from here to there.

The basic premise I'm working with is that humans are rapidly exhausting our supply of accessible resources, such that something has to give. That is, it is not even remotely possible that we can continue for another generation the materialistic lifestyle we're become accustomed to in the US—unless we're willing to forcibly deny the
equitable distribution of what's left and to tolerate massive suffering elsewhere in service to the status quo. Rather than continuing the charade that underlies the bumper sticker "How did our oil get under their sand?", I've started looking at two questions: a) How to create a vibrant, satisfying lifestyle that uses only 10% of the resources that the average American is currently consuming; and b) How to peacefully navigate the social challenges that such a massive shift will require.

These questions affect me both on the personal level (how will I live, and what am I called to do to help society to a softer landing in the decades ahead) and on the professional level (what role should FIC play in education and preparation; what is my role as a process consultant to better prepare groups to handle what's coming).

When thinking about sustainability, I like the metaphor of a three-legged stool: there's a ecological leg, a social leg, and an economic leg—and you won't have a very stable piece of furniture unless you have three stout legs. I am interested in what it takes to develop strong legs, and also the integration of the whole, so that the stool will be a tool.

As this is a big, all-encompassing topic, I'm going to tackle it in a six-part series, roughly in the order in which I've been bumping into this conversation over the past two months. Here's the outline:

Proposal to build a working model of sustainability
II. The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World by Ted Trainer
III. Sustainability and Cohousing
IV. EDE Course at Dancing Rabbit in 2012
V. Increasing sustainability offerings on campus
VI. Transition Towns

• • •
Proposal to build a working model of sustainability

Toward the end of May, FIC received an unsolicited communication from a guy with big plans. Inspired to help fund a grand experiment in sustainability, he hopes to create something that is big enough to be noticed—by the media, by academics, and by a curious public—and big enough to be fully featured and therefore inspiring as a replicable unit of a workable future. Appropriately enough, he's from Texas.

He has already pulled together nearly $1 million and is committed to generating five times that amount to underwrite his dream. He was approaching FIC as a potential partner to help clarify the vision, and to help with the nuts and bolts of manifesting it. After receiving his introductory email, we set up a phone date. Based on my subsequent report, the FIC Board is definitely intrigue by the possibilities, but it's early days and we're still at the draw-it-up-on-the-back-of-a-napkin phase.

FIC's strength is on the social side of sustainability, and I made a pitch for the Fellowship being given the job of creating the criteria by which candidates would be measured once an RFP was posted (one can only imagine how many proposals will crawl out of the woodwork with $4 million on the table), overseeing the selection process, and perhaps training the group selected in community living skills—aimed at thriving, not just surviving.

If we form a partnership, this project will give FIC a chance to showcase what it can do, and also a somewhat rare opportunity to be compensated for what we've largely been doing on a volunteer basis the past quarter century. (In other words, the administrative aspects of this project might be economically sustainable, not just nourishing to our psyches. It doesn't get any better than getting paid to do what you're passionate about.)

Fortunately, the benefactor is open to having this model be located anywhere in the US (it needn't be built in the Lone Star State). He wants something that could attract both rural and urban participants, and is close by a well-regarded university (so that their research and chronicling will carry weight). Fortunately, community is needed everywhere, so I'm not worried about the location. I'm more concerned with finding the right group.

As the conversations mature, I'll keep you posted on what happens.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Calm After the Storm

Continuing my recent construction saga, I had a perfectly lovely weekend not working on Ma'ikwe's cistern. After storming the work site for seven of the previous nine days, forced marches were no longer needed, and thus no blocks were lifted nor any cement bags opened the last three days.

Once the backhoe arrived to dig out the site July 14 (history buffs may note that we liberated the project from its clay incarceration on the 222nd anniversary of Bastille Day), we
pushed the pedal to the metal in an effort to complete our below grade work before there was another cave-in. This meant battling temperatures in the high 90s on a daily basis, yet we reached an important milestone last Friday afternoon when we completed surface bonding the walls—which makes them both watertight and strong enough to withstand backfilling.

Everyone on the crew was relieved that there would be no cistern work over the weekend, and it was interesting to note the release we felt when a thunderstorm rumbled into northeast Missouri Friday evening. Having weathered the storm of construction, we were uniquely poised to appreciate Nature's storm right afterward.

There was no question that our gardens and crops could use the water. After a wet spring we've received less than one inch of total precipitation this month, and nothing significant since a half-inch shower July 12 (
to say we're dry would be like noting that Roy Orbison could sing a little). Yet if the rain had arrived any earlier we would have been holding our collective breath about another collapse of the excavated walls—and the horror of starting over again.

So much of country living is about working with what the weather gives you. While it seemed we were fighting Nature by undertaking concrete work in the elevated heat indices of mid-July, we actually found the perfect 10-day window to complete a project that absolutely needed dryness. Whew!

There is something exquisitely sweet about a rain that arrives right after the hay is in the barn. Not only do you get to enjoy the immediate drop in temperatures, you also get to exhale the tensions you'd been carrying for days hoping that it wouldn't rain. The thing you'd been fearing is now suddenly transformed into a joy, as simply as excising the "h" from threat to yield treat.

