Tuesday, December 3, 2019

It's Snow Miracle—It's Community

The last 48 hours Susan and I had some pretty interesting travel moments, especially for a couple of 70-year-old geezers.

Each day started before dawn (no sleeping in for us)…

We awoke in Las Vegas, where we were winding up a Thanksgiving Weekend with my kids and grandkids. While the rest of the house slept in, we piled our bags into the trunk of our rental car and tootled over to McCarran amidst light traffic and under fair skies. Dropping off the car went smoothly and we were at our gates in plenty of time. (I said "gates" because we were not flying on the same plane. I bought a one-way ticket much earlier than Susan because it was the tail end of a 23-day trip that included stops in Eugene OR and Spokane WA. 

I enticed Susan into joining me in Vegas only after my trip was in place, and she got the best deal on a round-trip ticket with Delta. I was flying Sun Country. While the flights were both nonstop and were scheduled to take off and arrive a mere 30 minutes apart, that's not how it worked out. Susan's plane was early into MSP, while my flight was substantially delayed out of McCarran—first because the equipment was late from a prior flight and then a cargo door light malfunctioned, necessitating a trip back to the terminal to get it fixed. In all, we landed 1.75 hours late, which meant we'd missed our schedule shuttle to Duluth.

But it turned out that didn't matter much, because all shuttles to Duluth had been canceled due to our home town being blasted by 20 inches of snow sculpted by 40 mph winds—the ninth worst blizzard in the city's history. Yikes!

Fortunately, Susan was busy using her unexpected layover at the airport well. After finding out the bad news about our shuttle, she rebooked for a morning shuttle (the snow had stopped in Duluth midday and the shuttle folks were optimistic about being able to get through on Monday). She also responded to a fortuitous text inquiry from Ray (partner of Elsie, her college roommate and lifelong friend) who was curious how our travels were going. They live in Minneapolis, and when they found out we were stranded promptly invited us to dinner and to stay the night—chauffeur service to and from the airport thrown in at no additional charge. Talk about tripping on a tree root and landing in clover!

So Sunday ended well, if not in the city we meant to be in.

After getting fortified with mugs of strong coffee, Ray drove us to the airport, arriving 10 minutes before the scheduled shuttle departure. While we got underway a bit late and the driving was noticeably slower than usual in order to safely negotiate the marginal road conditions, we arrived safely in Duluth circa 10:45 am.

The main push to get back home was for me to keep a monthly date with my oncologist and to receive infusion therapy as part of the regimen that keeps my multiple myeloma at bay. Monday was my one day to accomplish that (because I was loath to shorten my family visit in Vegas, and needed to take a train east Tuesday morning to be on location to start a facilitation training Thursday evening). In short, my time in Duluth was tightly choreographed, and I was already in trouble. By virtue of having spent Sunday night in Minneapolis, there was no way I was going to be able to keep my 9 am date with my oncologist.

Thus, I was on the phone to my hospital (St Luke's) during the shuttle ride north, trying to negotiate a later slot in the day so that I could still leave town Tuesday morning. While same-day rescheduling is usually impossible, others were struggling with weather delays also, which worked in my favor. My doctor had 23 appointments queued up for Monday, but there were eight no-shows, which unexpectedly provided me with a precious afternoon make-up slot—if I could get there by 12:30 pm to do my blood work.

While we were optimistic about that schedule when we first hit Duluth, it turned out that we were the very last stop—there were five deliveries before ours—and that ate 30 minutes. Susan had left the car in the shuttle parking lot Nov 26, so that it would be there waiting for us upon our return. While that plan looked solid when the ground was bare, we found our Subaru Legacy buried in 20 inches of snow with no lanes plowed out near it. Ugh! Now what?

