Thursday, January 31, 2013

Freezing & Starving to Death

I began composing this blog Sunday morning, sitting by the wood stove at Moon Lodge (House of Ma'ikwe) while the outside was sheathed in fresh ice—the inevitable, if treacherous, outcome of falling rain followed by falling temperatures. It was a perfect day to stay indoors, added to which I enjoyed the righteousness of having spent two hours Saturday afternoon vigorously splitting firewood and restocking Maikwe's porch ahead of the storm.

It's that time of year again—the dead of winter—when there's nothing better than positioning oneself adjacent to the wood stove with a hot beverage, curled up on the couch reading books about polar exploration. I have an unusually large collection of these, which my long-term friend Ann Shrader styles my "freezing & starving books."

While mostly this was something I did in my younger years, I've enjoyed a nostalgic week savoring Glyn Williams 2009 offering, Arctic Labyrinth, which is the distillation of the author's lifelong research (as a history professor) into the European three-century obsession with finding the Northwest Passage, a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific through Canada's northern archipelago. 

At first this started out as a way to trim thousands of miles off the long journey from Europe to Asia, in the hopes of avoiding either: a) the western passage around the southern tip of South America, via the Straight of Magellen and the terrifying currents of the Drake Passage; or b) the long slog around Africa and through the Indian Ocean. (The Suez Canal, eliminating the trip around Cape Agulhas, wasn't opened until 1869; the Panama Canal, which obviated navigating Cape Horn, wasn't opened until 1914.)

However, even after it became apparent that the only commercial value of the Northwest Passage was the discovery of new fisheries (the ice lasts far too long each season to offer practical trade routes connecting Europe and Cathay via water), the British continued to pursue the goal as a matter of pride, finally ending in the spectacular tragedy of the Franklin Expedition of 1845-48.

As best as I can recall, my obsession with this obsession started casually enough with the random selection of a library book while visiting friends in Fort Myers Beach FL the summer I was 11. The book was a series of vignettes about polar adventures, one per chapter. The story that stuck with me most was the haunting tale of Sir John Franklin's last expedition, when he set out with 128 men aboard the reinforced bomb vessels Erebus and Terror to determine once and for all the existence of the Northwest Passage. Catastrophically, the entire expedition perished in the attempt. 

As you may have guessed, they froze and/or starved to death—which results were accelerated by hypothermia, scurvy, lead poisoning, and pneumonia. In essence, Arctic Labyrinth offered me another bite of a bitter, yet compelling apple that I first tasted 52 years ago, and which I find just as fascinating today.

After wintering successfully on Beechey Island in Lancaster Sound the first year, Franklin was lucky enough to penetrate south through Peel Sound in the summer of 1846 (a passage generally thought to be impassable due to ice, but open that year) only to become locked in ice that never melted. Running out of food (and hope) the remaining crew abandoned the ships two years later in a desperate attempt to walk out via the Great Fish River, south of King William Island. They never made it. Adding further to the unfolding nightmare was evidence that the final survivors probably resorted to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to postpone their fate.

While a plethora of would-be rescue missions eventually proved the existence of the Northwest Passage (first established by Robert McClure in 1850), it was a Pyrrhic victory.

Part of the lesson from the Franklin tragedy was the folly of the British Admiralty's insistence that their expeditions rely on heavy ships, human labor for hauling sledges, woolen clothing, and tinned meat, rather than adapting to native ways that favored light travel, dogs for moving sledges, loose layered clothing with fur next to the skin, and a winter diet that centered around fresh frozen fish and blubber. In their hubris, the Admiralty couldn't imagine there was something to be learned from such "primitive" people.

• • •
Drawn by the allure of the North I once canoed the lower (meaning arctic, as this river flows north) portions of the Coppermine River, traveling from Dismal Lakes down the Kendall River and then the Coppermine, all the way to Coronation Gulf. [See my Jan 30, 2012 posting, That Old Bird, for more about that trip.]

En route (it was a long drive from Minneapolis to Yellowknife, our point of departure via float plane) our crew—Ann Shrader, Kip Lilly, Tony Blodgett, and me—stopped briefly in Edmonton, where we visited the main offices of Hurtig Publishers. They had just reprinted the journals of famous Arctic explorers, and for a pittance I picked up first-hand accounts of the adventures of Samuel Hearne, John Franklin, George Back, and Francis McClintock. That singular shopping spree became the nucleus of my freezing & starving collection. (It turns out that I was fortunate to get them when I did, for Hurtig Publishers only operated for two decades, and those journals are no longer in print.) 