It's the same for us each fall when we're trying to allow our sorghum crop (one third of Sandhill's income harvested in three week rush) maximum time to ripen, while not losing the crop through frost damage. We get the best yield if the seed is dead ripe, yet we're gambling marginal increases against the possibility of catastrophic loss if we're caught by the mercury dropping to 28 degrees or lower with the crop still standing. (A hard freeze bursts the cells walls of the cane and when temperatures rise again, the oxygen exposure can sour the juice beyond saleability within 24 hours.)

Every day we carefully interpret the tea leaves of the long-range weather forecast and make decisions about how long we dare wait before sending the campesinos out into the fields with machetes. When, finally, the crop is all in, there is a palpable relief that invariably accompanies the first hard freeze. With the sorghum in the barrel we're no longer vulnerable, and can appreciate how the frost puts our summer garden out of its misery, knocks back the flies, and signals the advent of the heating season (think cups of coffee with a good book sitting near the woodstove).

When you farm, you necessarily dance with the weather. However, as a partner, the weather is notoriously capricious, and it's nice to get through a whole play list now and then without any missteps or anyone cutting in.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Grace in the Heat of the Moment

I just finished reading Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic. (I had read Bridge of Sighs earlier this year and loved it.) While not a major work, it's a sensitive and humorous exploration of one man's journey to understand and distance himself from the influence of his quirky, dysfunctional parents. In the end—at his daughter's wedding, no less—he comes to accept that influence, and to recognize the love that was buried deep within the snobbery and sarcasm, as a necessary step in his metamorphosis to becoming a lovable person himself. It's a story of middle age discovery.

As the protagonist was forever stopping to analyze the deeper meanings of conversations (whether they were any or not), this past week I was getting into the habit myself. In the book, Russo describes how an otherwise pleasant and connected moment between the main character and his wife disintegrates into a cascading sequence of brittle missteps that by the end of a single day has blossomed into the start of a separation that leads to months of misery and second guessing.

How do such rivulets of misunderstanding and meanness so quickly erode relationship until there exists an unbridgeable chasm between people? Today I want to write about a moment of such caliber that had great potential for spiraling out of control but didn't.

It happened this morning as Ma'ikwe and I were gearing up for a day of surface bonding the walls of her cistern. This was an important accomplishment in that it makes the cistern watertight and strong enough to be safely backfilled. We had been working hard to reach this step as quickly as possible, lest a rain cause a cave-in that necessitated a third excavation of the hole.

It was the fourth day in a row we'd been working on this project and the seventh day in the last nine. Temperatures haves consistently been in the 90s, reaching triple digits the day before. The crew had been working with heavy materials in the hot sun every day and we were all looking forward to wrapping up this phase of the construction. On top of the accumulated exhaustion of the labor itself, no one had been sleeping all that well in the blistering July heat, further diminishing our reserves of grace.

In addition to these general stressers, Ma'ikwe had just broken a week-long fast the day before and had to be careful about what energetic claims she accepted in her weakened condition. All of which is to say that there were a number of reasons to suspect that "simple" informational exchanges this morning might not be that simple.

I was over at Ma'ikwe's around 7:30 am, after having walked the three miles from Sandhill, and our first order of business was figuring out how to consistently measure the right proportions of ingredients for 50-lb batches of the surface bonding mix. There are eight ingredients:
portland cement
fine sand
hydrated lime
3/4-inch glass fibers
calcium chloride
calcium stearate
latex admix

Three of the ingredients are relatively light and exotic (calcium stearate, calcium chloride, and the glass fibers). It was important that they be added in the proper amounts and I had neglected to review how we were going to do this before yesterday morning. So we needed to sort this out in short order.

Unfortunately, Ma'ikwe doesn't have a reliable scale. Fortunately, I had anticipated this necessity when I had purchased the ingredients 15 months ago, and had taken the time to measure (on a scale back at Sandhill) what we needed per batch of the three exotics mentioned above. I had even located a dedicated container for each of the three and sealed it inside the bag with each ingredient. So things were looking up.

However, here's where it got tricky. On the measuring containers for the glass fibers and for the calcium chloride, I had indicated with a black marker how high to fill the container for a batch load. But when Ma'ikwe looked at the container for measuring the calcium stearate, she didn't see a fill line indicated. Because this ingredient cakes easily, the measuring container was completely dusted in calcium stearate and it was hard to see the sides. Thinking there may be a black line that wasn't visible, Ma'ikwe asked, "Is the black line on the other containers on the inside or the outside?" She wanted to know where to look for that elusive fill line.

Not having tuned into the caking problem on the sides of the stearate container, I wasn't able to make any sense out of this question at all. I figured that there was no fill line because we were supposed to load it to the top. I thought we were all set with the three exotics and could switch our focus on how to measure the hydrated lime, which was our one remaining question mark. Not understanding why it mattered whether the black lines were on the outside or inside, I gave Ma'ikwe a blank look.