The silver lining was that there was another customer who just had her vehicle shoveled out and was ready to depart when Susan recognized her as a former member of her church, and asked if she could drop me off at St Luke's on her way home. Sure, she said. She'd be happy to be our angel of mercy. While I left Susan to figure out how to extract the car, I jumped into Alison's Prius and away we went like a red rat, trying to solve the maze of which streets had been plowed and which hadn't—and which plowed streets had enough clearance that we could negotiate the snow pan. It was exciting and circuitous but I was delivered to St Luke's at 12:20—10 minutes to spare. Whew!

While I spent the next seven hours in the hospital (blood draw, doctor visit, infusion therapy), Susan performed miracles in the open air. First she nudged the folks at the shuttle place to locate a plow to clear a path near her car while she and an underemployed shuttle driver dug out the vehicle. Then she connected with our dear friend Nat (who had been dog sitting Lucie in our absence) to retrieve our retriever. 

Amazingly she got all of that done just as I was wrapping up at St Luke's, so she swung by the hospital and collected me. After Lucie got through with her effusive slobbery greeting (she missed me!) we stopped at a nearby grocery for essential vittles and headed home, not knowing what we'd find. 

We had been advised by a neighbor to approach our back alley from the uphill side (the access on the downhill side had not been plowed), where one lane had been cleared by the concerted efforts of neighbors with snowblowers (there's no telling when the city would get to it). Not only was the snow blown away, so were we. When we sashayed down to our garage we discovered that our parking pad had been cleared as well and there was even a path to our back door one shovel-width wide! We were tired and cranky after a long day, and suddenly we were enveloped in love.

Lucie waltzed in through the back door, we unloaded the car, and we were home. Hurray!

After basking in the alpenglow of our good neighbors' ministrations for about 10 minutes, I got back up and did trip accounting, opened mail, sharpened my pencil (there are always crosswords out there needing attention), changed dirty clothes for clean ones in my suitcase, swapped out read books for unread ones, notified family and close friends of our safe arrival, and plopped into bed about 11 pm. It took all of about five minutes to pass into a sound sleep.

Susan's iPhone went off alarming early at 3:30 am. While we did that on purpose, it was still jarring. For the first few seconds I had no idea where I was. Then I remembered (if this is Tuesday it must be Duluth), and popped out of bed, got dressed and finished assembling my travel gear. We were in the car by 3:45 and at the pick-up spot by 4:05. The shuttle was on time at 4:15, and back I went south—less than 18 hours after we'd arrived from the other direction. I felt like the end of a giant yo-yo.

Today, thankfully, has been easy so far (knock on something with cellulose). While it's only noon and I have to make a train connection in Chicago—never a sure thing—the eastbound Empire Builder auspiciously arrived early into St Paul (I thought I'd faint). We're still on time halfway to the Windy City, and the vast majority of the snow is north of us now as we rumble through the Wisconsin Dells.

• • •
Aside from the sheer joy of reading about the harrowing travel adventures that people survive, it occurred to me how much this story is a testament to Community Where You Are, a concept that the Fellowship for Intentional Community adopted as part of its mission in 2005. 

Over the years I've noted with interest how my dedication to community building has remained steadfast though I am less and less attached to any particular form. From a commitment to income-sharing that started in 1974, I got involved on the ground floor with FIC in 1987, which promoted intentional communities of all stripes. My position there became the springboard from which I expanded my thinking to embrace Community Where You Are.

Then my reality followed. I left the income-sharing of Sandhill Farm in 2013 for the non-income-sharing ecovillage of Dancing Rabbit. After my marriage dissolved in 2015, I left northeast Missouri to live in a cooperative house in Chapel Hill NC with two facilitation friends. After only six months there I left NC for Duluth, to live with Susan, who was thoroughly integrated in a traditional neighborhood of single family middle class residences.

How much community can there be in such a neighborhood? Take a look at our driveway and the path to our back door.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Lessons from a Founding Father

A couple weeks back a friend loaned me their copy of David McCullough's biography, John Adams, offering insights into the life and times of our second PresidentIt's a 650-page monster that was published in 2001, and I just finished it.