As a measure of my obsession, I searched for years to locate a copy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson's 1921 classic, The Friendly Arctic, which celebrates Inuit wisdom about how to love the cold you're with—adapting to conditions most would find unimaginably adverse. While I was able to locate a limited edition reprint in 1971 for the fabulous sum of $54 (representing one percent of my annual gross income at the time) that was too rich for my budget as a junior bureaucrat and I started looking for a copy in used book stores. Evocative of the long view needed by pursuers of the Northwest Passage themselves, it took me more than two decades to find joy, but I ultimately located the passages I sought in the Northwest: at the Smith Family Bookstore located right around the corner from the Amtrak station in downtown Eugene OR. I chanced in there one day in the mid-90s while waiting for a train, and stumbled upon a copy for $8. Woohoo! (I think of this as a coincidence of passions, where my penchant for train travel intersected serendipitously with the allure of polar adventure).

Ever since my first taste of barren lands canoeing in 1975 I have wanted to paddle the Back River (the name ultimately given to the Great Fish River in honor of arctic explorer and Franklin contemporary, George Back). There is, for me, a compelling symmetry about that route in that it ends in Chantrey Inlet, at the approximate site where the Franklin expedition met its untimely end. However, even though that pot came up to a simmer this past week for the first time in decades, it's still winter, and for now that dream of mine will have to remain on the Back burner.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Community Meetings Made from Scratch

I recently worked with a group that had abandoned community meetings, mainly because they didn't function well and people stopped coming. During my visit the group got in touch with how they still needed meetings—the group was seriously fractured and there was no clear pathway to their being made whole without a venue for gathering as a whole—and they were able to muster enthusiasm for restarting them. 

That occasion motivated me to create a checklist of questions to consider when a cooperative group wants to set up meetings to function well and is working from whole cloth. In essence, it would be the kind of process questions I'd recommend that starting groups consider.

After nearly four decades of living in cooperative groups, I've learned that there are many ways that meetings can work well, yet there's a stable set of questions to address—the notion being that not having an answer to any of these questions will be a problem, as mischief will flourish in the ambiguity.

So here's my process checklist of a baker's dozen questions for cooking up productive and efficient meetings:

1. What is the purpose of plenaries (to what extent to address issues and concerns; to what extent to build connections among members)? Hint: The answer here will vary depending on the circumstances. The key is knowing these different objectives are both in play and accepting that you'll occasionally need to negotiate which way to slant things.

2. How will you make decisions? While consensus (in some form) is overwhelmingly the most popular choice among intentional communities—and one that I wholeheartedly support—it is by no means the only choice and is not one that you'll get good results with unless you're willing to train in its proper use.

3. How will you provide a reasonable opportunity for people who miss meetings to have input on the topics discussed? In most groups it's rare to have a meeting where everyone is in the room. In groups of 20+ it may never happen. So it's important to have a common understanding about how to balance the rights of those who miss meetings and want a say in what happens, with the needs of those who show up to be able to proceed without being hamstrung by people's absence.

4. How will you record what happens in meetings? This includes standards for note taking, how minutes will be disseminated, how they will be indexed, and how they will be archived. When you don't have this in place you're at the mercy of oral tradition and vagaries of  memory.

5. How will meetings be run? What is the authority extended to facilitators to conduct meetings; what are the qualities wanted in plenary facilitators?

6. What is your commitment to train new members in your meeting process? This includes how you make decisions, your meeting culture, how you want meetings facilitated, how you want minutes taken, and how you'll with work constructively with conflict. It's not particularly smart to expect new folks to pick all this up by osmosis.

7. How will plenary agendas be drafted (and what is the standard for circulating the proposed agenda among the membership ahead of the meeting)?

8. How often will you meet, where, and for how long?

9. What are the expectations for member behavior at meetings? Hint: Your answer should be significantly different than what you'd expect from people engaging informally.

10. How will you work with emotions in meetings? At the scary edge of this is the more volatile question: how will you work with conflict (which I define as significant disagreement about substantial issues during which nontrivial distress emerges)?

11. How will you effectively delegate when the plenary worthy aspects of an issue have been resolved and further details still need to be worked out? Imbedded in this is the sub-question: what is plenary worthy (appropriate use of whole group meeting time)?

12. What are the norms for how proposals will get generated? Hint: It will tend to work much better if you protect an opportunity for the plenary to identify first what the proposal needs to take into account (keep the cart behind the horse).

13. What role do you want ritual to play in your meetings? This is a far-ranging question that can include anything from starting each session with a moment of silence, to holding a seance every full moon. It can be part of how the groups bonds, and can part of how the group gets into a bind. Talk about what makes sense for your group, for the culture you intend to create and nourish.

Caution: Good meetings are more than good structure. You still need to have: a) good will; b) the diligence to do your homework ahead of time; c) the discipline to stay on topic; and d) a commitment to prioritize understanding what others are saying ahead of being understood. 

In short, good meetings are no accident.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why You Should See Lincoln

Law[s] are like sausages in that you should not watch them being made.
—Otto von Bismarck, 19th Century German Chancellor

Last week I went to a matinee showing of Lincoln, the critically acclaimed current running movie directed by Stephen Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Fields as the First Couple in Oscar-caliber performances. If you have not already done so, I urge you to see this film.

