Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dia de los Muertos 2013

Today is Halloween. In addition to being a high holy day for Brach's, Nestlé, and Russell Stover—as well as for costume makers and vintage clothing stores everywhere—there are deeper, less materialistic roots to this pagan cross quarter day, or Samhain (which for some reason is pronounced SOW-in). 

The name, Halloween, comes from a foreshortening of All Hallows Eve: the day before All Saints Day, Nov 1. It is the day, reputedly, when the veil between the temporal and spiritual worlds is at its thinnest—when it is easiest to pass from one to the other, and back again.

In Mexico, this time is honored as the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos. It is a family holiday where all are encouraged to remember those no longer with us, especially those who have passed in the last 12 months. While there is a somber quality to recalling loss, this is an up-tempo holiday, where gravestones and altars are colorfully decorated and favorite foods are consumed or left in remembrance. The energy is neither funereal, nor morbid. It's a celebration.

In that spirit, I want to offer brief tributes to those in my circle of acquaintance who have died in the last year. In chronological sequence, I lost the following five friends since Halloween a year ago:

Michel Desgagnes (Jan 12)
Michel was a French Canadian community networker, connected with La Cité Écologique, a vibrant well-established ecovillage in de Ham-Nord, Quebec, launched in 1984. He was stricken with meningitis and died suddenly. While it's always shocking when someone you knew as a blithe and robust spirit succumbs to illness—at age 45 no less—it's a sobering reminder that one never knows how much sand is left in anyone's hourglass.

My fond last memory of Michel was at the national cohousing conference in Washington DC in June 2011, when he won the raffle allowing him to select any item from the vast array of auction goodies. Without hesitation, he chose one of the less expensive items with a solid community pedigree: a Twin Oaks hammock—much to the chagrin of the Coho/US Executive Director, Craig Ragland, who was expecting to be able to outbid everyone else to secure that distinctive piece of casual furniture for his backyard in Bothell WA. While it would be inappropriate to say that Craig took his loss lying down—after all, he didn't get the hammock—he did take it with grace.

I still retain my final image of Michel with his radiant, Christmas-morning countenance when his winning number was announced.

Donald Walters (April 21)Also known as Kriyananda, Donald was a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. He started Ananda Village in Nevada City CA in 1968, which later blossomed into a collection of eight intentional communities worldwide, plus as many as 100 meditation and teaching centers.

He had lived a full life and passed peacefully at his community enclave in Assisi, Italy, at age 86. For a more complete elegy, see my blog of April 26.

Of the five people I'm remembering today, Donald is the only one I never met. He is included here because my life has been devoted to building community and promoting cooperative culture, and Kriyananda was a fellow traveler of the first water. When someone's light burns that brightly, we are all touched by the shadow of its passing.

Rob Dubose (Sept 10) 
Rob died tragically as the result of head injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. He was, I believe, in his early 40s. I first met him in 2006, as a member of the facilitation pool at Pacifica Cohousing in Carrboro NC. Later that year he enrolled in the two-year Integrative Facilitation training that Ma'ikwe and I taught in the Tarheel State, having secured the financial aid of the Quaker school where he taught as an expense in support of continuing education. (As a social change agent, it's always inspiring when an employer sees the value of training in facilitation.)

I had last seen Rob in January, when I bumped into him and his teenage daughter at the Weaver Street Market in downtown Carrboro. We talked about trying to get together while I was in town, but it didn't happen. Now it's too late.

June Huebner (Oct  4)My aunt lived until 92, when pneumonia claimed her. Sadly, her participation in the here and now had been sharply diminished by dementia the last two decades, and it was my sense that she was ready to go. 

She was my father's younger sister, and the last living member of that generation of my immediate family. While you might suspect that such a close blood relative would be well known to me, that was not the case. My father did not get along well with his sister and he died in 1989, unreconciled with his only sibling. While I'm confident that my father's story of the dynamic between them differed substantially from June's (and I don't expect to ever know the full story of how their relationship broke down), the fact is that they both played a role in the tragedy of their estrangement, and our family never spent time with June or her family once my grandfather died in 1974 and was no longer there to insist that both of his children attend family functions.

Fortunately for June, she had the loving devotion of her long-time husband, Fred, and her son, John, to sustain her through her long decline.

Jim Estes (Oct 5)
Jim was the husband and lifelong partner of Caroline Estes. Together they were part of the pioneering group that founded Alpha Farm (Deadwood OR) in 1972. He had been in frail health for a number of years, and was stricken with a massive stroke that claimed his life at the ripe age of 91.

Jim was a Southern gentleman from Alabama who had a career as a newspaperman with the San Francisco Chronicle. As a professional editor he found it hard to turn aside his critical eye and would recreationally mark up restaurant menus whenever he and Caroline ate out—which they enjoyed doing. In Alpha's early years, his salary was crucial in keeping the community financially solvent as it carved out a niche for itself in one of the finger valleys of the Oregon Coast Range between Eugene and Florence.

While Jim mostly served in the background, in support of his dynamic and better-known partner, they were a devoted couple with deep affection for one another, and his gentle upbringing and demeanor helped establish a standard for civility and graciousness at Alpha which always stood out for me in the informal, and sometimes callow world of intentional communities. His sardonic wit inserted into side comments were always a highlight of my visits to the community, and I'll miss his precision with words.

• • •
Tonight I'll place five stones on my altar, and take several breaths invoking the memory of each of these five souls. For today is their day.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Affordability Limbo: How Low Can You Go?

In recent years one of the themes that has emerged from my work with cooperatives groups is the challenge of dealing authentically, yet compassionately with the limits of diversity. It's a booger.

While almost all groups embrace diversity as a core value, it's apparent that its application is not open ended. That is, there are limits to how far you can (and should) stretch in service to that value, and there is more than a little delicacy around the examination of a live example—mainly because good intentioned, reasonable people reach limits at different places and because it always boils down to a specific person (or persons) at risk of being voted off the island.

While this shows up in a number of places: mental health, people with disabilities, an aging population, today I want to concentrate on affordability. Almost all groups have to wrestle with how to contain costs, and almost all groups face pressure (eventually, if not sooner) to modify financial requirements to accommodate desirable people who are straining to reach the bottom rung on the ladder (as defined by that group).