There were several aspects of the story that have lingered with me:

Power and Corruption
On the one hand, John Adams—the primary focus of the book—stood out as an exemplar of Puritan ethics. He was a hard worker and lived an agrarian life in Braintree, an outer southern suburb of Boston at the time (today, of course, it's a stop on the T). Money was always a bit tight, but he never shirked from answering the call to public service. He did it as a patriot, and never particularly gained financially from his decades in service.

You get to see how being in public service meant wearing the shirt with a bullseye on it—where you are sure to be mistreated and mischaracterized both by the press and by your fellow politicians. For Adams it went with the territory and he mostly suffered in silence or shrugged it off.

Others, including contemporary notables Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and even Thomas Jefferson, found it more difficult to resist the seductive song of the Lorilei: coveting personal power—to the point where that was more compelling than doing what was best for the nation.

Of course, the story that power corrupts is a very old one, and continues to this day. While our Founding Fathers were remarkable people acting at a special moment in time, they mostly had the same feet of clay as the rest of us. What stood out was that Adams is portrayed as someone who was singularly resistant to the siren call of power. In my view he is all the more worth honoring for that achievement. It's damn hard to do.

Party Politics
In the 1770s Americans sorted themselves into one of two political camps: Loyalists (those reluctant to separate from England) and Patriots (those who thought it was high time to cut ties with the monarchy of George III).

Once the Declaration of Independence was signed the die was cast and Patriots (of various stripes) filled out the Continental Congress and the lead-up to the creation of the US Constitution in 1787. (Of course, the greatest accomplish in the intervening years was General Washington's ability—with French support—to ultimately defeat the British mercenaries on the field of battle, allowing the American Revolution to continue.) Unanimity, however, was a chimera, and didn't last long. To Adams' dismay, two parties quickly coalesced: the Federalists (pro-British) squared off against the Republicans (pro-French). 

Because Adams favored a strong central government he was assigned a Federalist label and was falsely accused of wanting the US government to be a monarchy—something he had no interest in at all. In fact, Adams was the main author of the Constitution.

Epistolary Relationships
I'm old enough to remember being taught penmanship in school… and then being expected to use it. In this day of emojis and instant messaging most people don't even communicate in complete sentences any more, and who hand writes a letter?

Much of McCollough's work is interlarded with snippets of primary source material in the form of actual correspondence. This is especially true in the portraits he develops of John Adams, Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, as so much if what we know about them comes from private letters—rather than from media reports or public documents. Adams spent a large portion of a typical day carrying on an active correspondence with friends and peers. 

As I am drawn to expressing myself in writing, it appealed to me to know that so did Adams. Though I do it almost exclusively through email today, I used to type letters (circa 1975-90) and before that I wrote by hand (in fact, I still take meeting notes by hand). So I can relate to Adams' epistolary discipline.

When Adams was elected President in 1796, the largest city in the US was Philadelphia, with around 55,000 people—which is less than one percent of the number who reside today in the metropolitan area of the City of Brotherly Love. Think of that.

It's amazing to contemplate how well the Constitution has served us given that the country today would have been impossible to envision when it was drafted more than two centuries ago. I am shaking my head at the school of thought among jurists who are styled strict constructionists—who believe that the best we can do is interpret what the Founding Fathers meant in 1787, and stalwartly resist any efforts to reinterpret law situationally, as culture and mores evolve. Are you kidding me? 

The US Constitution was (and is) an experiment in government by representative democracy, and there is no evidence whatsoever that the Founding Fathers considered themselves infallible or didn't think that changes could be made as times warranted. Good thinking didn't end with the Founding Fathers, and I'm convinced that John Adams would have a good laugh, perhaps over a gill of hard cider, if he knew that Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh were working so diligently to interpret his long dead intentions.

The Long View
There were a number of principles that Adams held dear and that are worth highlighting today:

—Wars are incredibly expensive, and to be avoided if at all possible.

