Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Select Plus

This past week I achieved a status I never expected to reach: Select Plus with Amtrak.

What does this signify? For one thing, it means I've ridden the train a lot this year.

Here's how it works. For every dollar you spend on Amtrak travel you earn one Tier Qualifying Point (TQP). If you spend as much as $5000 on train tickets in a calendar year you will reach Select status for the following year. (Note: this is good only for yourself; money spent buying tickets for others does not accrue TQPs for you.)

As a consultant and community networker who prefers traveling by rail, I've been able to reach Select status a number of times. In addition to earning some coupons that way (good for upgrades, passes to first class lounges, and discounts on tickets) people who have Select status get a 25% bonus on all train travel expenditures. Thus, for every $400 spent on Amtrak travel, I earn 500 TQPs as a Select member.

To get to Select Plus status, however, you have to earn 10,000 TQPs in a calendar year, which seemed beyond the pale. I was able to grab the brass ring this time only by virtue of taking advantage of a relatively new credit card option.

Let me explain. For many years Amtrak has offered a credit card that earns train miles—much as other credit cards earn airline miles. To be clear, "train miles" are not TQPs. Train miles are merely "points" and can be traded in for tickets or upgrades, but that's a separate reckoning from TQPs. However, about three years ago Amtrak switched from Chase to Bank of America as the bank through which their credit card was offered and they created a new option: you could either get a no-fee credit card where every dollar run through it earned a point, or, for a $79 annual fee, you could get three points for every dollar spent on train travel, plus 1000 TQPs for every $5000 you ran through the card.

I paid the $79, and that was the key to reaching Select Plus.

Why is that big deal? Here are the highlights. During 2018 I'll get to enjoy:

• four one-class upgrades (from coach to business class)
• unlimited access to first class lounges
• access to United Club lounges at major airports
• 50% point bonus on Amtrak travel

While all of that is helpful, the thing I have my eye on most is access to first class lounges. As a mere Select traveler I got a couple passes a year, now I'll get it in every major city where I board or change trains—Chicago, Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Portland, Los Angeles, St Paul, New Orleans, Raleigh, and St Louis.

That means comfortable seats, wi-fi access, complimentary beverages, and free bag storage—all very appreciated by the weary traveler.

Further, it's relevant that I earn regular points at an accelerated rate. I've been stockpiling these against the day when Susan retires as church lady for St Paul's Episcopal in Duluth and she can occasionally travel with me. If I use my points for sleeper car accommodations she can ride with me in a roomette for no additional charge. Yippee! That's worth saving for.

All in all, it has been definitely worth the $79 per year.

P.S. My remaining train fantasy is to own my own private train car, replete with kitchen, bar/lounge, desk, and sleeping compartment. Hah! I should live so long.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

An Older White Man's Response

Over the last month this country has been going through a spate of revelations about men in power (including elected officials, Hollywood celebrities, captains of industry, spiritual leaders, you name it) being accused of having abused their positions of influence to pressure women into sexual relations. It's pretty disgusting.

As an older white guy, I have a number of thoughts about this. 

I. Tip of the Iceberg
As bad as the revelations have been so far—which are terrible—you can be sure that the total scope of what's happened is much worse than we know today. Most abuse never gets reported, or is hushed up when it does.

One of the more pathetic excuses being offered by Roy Moore and his apologists is that they do not find the allegations against him to be credible because the incidents happened almost four decades ago. Surely, they argue, occurrences that bad would have been reported right away. Huh? If they knew anything about the psychology of abuse, they'd appreciate how hard it is for the victim to come forward. There is no correlation between delay and authenticity.

On the positive side, each time a woman finds the courage to tell her horror story it gets a bit easier for other victims to speak up as well. Though I am not at all happy that abuse occurs, I think we need to shine a spotlight on it if we're going to make any significant cultural change. In this current surge of revelations, a number of brave women have been doing the hard work of speaking up, and that should be celebrated and supported.

II. A Person's Right to Their Sexuality
After more than 60 years on this planet I've come to understand that the breadth of human sexual orientation and turn-on is incredibly varied and complex. While I believe that, in the ideal, everyone should have the freedom to express sexual desire (to extend an invitation) whenever they want, I think that's incredibly dangerous unless there is a concomitant commitment to responding respectfully when invitations are declined. If you can't hear "no," don't ask the question.

While I'm generally fine with individuals exploring auto-eroticism to their heart's content*, if you're wanting to interact sexually with others then you need their willing participation (for more about coercion see Point III below). As easy as it is to write that, however, there are a number of complications that need to be recognized.