This request to make an exception may be rare enough—and the individual(s) involved may be attractive enough—that the group is gracefully willing to labor with it. However, there is an insidious tendency for any adjustments to the floor of affordability to rapidly become the new standard, and you can pretty well count on another request down the road that will ask if you can go lower still. Where does it end?

While no single request may appear unreasonable (note: I'm not saying that all should be approved; I'm only making the point that it may not be hard to appreciate why any particular request was made and why its advocates are hopeful of favorable treatment), the accumulation of such requests, as a whole, tends to create an environment of constant downward pressure on financial barriers to accessibility, and that this may have unpalatable side effects.

Whenever a group lowers the floor, it means accepting members who are right at the edge of being able to afford the lifestyle the group has determined it wants. That means adding voices who are likely to feel threatened by requests to enhance services, or tackle new projects, thereby leading (at least potentially) to one or more of the following not-so-attractive consequences:

1) There may be a concomitant diminishment of the upper end of the community's lifestyle, because the range of what members can afford has been capped at a lower level.

2) The more affluent members may go forward with some group activities on a pay-to-play basis (so that they won't be held back by the more limited means of the less well off), which means that some discretionary benefits of membership are not enjoyed by all—an awkward social dynamic that is a long step toward promoting divisive us/them energy in the group.

3) It's common for members to look to other circles in their lives for satisfaction that feels blocked at home, which dilutes the vibrancy of the community.

To be sure, the fact that a person joins the community when their wealth and income are limited does not mean they'll stay in that place. People can, and often do, grow into greater wealth and financial largess over time, such that limitations today no longer apply in the future. In such situations, they are the beneficiaries of the group's willingness to be flexible without occasioning any significant shift in lifestyle or community-supported activities.

On the other hand, there are folks who embrace voluntary simplicity to the point where they're purposefully avoiding the pursuit of greater financial flow (which choice I'm not criticizing; I'm just pointing out where it leads). Further, there are people who are simply unable to generate a greater financial flow in their life—perhaps because of disabilities, age, or lack of skill.

In contemplating these dynamics, I have two suggestions:

First, whenever you decide to create an exception, be sure to stay with the conversation long enough to determine explicitly whether you're creating a precedent (lowering the bar) or not. If you prefer to see your exception as a one-time deal, have the minutes reflect that this decision does not signal a change in the community's affordability standard, and that any future requests for similar exceptions are not guaranteed a similar response.

Second, define what you mean by affordability. Select objective, measurable criteria that approximate what you're willing to do in that regard and then stay the course—until and unless you decide to change the standard. If you rely solely on what feels right, you'll be scudding about like a leaf before the wind which, ironically, can be a kind of commitment to financial affordability that's hard to afford energetically.

Friday, October 25, 2013

When I'm 64... Like Today

When I woke up this morning the ground was covered in white. Kinda like me.

Of course, in the ground's case the hoar from our first hard frost will melt before noon. In my case, there's only going to be more white from here on out, excepting the bald spots.

I was up until midnight last night, producing a trifecta in the food processing kitchen. It's the end of the harvest and time to wrap up. Yesterday I made our final batch of tomatillo salsa, whipped up one last round of tomato salsa, and incubated tempeh for the first time in more than a year.

I was pushing it yesterday because today's my birthday and I wanted to clear my plate for half a day of celebration with Ma'ikwe. Given that: a) birthdays are an appropriate time for reflection; b) I'm 64; and c) I've always had a soft spot for whimsy, I've decided to play off Beatles lyrics for today's commentary...

When I get older losing my hair,
Many years from now,

To be fair, I started early. I had a receding hairline by the time I was 30, and the amazing thing to me is that I have any hair left on top.

Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine?

After putting out lunch today and cleaning up (concluding my 24-hour cook shift that started yesterday), I'll head over to Dancing Rabbit and enjoy the rest of the day with Ma'ikwe and Jibran. In this case, Ma'ikwe will be my valentine and I'm sending myself to her. In addition, we will be imbibing unfermented fruit juice tonight as we continue our commitment to be alcohol free while in therapy. But that's quibbling. The right celebratory energy is there.

If I'd been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door,

While I rarely get home after midnight, Ma'ikwe likes to retire early and it's common for me to return to a dark house after a trip or a late date. Trying to make as little noise as possible, I brush my teeth and crawl into bed with my wife asleep. So far, knock on wood, she's never locked the door.

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four?

There's always been something off for me about that line, "will you still need me"—something a bit codependent. I want her, and I want her to want me, but "need" is tricky. I need honesty; I need support; I need understanding; I need love, but I don't think that Ma'ikwe has ever needed me in order for her to be a whole and vibrant person, and I'm not looking for that to change.

oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oooo
You'll be older too, (ah ah ah ah ah)
And if you say the word,
I could stay with you.

It's eerie how this is exactly where Ma'ikwe and I are at: the point of decision about whether she'll have me in her house. We'll be starting an experiment about that right after Thanksgiving (when I'm 64).

I could be handy mending a fuse
When your lights have gone.

As a homesteader with basic skills in wiring, there's no doubt I can mend a fuse (and perform myriad other household maintenance tasks). The question is whether I'm home enough to be reliable, and have enough maneuvering room on my dance card to get to the tasks in a timely way.

You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride.

While Ma'ikwe isn't a knitter; shes definitely a sitter, and we spend quite a little time on the sofa by the wood stove. So we're solid there. In the context of the car-conscious lifestyle at Dancing Rabbit, I think we can safely translate the Sunday morning ritual into a walk, rather than the recreational consumption of hydrocarbons.

Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four?

I've been together with Ma'ikwe for eight years now, during which time she's consistently projected herself as someone whose drawn to gardening as an Earth-centering practice and restorative ritual. While her health and other pressing priorities have often gotten in the way of her spending much time with her hands in the soil, I know this is a powerful association for her. Maybe, once we succeed in establishing a single household and get on top of our home improvement priorities, we can spend quality time in the dirt together. I can imagine it at least. I like the image of feeding each other.

Every summer we can rent a cottage
In the Isle of Wight, if it's not too dear
We shall scrimp and save

We definitely like vacations together, of which I have fond memories, including our last one in New Mexico in April. While the Isle of Wight is not a likely destination, we had a lovely time on Drummond Island in Lake Huron four years ago...  and it definitely requires some financial planning to make vacations happen.