Actually, it was worse than that. The look conveyed a unstable concoction of confusion and irritation. (We needed to be moving along and here we were being held up by a question that seemed totally irrelevant.) While I'm not sure what I'm doing with my face in such moments, nor am I always conscious that I'm doing it, there's no doubt that this message was sent and Ma'ikwe was not happy receiving it. Responding to my judgment, she repeated her question with attitude and I knew immediately I was on thin ice. While I still didn't know what was under the ice, I knew I could fall through at any moment.

This was exactly like some of the key dialog moments in That Old Cape Magic, where there's as much internal analysis about what's happening in real time as there are actual words being said. The best I could manage in the moment was recognition of the fog and the danger: "I don't understand why you're asking that question, and I feel that any response I give in this moment is likely to be wrong."

From here we got enough information exposed to make sense of the other's position and could back away from the brink without falling into the abyss. Things got better and both the cistern walls and our relationship got surface bonded by the end of the day.

On the one hand, it's frightening how easily conversations between intimate partners can go off the rails (often because one person is making assumptions that seem obvious to them yet remain clouded to the other, and we are unguarded in our reactivity) and flare ups can occur. On the other,
I consider such moments as proof of the everyday miracle of love. There was ample excuse for that early bad exchange to escalate into ongoing nasty treatment throughout the day. Yet it didn't happen. Instead, we recalibrated, forgave, and starting work together again.

While I'd rather not being testing our relationship so much, my partner's resilience is damn impressive.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Chip from the Old Block

Sandhill Farm is a rural homestead. Naturally enough, over the course of living here 37 years, I've gradually picked up an eclectic set of self-sufficiency skills. In addition to the basic C's: cooking, cleaning, and childcare—which all members take turns at—I do some specialty C's here: canning, currant wine, and cutting up carcasses (when it's butchering time).

Stretching the alliteration for all its worth, it turns out that I have developed some expertise at a handful of exotic C's also: canoeing, contract bridge, and consensus training—though none are particularly called for when it comes to chasing chickens, cultivating carrots, corralling cows, churning cream, cutting corner posts, chopping clover, curing cucumbers, crushing cane, or caring for compost.

We learned early on in our country tenure that homestead husbandry means figuring out how to do for ourselves as much as possible, and hiring out as little as we can get away with. Thus, after more than three decades, I've learned how to be proficient at house wiring, I know my way around most woodworking tools, and I'm one of the heavy hitters when it comes to either filling mason jars or filling the need for a mason.

It's this last skill I want to comment on today. Since laying the concrete block foundation for a 16'x30' house extension our first summer, I've come to enjoy all manner of cementitious construction
(perhaps because it starts with the right letters). Everything from pouring concrete slabs to laying brick hearths; from assembling refractory ovens to decorative tile work.If there's cement involved, I dabble in it.

Last week I spent three days over at Dancing Rabbit, working on Ma'ikwe's cistern (which, auspiciously, begins with C). This project was started in a rush 15 months ago, but got stalled out abruptly when rain precipitated cave-ins after only three days on the job, and before we could get the walls completed. It wasn't just dead in the water—as recently as a month ago it was dead under the water, by virtue of a wet spring. Finally, last week that we had enough dry weather, a stout enough sump pump, and a suitable forecast to go back.

It was time to chip in again and help with the old block work. After having a local backhoe operator re-excavate the hole (I can only shudder at how many hours it would have taken to remove all that clay by hand), we started hauling out all the blocks (about 100) that had not been grouted in place before the collapse, in order to clean off the mud. With a scoop shovel and buckets we removed most of the dirty water that was pooled on the cistern floor. As if packing blocks uphill wasn't challenge enough, you had to be very careful where you stepped because the clay residue made the cistern floor as slicker than bog scum (they don't call clay and water mixtures "slip" for nothing).

Twenty hours later
(spread out over three days), we'd finished laying up the walls (12 courses of 44 blocks each) to within one course of the top and had grouted everything half way. Whew! That was the good news. Unfortunately, it's also July—April of last year is not only a distant memory for its temperamental rain forecasts, it's also a distant memory for its temperate thermometer readings. I mean it's hot in that pit, and my 61-year-old body has been feeling it!

While I arrived at Sandhill as a 24-year-old, I was more of a Young Buck—eager to try anything and with sufficient stamina to handle heavy labor all day long and still joke about it over a beer at the end of the day. Now however, I'm the Old Block that chips have steadily been taken from, and I can't do as much as I used to. Saturday we placed nearly 300 blocks, and at 35 lb a lift, they added up. By 4 pm I was plum tuckered out. After walking home, I was dismayed to discover a heat rash on my ankles from wearing the same socks three days running (the throbbing itch of my ankles was masked by the sunburn on my neck). I was so tired that I couldn't eat solid food at dinner, and settled for several glasses of milk and a bed time slightly ahead of the chickens—after a soothing cold shower and the therapeutic topical application of aloe vera lotion on my neck and ankles. Ahh!