Sexual abuse is mainly the misuse of power to gain sexual favors. If the power imbalance among potential partners is too great, how can you be sure you have consent (as opposed to acquiesence)?

Let me lay out four versions of this:

•  If the age differential is too great
I know an intentional community that developed a guideline for teenagers that they needed to be within two years of each other for sexual contact to be acceptable (above and beyond mutual consent). For adults I've heard it proposed that sexual contact be considered inappropriate unless the younger person is at least six years older than half the age of the older one.

Frankly, I don't know where the line is with respect to age differential, but there is one, and it's a dynamic to be reckoned with.

•  If there is an implied threat to safety, or possible retribution (say loss of a job, or a withheld promotion)
Suppose the invitation comes from a bodybuilder who is known to be prone to anger. Or from your boss, and you need the job, or covet a special assignment. Even though you want to say "no," you might hesitate.

And it can be even worse than that. If the person grew up in an abusive family (perhaps where the father beat his wife and kids), they may be sensitized to the danger of a male losing his temper, and may overreact to a raised voice because it triggers bad memories. I'm not saying it's the man's responsibility to know that ahead of time, but you can commit to paying attention to how your words and tone are landing, and making appropriate adjustments.

•  If the invitation comes from a guardian or protector
If you receive a sexual invitation from your father, your minister, a police officer, or district attorney (shades of Roy Moore)—someone you've been taught to expect safety from, it can be very tricky ground to navigate.

•  If the invitee does not have the capacity to give informed consent
It's inappropriate to have sexual relations with partners who are not able to respond thoughtfully to a sexual invitation due to incapacitation (think of Bill Cosby), or who do not have the cognitive ability to understand what's being asked.

For all of these reasons, it's important to develop clear norms about what kinds of sexual invitation are appropriate to extend.

* Even with masturbation there should be limits. I believe it's abusive, for instance, if you're pressuring others to watch (a la Louis CK). Also, I'm aware of an instance where a man tried to heighten his pleasure through near-strangulation and failed to stop in time. His accidental death left an incredible mess for others to clean up. The standard, I believe, should be sensitivity to how your self-focused act may place others in an awkward or compromised situation.

III. A Person's Right to Freedom from CoercionIf a sexual invitation places the recipient in a dilemma—where they don't feel safe to decline, or they anticipate having to pay a price for "no"—that's abuse. It is not enough that the powerful person did not mean to be coercive. It is incumbent on them to look ahead of the curve, at how their invitation may be hard for the recipient to handle.

In essence, the more power you have, the more circumspect you should be about extending sexual invitations, or even being available for sexual liaisons invited by the person with less power (because of the potential for the dynamic being misunderstood by observers if, say, the secretary seduces the boss, or the student their instructor).

IV. What's a Reasonable Strategy to Get from Where We Are to Where We Want to Be?
If we envision a world in which men and women and are equally powerful, does it make sense to flip privilege—where we preferentially support women being more aggressive than men—in order to close the gap more quickly? And if so, for how long? 

Sandra Day O'Connor had to wrestle with this question when, as a Supreme Court Justice, she had to lay out guidance in support of affirmative action as a legally defensible tactic in the battle to eradicate racial inequality. She chose 20 years.

While I have no idea how long it will take to dismantle male privilege (or even if it's possible in this day of alt-right Neanderthal politics and throwback gender roles), I am sympathetic to the argument that women deserve to be treated better then men, at least for a while, in order to counterbalance the negative impact of a lifetime of disadvantage.

In the world of intentional communities, where I have spent most of my adult life, there is an important distinction between groups that have a spiritual focus, and ones that do not. Among secular groups there is a strong commitment to creating feminist culture (by which I mean gender blind, not pro-female). However, spiritual groups can be all over the map when it comes to gender: anything from Old Testament patriarchy to New Age there-is-the-divine-in-all-of-us. 

As my experience is rooted in the secular side, my work is slanted toward creating feminist culture. As an older, college-educated, Protestant, heterosexual, able-bodied, articulate white man, I am oozing with privilege, which means I'm susceptible to misunderstanding (or being oblivious to) how the field is slanted in my direction. As someone who has been active in the Communities Movement I've always understood that my privilege was going to be scrutinized under a microscope. 

I'm OK with that. I don't want to be the recipient of unearned advantages, and I'd like to help develop models of appropriate male behavior—even though I'm still in the process of figuring out what those are.