Grandchildren on your knee
Vera, Chuck, and Dave

I have two grandkids now—Taivyn & Connor—with no immediate prospects for more. Thus, I have no idea where Vera, Chuck, and Dave will come from, but I'm fine with that. And while I like family members to be pro-active, I don't need anyone to be pro-creative on my account. 

Send me a postcard, drop me a line,
Stating point of view.
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, Wasting Away.

While poetic, this is the weirdest stanza in the song. I aspire to be living in the same house with Ma'ikwe, not linked merely by postcards from the edge. To be fair, we do have a challenge staying well connected while I'm on the road (where skype offers more promise as a medium than the US Postal Service), and we're also working on more direct communication (aren't we all?), so there is some cogency to the lyrics.

For all of that though, the signature seems so passive and resigned that I can't relate to at all. Hmm, I've put on some weight over the years. Maybe if we adjust that to "waisting away" I could get behind it.

Give me your answer, fill in a form
Mine for evermore
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four?

While Ma'ikwe and I have found epistolary exploration of our relationship dynamics to be especially potent, I can't see asking her to fill out a form with respect to an update on our prospects for long-term intimacy (unless this is an oblique reference to our marriage license six years ago). That part, which might be referred to as the $64 question we've asked each other a thousand times, will always be done face to face.


Whoo, indeed.

• • •
Here's the valentine that Ma'ikwe sent me this morning:

Dear Beloved Whats?band,

Happy 64th Birthday! And happy 8 years of flirts, fights, fucks, facilitation, funks, fun and food. Also freeze/thaw cycles... metaphorical and literal.

We're in an odd, odd place together, are we not? And yet birthdays keep happening, anniversaries come and go. I have no regrets about the journey, and am glad you goaded me into taking it seriously 8 Novembers ago when you asked me to marry you. The bottom line is I love you, admire the hell out of you and have been more stimulated by your presence in my life than nearly anyone else (and it is a fine, small club you are part of, even if you aren't the sole occupant.)

I'm glad you are coming over today and we'll get the afternoon and evening together. Other than cooking and snuggling, what would you like to do today?

Love, the Whats?ife

• • •
Did you notice that 64 is eight years times eight F's? It's a sign! Now all I have to do is puzzle out its meaning.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Homes for Community Veterans

As someone who's lived in community for nearly four decades, I know a lot of folks who have lived in community—many of whom no longer do.

Of particular interest to me are those who lived in community a long time ago (I'm talking about those who have been gone for 10+ years) and are not likely to ever return. From what I've observed, most people who fit this profile fall into one of three categories.

Group I: Those That Got a Taste and Have Always Savored It
Without question, most folks recall their time in community fondly. Especially after time has burnished away the rough edges, and rose-shifted the memory toward the positive. They remember it as a time of unparalleled stimulation and connection. Community is a nutrient-rich environment, and it tends to foster growth spurts and unique experiences that participants remember well.

I can hardly tell you how many people I've spoken with who lived at least a portion of the childhood in community and think of it as the best time of their lives. Similarly, there are hosts of college alumni who glow when recalling their student co-ops days, and this pattern extends to people who lived in community in their 20s, 30s, and 40s as well.

For a long time, it baffled me that people could hold aloft such a positive memory and yet lack the motivation to recapture it—even for their kids. As good as it was, I've come to understand that mostly people are sharing a nostalgic moment rather than seriously contemplating a lifestyle reversal.

Why? In some cases it's family obligations (children to raise; precious schooling options to preserve by staying put; a spouse who's not interested; aging parents to care for). In others it's employment (needing to be near a valued job; worry that community life will be too consuming to allow for a vibrant career elsewhere; concern that community will be socially unacceptable to co-workers, or will otherwise dead-end a promising career). 

I also think it's inertia. People get used to the life they have and it's work—sometimes difficult and awkward work—to uproot what you're comfortable with to try something new. And make no mistake about it: community will rock your world. Having one's world rocked when you're young is part of what makes it memorable. Yet you may not want that much octane in your tank later on, when the consequences of upheaval are more awkward to digest.

People naturally invest in the choices they've made and it's typically harder to consider major lifestyle shifts once you're a decade or two down the road. It's one thing to do so in your carefree college years or your early 20s; it's all together something else to make such choices when your life path is fairly settled. I'm not saying it can't be done; I'm just saying it's hard.

I can relate to this because I chose community at the callow age of 24—well before I had a family or any significant roots established. While I can still recall my step-grandmother warning me that I was jeopardizing my future if I stepped off the up escalator (to career advancement) to scratch the exotic itch of community, following my heart never seemed that risky to me. Over the years, however, I've come to appreciate that: a) I took the chance when I was still close to the bottom rung on the ladder; and b) not everyone has the self-confidence I do that I'll land on my feet wherever I jump.

Group II: Those Who Were Traumatized and Haven't Gotten Over It
While (fortunately) this is a small portion of my focus group, it's a sobering one. Often, the people for whom this fits are either children who did not enjoy what their parents subjected them to, or they were adults who didn't get along that well with others in the community. In either case, there is a lingering story that power was misused, and they were on the short end of that stick.

In some cases there was a profound misunderstanding about what the group stood for or a mismatch of personalities. In more dark instances, power actually was misused and individual rights were trod upon. While all community dreams are positive, the same cannot be said of all community practices. In consequence, there are people who have been deeply scarred by experiments in group living that went awry. I've talked with a number of them and their stories can be chilling.

It is, of course, no mystery why the folks in this category don't return to community—they're still trying to recover from their prior experience.

Group III: Those for Whom It Was a Pivotal & Positive Experience But They Can't Go Back
This category is the most poignant. Often it's people with a strong sense of self, who have been quite successful in the mainstream. After years of wandering the relational desert of the wider culture they crave the sense of belonging and connection that is the hallmark of healthy community. At the same time however, they've become set in their ways and are often: a) unwilling to give up the control they have over their lives to be a rookie in an established group; or b) no longer have the energy to pioneer a fresh group. 