In addition to terrific performances by a stellar cast (who could possibly have portrayed the curmudgeonly and irascible old liberal Thaddeus Stevens better than Tommy Lee Jones?), the film revolves around Lincoln's successful campaign to get the 13th Amendment—abolishing slavery—passed by a reluctant and fractious House of Representatives.

Spielberg takes us behind the curtain for a meticulously researched and intimate look at Lincoln, at the zenith of his power and popularity, making sausage. We see the person who many regard as the greatest President in US history successfully navigating the rip tides and shoal reefs of US partisan politics to secure the capstone legislation of his tumultuous administration—something the country is very proud of today—yet the machinations and politicking employed to secure this great accomplishment will have you squirming in your seat.

The action takes place in early 1865, with the country bone-weary from the devastating toll in lives lost and economic upheaval after four years of Civil War. The South was clearly headed for defeat and some favored bringing forward legislation to abolish slavery as a bargaining chip, to force Jefferson Davis & company to the peace table. Others (a minority that included the aforementioned Stevens) opposed slavery on moral grounds. 

While today we might assume that a stand against slavery was tantamount to believing in the equality of all people, that was not the case 150 years ago, and there's a telling moment in the movie when a representative opposed to the 13th Amendment rose to the House floor to scare those favoring it with threats that passage would be a slippery slope leading to the horror of Blacks voting, followed inevitably by the enfranchisement of women. (Of course, he was right. What an interesting time in US history, caught midway between conscience and enlightenment.)

One of my favorite sequences in the movie involved the interplay between Lincoln and Stanton, his dyspeptic Secretary of War (which cabinet position today has been transmogrified into the less belligerent euphemism, Secretary of Defense—back in 1865 they called it like it was). As both politicians and military personnel huddled anxiously around the telegraph hoping for news of a quick victory in the battle for Charleston, which would close the South's last ocean port, Lincoln started to tell a story (which was no more remarkable than Arnold Palmer proposing a round of golf, or Julia Child suggesting we whip up a little dinner) and Stanton lost it, stomping from the room. Meanwhile, the President blithely continued with his scatological account of Ethan Allen coming upon a portrait of George Washington in an English outhouse. I loved both the story and the tension captured between Lincoln and Stanton.

There's no doubt that people manage stress in idiosyncratic ways and I'll wager that the range of responses to war room shaggy dog stories are just as portrayed in the movie: helpfully distracting for some, and maddeningly irrelevant to others.
While Lincoln's Republican party (then only 11 years old) held a House majority, they needed two-thirds approval for a constitutional amendment and that meant securing Democratic votes as well—even assuming they could hold all the Republicans in line. With Secretary of State Seward starring in the unsavory role of Lincoln's bag man, some votes were pried loose with the lure of lucrative patronage jobs, some were maneuvered with political arm twisting, some with an appeal to conscience, and others still were held in place by the artful sleight-of-hand concealment of the existence or whereabouts of the South's peace delegation. 

What all of this adds up to is that the film begs a tough question: Even if you accept that politics is "the art of the practical," when does a great end—in this case, abolishing slavery—justify ethically questionable means? And if at all, with what limits, and who decides? Shoal waters indeed.

For my money that's what makes for great cinema: a film that entertains you and makes you think. It's the best movie I've seen since Crash in 2004.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Campaign Is Dead; Long Live the Campaign!

We're in the final stretch of the FIC's Indiegogo campaign to raise $45,000—which represents half the money needed to construct our new office in Missouri. With only five days remaining of our 45-day crowdfunding campaign, it's time to face the music: the campaign is 90% over and we've only generated 10% of the needed funds. Barring a miracle—which I'm all in favor of, by the way—we're not going to reach our target by midnight Thursday, when the curtain falls on the Indiegogo campaign.

However, it's important to note that Jan 25 only marks the end of the Indiegogo campaign. Our need continues Thursday and so will the FIC Green Office Campaign. All the money raised so far—from 115 supporters and counting—will still be just as valuable next week, and we're not about to ship our oars just because we're no longer sailing under the Indiegogo flag.

In the next few days I'll be redoubling my efforts to reach out to friends, people I've helped as FIC's administrator, and groups I've worked with over the past 25 years, asking them to help us reach our goal. For the past quarter century the Fellowship's intrepid crew has rolled up its sleeves and labored tirelessly as:
o  Collector of up-to-date and accurate information about intentional communities, both in book form and online.
o  Purveyor of books and videos focused on cooperative living, right livelihood, sustainability, and group dynamics.
offering books, videos, and a cornucopia of online resources
o  Publisher of Communities magazine.
o  Creator of Art of Community gatherings, where participants can simultaneously get information about community living and a taste of it.
o  Extender of hotline assistance for individuals and groups struggling to get clear of thorns on the road to utopia.