V. How Does This Impact Me Personally?
The intersection between my societal objective (working toward a feminist culture) and my own sexuality has been very challenging to integrate. Once I became aware of the pervasiveness of male abuse, the societal double standard for sexual exploration by men and by women (if a man does it he's "sowing wild oats"; if a woman does it she's a slut), and the phenomenon of date rape, it gave me pause. 

I became suspicious of sexual attraction. What was inherent, and what had I been conditioned to? What is my birthright as a human being, and what is a brute reptilian urge broadly tolerated under the permissive shibboleth of boys will be boys? Not wanting to be that guy, I became sexually buttoned down in response.

Even though I came of age just as the fires of the Sexual Revolution were burning brightly (I entered college in 1967, right after spending the Summer of Love touring Europe), I resolved to proceed with caution. I was deliberate about romantic liaisons, and never slept with a woman on a first date. I wanted to make sure she was interested as well, and didn't feel pressured into sex.

Being aware of how men misuse their power (there is nothing in general about today's news that is revelatory to me—men have been acting as predatory jerks for a very long time) to gain sexual access to women, I made a commitment to do my best to not be part of the problem. The phrase "casual sex" became oxymoronic for me. I was either going to be thoughtful and emotionally grounded, or it wasn't going to happen.

Now fast forward through those awkward early years to a time in my 40s when another piece to the puzzle became clear. I was making love with my partner one night when something triggered an intensely sad memory for her and she lost all desire to continue. As the memory wasn't connected with me, and she felt badly about asking me to stop mid stride, she suggested that I simply finish without her. That is, she invited me to engage with her physically while her mind and psyche were elsewhere.

I was appalled. While I understood that her offer was well intended, I could not imagine how I could continue on my own. Sex by this time had become for me an inextricable union of energies, something my partner and I wove afresh together on each occasion. It was not something either party mailed in. Thus, as soon as she became sad, I became detumescent. 

Later, I pondered that exchange more deeply. While I couldn't imagine forging ahead with intercourse when my partner had lost interest, she had expected me, as a man, to either prefer to continue (once aroused), or perhaps be unable to stop. I realize, of course, that some men act that way, but are there men who really can't stop? I didn't understand.

Years later, while still with the same partner, I noticed that my erections were becoming unreliable. There is one time in particular that stands out because my partner wanted intercourse and I was not able to deliver. While it was frustrating and somewhat embarrassing for me, she was angry. She thought I was withholding my erection, like it was something I could control at will. What an interesting juxtaposition!

In the first instance she interacted with me as if I my erection signaled manifest destiny, where intercourse was not be be denied; in the second she expected me to be able to produce an erection on demand. Maybe other men are different, but my relationship with my penis did not match her expectations on either occasion. As I see it, men always have choices about their actions, though they may not always have erections.

Over the last 20 years I've experienced a steady decline in the frequency and duration of my erections. While this varies from individual to individual, it is a normal consequence of male aging, and I accept that. Nonetheless, I wonder how much of my experience is physiological, and how much is psychological. 

I raise this question because I suspect there may be a link between my declining erections and the deep questions I have about where desire may lead. (If I were fully open to it would I be at risk of unleashing passion that could result in abuse?) It seems reasonable to me that I may literally be embodying my ambivalence.

This question is all the more up for me (so to speak) in that I've become aware over the years (partly through intense work with a female psychologist) that it is relatively common for some women, at least at times, to want to be "taken" in the height of passion. That there is a natural tendency in heterosexual relationships for the man to be directive and the woman to be receptive. Oh boy, talk about playing with fire!

Having learned as a young man that there may be a monster behind the door of my unbridled sexuality (in service to which all manner of atrocities have been committed), I've worked hard to keep that door locked. Thus, on those occasions when an intimate partner has knocked on the door, asking me to open up, I've been scared to the point of paralysis of what I'll find. 

What a complicated journey! Maybe I'll live long enough to figure it out.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Keeping Busy at Home

Winter arrived in a hurry in Duluth. When I left for my last trip Oct 17, there was still plenty of color in the trees and there had not yet been a killing frost. When I returned home Nov 3, we were looking at 10 days without daily temperatures appreciably poking their collective heads above freezing. Yikes!

Cold weather is a good time to sit by the fireplace and reflect. As a senior citizen (my odometer rolled over to 68 recently), I sometimes wonder about how best to put my knowledge to use. That means looking for the intersection of what valuable things I think I've learned in life, and what I think people might be interested in learning from me—which are not necessarily the same thing.

Even as I've scaled back my workload since retiring as FIC's administrator at the end of 2015—I continue my work as a cooperative group process consultant and facilitation trainer, but that's only half time—I remain keenly interested in trying to make a positive difference in the world.