They are at a stage in their life where they seek community as support for their active life. They know what they want to do in the world and they're seeking community as a base of operation. As such, they prefer to join an established group (they have no interest in being on the committee to establish pet policies or parking lot norms). Yet they also have definite ideas about how they want things to run, and it's highly unlikely that there's a community that exactly meets their specs.

There are few groups who embrace new members who are full of ideas about how things can be improved. Rather, most groups want new members who are first willing to learn why things are they way they are, and who try to be accepting. Unfortunately, Group III folks tend to have Type A personalities. As movers and shakers, they can be disruptive and established groups tend to react badly when new members try to move things around too much or to shake them up right away.

Over the years I've been approached by a number of community veterans looking to go home again (to community). While these folks have valuable community experience, you cannot reasonably walk into a new group and demand credit for past service in another location; respect has to be earned anew. If returning veterans do not have the patience or humility to be viewed as a newbie, finding them a suitable home in community can be like the proverbial challenge of fitting a camel through the eye of a needle—they'd have a better chance of making a lot of money and trying to buy their way into heaven community.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Day in the Life

One of the ironies of living the simple country life—by which I mean an intentionally low-consumption lifestyle that's agrarian based—is that most days are anything but simple. In fact, as a homesteader, community networker, process consultant, and husband (to a wife who lives three miles away and is recovering from Lyme disease), most days are a complex choreography.

Every now and then I have a day where the gear changes are especially nuanced. Yesterday, for example, I rotated through all my hats, some more than once...

o  Right after an eye-opening cup of coffee, I started laundry so that I'd have a clean tablecloth for the Historic Folklife Festival in Hannibal MO this weekend, plus a clean fair shirt that has special meaning for me. This particular shirt was custom made for me by Jules, an ex-partner from 20 years ago, when she lived at Sandhill. The shirt is now frayed a little at the cuffs, but it's still my fair shirt and can't imagine wearing anything else when standing behind our product table.

o  While the laundry whirled, I made a small batch (six jars) of red horseradish, by adding pickled beets to regular horseradish and whooshing it through the Robot Coupe. We'd sold out last weekend in Lawrence and I knew there'd be customers looking for our distinctive red variety in Hannibal. While we'll sell out the first day, at least the early birds will get some and it will set up a great quip for those who ask for it too late: "There are only two kinds of people," I'll deadpan, "the quick and not red."

o  Next I began cleaning the floor in our food processing kitchen (which is also where the laundry machine resides). Our annual organic inspection is coming up this weekend and I agreed to hand scrub the floor—which hadn't been done in many months and had an incredible build up of gunk and food detritus. For some reason, over the years I've gravitated to cleaning floors as a specialty and the community was grateful for my offer at last Thursday's community meeting to tackle this odious job.

o  As I was the cook Thursday night, I was also responsible for Friday's lunch. Thus, I took a break from doing the floor to get the leftovers from the Indian dish I'd prepared into our solar oven, so that the morning sun could be heating it up while I cleaned the Augean stables kitchen floor.

Fortunately, I finished with the floor 15 minutes before noon. That left me with just enough time to empty the dish rack, put out lunch, and clean up the residual breakfast dishes. Whew.

o  After cleaning up the lunch dishes I went down to the FIC Office (a funky 12x60 '70s-era house trailer) and did an office shift for Jacob, who's on his honeymoon. This entailed fulfilling web orders for our publications, followed by a stint screening over 160 records of people (or groups) whose annual membership will be expiring in the next 60 days. Major supporters—anyone whose given $100 or more at one time in the past five years—are singled out for special treatment. While the letters won't go out until next week, I did the culling Friday.

o  Then it was time to take the laundry off the line and start packing the pickup with product for the trip to Hannibal. That took a couple hours, and I was pleased to finish before dinner (by 15 minutes).

o   It was good to sit down for a bit and pore over the email that had accumulated during the day. While it didn't take long to delete the spam, there were a number of important exchanges I needed to handle before the weekend, including:
—Discussing with FIC's webmaster the importance of coordinating databases with the work being done in Europe by the Global Ecovillage Network. The goal is to make it possible for a community to create one listing that can be used by both groups. The problem is that GEN's database has been created using Drupal and ours uses Word Press. So getting the databases to play nicely together may take some doing.
—Getting the green light from the Ecovillage Network of the Americas Task Force charged with creating a sub-network that focuses on the English and French-speaking countries of North America (essentially the US and Canada) to consider combining efforts with FIC. This is a big deal and I made sure to notify the Board right away. (For more on this see my blog of Sept 16, Cooperation Among Cooperators.)
—Agreeing on a date to conduct a public get-together in Portland OR next month, to generate interest in the capital campaign to raise money for Dancing Rabbit's Green Community Center, which will include office space for FIC (replacing the aforementioned trailer).
—Buying a plane ticket to get to Las Vegas to see me daughter (Jo) and son-in-law (Peter), once I had the fundraising date in Portland settled.
—Giving date guidance for a church in Columbia MO that wants to hire me to work with the congregation on dealing constructively with conflict. They're leaning toward a Sunday in March, but three of the five are already spoken for. I book on a first-come-first-served basis and they're losing wiggle room by proceeding so deliberately.
—Coordinating with McCune in the FIC's Virginia Office about what days I'll be in the Missouri Office to field the web orders he sends my way.
—Responding to an inquiry from an old friend and community veteran in Wisconsin who's considering sponsoring the winter 2014 issue of Communities magazine, with a special focus on sustainability.

o  After roaring through my email, I slurped down two bowls of borscht (featuring a great crop of fall beets and some of the venison we harvested last November) and then jumped into the shower.

o  All clean, I headed over to Dancing Rabbit in the packed pickup, to spend the night with Ma'ikwe—who is not just of the fair sex, she's my fair partner as well—so that we could get an early start this morning for the 75-mile drive to Hannibal.

o  It was a pleasure to sit down in a easy chair next to a wood fire in Ma'ikwe's living and simply relax. After a bit of yakking, I made a cup of tea, shelled some pistachios, and we made a serious dent in a New York Times Sunday crossword. Partway through, Ma'ikwe's son, Jibran, stopped in our bedroom to relate how his day had gone, which also featured some careful scheduling. It was enjoyable to see him get excited, as a 16 year old, developing self-discipline about how he uses his time. It's a life skill he'll never regret.

o  When Ma'ikwe cashed in (circa 9 pm) I lingered near the wood stove for another 90 minutes and banged out this blog entry (since I knew I wouldn't have time today).

