Saturday, September 6, 2014

Show for Shirt and Shine

As a consultant I float a lot of bread on the water.

Every year I attend community events and offer workshops without compensation so that people can get a taste of what I know, and how I deliver it. Sometimes this leads to paid work directly (within 12 months); sometimes the seeds are slow germinating and the fruit doesn’t ripen for years (last year, for example, I worked for a group that I first interested in 2003—it was a long wait); sometimes nothing happens.

I was doing a version of that at the Twin Oaks Communities Conference last weekend, when I moderated a panel on Radical Sharing Platforms, conducted a discussion exploring Community Businesses (their challenges and opportunities), and led an introductory workshop on Consensus & Facilitation.

Following the weekend I spent three days in Floyd VA visiting my dear friend Annie. While there, I was approached by a nearby forming community who got excited about how I might be able to assist their formation based on the taste a couple members had gotten at the Twin Oaks event. Thus, on Thursday (while Annie worked for a neighbor) I was whisked away for three hours with the new group: a quick one-hour tour of the built facilities and the new construction in progress, followed by a two-hour power lunch with nine folks, none of whom had ever lived in community before. Happily, they were an eager audience, the conversation was fast paced, and I had a lot of fun.

I knew going in that this was a pro bono demonstration of what I might be able to offer as a consultant, and it’s too early to tell if any seeds I sowed with this group will sprout or not. In the restaurant business, they’d call what I did a “show,” where would-be customers are given a look at servings of what’s on the menu to see if it’s ample enough and mouthwatering enough to order. (For some reason this request is particularly common at barbecue joints.)

After two hours of fielding rapid-fire questions about foundational structure and community agreements (we ran out of time, not questions) people were in a pretty good mood. As a thank you, my host offered me a t-shirt with the community logo on it, which I gracefully accepted (I can always use a new t-shirt). While I’ve collected quite a few of those from clients over the years (as well as bill caps), I enjoy getting them. Then it got better.

Among the nine gathered for lunch was a neighbor who was somewhere north of 60—yet sharp, spry, and entrepreneurial. We'd had some productive exchanges and I'd enjoyed the repartee. As we were getting up from the table she asked me to keep a lookout on her behalf for a new husband. I double clutched for half a second to make sure she was serious (she was), and then promptly promised to keep my eyes open. While that request is much rarer than the offer of a t-shirt, it’s not the first time I’ve been asked to provide yenta services on the side, nor do I expect it to be the last.

When I related the story to Annie and Carla (a mutual friend who arrived at Annie’s for an overnight just as I returned from my “show”), they both wanted to know if the woman was indirectly inquiring about my availability to play stallion. While flattering on some level, I quickly quashed that idea. I’ve got all the woman I can handle back in Missouri.

Then it got more interesting still (so to speak).

In our final minutes together we somehow wandered into a light-hearted conversation about local culture, and before I knew it someone had gone into the kitchen and returned with mason jar of clear, local moonshine—which the husband-seeking widow was happy to sample straight from the jar (at one in the afternoon, mind you) offering me an on-the-spot testament as to its authenticity and potency—after which the remainder was pressed upon me as a token of their appreciation for the day.

This exchange immediately evoked for me the 2008 novel by Matt Bondurant, The Wettest County in the World, which describes (with poetic license) the wild bootlegging days of his forefathers in Franklin County VA (which is quite close to where this exchange took place). And I naively thought this activity had largely evaporated in the first half of the 20th Century. Ha ha.

There was definitely something different about this group, and they’d finally hit upon something I’d never been offered or requested before. While there’s no knowing where this might lead, one thing is certain: we took a shine to each other and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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