Now we need our constituency to help us overcome the physical limitations of our dilapidated office. While we had hoped that the Indiegogo campaign would get us halfway home, I am not dismayed. For all of you reading this who are among the 115 who have already given to the campaign, I thank you. For those who haven't, it's not too late! You can either click on the above hyperlink to the Indiegogo campaign, or mail a check to:
FIC Green Office
RR 1, Box 156
Rutledge MO 63563

To paraphrase John Paul Jones, I have not yet begun to fund raise.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hippos on Thursday

I was sipping coffee on the couch by the wood stove at home Wednesday morning when I overheard Mica run through the days of the week with Emory, our four-year-old, at the kitchen table. When Emory jumped the track and went directly from Tuesday to Thursday, Mica threw up a red flag, "Whoa, you skipped Wednesday." Other than that, Emory did pretty well.

More interesting than Emory's precociousness was when Mica told him that "your mother (Trish) will be home tomorrow, on Friday." Now it was my turn to speak up: "Hey," I said, "today is Wednesday; Friday is two days away." It turned out that Mica, who is 39, is susceptible to skipping Wednesdays also.

Owning up to her confusion, she mused, "I've never really liked Wednesdays all that much. I prefer Thursdays." While that was news to me—I rarely get into conversations that reveal one's day-of-the-week preferences—her revelation brought suddenly to mind my father, Robert Schaub, and one of his favorite jokes…

Picture two hippopotamuses (hippopotami?) languorously floating in a slow-moving river in the steamy jungles of central Africa in the dead of summer. It's the middle of the afternoon and there is no breeze. The air temperature, water temperature, and humidity are all hovering around 100. It's an effort to move at all (even flies are having a hard time), and the two hippos are suspended with only their eyes above water. Finally, after an hour or so of just lying there listlessly in the muddy water, one hippo ponderously turns to the other and says, "You know, I can hardly believe… it's Thursday."

While I was energetically estranged from my father the last 20 years of his life (Ayn Rand venture capitalists don't mix that well with social justice liberals), we did share a love of baseball, cigars, and that particular joke. Whenever someone mentions hippos or rhapsodizes about Thursday, it always tickles me right in the Limpopo. I'm unabashedly amused by the delicious absurdity of pachyderms coping with ennui (as if coping with gravity isn't enough for those big guys).

Actually, trying to picture my father on safari—on the hunt for hippos in their natural habitat—is just about as funny as the joke. An outdoor adventure for my Dad was a round of golf without an electric cart. If he really wanted to walk on the wild side, he'd tee off without a rain jacket or a sand wedge.

My Dad died in his sleep more than 23 years ago. He went to bed not feeling well one night and just didn't wake up at age 72. It isn't often that I think of him these days, and I appreciate Mica for accidentally stirring my memories. After spending the first part of my adult life trying to distance myself from him (and his conservative Republican values), I notice that I'm now more interested in ferreting out our similarities—discovering the many ways in which I am my father's son, despite my best efforts to remove my acorn as far from his tree as I could. 

Now that I am within a decade of the age at which he died, I find that I am more reflective than reactive, and more curious about how the grain of the oak that I have grown into can be traced to the rootstock of my father, regardless of how different the communitarian soil into which I assiduously transplanted the sapling of my youth.

Robert, for instance, was a legendary storyteller, as was his father before him, Fred. And now I aspire to the title of raconteur as well. In that vein, I am sustained by the presence of my father's spirit looking over my shoulder as I type, enjoying this vignette. Somehow I think he'd approve. 

After all, it's Thursday.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Distinguishing Spiritual Work from Group Work

Ma'ikwe and I are just coming off a facilitation training weekend at a Hare Krishna community that I'm going to bless with the pseudonymous moniker Dharma Village. While the hospitality and generosity we encountered at this well-established community were terrific, we found the group mired in deep mud. 

There are dozens of devotees living on the property. Despite being united in their acceptance of Swami Prabhupada as their spiritual teacher, they have been embroiled for years in disputes over the right way to follow his teachings. To some extent what's unfolded in the community mirrors struggles in the Hare Krishna movement worldwide. After Swami Prabhupada brought Krishna consciousness from India to the West in a prolific burst of proselytizing from 1963 to 1977, there has been considerable divergence about how best to continue the spirit of his work.

There are some who believe that Prabhupada was the last guru of the movement and the only teacher worthy of following; there are others who accept as gurus anyone recognized by ISKCON (the International Society of Krishna Consciousness), which was started by Prabhupada and blessed by him to carry on after his death in 1977, including the right to initiate other gurus; and there are those who accept Swami Tripurari as a guru in addition to Prabhupada, even though Tripurari is not recognized as a guru by ISKCON. The movement, just like the residents of Dharma Village, is in considerable disarray over who is a guru and who isn't.

These disputes have led to considerable tension in the community, including which temple to worship in (there are two on campus), which books to accept as appropriate spiritual guides (original works by Prabhupada—which most acknowledge contain many translation errors—or versions edited after his death to address those errors). In addition there are deep interpersonal hurts that have gone unresolved for years—to the point where some residents are no longer talking with each other. Ouch!