• • •
Thus, I went from homesteader, to FIC Office worker, to fair honcho, to community networker (with a dab of logistical work for process consulting, public speaking, and travel arrangements), to husband, to writer.

Though a bit schizophrenic at times, it's my life and I enjoy the dance.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Change Is in the Bag

I spent last weekend at the Mother Earth News Fair in Lawrence KS. While there's nothing new about my spending an October weekend at a fair selling Sandhill's food products (we've been doing that since 1977—the first year we made sorghum), this was a new fair for us. In fact, it was a new fair for everybody.

Mother Earth started experimenting with fairs three years ago to create "a fun-filled, family-oriented sustainable lifestyle event featuring practical, hands-on demos and workshops. Learn about renewable energy, small-scale agriculture, livestock, gardening, green building, natural health and more. We also hand-select local and national exhibitors to bring you the best in organic food and drink, books and magazines, tools and seeds, green contractors, animal fibers, clothing and more."

Their pioneer effort was at Seven Springs PA in September 2010. This went so well that they tried a second venue in Puyallup WA in June 2011. This year's production in downtown Lawrence marks their third location—and first foray into the Midwest, only 27 miles down I-70 from where the magazine is published in Topeka. Next year, they'll open up a fourth venue in Asheville NC. All are conceived as annual events.

The timing and location for Sandhill could hardly have been better: deep into our sorghum harvest and right at the tail end of our gardening season—when we'll have replenished our supply of specialty condiments, and it's late enough in the year for the horseradish to reach full strength.

This past weekend we were blessed with superb weather (no rain, little wind, and temperatures in the 70s each day) and the crowds were terrific, especially for a gathering that had never gathered before. Usually it takes a few years to build up interest in an annual event.

While Lawrence is a long distance for us to travel for a fair (520 miles round trip), I was able to stay with friends and we grossed nearly $1700, which can compensate for a lot of gas.

The vendors were an eclectic assortment of natural food producers (like us), purveyors of alternative energy systems, homestead appropriate technology demonstrators, manufacturers of miracle Green products, and food shed organizers. It was an odd mix. Sandhill, for example, was placed between: a) someone shilling a machine that produced vehicle grade hydrogen from distilled water; and b) two young women selling glow-in-the-dark globs that could be shaped to suit your fancy and recharged by sunlight or exposure to ultraviolet. I think they were marketing their product for its safety value (navigating after dark in unlit spaces), but the greatest enthusiasm seemed to be generated among the younger set (from tweens to twentysomethings) who were drawn by the glow beads' potential as a fashion accessory.

There is a certain mind-numbing aspect to answering the same baker's dozen set of basic questions all day for two days:

What's sorghum?
A: It's a grass that looks a lot like corn when it's immature. The juice in the stalk carries a high sugar content when the seed head ripens. We cut the cane, squeeze the juice in a roller mill, and then cook down the juice to yield the syrup in the jar. It's a traditional sweetener in the Midwest and South, and the syrup is just as sweet as honey.

What's the difference between sorghum and molasses?
A: Molasses is a byproduct of white sugar manufacture. In both cases, cane is squeezed to yield a sweet juice that is subsequently evaporated down to a syrup (that has about 20% residual water). In the case of sorghum, that's what's in the jar. To make white sugar, the syrup is intentionally crystallized and the crystals are then separated from the surrounding liquid. At this stage, the crystals are essentially brown sugar, and the liquid residue is molasses. 

Both molasses and sorghum have a brown color because the plants draw iron from the ground. However, good sorghum should always be mild flavored and never bitter—things that can't be said of blackstrap molasses.
Do you strip your leaves?
A: Yes. Though that is no longer the industry standard, we still strip our leaves before milling the cane.
Is this pure sorghum? 
A: Yes. Many producers cut their sorghum with corn syrup, both because it lightens the color (which sells better) and because corn syrup is dirt cheap.
Why is your sorghum so dark?
A: Back when sorghum was the mainstay sweetener on the farm, people wanted a product that was as bland as possible (so everything didn't taste like sorghum). One way to achieve that result was to grow cane on the same patch of poor ground every year, sacrificing yield in order to get light-colored, bland-tasting syrup.

While that's still the market standard (much as grade A maple syrup is light colored and has less maple flavor than grade B), today sorghum is a specialty product that costs a premium. If you want bland, buy Karo—which is inexpensive and has no taste at all. Because we have a baseline commitment to farming sustainably, we refuse to run down our ground to produce lighter sorghum. Instead, we emphasize good-tasting sorghum—and suffer the steady stream of a questions about why our sorghum isn't lighter.

Will Sandhill sorghum turn to sugar?
A: It might. Sorghum is a complex mixture of sucrose, fructose, and glucose. The tendency to crystallize is related to the percentage of sucrose; if it's above a certain point then the syrup will crystallize.

Because customers—and stores—don't like sorghum that's sugared (even though there's nothing wrong with it, it doesn't pour well and it's a hassle to re-liquefy it by placing it in a pan of hot water), we do three things to minimize cyrstallization:
a) We don't harvest cane until it's ripe, which improves the sugar ratios favorably.
b) We let the cane sit in the field for up to a week after it's been cut and before it's milled, which decreases the percentage of sucrose in the sugar mix.
c) We add invertase, a natural enzyme, to the hot sorghum right after it's been cooked, which helps convert some of the sucrose to fructose and glucose.

Despite all of these measures though, sometimes our sorghum will sugar.

How hot is your horseradish?
A: It depends on how well you tolerate heat. Instead of answering directly, we tell customers to taste it and judge for themselves.

