Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rainmaking in the Desert

I'm in Las Vegas today, observing what Best Buy has dubbed "Blue Sunday" (which allows merchants to steal a five-day march on Black Friday, through the clever ruse of assigning an underutilized hue to the occasion and offering up some pump-priming sales to roust people off their couches and out of NFL-induced stupors to go shopping). 

Does this shit work? I mean, do people buy more stuff just because today has a color? I reckon there's no better place to test this theory than my current location—America's iconic temple to materialism and excess.

As it happens, I'm not here to conduct market research, but to visit my daughter (Jo) and son-in-law (Peter). This is the caboose segment of a month-long networking odyssey that began on Halloween and included earlier stops in Ann Arbor MI and Portland OR—places that are decidedly bluer than Clark County NV (and where it's far more likely that you'll encounter crunchy granola, both as a breakfast offering and as a political genre).

Despite the obvious differences in climate—both in terms of weather and politics—I've experienced this trio of cities as more similar than you might think. Partly this is a meteorological anomaly; partly it's a matter of finding what you're looking for. In reflecting on the past month, I'm wondering how much I've simply found rain wherever I went, or I've made it.

As a professional facilitator, I warn groups that I am "agreement prejudiced," by which I mean that I'm ruthless when it comes to pointing out potential agreement in the room. The reason this is important is because we live in a culture that idolizes the rugged individual (think John Wayne, Ayn Rand, and James Bond) in contrast to identifying with the group (or the neighborhood, or the tribe). In service to that ideal we've overwhelmingly been conditioned to think first in terms of differences rather than common ground (because it is only through our uniqueness that we can be certain of our individual identities; when we agree with others we are not distinct). 

As someone committed to the creation of cooperative culture (in contrast to the competitive culture that has always dominated the American sociological landscape), I have trained myself to look first for the ways in which situations are similar. Having worked hard to unlearn the knee-jerk orientation toward differences, I am often the first person in the room to see how different ideas can be bridged—essentially because there is a strong tendency to find what you're looking for, and I'm always looking for connections.

So how have I found Ann Arbor, Portland, and Las Vegas to be similar?

80% Chance of Precipitation
In each city I enjoyed more rainy days than dry. While there's nothing particularly noteworthy about encountering November rain in southeastern Michigan or in northwestern Oregon—two of the grey-sky capitals of the United States, it was eyebrow raising when that phenomenon continued in southern Nevada.

I was in Portland for a week. Despite sunny bookends on the Wednesday I arrived and the Wednesday I departed, it was drizzling each of the six days in between. It was breathtaking (on Wednesdays) to get glimpses of Mt Hood and Mt St Helens, and I count myself lucky to have enjoyed those sights at all.

On average, Portland gets nearly 40 inches of rain a year, with the heaviest months being November through January. So rain was to be expected there. In contrast, Las Vegas typically gets only 4.19 inches a year—a mere tenth of Portland 's bounty.

All together, 1.37 inches have fallen in the last 72 hours. While I understand that's just a good soaker in Missouri, here in the desert that represents a hefty one-third of Las Vegas' average annual rainfall. Break out the galoshes, Nellie!

With the historic average rainfall for November in Sin City at 0.36 inches, we've already quadrupled it since Thursday morning—with more rain forecast for next weekend (when residents may experience Black Sky Friday). In contrast, they had 0.01 inches in October (which means there was a moment last month when the sky more or less thought about raining… and then changed its mind). The next thing you know, they'll be planting corn in vacant lots, or raising catfish in drainage ditches.

When I walked through the Summerlin neighborhood Thursday morning (to deposit a couple of checks and buy a door bell buzzer for Jo & Peter), I had trouble slipping on the asphalt because of how water floats the oil residue that gradually accumulates on the road surface between rains. In Las Vegas, that film had been accumulating since September. Watching cars attempt to accelerate into merging traffic was a bit like watching hippos on ice skates—and about as safe. Fortunately, I didn't witness any accidents.

One of the oddities about Las Vegas is that it's only here because of the Hoover Dam (32 miles to the southeast), which supplies both cheap electricity and an abundance of water, siphoned off from the impounded Colorado River. From the perspective of natural systems, this is a totally unsustainable place for a city, where the metropolitan area has about 2 million sun-dried souls, representing a whopping 70% of the state total. Location notwithstanding, for this weekend there was abundant water in the desert, and I'll be able to tell people that I've seen it happen at least once.

80% Chance of Participation
To start with, all three states voted for Obama in 2008, which means there are strong progressive threads available in each location from which it's possible to weave cooperative cloth. I'm not saying that everyone is a Democrat or a Green. I'm saying that in all three places there are Cultural Creatives and I was happy to sit down with some of them in each city to discuss what kind of culture we might create.

In addition to presenting at community events in Ann Arbor (NASCO Institute, Nov 1-3) and Portland (Cooperative Communities & Sustainability Conference, Nov 15-17), I taught two classes at Ananda College as a guest lecturer, did four consulting gigs, and generally functioned as a rainmaker for cooperative networking.

I had conversations with potential donors in all three cities, multiple phone dates with reporters interested in intentional community, promotional conversations about facilitation training, web conferences and one-on-one chats over coffee with like-valued organizations and potential collaborators—all of which is on top of crafting reports, treading water with email traffic, skyping with Ma'ikwe, and enjoying meal time conversations with my various hosts.

Thus, one way or the other, in my life it's always raining. While there's no doubt I get wet a lot, you can't have life without water, so I say bring it on!

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