After a couple days off (for Sandhill's regular Sunday meeting, my weekly child care shift, and a cooking day Monday) our cistern crew is back at it today. If all goes well we'll complete the surface bonding of the walls by Thursday, after which it'll be safe to backfill. We'll still have the roof to build (a tricky barrel vault that will be poured in place), but we'll be beyond any danger from cave-ins.

As I type, this Old Block is happy. I can still chip in on construction projects (though my accumulated knowledge is now surely more valuable than my stamina); I still enjoy working with blocks (maybe this goes all the way back to childhood, not just to that first block wall in 1974); and it's gratifying that my body has bounced back from the exhaustion of Saturday afternoon. After two days of yoga, steady hydration, and unfettered air flow on the stressed skin of my ankles and neck, and I'm ready for three more days in the pit. Yeehah!

With any luck, Ma'ikwe will have cold running water this winter—one more of those good things that begin with C.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Intimacy Redux—Encore on the Dance Floor

Yesterday I received this comment in response to my blog of last Wednesday, Not Getting Stepped on During the Dance of Intimacy:

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on one area of asymmetry in the interaction that you described. Recognizing that your description is condensed, it struck me that Chris is shown to have made several choices and suggestions, generally aimed at meeting both personal needs and Pat's. When problems are voiced by Pat, Chris makes an effort to find a solution that might improve things for both of them.

Pat is described as protesting/criticizing Chris's choices, and demanding that Chris earn forgiveness. Pat is not shown as looking for mutual solutions. If Chris is lucky, s/he may be able to get back to a neutral position, in Pat's eyes.

I think this pattern is reasonably common (and in some couples, partners may exchange roles on different topics). I'd like to hear your thoughts on how to improve communication in relationships, where the couple usually begins working on a problem only after one partner makes it clear that the other partner is already in the doghouse.

I like this question. While I'm extrapolating beyond what I know about the couple that was modeling the Pat & Chris dynamic in Wednesday's blog (where Ma'ikwe & I were essentially playing the hand we were dealt), I agree that some couples do not start engaging on tough dynamics until reservations in the doghouse have been confirmed.

What can be done? In the example I gave three days ago, both Pat & Chris were in distress, and unhappy at how the other was responding. As this is typically the hardest dynamic to handle, let's assume that's the case. To borrow from Abbott & Costello, the opening challenge is who's on first? That is, who receives focused attention first?

When I teach facilitators how to work with fulminating conflict I suggest they start with who's bleeding the most, by which I mean who's in the greatest distress. In general, the person with most upset is the one who's least able to hear accurately what's being said and is the least able to reach out to the other. While I've found this works pretty well, there can be nuance to it. How, for example, do you compare the upset of someone who'd enraged and yelling, with the distress of someone who's clammed up and not speaking at all? Where does sarcasm and provocative goading fit in? The calculus on this can be tricky to compute.

If neither partner is willing to hit the pause button long enough to attend to the other's distress, it doesn't take a psychologist's perspicacity to predict gridlock. Then, on top of not getting the attention they're seeking, both protagonists are susceptible to having their upset compounded by a sense that their partner really doesn't care that much (or else they'd be willing to listen and try to help sort it out). In the presence of a patterned struggle to get attention (and let's face it, how many couples do you know that are good at this shit?) some learn the nasty habit of amping up their distress just to make sure that they get to go first. (I don't recommend this—if you want theatrics, I suggest a movie instead.)

The way out of this box canyon, I believe, is to have a conversation about the dynamic before you're in it, where the couple discusses what constructive responses might look like. In particular, I think each needs a guaranteed opportunity to tell their story—with the feelings clearly delineated—and you agree (this is important) to not switch over from Alphonse to Gaston until Alphonse is satisfied that Gaston has understood the heart of Alphonse's experience—both sequence and emotional response. This is not about Gaston agreeing with Alphonse; it's about accurately hearing Alphonse. Then Gaston gets a chance to be the teller, and Alphonse does the active listening.

Don't get drawn into a pissing contest about who's in the greatest distress. Just make your best guess and move on. The key here is constructive, reciprocal responses—not who gets to speak first.

Going back to Pat & Chris, in the dynamic we explored it was Pat who presented in the greatest distress, and thus it made sense to start there, with Chris setting aside their story to listen first to Pat. Because, in that instance, they weren't able to complete that part well (Pat was right back in distress when Chris proposed having a beer with someone else while waiting for the food to be prepared), they never got to the part where Pat listened to Chris' story.

While the stories and emotional responses may be wildly different (to the point where it's hard to believe that both were in the same room at the same time), this approach should lead to a significant deescalation, rendering attempts at problem solving much more tractable.

There are two main ways that I find this approach provides significant leverage on stuck dynamics. First, most of us are scared of working with strong emotions. Few have experienced it going well and we've mostly learned that it's dangerous. If you start to have better results, then it won't be so frightening and you can get off the merry-go-round earlier. In particular, you don't have to freak out that someone (your partner) is freaking out. I'm not talking about being cold or condescending; I'm talking about being curious and caring. I want your attention to be heightened when your partner is in distress, but not your blood pressure.