Since regaining much of my health following a stem cell transplant in July 2016 (to treat multiple myeloma), I have enjoyed paid work (and had sufficient recovery to deliver quality service) every month since then excepting last June (which is often a time when communitarians take vacation and are not looking to hire consultants). That said, I have no travel scheduled this month. What gives? It turns out that the answer is other opportunities.

While I haven't been hired to visit a struggling group to help them get out of the ditch, nor do I have a facilitation training lined up, I've been asked to do all of the following, preferably before Thanksgiving:

•  Author 4-5 blogs for the FIC, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary by posting a remembrance once per day all month. (I've done three; two to go.)

•  Review a fundraising letter for a community hoping to replace an $85,000 loan from ex-members that's being called. They have until the end of the year.

•  Continue work as an arbitrator/facilitator for a longstanding group that's trying to negotiate an amicable separation between one couple and the four other members, where there have been serious breaches of trust, and each side feels underappreciated and misunderstood by the other. About once every week or two I am called upon to put together a progress report as we inch our way forward.

•  Draft an assessment of a community that is struggling with integrating new members. It has largely turned into a tug-of-war and relationships have gotten seriously frayed. I'm not sure if it can be turned around before there's a mass exodus, but I have to try.

•  Write an article about consensus for the third edition of The Change Handbook.

•  Craft a testimonial for a long-time member of a client group in Colorado that I've known since 2004. They're celebrating his contributions and I've been asked to add a flower to the bouquet.

•  Conduct regular phone consulting with a friend in Seattle who's hip deep in developing a multi-racial grassroots restaurant and events facility in an urban neighborhood that's struggling to maintain its identity in the face of gentrification. It's righteous work, but fraught with complications.

So while I may not be hired to hit the road this month, there's no moss growing on me (or my keyboard).

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Dia de los Muertos 2017

Today is All Saints Day. It is also the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, when the veil between the temporal and the spirit world is said to be thinnest. In Mexico this is a time to remember dear ones who have recently departed. Notably, it is treated there as a time of celebration. It is neither somber nor macabre. Gravestones are spruced up and altars are festooned in bright colors and momentos. Favorite foods are prepared. 

I am especially drawn to this holiday because it addresses a societal need. Overwhelmingly I experience our culture as ritual starved, and I think we have an unhealthy out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude toward death. Having recently experienced a long walkabout near the edge of death myself (courtesy of multiple myeloma), I have particular zest for pausing, to note those who passed over the edge since this date a year ago. 

I started this tradition in 2013, and today I am remembering two souls: Kimchi Rylander and Chuck Marsh. Oddly enough, they were both long-term members of Earthaven, an ecovillage in Black Mountain NC that was founded in 1994, and which I've had occasion to visit from time to time. While it's hard whenever you lose an elder, this year they lost two and are doubly sheathed in black crepe.

While I was not especially close to either of them, they were both fellow travelers in my field of passion—the arcane world of community networking.

Kimchi Rylander  
She died Feb 16, at age 55, from breast cancer and complications from diabetes.

I knew Kimchi in two ways. First, as someone who, from time to time, represented her community at the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference (which was a regular whistle stop on my event circuit for two decades). And second, as a point of light and a ray of hope at home. She was an organizer and a lubricant in a community that suffered more than its share of sticky dynamics and strong personalities. 

Earthaven has been a community that has drawn to itself a wealth of people with a burning desire to be a model of sustainability, but everyone's vision of how best to accomplish that was not always aligned and the community has frequently struggled to get all the horses pulling in the same direction. Whenever the neighing turned to naying, Kimchi would be one of the ones to hold the heart.

Blessed are they who pour oil on troubled waters.

Thank you, Kimchi.

Chuck Marsh 
He died Aug 27, at age 65 (or thereabouts), from pancreatic cancer.

Chuck was a pioneer in ecological landscape design and he consulted and educated on edible landscaping, biological economics, and Permaculture Design. Earthaven was a great fit for Chuck and he devoted the latter third of his life to making it a home base for his work in the world. 

I always think of him with a scarf tied rakishly around his neck and with a puckish grin on his face.

Chuck had over 35 years of experience working with the plants, soil, water, climate and people of North Carolina to design and install place appropriate, productive, and sustainable home and commercial landscapes. 

Can we ever have too many people dedicated to designing and creating beautiful, productive, resource conserving landscapes that celebrate and deepen our connection to the natural world?

Thank you, Chuck.