What makes the horseradish red?
A: While mostly we sell plain white horseradish, we make a small amount of it red, by adding pickled beets. This is a traditional Eastern European style recipe, and a definite eye-catcher on our table. The beets make the horseradish slightly sweet, slightly less hot, and a whole lot redder.
How long will your horseradish last?
A: Fresh horseradish starts to go downhill (less strong) as soon as it's made. While it lasts longer refrigerated, and shelf life is extended by adding small amounts of honey and salt to each batch, our main strategy is to make it fresh right before each fair and sell it only in small jars.
Do you put horseradish in your mustard?
A: No, though this answer is a bit disingenuous. The bite in our mustard is wholly generated by fresh ground mustard seed, but horseradish is in the same botanical family as mustard and both products get their potency from volatile oils that are quite similar. Still, while we sell both products side by side on our fair table, there is none of the one in the other. If you want horseradish mustard (which is not a bad thing) you need to buy a jar of each and mix it yourself.
Do you make this stuff yourself?
A: We make everything on our table at our farm, using ingredients we've grown ourselves wherever possible. None of our products have been manufactured elsewhere for resale by us.
Are you local?
A: It depends on where the fair is, and what you consider "local." At Lawrence, our farm was 250 miles east northeast removed from the conversation. (In contrast, the glow-bead ladies had just breezed in from Denver, and were en route to Atlanta next weekend.)
Will the pepper relish (or salsa) be too hot for me?
A: Again, this is wholly a matter of the customer's baseline for "hot." Unlike our horseradish and mustard (where the heat comes from oils), the cha cha in our salsa and relishes comes from capsicum (mainly jalapeños). For some, our mild condiments are over the top; for hardened pepper heads though, even our all-jalapeño offerings barely register on their personal Scoville scale. You never know, and that's why we encourage people to taste things.

• • •
After being caught in the auditory envelope of my spiel for two days, I joked with my glow-bead neighbor Sunday afternoon that she could probably run my booth herself, and she agreed.

While the crowd was very predictable in the mix of questions they posed, there was one way in which they stood out as different than what we usually see. This crowd did not ask for bags to carry their purchases. While partly this was due to a sponsoring company handing out free woven tote sacks (with their logo printed on the side), mostly it was due to this being a crowd that was drawn to Mother Earth's sustainability theme. Many people came with knapsacks, or their own tote sacks; others simply carried things by hand or used bags they got from a prior purchase.

Normally, at a fair with this volume of traffic, we'd be asked for bags six times per hour. (In fact, we save up plastic shopping bags all year just to be able to meet the demand for bag requests during fairs with a reused product.) At Lawrence, however, I was astounded that we were only asked for a bag three times in two days

Who says people can't change? From what I saw last weekend, it's in the bag.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Alcohol Free State

I just spent the weekend in Lawrence KS, attending the Mother Earth News Fair (their first in the Midwest), peddling Sandhill's various comestibles (sorghum, horseradish, mustard, pepper relish, tomato salsa, tomatillo salsa, barbecue sauce, and damson plum jam).

When I got into town Friday evening I had a date with my good friend, Deborah Altus, who lives in town with her husband Jerry and their son, Eli. We agreed to meet up at the Free State Brewing Company, right downtown on Massachusetts Ave. (I've been to Lawrence a number of times over the past decade and I have a soft spot in my heart and palette for good draft beer—you gotta love a place where they have 13 beers on tap, four of which are IPAs.)

While waiting for Deborah I learned something I didn't know by reading the placard on my table that offered fun facts about historic October dates in the Sunflower State: Kansas approved the repeal of the Volstead Act (by a margin of six to five) in my lifetime. Though it was 15 years after the rest of the country did so, Kansas didn't ratify the 21st amendment to the constitution until Nov 2, 1949. I was eight days old. 

While I admit to a tendency to view anything that happens near my birthday as significant, the whole thing made me laugh because here I was sitting in one of my favorite brew pubs—the perfect place to celebrate the legality of selling adult beverages in Kansas—and I was drinking ice water. 

At my counseling date with Ma'ikwe last week, our therapist asked us to abstain from drinking any alcohol while we were working with her. (It turned that she'd meant to ask us to take the pledge when we started working with her last February, but in the urgency of our situation—Ma'ikwe was prepared to end the relationship that day if the initial session didn't go well—it slipped her mind.)

Because I am in the habit of having (on average) one drink a day, this represents a non-trivial lifestyle change. Further, it wasn't clear to me how my consuming alcohol at this level affects my behavior, my thinking, or my emotional availability. Mind you, I wasn't defending having a snort right before a counseling session; rather I was confused about how a drink one day affects events the next day. According to our counselor though, alcohol still has demonstrable affects 36 hours after last consumption—even at small levels.

Taken all together, I agreed to join Ma'ikwe on the (band)wagon for the simple reason that my marriage means more to me than the drinking and it's important that I do all that I can to make the most of this opportunity to reconstitute my intimate partnership.

Thus it was that I found myself at a Kansas brewery Friday night, reading about how prohibition was repealed at that location almost on the day I was born, and yet I could only toast the occasion with a glass of water. If you look at life through the right lens, there are times when irony can be pretty hilarious.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lady Rams

I was driving into Kirskville last evening (for my weekly fix of duplicate bridge) when I idly tuned into the local radio station, hoping to catch the front end of the decisive Game Five of the National League Division Series between the Cardinals and the Pirates. Instead, I caught opening round action of the high school girls Class 2 District 12 softball tournament.

While that wasn't exactly what I was looking for, it sure beat The Huckabee Report (the syndicated aw shucks conservative rantings of the ex-governor of Arkansas). As it turned out, I'd stumbled upon a barn burner: a seesaw battle pitting the 4th seeded Schuyler County team up against the determined 5th seeded squad from South Shelby.

The thing that most caught my attention was not the boatload of strikeouts piling up at the hands of the fireballing hurler from South Shelby; it was the oxymoronic nickname of the nine from Schuyler County: the Lady Rams. (I'm telling you, you can't make shit like this up.)

You can kind of see how it happened. Way back before Title IX (enacted in 1972), there were way more sports options for boys than girls, and most high schools and colleges had tough, masculine nicknames, such as lions, or tigers, or bears (oh my). Then, when the girls started getting their fair share of the action, there were some awkward moments. Teams needed to choose from among: a) girl team nicknames that were distinct from the boys (thereby diluting school identity); b) gender inappropriate nicknames that were consistent with what they boys teams went by (reinforcing identity, but causing biology teachers to gag); or c) gender appropriate nicknames that didn't convey the right message (imagine being the Athletic Director from the University of South Florida—where the football team is called the Bulls—who had the unpleasant task of explaining to irate parents why their daughter, who happens to be the star forward on the field hockey team, is referred to in the school paper as a high-production "Cow").