Second, I think it's helpful to let go of the expectation that people won't be triggered, or that their personalities will change to be less triggering for you. I think it's healthier (and far more realistic) to expect partners to continue to be triggered as they have in the past, and to focus instead on altered responses. This is not about anyone selling out or suddenly becoming a different person; it's about hanging in there and being emotionally available when your partner is hurting—knowing that you'll get a turn receiving attention in proportion to your giving it.

Dance with the one you're with, not the person you hope they'll become.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Not Getting Stepped on During the Dance of Intimacy

I recently spent a couple hours doing couples counseling with my wife (in this case, we were giving advice rather receiving it), and we spent most of the time unpacking a fresh, representative example of how things go off the rails for this couple. It was both illuminating and poignant in that you could easily follow how each person came to the same dynamic with different perspectives that compounded their challenge in navigating a tender moment well.

While it remains to be seen how well our session provided the players with sufficient insight and hope that they'll be able to more productively handle the next flare up—and there is always a next flare up—rather than sliding back into the unproductive pattern that motivated them to ask for help in the first place, I want to devote today's blog to laying out their story, as an excellent cautionary tale of how tangled and hurtful these tough moments can get—despite deep love and both players intending well!

Let's call our couple Pat & Chris. Pat has self-esteem issues and a tendency toward jealousy and feeling neglected when Chris spends time with others. Pat also feels inarticulate and less powerful in conversation with Chris.

Going the other way, Chris was raised to be afraid of conflict (bad things happened at home when Chris' parents fought) and has been doing considerable personal work to better recognize and articulate feelings—which is something Chris has never been all that great at, and Pat is encouraging Chris to work on. On top of this, Chris also has self-esteem issues and often feels that whatever they offer is not enough; that criticism is much more likely than praise. While Chris is aware that they have more personal work to do, they're starved for recognition for what they've accomplished and for the effort they're putting in.

With this background (I'm simplifying, but it's already sufficiently complicated for this story), here's the scene: Chris has been working at the office during the morning, and completes a major piece of work. Hurray! Chris takes some time off in the afternoon to relax and then comes home to Pat later in the afternoon, hoping to go out to dinner and celebrate. Chris is in a good space, yet walks in the door to find that Pat is upset. Pat is aware that Chris was spending time with someone else in the afternoon and has been stewing about why Chris didn't come straight home.

At first (remember, this is a tune they've danced to many times before), Chris responds pretty well. Setting aside the agenda of celebration, Chris hangs in there to listen to Pat's upset, recognizing how Pat might feel less special when Chris didn't bring the joy directly home. This wasn't easy for Chris—who was struggling to keep breathing in the unsafe world of high emotions and thought they were taking Pat into account in the invitation to go out for dinner. For all of that things started moving in a productive trajectory and Pat was responding positively to Chris' reassuring presence. Then all hell broke loose.

Chris' story is that Pat often prefers some private time to process a meltdown and re-center before engaging socially on more solid footing. With the idea that bringing home the food might work better than eating out and that it would take about 45 minutes to place the order and collect the food, Chris proposed to run this errand while Pat waited at home. This would simultaneously allow Pat the opportunity for some down time, and Chris could accept an invitation to have a celebratory beer with a friend (of the opposite sex) while the food was getting prepared.

While Chris thought they were offering a solution that could work for everyone, Pat was flabbergasted. How could Chris be so dense as to think that what was called for in response to Pat's voicing fears about not being wanted was to immediately propose to spend happy time with someone else? Duh! Pat felt that Chris just didn't get it, and it completely uprooted the tender shoots of healing that had sprouted during the first part of the conversation. Pat was in severe distress and felt hopeless.

In turn, Chris was devastated that all the work done to listen lovingly to Pat's distress had counted for nothing. All the good faith efforts made by Chris to balance what everyone wanted were turned into evidence of Chris' perfidy. By what sinister alchemy had that happened? Why do these conversations always go south?

This Way to the Egress
Trapped in the Not-So-Fun House of distorted mirrors, neither Pat nor Chris could find the exit. Luckily, Ma'ikwe and I had ideas.

—Don't project, ask
In the future, we encouraged Chris to ask Pat what they want in the moment (when looking for assurance). If Pat isn't sure (which will happen some of the time), Chris can make suggestions, trying to be as flexible as possible with Pat's answers. Chris fell into a trap by projecting what Pat would want. While this can work well if the projection is accurate, it was disastrous in the incident above.

—Speak from the heart, not the head
One of the delicacies of the exchange outlined above was that Pat reported that Chris had never apologized for their insensitive suggestion to have the celebratory beer while leaving Pat at home. Yet Chris thought they had apologized. Oops! When we carefully dismantled this bomb, it amounted to Chris doing the best they could in an uncomfortable situation, and Pat never feeling that Chris had reached across the gulf between them at the heart level. Chris had acknowledged that Pat was unhappy with what Chris had done, yet hadn't demonstrated to Pat's satisfaction that Chris had understood the impact it had on Pat.