—America cannot trust Europe to hold American interests close. England will always be more concerned with France and France will be more concerned with England. America is just a pawn to either. While the value if this insight is diminished in concert with the decline of the British Empire, the rise of America as a world power, and the expansion of the world stage, if we substitute Russia and China for England and France we have a workable principle still.

—The polar star for people in public service should not be what is best for oneself or for one's party, but what is best for the country in the long run. Amen.

—Human nature is such that good people frequently succumb to the temptation to abuse power in pursuit of personal gain. Don't be surprised.

The Power of a Loving Partnership Between Equals
Abigail Adams was a strong woman well before the time when women were allowed to be strong. (Not that there isn't still work to do here, but we've come a long way, baby.) Abigail and John spent a large fraction of their long marriage living apart (she didn't accompany him on his first tour of duty as an American envoy to Europe prior to independence, and often stayed in Braintree to manage their farm while he was a public servant. In addition to his work on the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he played a central role in the Continental Congress that ultimately produced the US Constitution, he served as Washington's Vice President for eight years (1789-1797), and then was in the top spot himself for one term. It wasn't until 1801 that he retired from public life, after 30 years in one saddle or another.

The compelling thing is that Abigail "got it" about public service and personal sacrifice for the good of the country. And John got it about the preciousness of having a partner who got him (especially when many of his political contemporaries wanted to crawl up his back to advance their careers). While John's private correspondence (and Abigail's also, for that matter) contained many instances of their venting frustrations, he largely refrained from carrying on public feuds (oh where is such forbearance today with a President who exhibits no self-discipline about indulging in the corrosive habit of knee-jerk, caustic tweeting).

[Trump supporters who find his raw statements refreshing for their candor, conveniently turn a blind eye to their vicious, divisive, and self-serving nature.]

They were an amazing and inspirational couple. Refreshingly, there did not appear to be any sexual scandal associated with Adams. Abigail (and the judicious application of abstinence) was enough for John.

His Dance with Jefferson
Last, I enjoyed the book for its in-depth examination of Adams' longstanding and complex relationship with Thomas Jefferson, his contemporary to the point where they both died on the same day: July 4, 1826 (I'm telling you folks, you can't make this kind of thing up—they died exactly on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a seminal document that Jefferson drafted and Adams floor managed through the Continental Congress. Wowzers.)

Jefferson and Adams had a powerful, friendship that evolved over the course of decades, and that survived their markedly divergent political views (where Adams was a Federalist, favoring a strong Union and close ties with England; Jefferson preferred a confederation and was inspired by the spirit of the French Revolution) and different styles of political action (where Adams was direct to the point of being blunt; Jefferson was indirect and often preferred working through intermediaries on the front lines while he positioned himself above the fray, pottering around at Monticello).

Despite their differences in substance and style they remained true friends as two voracious readers who energetically discussed various features of their experiment in democracy. Jefferson was the more elegant writer, while Adams was the more talented administrator (his constitutional skills and ability to take the long view were legendary). In the end, the US was lucky to have two such lions both on the ground, fearlessly getting the job done in the chaos of the American Revolution.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


I just finished reading Michelle Obama's recent bestseller, Becoming. It's an overview of her life, divided into three parts: growing up and establishing herself as a Harvard-educated lawyer; getting together with Barack and the early years of his political career and their dedication to social change work; and finally, their eight years in the White House.

In no particular order, here is what touched me especially:

Feminism and Politics
I followed closely her account of the anguish she went through juggling three different personas: as the mother of Malia and Sasha, as an accomplished nonprofit administrator, and as the wife of a successful national politician. While Michelle enjoyed some unusual opportunities by virtue of her position as FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States), she also set aside her own career to support that of her husband, and to pick up the parenting slack necessarily resulting from how little Barack could be present as Dad given all the demands on the President's time.

Michelle not only did this with grace, but she did it at a time when women continue to struggle to be accepted as coequals on the world stage. Reading about all the balls she was keeping in the air, I was reminded of the first cover of Ms. magazine:

While this image (and this topic) was in Gloria Steinem's spotlight 47 years ago—and progress has been made—the struggle continues.

