Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Eight Days Before the Mass

I woke up this morning with 70 pounds of warm mass leaning against my left thigh. Ceilee's pit bull, Zeus, had once again crawled onto my air mattress and snuggled against me in the night.

While not the same as sleeping with my wife—which I love and which I prefer—I am very fond of Zeus and happy to have his company in bed when I'm on my own, which has been the case this past fortnight for my road trip stops in Oakland and Las Vegas.

(The only downside is the challenge of peeing in the middle of the night. Extricating myself from the air mattress is analogous to climbing out of a vat of jello in the dark with a sentient wriggler moving between my legs, hoping to lick my face. When you're groggy and have to go, it's an interesting exercise in balance, patience, and spatial perception. Worse, by the time I return a few minutes later, Zeus will have repositioned himself smack in the middle of the warm spot and I have to fight him for the covers.)

• • •
In 1840 Richard Dana, Jr published Two Years Before the Mast, a compelling story about the privation of common sailors aboard sailing vessels. The writing was based on the author's personal experience in 1834-36, when he left Harvard to go to sea in an attempt to improve his vision after it had been compromised by a bad case of the measles. Though his intention had been to improve his eyesight, Dana gained insight into the plight of basic sailors (whose quarters were in the forecastle—before the mast) and his book became a bestseller. Though born into the owning class (he'd enlisted as a 19-year-old sailor on a ship his father owned), Dana was deeply affected by his experience and went on to become an antislavery activist.

Dana's story is affirmation of the potency of the classic admonition to walk a mile in the other person's moccasins. After coming to know a sailor's life—from first-hand experience, not just as a thought exercise—his patrician views about the social consequences of capitalism were forever tempered.

This age-old lesson maps well onto cooperative group dynamics and the skill of facilitation.
As a trainer, I teach students:

1. Seeing It Through the Speaker's Perspective
It's important to be able to be the other person when establishing a connection; to see the presenting dynamic through their eyes—just as Dana was able to write from the experience of a sailor before the mast. This is not about agreeing with the speaker; it's about being able to authentically speak for them. This can be huge when the speaker feels misunderstood or isolated—which is often the case if they are upset.

To do this well, you need to be able to bridge to both their position and their affect.

2. Translation
When Person A and Person B are missing each other and unable to get traction on the issue at hand, a good facilitator may be able to pull them out of the mud by translating what Person A said into language (or perhaps imagery) that's accessible to Person B while still being recognizable to Person A—and then being able to do the same thing going the other way.

To be able to pull this off, the facilitator needs to be able to first recognize that a miss is occurring (it's usually not that hard to accurately diagnose off-comments or querulous looks), and then find a frame of reference that both parties can access. It's this second step that's harder, requiring that the facilitator be able to articulate a bridge that each player can walk across.

This takes Dana's insight to another level. To be good at translation, it is not enough that the facilitator can describe the ends of the bridge (each person's position); the facilitator must manifest a connection between the positions that both parties believes is substantial enough that it will support their weight.
• • •
Today is get-away day. This evening I catch a dedicated Amtrak van that will take me to Kingman AZ, where I'll rendezvous after midnight with the eastbound Southwest Chief, rambling in from Los Angeles. Thursday morning, Ma'ikwe will be waiting to collect me at the art deco train station in La Plata MO. Yippee! I'll be home for the holidays.

Meanwhile, I have one last day with Zeus (who's poking me with his snout even as I type this, hoping for some loving—dogs aren't really that different from people; they're just less subtle). Later today, we'll go for a walk (he gets so excited when he sees me putting on my shoes that it's hard to tie the laces without him knocking my glasses off).

This past week I've mainly been staying at Ceilee & Tosca's, which means that Zeus has been my main squeeze. During the day, if I'm the couch (watching TV, hanging out with a grandkid, doing a crossword puzzle, or visiting with adults) Zeus will regularly check in with me, which means putting his paws on my leg and pushing his massive face into mine, the better to lick my ears. After a bit of enthusiastic petting, he usually settles down by my side. Zeus especially likes my visits because I laugh a lot and am more dependably interactive (excepting when I have a full cup of coffee or my six-month-old grandson in my lap).

When I'm in Las Vegas, a good part of each day involves wrestling with good-sized dogs. If it isn't Zeus, then it's one of my other two granddogs: Yoshi or Zelda (who are part of Jo & Peter's household across town). While I've been with Zeus most nights, I've also been sleeping around (hey, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas). Last Friday I spent the night at Jo & Peter's apartment, sleeping on the couch with Zelda. While there was some late night negotiation around how to arrange body parts in the vicinity of my feet, everything went better once I convinced her that it wasn't going to work out unless she stopped licking the top of my head.

During Friday's Game Day at Jo's (see my blog of Dec 10, Visiting the Dren) there were a number of times when Yoshi came into the back room to check out the action, presenting me the opportunity to rub my hands on his silken fur between turns
(for luck).

As I reflect on it, it's eerie how high a percentage of my eight days in Nevada have involved a mass of granddog in my immediate proximity. While dogs are not a religion to me, they are definitely family, and I've come to think of my time in Vegas as attending mass.

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