This is a key issue in conflict work, making sure that all the stories and feelings have been accurately understood (not necessarily agreed with) by all the players before moving on to problem solving. There is a tendency—all the more common when people are uncomfortable with distress and want to get through it as quickly as possible—to simply assume that if you've given the other person air time and have heard their words, that they'll feel heard. It doesn't work that way. Reflect back the essence of what they shared and then ask if they feel heard, If they report no joy, do not pass Go and do not attempt to collect $200.

—Focus on relationship, not truth
In the conversation with the four of us (Pat, Chris, Ma'ikwe and me) it became apparent that Chris was focused on fairness; on not being taken advantage of. Ma'ikwe & I made the point that they'd be better off if their primary focus was on relationship first, making sure that neither proceeded with proposals (or demands) sooner than attending to reflecting accurately what each person's experience had been. Agreements that are pushed on people ahead of hearing at this foundational level tend to be brittle and not well followed.

Further, truth is relative. It's not at all uncommon for two stories of the same event to be wildly divergent, yet each advocate believes fervently in the veracity of their version. If you insist that yours prevails, this will undercut relationship, diminish trust, and ultimately be a hollow victory, confounding resolution. When relationships are precious, make sure you keep foremost in mind what the impact of your actions will be on your connections. This is not about selling out or soft-pedaling upset; it's about making sure you listen as fully and as deeply as you want to be heard. Sometimes there can be tussle over who leads and who follows, but that's not the key. What matters most is that everyone gets a turn and that no one is dancing without a partner.

• • •
While learning new steps always involves a certain amount of awkward self-consciousness, it's refreshing to hope that you can still pirouette with an old partner while finally learning how to miss each other's instep on the downbeat.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tweety 2.0

The Intersection of Mel Blanc & Steve Jobs

"I tawt I taw a
Puddy tat," tapped Tweety. (I
Tweet, therefore I am.)

I was listening to ESPN radio while making tempeh Friday and the commentator was interviewing the Sports Compliance Officer (read Rules Police) for Oklahoma State University, who was lamenting how much the world of communication had changed in the last five years, greatly complicating his job to make sure than communications between student athletes and professional agents stayed sufficiently chaste.

"Today," he said, "It's extremely hard to stay on top of everything because everyone texts, or is on Facebook and Twitter." Hearing that, I paused and shook my head. Everyone?

I probably spend 3-4 hours in an average day treading water with my email, handling phone calls, and even writing the occasional letter. I essentially write the equivalent of a report, essay, or proposal every day. I'm not even counting face-to-face conversations—which I still do—yet for all my dedication to communication I have yet to text a single message (I don't even own a cell phone) or to make an inaugural entry on Twitter. To be fair, I have offered up a handful of Facebook entries the last few years (in service to the FIC Cause page), but I otherwise travel incognito in that realm (where do people find the time?) I was appalled to learn that without even taking my oar out of the water, I may had inadvertently drifted out of the main channels of communication. Yikes!

While I'm not so worried about being out of touch with the musings of 300-lb interior lineman hoping to go high in the NFL draft, I note with dismay the increasing frequency with which my emails and phone messages gather virtual dust as I try to get the attention of friends and family habituated to their Blackberries and iPhones. As communication options proliferate, how many do you need to employ in order to stay in the game?

My wife, Ma'ikwe, loves Facebook, and I believe she derives genuine value from it (this is not an oblique nod to her online Scrabble addiction, the value of which is a bit more suspect), yet it scares me to death. It's an alternate electronic reality and I'm not at all excited about the prospect of yet more time in front of my laptop in order to service it. Does the world need duplicate email platforms?

Reading the tea leaves, I suspect it will soon be deemed necessary for me to be available on Facebook in order to offer clients and my network counterparts the communication option that is most comfortable for them. Sigh. I'm uneasy about it, yet probably cannot afford to become invisible by virtue of insisting on a narrower (less sexy?) palette of communication. While I penned (now there's an anachronism) the opening haiku with tongue in cheek, it's potent because it hints at the dystopian prospect that your existence may come to hinge on your choice of communication. That is, if I'm not on Facebook, will I become faceless to the FB aficionados? I'm wondering.

We talked about this at the FIC spring organizational meetings. As the organization's main administrator, do I have an obligation to play all fields? This blog got started that way (we first discussed the prospect in spring 2005; by December 2007 my blog was launched, principally to experiment with whether a steady presence in this form of contemporary social media would help drive traffic to the FIC website). I'm questioning how many options we need, and the increasing amount of time I'll need to spend learning new technologies, remembering which format is favored by the person I want to reach, tracking whether I posted a message on email or Facebook (or both)—none of which is about content. How much of this is just chasing one's tail?

It used to be that the standards of making progress in the world were getting a job and being able to afford a Montblanc pen. Now it's more confusing, and I'm worried about getting Jobbed and drawing a Blanc. Tweet!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Hot Enough for You?

This is a standard Missouri greeting in the sweltering, humid days of July & August. (For some reason, this segment of the calendar is referred to as the Dog Days, yet canines don't seem to enjoy this weather any better than humans.) The perverse protocol on this greeting is that you don't ask the question unless you're well past what a normal human being would label "pleasant." If it isn't grossly understated, then you haven't waited for the thermometer to get high enough.