Administration and Implementation
As an experienced nonprofit administrator I have a personal relationship to the dance between program development and effective organizational guidance and oversight. While I readily acknowledge that this doesn't tend to be a very sexy topic (there aren't many who aspire to a career in nonprofit administration), it caught my attention that before Barack pushed all of his chips into the center of the table in 2007, both he and Michelle were sitting on a number of nonprofit boards in the Chicago area—and this on top of their having two young daughters and full-time jobs. I could hardly imagine how they did it. 

I recently turned down a request to consider serving on a nonprofit board because I didn't think I had the time to do it justice. I was already serving on one, and didn't think I had the bandwidth to stretch to two. What a wimp I am!

In my experience there is a tendency for nonprofit boards to be little more than a rubber stamp for a dynamic executive director, and that's not a good model. For the one board I'm on, I'm actively trying to strengthen the organization's understanding of what a strong and engaged board looks like, and that's about all of that that I can handle.

Hope Versus Nihilism
Becoming brought out the ache attendant to contrasting the optimism and decency of the Obamas with the self-serving boorishness of Trump. I had forgotten how good it felt when Barack won in 2008, and was saddened to realize how much I have become inured to the steady outflow of soul-diluting sewerage generated by our current President.

It did my heart good to be reminded that power and venality are not always conjoined.

The Ascendency of Social Media
Michelle points out that the iPhone first burst on the scene in June 2007, just three months after Barack had announced his candidacy for President. As we all know, the smart phone was an instant success, and Apple sold 3 million in 90 days. By the time the Obamas left the White House, Apple had sold three billion.

Social media exploded exponentially on their watch—to the point where today we have foreign policy being dictated via Trump's pre-dawn twittering thumbs. Scary, but that's the way of the world.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

When Committees Get Ahead of the Group

I was recently working with a community that had been together for several years but was struggling with the right relationship between committees and the plenary.

Like most intentional communities, the group had committed to making decisions by consensus. Unfortunately, also like most groups, the community had not bothered to get trained in consensus or to define clearly how it would work (uh oh). I have sympathy for how they got there. Members had mostly led successful lives (how else would they have been able to afford their units?). How hard could it be to work things out with like-valued people?

Sadly, living cooperatively is harder than it looks, and good intentions and a healthy bank account are rarely sufficient to get you to heaven.

Let me explain how they'd slid into the ditch.

In consensus all the power (the ability to decide things for the group) initially resides with the plenary (meetings of the whole), and you don't move forward in the presence of a principled objection (by which I mean a proposed action or agreement is deemed bad for the group, contradicts an existing agreement, or is crosswise with a common value). While groups sometimes run afoul of what constitutes legitimate grounds for blocking, that wasn't where this group was struggling. Their issue revolved around how power was distributed.

While consensus groups start with all the power being held by the plenary, it's generally not a good practice to keep it that way. If the group has more than a handful of members (eight?) it's almost always better to delegate some degree of power (the ability to make decisions that are binding on the group) to managers and committees. If all decisions must come to the plenary for final say, it becomes a choke point, and members are all too often forced to sit through conversations about matters they really don't care about—when they'd rather be washing their hair or watching reruns of Downton Abbey.

This leads to problems. First, there is meeting fatigue (why are we spending so much time in plenaries?), which leads to a drop in energy and diminished meeting attendance. Simultaneously, it undercuts the morale of committees when all their work must be funneled through the plenary, which is under no obligation to like what committees send up. If all the power is retained by the plenary then why join committees, which only do grunt work? If committees struggle to get members and are demoralized, then the plenary has to pick up the slack, which puts even further pressure on community meetings as the sole place where action happens. It's a vicious cycle. 

Over time, plenary attendance may shake down to the point where only the battle tested and diehards are coming to meetings and resentment builds over the imbalance of who has their oar in the water when it comes to governance. Yuck!