While there probably isn't a perfect solution, it appears that most schools have held their nose and gone with Door #2: taking whatever the boys teams are called, slapping "Lady" in front of it, and calling it done. Whence, the Lady Rams. Ewe can see how goofy this can get.

Some schools, of course, never had anything to worry about. Witness:
North Carolina Tarheels
Stanford Cardinal
Oregon Ducks
Evansville Aces
Alabama Crimson Tide
Nebraska Cornhuskers
Hawaii Rainbows
Dartmouth Big Green

Others though, faced a tough choice:
o  At South Carolina would you prefer the Lady Gamecocks or the Gamehens?
o  At Bradley they had to choose between the Lady Braves (which doesn't have the same cachet as the Brave Ladies) or the Squaws, which comes across as more stolid than solid.
o  At Virginia, would it be the Lady Cavaliers (much better than the Cavalier Ladies) or the Debutantes?
o  At Amherst the Lord Jeffs could become the Lady Jeffs—in this instance the "Lady" part is actually consistent with the male honorific, though I never met a women named "Jeff." (Maybe they could be the Lord & Lady Jifs, known for their smothering, sticky defense... )

Finally, there's at least one college sports team that started with a feminine nickname: the Toledo Mud Hens. They're good to go with no adjustment for either gender. I reckon with a name that goofy, distinctive, you want to get as much mileage out of it as you can.

Monday, October 7, 2013

October is Pepper Month

For most sports fans, October is firmly associated with the baseball playoffs. I know that football dominates the US sports scene today (and many might respond "mid-season" if you asked a random person on the street to free associate "October" with "sports") but for my generation (I'll be the subject of a Beatles song later this month), it's the dramatic culmination of 162 games of major league baseball.

In turn, baseball is associated with a game called "pepper," which is a fielding drill where a batter with a bucket of balls gives practice to an array of players standing a mere 20 feet away and trying to snare line drives and sharp grounders without losing their teeth. Pepper is a game that showcases what all major league players have in common (with the exception of some pitchers): off the chart reflexes. While it's an advantage to be fast (think Lou Brock, Vince Coleman, and Ricky Henderson), you have to be quick to respond effectively to 90+ mph fastballs coming back at you with spin and attitude—all with thousands in the stands expecting you to catch the damn thing, or be a blooper highlight on the 10 pm news.

While it's true that I'm a die-hard baseball fan—and I love October because it's playoff time—today I'm penning a paean to a different association I have between October and pepper.

[As a math major, I note with amusement how the transitive property does not apply to personal associations. Thus, if

I associate A with B, and B with C, yet when you ask me about A & C, I think "condiment"; not "baseball." Life is quirky that way.]

I got home from a five-week road trip late Tuesday (Oct 1), and the very next day I was in the kitchen dicing peppers (both hot and sweet) in preparation for making one of Sandhill's signature condiments: pepper relish. We make it in two flavors: medium hot and really hot. The former is an equal mix of sweet peppers and hot; the latter is hot only.

(As experienced fair vendors, we learned early on that it's smart to have something on the table that's as hot as you can make it, because it lubricates conversation with would-be customers. Many people, upon discovering a jar of hot pepper relish, find it irresistible to tell us how much they can't stand things that are spicy hot. While they may (or may not) have an Uncle Elmer who's a regular fire-eater and can't get enough of the stuff, they want to make sure that we know that they wouldn't dare put something that hot in mouth. In these situations we calmly assure the customer that it's a good idea then that they don't buy our hot pepper relish, while firmly steering them toward the plethora of less incendiary options available among our display.

That said, there is also an important subset of the fair going population that is definitely on the lookout for taste bud titillating opportunities that are high on the Scoville scale. And for these stalwarts (who may actually have no taste buds left after a lifetime of culinary machismo), our full-strength concoction is both a challenge and delight. Just watching someone taste test our hot pepper relish can draw a crowd. And where there's a crowd, there are sales.)

There's nothing fancy to the recipe. We simply boil down diced peppers in a mixture of honey, vinegar, and salt. While it's important that the peppers be ripe (to minimize bitterness—we're looking for sweet and spicy), the challenging part of this operation is all the tedious dicing (plus you have to wear protective latex gloves when working with the jalapeños or be willing to subject your hands to pepper burn for the next 48 hours—during which you definitely want to abstain from lovemaking), and judging closely the syrupy concoction as it nears the right consistency (if you pull it too soon, the product is runny; if you wait too long, it'll burn in the pot, and may become so thick that you have dig it out of the jar with a nut pick).

Sandhill has been making signature condiments for the last couple decades, during which time they have become a nice augmentation to our product table at fairs (I'll be in Lawrence KS this coming weekend, at the Mother Earth News Fair; the following weekend I'll be in Hannibal MO for the Historic Folklife Festival). Somewhat by accident I've become the main guy cutting up in the kitchen when it comes to condiments. (It's funny what niches we fall into over time.) My specialties include the aforementioned pepper relish, tomatillo salsa, gooseberry chutney, mushroom ketchup, and barbecue sauce (where our sorghum features prominently).

This year we had a bumper crop of hot peppers and I've been slicing and dicing my way through bucket after bucket the last six days, trying to get 'em all into jars before the weekend.

In reflecting on the pace at which the peppers are coming at me, this whole conversation comes full circle. I realize that I'm fielding jalapeños in much the same manner as a ball player handling hot shots in a game of pepper—I have to be sharply focused to deftly cut up each zippy little jobber without nicking my glove or fingers, plop them in the pot, and move onto the next pepper. ("Hey, batter, batter…")

Not surprisingly, I try to time my kitchen sessions so that I can relish listening to playoff games on the radio while my knife flashes on the counter and the pot bubbles on the stove. For most baseball aficionados, the off-season winter months are referred to as the "hot stove league"; for me, however, the hot stove league of pepper season is right now.

Friday, October 4, 2013

When to Act & When to Consult

One of the trickiest dynamics in cooperative culture is managers or committees having a solid idea about when they have the authority to act, and when they should consult.

If the group is of any size (more than eight?) it's essential that there be a clear sense of how individuals and subgroups can do work on behalf of the group such that their actions will be supported by the group. There are lots of ways to get in trouble:

[For the purpose of this essay, I'll use the term "committee" to represent any subset of the whole, even a single person.]