Last night I was over at Ma'ikwe's and it was damn hot. (Do you remember the monolog that Robin Williams does in Good Morning, Vietnam, where he's interviewing himself, playing the role of the hypothetical grunt, Roosevelt T Roosevelt, and asks him how he's doing? Roosevelt replies: "It's hot and wet. That's good if you're with a lady, and bad if you're in the jungle." Well, I was with the right woman but the ambiance was too jungly.)

Ma'ikwe's house is still a construction zone and she doesn't yet have screens installed on her bedroom windows, leaving you with a Hobson's Choice between: a) cross ventilation with unfettered bugs; or b) doing without, which translates to still air and temperatures too hot to tolerate skin-to-skin contact. Yuck! Last night we chose no insects and no intersection between bodies. (If I didn't already have a vasectomy this would be a highly effective prophylactic against undisciplined lust.)

On the good side, on warm days it's relatively easy to get limbered up in the morning. On the down side, you have to watch out for the salt sting as scalp sweat meanders past your eyes. The garden crops tend to love the heat, yet so do the weeds. People start looking for chunks of time in the early morning or early evening to accomplish the serious outdoor work, leaving midday for siestas or sedentary tasks. You can stay up to take advantage of the cooling off following sundown, or go to bed with the poultry in hopes of stealing a march on the sun at dawn.

Most of the year we try to feature evening meals that are hot and hearty; for the coming 10 weeks we're thinking light and cool (gazpacho rather than Brunswick Stew; rice salad rather than rice pilaf). For the months of summer, there is no food more precious to me than cold milk. Some days it's hard to get interested in anything solid at all. It's all about managing my liquid intake, trying to pour in as much as my pores let out.

At night, it's about cooling down enough to let sleep overtake my overamped body; it's about bringing my electrons down to an REM orbit. On especially sultry nights I rely on a trick: running my wrists under the cold water faucet for about a minute before lying down.

Luckily, the body adapts (somewhat) to the higher temperatures. The blood thins and before long 85 degrees feels pleasant. If it drops below 70 at night you're scrambling for a sheet. As hard as it is to imagine right now, I'll be thinking wistful of Ma'ikwe's warm bed come November—when we'll be looking hopefully to the wood stove to make things hot enough for us.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Inner Play

This past weekend I participated in a workshop at Dancing Rabbit offered by Devi (a vivacious white-haired woman from Kansas City) and her two playmates, Peter & Samir. It was called Interplay, and was organized by my wife, Ma'ikwe, after she'd experienced it last fall in Asheville NC. (It's actually spelled "InterPlay," but I gag at cutesy interior spelling.)

The concept was develop by a dude name Phil Porter and is based in Oakland. While it's spread across the continent, the movement seems strongest in California. It's been around for about 20 years, and is aimed at "unlocking the wisdom of your body." It was fun.

While I was only immersed in the Interplay waters for two days (which means there's certain to be interesting bywaters and deeper currents that I missed on my initial boat ride), here are the themes I picked up:

o Slowing Down
Take time to breathe and be in your body. Don't go faster than you can sustain, or is comfortable for your body. Take breaks as needed; it was OK to sit out any particular sequence.

o Moving Consciously from Stress to Grace
The premise is that this is a journey that we mean to be taking, so let's look at the components of it, especially as it relates to the body.

o Using Movement, Touch, and Voice as the Vocabulary of Emotional Expression
I think that Interplay is powerful because, as a culture, we are starved for emotional authenticity, and highly inhibited in our bodies. (There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but you get the point.) Interplay tries to open both of these doors, giving us a taste of what fuller expression might feel like. Though the context of the workshop is as benign as possible, we got a glimpse of what this might look like if we approached problem-solving this way, where our voices and bodies were fully welcomed at the table.

o Working with What's in the Room
While we mostly played it safe, in the sense that we were experimenting with the vocabulary and were not attempting to work any issues, I was impressed with Devi's willingness to incorporate other ideas in the moment (such as mirroring from ZEGG Forum), or to go deeper when we touched something tender (such as Ma'ikwe's ongoing distress with how long it's taking to complete the construction of her house, or Meadow's grief over losing her dear friend, Tamar, last fall).

o Being Brave with Strangers
The exercises involved a lot of improvisational responses, which brought participants face to face with their anxiety about performing in front of others or the ways in which they've absorbed the message that they can't dance, are not creative, or are not beautiful. Mostly we got through those moments of panic and awkwardness without gridlock, yet there were definitely a few adrenaline spikes.

o Working Inside While Playing Outside
Apropos the playfulness of the weekend, I purposefully tweaked the name in the title of the blog, to emphasize my gaining insights into how I inhibit emotional expression and retain stress (inner work) in deference to cultural norms—even when I know in my body how to handle it better (outer play), as was easily demonstrated in the container of the weekend, where "normal" cultural boundaries were suspended.

o Trusting the Body's Wisdom
For me, the most impressive moment of the weekend came late Sunday afternoon when we worked in pairs to describe briefly a person we each held as a model of Grace in our lives. Then, after Person A had told Person B their story, Person B would dance a tribute of appreciation to Person A's honoree, based on what they'd heard. It was a moment of grace about Grace, where we trusted our bodies to know what to do, and it seemed to work beautifully all around the room. Grace, in that moment, was truly amazing.