The community in question was foundering over three things:

a) The mistaken notion that it's inappropriate in consensus to ever delegate group-wide decision-making to managers or committees. (While only some of members held this view, it was sufficiently prevalent to hamstring attempts to authorize committees to make decisions without the plenary sprinkling holy water on it.)

b) The inability to develop a sense of trust among members that everyone in the group was generally well-intentioned and can normally be relied on to think and act in the group's best interest. (Note that this is not the same as expecting everyone to think and act just like you—which you'll never get.)

c) The lack of open conversations about how power is distributed in the group: how it actually is, how you'd like it to be, and what's possible. To be fair, this topic is a hot potato for almost all cooperative groups and few handle it cleanly—so I'm profiling a typical group, not a defective one.

Now I want to switch focus to committees trying to operate in this environment, and the dilemma they face. On the one hand, they want to be useful and get things done. On the other, they don't want to be accused of power mongering. When the plenary is not used to giving committees meaningful work, teams may be left to feel their own way into what their role should be. 

During my visit, two different committees brought forward work for the plenary's consideration. In both cases, the committee had done its homework, having made a concerted effort to listen to what community members wanted (not just what committee members wanted), and to develop proposals that reflected that input. However, because committee conveners were taking the lead in bringing things forward, there was suspicion that the committee had gotten ahead of the community and was pushing water uphill. Some members felt that they were being sold rather than solicited, and there was a tense undercurrent.

The good news is that this is fixable. Here's how:

1. Clarifying consensus ambiguities, with a particular eye on delegation
The community needs to address head on the pros and cons of committees being authorized to handle issues in their bailiwick within boundaries established by the plenary. In addition to resolving questions about the theory of delegation, the group stands to benefit substantially from being much more diligent about delegating effectively. If the license for committees is ill-defined there's plenty of room for mischief and misunderstanding. If the plenary expects good work from its teams, it needs to set them up for success by making crystal clear what's expected.

When operating within the traces, committee initiatives need to be celebrated, not eviscerated.

2. Talking openly about power
While this isn't easy, it's doable and necessary. The community needs to develop a common understanding of what power is (influence), how its distribution is situational, how its distribution is always unbalanced, and how it's neutral in and of itself.

While power can be toxic when used to benefit some at the expense of others; it can be medicine when used to benefit all. The community urgently needs a common vocabulary about power.

3. Trusting the process
You can't expect community to bloom in an atmosphere of mistrust. After you do the work of cleaning up the ambiguities about how you want to operate (the previous two steps), members need to extend some grace to each other, allowing room for healing and good will to prevail.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Virtual Sick Bay Revisited

In the last days of August my laptop started acting up… again. It was the second time in a month. This necessitated another trip to the Apple Store in Minneapolis, 150 miles away, where I surrendered my machine to the iMac wizards. The timing was awkward (isn't it always?). They needed at least three days to swap out defective hardware, and I was leaving the next day for a 10-day trip to BC and a round of facilitation training.

While they offered to ship my repaired laptop to wherever I wanted, I was leery of it catching up to me as a moving target, compounded by crossing a border. The last thing I wanted was to have my machine chasing me around the continent, so I swallowed hard and directed them to send it home, accepting that I'd be going dark for two weeks. Gulp.

How much did that shift my daily routine? Let me put it this way: I read eight books in 10 days. I'm that dependent on my electronic umbilicus. Now, thankfully, this second unscheduled work pause is over, and I'm digging out. While I suffered no loss of data (whew), my recovered email was again returned unsorted, and it will take me many hours to reestablish order.

I am home for another fortnight (before heading out for Houston), during which I hope to enjoy the fall (Susan and I will be picking crab apples this week and making jelly) and get in sync again with my electronic cadence. I have a number of virtual balls to keep in the air, and it's impossible to succeed without a laptop that's hitting on all cylinders. Here's hoping I have one.