Over the course of our three days there, we met about half the residents. As far as we could tell, everyone we encountered was committed to their spiritual practice and their devotion to Prabhupada. As far as I could discern everyone in the community was sincere in their belief that they were doing the right thing. They just weren't doing the same thing.

It was sad to observe that the tensions (mainly over theological differences) had resulted in a secular community that was barely functioning. The community was no longer even holding meetings and it was a struggle to get group buy-in with what we'd discuss or even when we'd meet, as there was no mechanism in place to poll the community or make group decisions. Ugh.

In light of there being a considerable backlog of unresolved tensions, the facilitation class was expecting to spend a serious portion of our time working conflicts, yet that's not what happened. The divisions were so entrenched that we were unable to attract the major protagonists to even attempt reconciliation. If one end of a conflict was willing, then the other was not, and we were not able to get the right people in the same room for the attempt.

To be fair, we were told that there had been multiple prior attempts to work through differences and that these had been unsuccessful. Thus, we had sympathy for folks who were unwilling to put themselves through the anguish of further rounds when there had been such a dismal track record with the prior attempts.

Because the facilitation class had to work with what we had in the room, we focused more on how to rebuild the community than how to repair relationship—though both needed attention. 

For Ma'ikwe and me, it was hard witnessing a group that shares such a broad base of common beliefs be so internally divided. We found the dynamic at Dharma Village evocative of the strife that has plagued some ecovillages, where disputes over how to put into practice high ecological ideals (especially around land development) have led to internal struggles that have crippled the community from moving forward joyously. Though ecology is a different religion, its devotees can be just as dogmatic and fierce in the their defense of what they believe to be the right path.

Stepping back, I accept that there exists a line for most people (including me) that separates: a) those with whom we share enough core principles that we can gracefully accept the differences we have with them and live together harmoniously, from b) those with whom the differences on core principles are too great to share a life together. In the case of intentional communities, it's important to know your tolerance in this regard going in, so that you can make a mature assessment of whether the group you are contemplating joining is your tribe, or whether the person proposing to join your group will fit in well enough. It is not a matter of an exact values match; it's a question of whether the values fit is close enough.

Not surprisingly, people with wider tolerances tend to be easier to live with (in no small part because they tend to be less triggered). Note: In stating this, I am expressly not implying that people who are more accepting of deviation from the ideal have weaker values, are less devoted to them, or are fuzzier in their thinking. Tolerance itself can be a virtue—in fact, it's one I encourage you to cultivate!

One of the tragedies of Dharma Village is that the people who formed it thought that they could rely solely on their good intentions, their spiritual piety, and Prabhupada's writings to guide their community development, and it didn't work. In the end, people are still people and living together joyously—especially in intentional community—is mainly a secular relationship challenge, not a spiritual test or a measure of how evolved they are on the etheric plane.

For example, all groups will encounter moments when reasonable people disagree about how to respond to serious issues. Leaving aside the possibility that the group is not very clear about who they are and what they stand for (which definitely occurs), one the fundamental challenges that communities face is learning the skill needed to function cooperatively and effectively in the heat of the moment. This means being able to work emotionally (articulating your own feelings and demonstrating that you understand and welcome the feelings of others), being curious about why someone holds different views than you (instead of feeling threatened), being able to see the issue from other perspectives (not just your own), being able to see how different perspectives link to common values, and being able to bridge between different viewpoints so that all parties feel included in the solution.

To be sure, this is not easy to do, yet it is learnable, and the price for failure is a dysfunctional group. When you don't learn how to negotiate these fast waters, the group is at risk of overturning in the rapids of conflict. Members will learn to be afraid to state their views if they suspect they'll be unpopular; decisions will be undermined by those who felt that solutions were imposed on them; hurts will go unaddressed and trust will be broken; relationships will become brittle and shallow.

In the case of Dharma Village, the waters of disagreement (a normal occurrence in a healthy group) are muddied by the group's lack of interpersonal skill in working through conflict. While that paucity alone does not distinguish the community from most others—and is one the principal reasons I have steady work as a process consultant—the waters are further muddied in this case by troubles stemming from dynamics where one person believes their viewpoint is directly supported by Prabhupada's teachings while the person who holds a differing view believes they're opinion is also supported by Prabhupada's teachings. Uh oh. It's not hard to see how that kind of dispute is much more pernicious to deal with, as movement toward one another in that dynamic may be interpreted as selling out one's spiritual convictions, which is anathema.

The good news with Dharma Village is that they're asking for help. The residents there care deeply about their community and appear ready to work to right the ship.

In spiritual communities, or ones where core principles are held as strongly as spiritual beliefs, it's necessary that groups are able to distinguish between questions of philosophical interpretation and everyday living. Further, it's necessary that groups grok that there are communication skills needed to successfully navigate the turbulent waters of conflict that have nothing to do with ethics or the purity of one's beliefs. 