• • •
In addition to playful, the weekend was also surprising. It helped that I had carved out the time and didn't have deadlines looming, yet it was also calming and de-stressing (the opposite of distressing). I didn't expect that. While I was doing something I knew little about, performing improvisationally in front of others is familiar territory to me as a teacher and a professional facilitator. I also don't have much body inhibition, so I didn't give much attention to how well I was doing the exercises. It was a gift learning insights about each of my fellow Interplayers.

By Sunday morning, I noticed how relaxed I was (good), and how much that stood in contrast to a typical morning (not so good). The physical contact was a welcome release for me from the everyday tension I carry around about how I hold back from touching others in public—especially women. Although I know myself to be very touch oriented, I am frequently in settings in a position of power and trust (as a speaker, workshop leader, consultant, facilitator, teacher, older man, etc) and have learned in this culture of distorted sexual responses to back off from touch because of its strong potential for being misconstrued. I have allowed my need for touch to be trumped by my need to be effective in my work. Unless I'm confident that touch will be received as congruent with my words, I hold back, and the deep sadness that I carry around this welled up on Sunday.

During an exercise on Saturday, Nathan got a chance to fully express how much he hates cars. As there was no issue about cars that we needed to wrestle with—our job was simply to be present for Nathan—this flowed fine and Nathan found it exhilarating to let it all out. Ordinarily, Nathan feels he has to hold back the strength of his distaste for the internal combustion engine. Saturday he didn't. To be sure, some people reacted to a strong male speaking in anger, yet we didn't get hung up there, both because Nathan was not perceived to be dangerous, and because there was no issue to resolve that required us to labor with Nathan's vehemence.

This was a poignant moment for me in that it highlighted a clutch of important dynamics that plague groups:
—It's unusual to fully express feelings.
—When strong emotions are present, it seriously distorts the conversation until and unless they're disclosed and acknowledged.
—It's a double whammy for men to voice anger or rage, because of the violence that is often associated with angry men.
—It's a paradox that emotional safety (for different people in the same group) can simultaneously be associated with its full expression and with its full suppression! (Perhaps most intriguing of all is the person who demands freedom of expression for themselves while denies extending the same license to others—for fear that they'll use it injudiciously.)
—Groups rarely embrace non-rational knowing and sharing, even when we know in our bones that we'd be wise to do so.
• • •
All and all, there was a lot to play with. It's great being married to a partner who manifests opportunities for such insight—and it happened close enough to my home that I was able to walk to the weekend, cleverly sidestepping the possibility of provoking Nathan. Whew.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Suet Pudding

I was the cook yesterday, and the timing was right to gather the ripe berries needed to create a traditional Schaub family dessert: suet pudding. The direct lineage for this recipe comes through my Aunt Hennie (my mother's older sister), who made this summer treat with Stendhalesque proportions: red & black raspberries, combined with red & black currants.

The roots of this concoction go back centuries into English cuisine (Hennie was born a Howard), and can be made in a wide variety of ways. Most commonly, it relies on a sweet biscuit-like topping that is steamed atop a base of small fruit—fresh in the summer, or dried if featured at Christmas. However, it can also be offered in savory forms, such a steak & kidney pie.

While for the most part suet pudding is steamed—that's the way Aunt Hennie prepared it—I've come to favor baking, and presenting this dish as a cobbler. (Where do these English names come from? When, for example, dried fruit is used instead of fresh, this offering is sometimes called "spotted dick," the etymology of which I'm going to refrain from exploring.) As yesterday was sunny and in the 90s, I was easily able to accomplish the baking in our solar cooker (which has no trouble reaching 250 degrees in such conditions) thus neatly shunting BTUs from a kitchen that was already plenty warm. It's fun employing modern technology in service to the adaptation of a traditional dish.

While the recipe that Hennie passed down to me calls for the traditional beef fat (suet), I long ago switched over to butter—which is still beef fat if you're willing to stretch a point. It says something profound about the origins of a recipe that its name highlights fat as its most salient feature. In the context of 15th Century England, the rural peasantry would not frequently enjoy desserts as part of their meal, and beef fat would be a treat more prized than fresh berries.

In today's world—where a third of Americans are considered overweight—it's the other way around, and I only dust off this recipe when there's a convergence of the ripe fruits featured in the Howard version. Yesterday was that day. Some years I'm not home at the right time and it doesn't happen at all.

The key to this fruit mixture is the pleasing flavor of the raspberries commingled with the piquancy of the currants. Over the years I've learned to use just enough honey to bring the taste into a balance of tart and sweet. Yum!

This year's edition was on the dark side, as the blacks (both raspberries and currants) were far more prolific than the reds, yet the taste was exquisite nonetheless. One more time I was able to evoke Aunt Hennie at a meal, and keep alive the homesteading heritage that she passed to me.