Weather note
As my work takes me all over North America, I frequently get a chance to see the glazed looks on people's faces when I tell them I live in Duluth. Pretty much everyone wants to know how I tolerate the long winters and the short growing season. How short? While taking Lucie for a walk around the block three weeks ago I noticed as I passed our garden plot that the larger tomatoes were finally starting to turn red-orange. Unfortunately—on the same walk—I also noticed that the neighborhood maple leaves were also starting to turn red-orange. Sigh. Growing heat-loving vegetables in Duluth is only accomplished in a tight window.

To be sure, we are getting tomatoes, just not as many as gardens elsewhere. On the other hand, we don't need air conditioning—Mother Nature provides that on her own, without any assistance from Fedder—and for that Susan and I are highly appreciative. There are always trade-offs.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Lost in the Electron Forest

It has now been 29 days since I last posted to this blog—the longest drought I've ever gone through since starting this publishing odyssey back in 2007. Uffda.

It is not for lack of things to say or the motivation to write. I just couldn't get into my damn blog until now. Here's what happened…

In the middle of July my laptop (a MacBook Air) battery suddenly stopped holding a charge. I could function when plugged into the grid, but the screen would go dark immediately if I pulled the electronic umbilicus. For someone on the go like me that's an incredible nuisance, so I took advantage of changing trains in Chicago July 17 to stop in at the Genius Bar at the Michigan Ave Apple Store in Chicago to see whether an hour in sick bay could make everything better.

The good news was that my laptop was still under Apple Care warranty (I am two-and-a-half years into my three years of coverage). The bad news is that when they looked up the serial number for my machine they couldn't find a record that I owned it—and they wouldn't touch my machine without proof of purchase. Oh boy. As this was the first time I had brought this laptop in to get serviced by Apple, I had no idea this problem existed.

Oh well, I figured, I would go home, root around in my files for a receipt, and then get my laptop attended to at an Apple Store in Minneapolis (after going down to Rochester July 30 for my annual post-stem cell check-up). As we don't have an Apple Store in Duluth, I have to get creative about getting my laptop serviced under warranty.

Unfortunately, I had no luck finding an Apple receipt at home. I got a lot of things filed and better organized (it was time to do that anyway), but no receipt. I even found the box that my machine was originally shipped in, but no paperwork. Frustrated, I contacted my friend Jeffrey Harris who works for Apple and through whom I bought my laptop back in February 2017. 

That turned out to be the smart move for two reasons. First, Jeffrey knew that there never was a paper receipt (so I could stop looking for one). Everything at Apple had been transferred to electronic records by then. No wonder I was having trouble with that.

Second, Jeffrey, bless his heart, had a record of the web order for my laptop, and through that Apple personnel were able to trace what had happened 29 months ago. Turns out someone on their end simply dropped the ball when it came to recording the sale, and the error didn't get discovered until now. Ha ha. I was only moderately amused.

In any event, I now—finally—had a clear pathway to getting service in Minneapolis. The folks there took a quick look at the situation and decided it would be prudent to send it to their tech all-stars in Houston—just in case there was more going on than simply a dead battery. Not knowing what they'd find, I was dutifully warned that it was possible that my hard drive would be wiped clean—did I have everything backed up? We did some backing up with iCould at the store and I left it in their hands.

I figured I could live without a machine for a few days (I was promised a quick turnaround, and it was; I left it with Apple on Wed and the repaired machine was delivered to me in Duluth two days later, Aug 2). As it turned out, however, my hard drive was wiped clean. Ugh. While I haven't lost anything (good), that doesn't mean everything is organized and accessible. 

After spending a couple days reinstalling programs and records from my backup external hard drive, I began facing the nightmare of reorganizing my email files. I have over 70,000 records and while all of that is backed up on gmail, it arrived in my laptop unsorted, excepting by date. That many unsorted records are not particularly useful, so I began the incredibly tedious task of reestablishing my filing system (I have over 200 categories). I have now devoted more than 30 hours to this task and I'm about half done. If this sounds like something akin to cleaning out the Augean Stables, then you're getting the right idea.

