Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Visiting the Dark Side

Community tends to be a trusting environment that brings out the best in people… mostly. 

This is especially true at community-focused events, where attendees are getting a long, cool drink of cooperative water amidst the competitive desert of their everyday lives. Attendees often respond by becoming more casual about leaving things in common spaces and having them be there when they return—something they might never do otherwise. This is not about risk taking or tempting fate; it's about trusting the village once you sense its presence and feel a part of it. Mostly it's a good thing.

As a veteran community networker, I've been to gobs of community events over the years, something in the vicinity of 100. (This year I'll attend four, for example.) And my personal experience pretty well lines up with the generalities I've stated above. Thus, it was all the more jarring when I encountered a couple bumps in the road last week.

The Missing Cushion
Over Labor Day Weekend I attended the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference in Louisa VA—something I've been doing for at least the last 20 years. Per usual, I ran the conference bookstore (for the Fellowship for Intentional Community) and positioned myself in the midst of the books, both to assist with book sales and so that folks who wanted a conversation with me as a community resource would know where to find me.

Since I injured my lower back last October, I've taken to traveling with a cushion so that I have back support wherever I sit, and I naturally set that up in one of the two chairs located inside the book area. It's common for me to leave a certain amount of personal stuff in the bookstore area overnight, to eliminate schlepping it around every day, and in two decades I'd never had a problem with it getting messed with.

While everything was proceeding normally (excepting for the thundershowers that drenched the conference site in hail and rain Friday afternoon), when I got to the bookstore Sunday morning I noticed right away that my cushion was missing. What could have happened? Frustrated, I looked all around the bookstore area and on nearby seats and hammocks, but to no avail. When no one brought it back during the morning, I made a public announcement at lunch about its having gone missing, but that produced no joy either. It was just gone.

While it made eminent sense why my cushion might be desirable amidst all the wooden seating, how do you just take something that doesn't belong to you and then ignore the plea of the person who needs it for support? I felt taken advantage of, and it shook my sense of trust. In the end, I never did find out what happened and I didn't recover the cushion. I don't know if it was stolen, or simply borrowed temporarily and then left in a place I never looked.

To be sure, by itself it was not that big a deal. The cushion was not a needlepoint heirloom and my back is better enough now that I don't strictly need the cushion as I did when first injured, and it had as much sentimental value as practical (as my trusty support and a memento of my life together with my ex-wife). That made it no less precious, but I also knew I would function OK without it.

Then it got worse.

The Missing Money Box
For more than 40 years I've been living in northeast Missouri, which is the headquarters of FIC. Almost always, when participating in the Twin Oaks Conference I'd drive out to VA with a carload of books and DVDs and then turn around and drive back with the unsold products and the money (cash, checks, and credit cards slips). I'd be the one unloading the car in Missouri and handing in the paperwork.

This year was more complicated because I'd moved to North Carolina in June. I made arrangements to visit northeast Missouri ahead of the conference so that I could drive out as usual, and I made the trip with someone from Dancing Rabbit, a videographer named Illly (yes, he spells it with three l's)—both so that he could shoot footage at the event in preparation for an FIC crowdfunding campaign, and so that he could drive the rental car back to Missouri afterwards while I traveled north from Virginia to conduct a facilitation training weekend outside Boston.

Though the conference continued through Labor Day Monday, Illly needed to depart late Sunday afternoon in order to get back home in time to turn in the rental car within a week, to avoid extra charges. That meant we needed to conduct a final inventory and pack everything up for the trip home expeditiously Sunday afternoon. While the weather was good, there was a lot to do and Illly was going through the routine for the first time. While his attitude was great and we worked together well, it was all on Illly's shoulders to get everything back to Missouri in good order.

When I got confirmation Tuesday that Illly had made it home safely, I breathed a bit easier. (I wasn't expecting trouble, but you never know when someone needs to drive solo long distance.) I figured at that point that conference logistics were behind me, but it turned out they were just about to bite me in the behind, which is not quite the same thing.

The day Illly had returned I got an email from Kim in the FIC Office, asking where the money and sales records were. Huh? The cash, checks, and credit cards receipts were all in a cigar box that we've been using for that purpose for years, as Kim well knew, and the sales records were in a manila file folder. I had been present when these were packed up at the conference and was sure they were in the boxes shipped back to Missouri. How could they be missing?

As you can imagine this started a series of emails with gradually escalating anxiety as no one had any idea where the cigar box and sales records had gotten to. After none of the innocent suggestions solved the mystery, dark thoughts started creeping into our collective consciousness.

Did Illly take it? Was he careless at a rest stop? Did I do something I'm not remembering? Could someone at the conference have ripped us off while Illly went to the parking lot (suddenly more thinkable following the missing cushion)? All of these thoughts were awkward and led to a sense of being violated (excepting the scenario where I had done something stupid; which was simply embarrassing).

We had never had this happen before, nor was there any solid reason to think that it had happened now—excepting that the money box was missing and had to be somewhere.

After two days of fruitless back and forth, where everyone was asking each other to rack their brains and check twice (and thrice), we were beginning to contemplate asking the event attendees to help us out in recreating what had happened. While the cash was gone, we might be able to stop payment on checks and credit card charges—about two-thirds of the total income. While this was an unsavory task, it was better than just kissing all the income goodbye.

Then the sun came out from behind the dark clouds. 

The Missing Sunshine
Three days into this misery, Kim remembered that part of what Illly brought back were some things for me, to be temporarily stored in Missouri. Perhaps the records and money box had been mixed up with those items? And that turned out to be the needed insight: the cigar box and file folder had been inadvertently covered up beneath my yoga mat. Whew! It turned out that none of those bad things had happened at all. Everyone one collectively sighed.

Part of the problem was that Illly was doing all the transporting home and he hadn't ever been through the drill of unpacking from an event. It was just so many boxes to him, and he was under some time pressure to get the car unloaded an returned to the rental company. He did his job fine, but everything didn't get placed where it could easily be sorted properly: there were books to be reshelved; unsold auction items to be stored until next year; Laird's personal stuff; Illly's video equipment, and records and money to be handed in for accounting. 

Someone once said that the veneer of civilization is only about three meals deep, and it was humbling seeing how quickly dark thoughts started surfacing when the money went missing for three days. While we were holding out hope for a happy ending, our confidence had been shaken. I think Kim summarized it well when she wrote, after the money had been found, "We can all regain our faith in humanity again :) … maybe."

Now if I could only get reunited with my cushion, I'd be able to put this unpleasantness behind me entirely.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glad you got your money and receipts back and that nothing untoward had happened. A lot of people have a very formal protocol around money - something I learned quickly when working as a cashier. Usually, it involves making it extra-clear to all concerned when money is changing hands, exactly what is being exchanged and then putting the money away/out of sight as quickly as possible.

Oddly, there's been some experiments that cash money left out is less likely to be stolen or "borrowed" than other things. Dan Ariely described one involved leaving cans of Coke in a dorm refrigerator along with dollar bills on a plate. The Cokes all disappeared - the dollar bills stayed right were they were left. Most people seem to "respect" money they isn't their own.