As far as I'm concerned, going down with the ship (defending one's beliefs at all costs) is overrated as a marketing strategy. Neither is it that appealing if you're gripping onto the ship's wheel with white knuckles and a grim determination in storm-tossed seas while everyone else on board is green at the gills and puking at the rails. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, it isn't much of a revolution if no one is dancing.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Eat Like You Give a Damn

My community, Sandhill Farm, has maintained a core commitment to growing and eating high quality food right from the first of our nearly 39 years together. As such, imagine my amusement when my Seattle friend Marni Rachmiel suggested we rendezvous for breakfast at the Portage Bay Café last November—a place I'd never heard of before—and arrived to find the coffee cups and waitstaff t-shirts festooned with the restaurant's defiant slogan: "Eat Like You Give a Damn." I loved it!

It turns out that this hometown restaurant (it has three locations in the metropolitan area) fiercely promotes local, organic, and seasonal ingredients. It makes an organic farmer from northeast Missouri proud.

Over the course of the decades I've lived at Sandhill it's been a passion of mine to try to develop a local cuisine—dishes that feature what we grow when it's fresh. We've achieved year-round self-sufficiency in tomatoes, so red pasta sauce is always a menu option. But not buying tomatoes means letting go of seeing fresh wedges in the salad bowl from November through June, as we only have canned and dried tomatoes available those months.

We eat parsnips in March and April. We eat fresh strawberries only in June. Butternut squash lasts from first harvest in the fall through to the spring. With care we can make our fresh garlic and potatoes last pretty much all year; it's harder with onions. We extend access to certain vegetables through pickling: cabbage, cucumbers, carrots, beets, and green beans. Other things we regularly dry: leeks, celery, peppers, shiitakes, jerky, and many herbs.

If you are what you eat, it makes sense to be local and organic. Though without as much fanfare (and no t-shirts) Sandhill stands for the same principles as the Portage Bay Café. 

Further, we intentionally try to be conscious of the energy it takes to get our food to the table, and that calculus extends way beyond the propane that fuels our cook stove. It includes the transportation it takes to get the food to the store and then home (if we buy an ingredient rather than grow it), the energy invested in processing the food (if we're not eating it fresh), and the energy invested in storing the food (if it's refrigerated or frozen instead of canned or dried).

In the summer we're able to save propane by extensive use of a solar cooker—essentially an insulated box with reflective sides that focuses the sunshine onto a cooking shelf. On sunny days we can sustain a temperature of 250 degrees, great for slow cooking or reheating things. In the winter we make the wood stove do double duty as a space heater and a cooking surface. By keeping a tea kettle on the wood stove all winter, it takes much less propane to bring the water to a boil for hot drinks. These steps require a bit more forethought, yet add up to considerable savings.

I've wondered for years what world politics would be like if everyone—and I mean everyone—had a garden and was responsible for growing at least some portion of what they ate. Would we be as warlike? Would we be as wasteful? Would we tolerate so many food ingredients with four or more syllables? Would we make so many development choices that destroy farmland? Would Monsanto even have a chance to corner the market on germplasm? I doubt it.

Of course, when you think about it, giving a damn in general is a good idea. Come by for dinner sometime and we can talk it over. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Consensus Challenges: Accountability

This is the final installment of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Accountability.

When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect [posted Sept 3]
XI. Balancing voices [posted Sept 18 & Sept 30]

XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake [posted Oct 27]
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go [posted Nov 18]
XIV. Accountability

• • •
As I've written about this topic before (see my entry of Oct 17, 2008: Accountability & Punishment), what I'll offer today is intended as complementary—not repetitive.

I concluded my 2008 monograph with the admonition that groups need to get clear about how they view feedback, including both the right members have to dish it out and the responsibility they have to receive it. Although it's been my experience that few groups lay this out, and don't begin to tackle it until they're immersed in a dynamic where the ambiguity bites them in the butt, here are the essential elements that I think need to be in place:

A. That members will make themselves available (with reasonable options) for hearing critical feedback from other members about their behavior as a member of the group

Note that there is an important boundary here around what individual behaviors are subject to group comment. It is, for example, most unlikely that the group is expected to have any say in whether a member wears a blue shirt or a red one (unless, of course it's Election Day). That would be considered a private matter and if you didn't like a person's clothing choices they would ordinarily be under no obligation to listen to your complaint about it.

Going the other way, if the group had a core commitment to environmental impact and you observed the manager of the community parking lot using a gas-powered leaf blower to clear the asphalt, you would have a right to register a complaint about it. (I'm not saying the manager couldn't have a good reason for using the leaf blower, or what the outcome of the complaint would be; I'm only saying that the manager would be expected to treat seriously a complaint about whether they were doing work on behalf of the group in a way that was consistent with group values.

Now let's peel this onion one layer deeper. Sometimes private choices can have a demonstrable impact on the group, such that it's sensible to have a forum where the group can discuss this impact, even though everyone acknowledges that it was an appropriately private choice that triggered it. The point of the forum would be to share reactions and attend to relationships, not to censure or celebrate people's private choices. A good example of this might be when people make a change in intimate partners. [For more on this, see my blog of Sept 30, 2010: The Relationship of Relationships to the Group.] 