On top of everything else, I couldn't remember the password to my blog. After establishing the account when it was opened back in 2007, my machine simply remembered the password and I was signed in automatically whenever I visited the site (who needs to remember a password to a site I visit constantly?). Now, however, I had a stupid machine that required remedial attention.

Once again, a friend rescued me. This time it was Tony Sirna, who originally set up my blog account 12 years ago. He did a little noodling and figured out how I could get recognized as an author again, and not merely as a visitor. Whew.

Another few weeks and I'll just about be back to even. I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Facets of Respect

This past weekend I was at the triennial conference of the International Communal Studies Association, hosted by the Camphill Village communities of Triform and Copake near Hudson NY.

Among other things I listened to someone postulate that one of the foundational concepts that most intentional communities have in common is that their members desire respect. I had a complex reaction to that and want to walk you through it.

My first response was dismissive. Sure, everyone wants to be respected (who would say they prefer to be disrespected?) but in terms of group dynamics it's a trap. A ready surface agreement that respect is a common value implies solidity that's ephemeral—because respect is slippery fish that's hard to net. 

For some people it's not raising one's voice and pausing between statements. For another it's speaking honestly and from the heart—which can be loud and immediate. You can see the problem. Even if people were 100% consistent about engaging others in the way that they would prefer to be engaged, that may have no bearing on how the other person perceives respect. With the wide variety of communication preferences extant in the world it's almost random whether you'll like the way you're approached—even when speakers are trying to be respectful, which won't always be the case.

[I am composing this essay aboard a train—the westbound Lake Shore Limited—and I had a relative minor experience of this very phenomenon within the past hour, buying a cup of coffee in the café car. When it was my turn for service, the attendant asked me what I wanted and I told her, "One cup of coffee, please." Then she paused, looked me in the eye, said "Good morning," and waited. The implication was that she was going to wait there until I responded, and she had all day.

I dutifully mumbled a "good morning" in return, which reanimated her to start pouring coffee, but I was irritated. I didn't need an etiquette lesson, and hadn't been rude in the first place. While I am sympathetic with the desire to set a pleasant (even jocular) tone in the workplace, the attendant was playing a game I didn't sign up for, and didn't appreciate. Perhaps she wanted to be respected—seen as a person more than as a servant—but she came across as someone with a chip on her shoulder (she was fiercely nice, if that makes sense). I had the feeling that if I didn't say "good morning" I might not get my coffee. How was she respecting me (it was 6 am for chrissakes and I hadn't had any coffee yet)?

Essentially she was demanding to be met on her terms, which she'd altered from the normal expectations for a café car transaction, without letting customers know ahead of time that a shift had been made, or asking their permission. It was a power play sailing under the flag of civility, and I didn't like being her guinea pig.]

My second response was more thoughtful. Respect doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's a characteristic of exchanges between people. While I haven't found it particularly helpful to ask (or demand) to be respected, it occurred to me that it might be powerful to commit to communicating in ways that the recipient would consider respectful—to adopt a standard where group members would make an effort to understand what style of communication would come across as respectful to their audience and then try to engage them in that way. 

Even when you get it wrong, it's likely to land better if the other person knows you're trying, because the effort itself is evidence of caring.

While it may seem obvious that it's smart to take into account how your intended audience prefers to receive information (after all the point of communication is to share information and you can profitably work it from either end—refining the clarity of your messages, and packaging them in ways that are easier for the audience to absorb), many of us get no further than the first part before putting one's mouth in gear or hitting send. Instead of taking the time to investigate what our audience prefers, there's a tendency to simply offer others what we prefer ourselves and take our chances. (I style this approach communication roulette.) Sometimes that works—in the same sense that even a blind pig will occasionally find an acorn.

I realize this is fairly radical, focusing on the other person's receptors at least as much as on what you want to say, but if the prize is to be understood it's an excellent strategy, and I recommend it to you.

In any event, that's the pathway by which I've come to have a new-found respect for respect.