Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Gin and Bear It

Today's blog is brought to you by the word gin. As a writer, an editor, and lover of words, I am prone to reflecting about words and had occasion (as I rode the train east for a fortnight of consulting and networking) to reflect on how richly that particular word touches my life

I. Death’s Door
My father’s favorite drink was a dry martini—"dry" as in he’d wave the cap of a vermouth bottle over the gin and call it “mixed.”

For most of my adult life I detested gin—both because it was my father’s favorite (and I was determined to make my own way in the world), and because the first time I got really drunk was as a college freshman overindulging in gin, and for decades afterwards the smell of fermented juniper berries would evoke visceral memories of that wrong of passage.

Slowly, I’ve rehabilitated gin. First , by working on my relationship with my father. Second, with the occasional therapeutic application of gin and tonic (the bitterness of quinine is so attractive it almost makes me wistful about malaria), and then my having fallen in love with the Negroni cocktail: equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. Poinsettia red and deliciously bitter.

Expanding on the renaissance of gourmet coffee, micro-breweries, and decent local bakeries—all of which give hope for Western civilization—there is now an upsurge in small batch liquor distilleries as well. One of my favorites is Death's Door gin, made from hard red winter wheat harvested from Washington Island, 22 square miles of boreal farmland separated from the tip of Door Peninsula (Wisconsin) on the West Coast of Lake Michigan by Death's Passage. Tom & Ken Koyen have been handcrafting gin, vodka, and white whiskey there since 2005. 

Let's raise a glass to Tom & Ken!

II. Hollywood
Gin is also a card game, as in gin rummy. As it happens, it was probably my father’s favorite card game—which he enjoyed playing while imbibing "martoonies.”

For some reason, it turned out that Ma’ikwe and I got into playing marathon gin games on our honeymoon (it’s a looong flight across the Atlantic, and there were afternoons when sitting in our room with a bottle of wine and a deck of cards was more appealing than touring one more ancient Italian church). While we virtually never play cards at home, we still binge on long train rides.

Based on the way my father taught me to play, we employ "hollywood" scoring, where three games to 150 points are played simultaneously, but you cannot score in the second game until you've scored once in the first game, and you can't score in the third game until you've scored once in the second.

As my father's son, I learned to take card playing seriously as a youngster, and I still remember with chagrin the time I thought I knew enough about gin rummy to challenge my father to play for money while I accompanied him on a business trip. I might have been 10 years old at the time and he absolutely cleaned my clock. He didn't gloat; he just took my money and I learned a valuable lesson about the difference between casual gaming and serious gaming.

As someone who has enjoyed game playing all my life, I look for others who share my passion—not to gamble; just to gambol. Fortunately, we are now living in the golden age of board games and there are plenty of good players around, notably both my kids, Ceilee & Jo, and my stepson, Jibran. 

When it comes to serious card playing, however, I've mostly channeled my energy into duplicate bridge. Since 1999 I've been playing every Wednesday evening that I'm home and am now a life master.

In playing gin rummy with Ma'ikwe we both have to adapt to the other. I'm serious about it and she's casual. Ma’ikwe subscribes to the gestalt method of card playing (letting the Force guide her on what card to pick up and which to let go); I count cards and memorize everything she's picked up. We both have fun with it, though we have different expectations about how well we'll score. The key is that neither expects the other to adopt their style of play.

III. Eli WhitneyWhitney received a US patent in 1794 for inventing the cotton gin, a machine that mechanically separates seeds from fibers, allowing both to be more useful. 

Separating seed from fiber, or wheat from chaff, are serviceable agricultural metaphors for what I do as a professional facilitator. In a complex conversation I am often trying to distill the essence from the extraneous, and to enhance potency through separation. For example, if there is an issue to be solved and people are upset, it almost always works better if you attend to the distress first and independently from the problem solving. Thus, a facilitator is constantly trying to gin the input into usable parts.

IV. Making DoWhile immersed in Sandhill's cistern project the last two weeks, there were a number of times when I had to gin up solutions to construction needs as they emerged:

—When we couldn't find the tripod or the measuring rod for our transit, we called an ex-member known for her enjoyment of re-organizing the workshop, and she knew exactly where those things were located!

—Right before pouring the concrete floor I ginned up (out of a 2x4 cottonwood scrap) a spacing tool that could be used by a helper to accurately place 90-degree angled rebar into the wet concrete.

—When our hammer drill died on the day we needed to complete punching grout holes in the bottom of our bond beams, I raced over to Dancing Rabbit and borrowed our neighbor's (rather than trying to troubleshoot the electrical short or buying a new drill).

—When the motor seized up on our cement mixer part-way through our first grout run, I made the executive decision to focus on the electrical problem (in contrast with how I approached the stalled out hammer drill), diagnosing an unacceptable voltage drop that I was able to correct with a heavier gauge, shorter extension cord and we were back in business before the cement set up in the mixer. (Whew!)
V. AgitpropFinally, to gin up has a colloquial political meaning: to stir up trouble; whipping people into a lather out of proportion to the problem. (Think tempest in a teapot and mountain out of a molehill.)

There is a flavor of misdirection and gratuitous complication in this meaning, both of which are relatively familiar to someone who wades into group dynamics for a living. Over time, I've learned that a good strategy for addressing this phenomenon is to simply tackle them head on, assume the distress exists on merit, acknowledge it with a minimum of reactivity, and move on. 

(It turns out that it's much easier to sustain froth if it's fueled by the outrage of feeling ignored, misunderstood, or condescended to. By denying it oxygen, the effervescence fizzles out.)

Of course, if that seems too hard to pull off, you might try self-medicating with gin & tonic.

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