B. Hearing critical feedback is not a commitment to agreeing with it, or agreeing to change one's behavior. It's an agreement to try to understand the complaint and put forward a reasonable effort to find a mutually satisfactory resolution.

C. Because it's unwise to expect that members will always be able to accomplish this on their own, it's generally a good idea to create a Conflict Resolution Team whose job it is to be a resource in case of need, to support people working through tensions when they feel overwhelmed at the prospect of managing it themselves, when they are ineffective in doing so, or even to hold their feet to the fire when they attempt to ignore it.
• • •
In my 2008 essay I explored how accountability is often associated with punishment. It's potent, I think, to try to shift away from judgment and toward looking at the impact of obligations that have not been met, or are perceived to have not been met well enough.

It's possible that tensions about unmet expectations are exposing vagueness about what was expected. Perhaps the deadlines were not clearly set. Perhaps details about what the job entailed were not laid out well. Perhaps the group is poor with minutes and people's memories diverge about what was agreed to.

But let's suppose that ambiguities have been taken care of and there's no disagreement about the perception that an obligation was not been met. While consequences in the way of fines or loss of rights are a possibility, those options are generally exceptional and offenses need to be egregious to wheel them out. For run-of-the-mill frustrations—even patterned ones—it's important to understand that the main leverage point is damage to relationship.

Connections among members are the glue of the community and the point of why you live together. When someone's efforts are perceived to be coming up short, it lets down the group and it lets down the relationships. Unattended, that damage can seriously erode the cohesion and joy that the group intended by making the choice to live together. With that in mind, I believe that the most fruitful way to think about accountability is to make sure that the person who feels let down has had a decent chance to express that hurt or sadness to the person who didn't meet the obligation, and that the recipient has had a clear opportunity to describe their experience of the same dynamic.

There is also the challenge of how to sensitively incorporate flexibility into the mix. In the name of diversity there tends to be ready acceptance with the concept that people vary and that it's reasonable to adjust expectations based on people's life circumstances and capacities. The delicate question is how much flexibility is appropriate and who gets to decide which expectations should be waived or adjusted? At what point are those that are better off being taken advantage of by those with diminished capacities? These are tricky conversations. Yet they're conversations you need to have if you want to avoid the erosion of trust that ensues from caustic cloak room comments that go unaddressed.

When examining an unmet obligation, or the sense that someone is taking advantage of someone else, you want the main objective to be gaining a better understanding of everyone's experience and repairing damage to relationship, rather than translating frustrations into fines or exacting retribution. In the context of community, relationship is the ultimate coin of the realm and the prime directive is engaging in a way that enhances and preserves that precious commodity, rather than devalues it or squanders it. 

To be sure, not everyone is meant to live together and patterns of unmet obligations may signal a mismatch. However, that should be the conclusion reached only after you've tried to work it out first.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Arcadian Rhythms

It's Epiphany Eve and I'm working at Arcadia Cohousing in Carrboro NC, delivering on the back end of a barter in exchange for this community's hosting the FIC's spring organizational meetings last April.

This is one of the ways that we're able to contain costs for Board members attending our semi-annual get-togethers, by trading the use of sleeping accommodations and meeting space for process consulting. For the attendees, they only have to cover travel and food; for the host community, they get professional help at a fraction of the cost. Everyone feels like they're coming out ahead in the exchange.

In recognition of the upcoming 12th Day of Christmas (and the arrival of the three wise guys in Bethlehem), we had a Mexican dinner at the community tonight, featuring Three King's Cake for dessert. By tradition, the cake has several plastic replicas of Baby Jesus baked into it and if you find one in your piece cake you're expected to pop for a round of tamales on Fat Tuesday (where do they think this stuff up?).

Anyway the cake was good, and tomorrow (Epiphany proper) we're going to eat the leftovers with Oaxacan hot chocolate for breakfast. While I'm questioning whether it's a good idea to start a day of meetings that will last until 4:30 with everyone buzzed on chocolate, cake, and caffeine, I don't expect it to be dull. Who knows, maybe some of the participants will even have an epiphany or two about our topic: participation.

Naturally, as a professional facilitator, I'm always trying to help groups experience breakthroughs in how they understand things or in how they can bridge positions that seem hopelessly separated. I just don't often get the chance to try delivering epiphanies on Epiphany. Maybe it will help.

In addition to good food, the Arcadians have supplied me with two of my favorites recreational pastimes, which I don't recall ever encountering together in the same location away from home before: jigsaw puzzles and Mah Jongg. I've had fun playing with both each of the past two nights. 