A. Cowboy Up
This is where the committee knowingly exceeds its license on the theory that the group is timid in making decisions and that it's easier to get forgiven than permission.

B. Milquetoast Caution
This is where the committee is cautious in the presence of any uncertainty about their authority to act. In this dynamic the committee will invariably come back for explicit approval before acting—even if everyone else is rolling their eyeballs.

C. Operating in the Fog
Often enough, the plenary may have been somewhat vague about the committee's mandate and people have to guess, or at least use their discernment about whether the plenary would prefer that they proceed, or pause to consult. At its worst, some members may prefer the former while others the latter—which ensures someone being unhappy no matter what you do.

D. Letter Versus Spirit
Sometimes this boils down to a style preference. Are committees expected to operate from the heart of an agreement, or adhere to the literal limits? When those two interpretations diverge, you can get in trouble either way, depending on the nature of your group, and which lens they prefer to see things through.

E. Invoking Streamlining
Another nuance is whether there are consequences to a delay (which is often how taking the time to consult may be viewed) that slant the equation toward action. Even when you get it wrong, if you're under the gun the group will typically be more gracious about your being decisive under pressure. (Warning: the converse of this is when there is no looming deadline and people are unhappy with what appears to be precipitous action.)

F. Good Results Extend Trust
To some extent, the length of the committee's leash is in proportion to its track record. If there's plenary dissatisfaction with how the committee has been doing its work in the recent past, the lease will be short and the plenary will expect more consulting. Conversely, if the committee has been making good choices about when to consult (and been delivering proposals that the plenary supports), it may gain trust and need to consult less in the future.

Hint #1: It's rarely right to never consult (who appointed you God?) or to always consult (if you're constantly afraid to act without explicit approval, what was the point in creating the committee in the first place?). 

Hint #2: If you're genuinely confused about the limits of your authority, you rarely get in trouble for asking the plenary if they want to review what you intend to do before you act. Note that this is not the same as asking them to review what you propose to do (which forces them to devote time to look at something they may believe you have already received sufficient guidance about).

A key skill in effective management is knowing who needs to have a say in decisions that fall within your purview. Sometimes you're approaching a person merely as a courtesy; sometimes it's crucial to moving forward and nothing will happen unless you're able to secure that person's imprimatur. Sometimes you're basically informing a subordinate; sometimes you're collaborating with a peer; sometimes you're a supplicant approaching someone in greater authority.

When you get all this right, people hardly notice. Unfortunately, when you mess up, there may as well be a video posted on YouTube chronicling your faux pas—everyone seems to know. 

I hope no one promised you that cooperative management was easy… because it isn't.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


I get home this evening, and I'm greatly looking forward to it after five weeks on the road.

I'll see Ma'ikwe tonight for the first time (not counting Skype) since I put her on a train in Rochester NY three weeks ago, and I ache to hold her in my arms. When I pulled out of Missouri in late August the soybeans fields were still bright green. Driving through Pennsylvania yesterday, many of there trees were bright red.

Even though it's now October, the weather in Columbus OH was mild enough last evening that I was able to enjoy a rambling what's-life-all-about conversation around a glowing backyard fire pit with my hosts at The Midden (an income-sharing enclave of twentysomethings that owns a multistory turn-of-the-century brick duplex in a working class neighborhood just east of the OSU campus). But winter is out there lurking.

Three days ago I got an email from Trish (Sandhill's garden manager) asking, with some sense of urgency, how quickly I could get to the ever-growing collection of sweet and hot peppers mounding up in our walk-in cooler. The sorghum harvest is already underway at home and all hands are needed to keep up with the workload. I promised I'd be in the food processing kitchen with a sharp knife Wed morning.

• • •
For the past four decades, I've devoted my life to community: building it, promoting it, distilling it, troubleshooting it, and writing about it. Over the years I've gradually felt drawn to doing a lot of my work on the road, to the point where I'm in the ironic position of extolling the virtues of community, while being home only half the time to enjoy them. It's a dance.

I feel there's something essential about my community work being rooted in a living community experience (as opposed to a remembered community experience), yet I strain those connections in a serious way.

Here's what's in the mix:
o  I love what I do, and believe I'm effective at it. Both my community networking (as FIC's main administrator) and my work as a group process trainer and consultant. Further, there's only so much of that work that I can do at home; for the most part I need to be in the same room with my audience. So it makes sense that I go to them.

o  It's important that my community not be so dependent on me that I am crucial to essential functions. In response to my traveling, other members have stepped up to learn what I know about community operations. While there's still plenty of vital work for me to do at home—and they're happy to have me when I'm not on the road—my presence is no longer needed for everything to run well, and that's a good thing.

o  I have a strong constitution and am generally in good health. I can sleep anywhere, don't need a lot of down time to recharge, and can eat anything—all of which adds up to the travel not being that draining or logistically complicated. (Whew.)

o  Because most of my consulting and teaching happens on weekends (when others are not at work and can therefore attend sessions together), I generally have weekdays off, allowing time for writing reports, visiting friends living in the area, and traveling to my next gig. I especially cherish the visiting friends part, as I'd die of ennui if I had to rely on friends journeying to Rutledge to see me. So, just like with my clients, more often than not I go to them.

o  On the other side of the ledger, I am not as well-connected at home as I once was. Not only am I gone half the time, but a significant fraction of my time at home is devoted to avoiding travel (through phone calls and emails with out-of-state connections) or getting ready for travel—neither of which connects me with my fellow Sandhillians.

o  For the last four years Ma'ikwe has been battling the effects of chronic Lyme disease. Since the fall of 2009 she's had two really hard years and two years of semi-normalcy. In the face of her uncertain health, there's a serious question about how well our partnership can work if I'm on the road so much. She's adjusting her life to being home more and we're trying to figure out if I can reconfigure mine so that I still have the work I love and we can manifest a loving relationship that works.

• • •
Today though, I'm not worrying about the challenges; I'm just happy to be driving home. As one of my hosts astutely pointed out last evening, with the life I've created I get to experience the special joy of returning home with unusual frequency. Hah! 

Instead of dwelling on what I don't have, all day I get to savor the anticipation of this particular silver lining—peculiar to the life of a cooperative road warrior.