The community had started this monster 1000-piece jigsaw at Christmas time and a fortnight later they've barely made a dent. The image is a field of brightly colored buttons. There is no up or down; there are only different-sized buttons piled atop each other in a bewildering array of colors. To give you an idea how hard this sucker is, it wasn't until today that someone found the last edge piece. Over the course of the past two days I may have located 12-15 pieces—enough to earn a nod of recognition from the local puzzle heads, but not enough to make much of a difference. It's a good thing I leave tomorrow for Virginia (and a visit with my dear friend Annie) or else I'd be susceptible to getting addicted and having to stay until the damn puzzle was finished. (This falls under the category of saving me from myself.)

One of the Arcadians had purchased a nice Mah Jongg set in the last year and I was able to teach some folks here the traditional scoring that I had learned 40 years ago when I stumbled upon the game with college cohorts. It was soothing to play several hands as part of winding down from a long day of meetings, listening to the tiles clacking against the table, as people picked up the rhythm of the play. It turns out you needn't be either Chinese or a Jewish dowager to enjoy it—and what an epiphany it's been for me to learn that the folks here share so many of my favorite vices!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Good Year to Get Lucky

I'm rolling toward Chicago this morning, on the first leg of a three-train parlay that will get me to Raleigh NC tomorrow evening. The year is only a tad more than 24 hours old, and already I'm on the road (again).

Yesterday was an interesting exercise in New Year's Day ritual—even though it didn't involve my watching a single football game. After spending the night at Moon Lodge, I hustled home in the morning and made crepes (filled with peaches from our own orchard) as part of a brunch extravaganza (we creatively mixed the juice drained from the thawed peaches with OJ and champagne to make a delicious hybrid concoction that we styled a "Bemosa"—a cross between a bellini and a mimosa). I love helping out with celebration cooking and I hadn't made crepes in years. Yum.

Following the big feed most of the crowd went down to the pond to work off some calories shoveling snow off our pond ice in preparation for a New Year's hockey game. While it's not necessarily a tradition to play hockey Jan 1, it's definitely common to shovel snow off the pond in order to pass the puck around. Given my gimpy knee however, I passed on the hockey. Instead, I engaged in a different Jan 1 ritual: accounting.

Counting On a Good Time
As Sandhill's tax man, I know that I'll want some numbers in April that are easily obtained now, yet will be the very devil to reconstruct in the spring. Thus, enlightened self interest motivated me to spend three hours yesterday collecting:
o  Cash on hand (needed to complete a balance sheet for the community as of Dec 31):
    —Money in our cash boxes
    —Money in our fair boxes
    —Money in members' wallets 
    —Postage on hand
    —Undeposited checks
    —Accounts receivable
    —Our balance in various electronic accounts (such as PayPal)
o  Inventory of goods purchased for resale
o  Odometer readings on Sandhill's fleet of vehicles

By far, the worst of these numbers to tease out was the value of our receivables. We maintain a Wholesale Account Ledger, a clipboard where we store (supposedly) Open Invoices, and a Check Log (where we record all incoming payments). In theory I should be able to go to the Open Invoice clipboard and simply add up what's there to produce a snapshot of what the community was owed as of Dec 31. Unfortunately, it ain't that simple.

When I started spot checking against the Wholesale Account Ledger to make sure that all those invoices were still live (meaning unpaid), I found an alarming number of them had been paid and then unpulled. Worse, there were entries in the Wholesale Ledger that were ambiguous and I subsequently had to check every Open Invoice against the Check Log to figure out what the ding dong was going on. Much as I enjoy cleaning up messes, this was a quagmire that I'd rather not have needed to wade through. Sigh.

My inventory fun was compounded yesterday by also conducting an end-of-year count of books and videos for Community Bookshelf, in the hope that the physical inventory bore more than a passing relationship to what our computer said we had on hand. Though there are only about 100 titles involved, and 99% of our inventory resides in a single room in the FIC Office trailer, the work was still a challenge in that all copies of a single title are not stored in a single location and the trailer is unheated and crowded. (Think of an Easter egg hunt in a packed walk-in freezer and you'll have the right image.)

Get Your 13 On!
The most fun thing I did on the First (aside from making crepes, which always makes me happy) was getting together with Amanda, my FIC Development Assistant, and cooking ways to build momentum for our Indegogo Campaign to raise funds for our new Missouri office (replacing the aforementioned walk-in freezer). On the spot we scripted and shot an update video for the campaign, playing off the fact that we've just entered 2013.

For some reason, the number 13 suffers from bad press and we figured it was high time to turn that around. So we went pro-active in the video clip, bravely proclaiming 2013 to be our lucky year. We're asking people who are inspired by FIC's work to contact 13 of their close friends—people who get it about the need for more community in the world—asking each of them to donate $13 to the campaign.

While people don't ordinarily use the terms "viral" and "lucky" in the same sentence, you're about the hear one. If our office campaign goes viral (meaning that there's enough buzz about our efforts that people we don't know are inspired to promote our message to 13 of their friends, and so on), then 2013 will indeed by our lucky year. 

And two years from now—when that spiffy new office gets built—we can look forward to doing EOY inventories without wearing a muffler and insulated jacket or being at risk for catching something viral, which would just be unlucky.