Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bedlam 2012

This is my final post for 2012, and I'm going to use it the same way I did last year: to review where I've lain my weary head this calendar year [see Bedlam 2011 for my prior entry in what now appears to be an annual event, and refer to Sleeping in the Bed I Made for my inaugural posting on this obscure topic].

I like referring to this as bedlam because: a) I'm on the road a lot and have a chaotic and confusing distribution of sleeping arrangements; b) some think that my travel schedule is prima facie evidence of mental illness; and c) I have a congenital weakness for word play.

So here's the summary of where I was when the lights went out each night:

o I slept in my own bed at Sandhill 85 times, down by nearly half from last year, largely due to my having spent the first three months of the year at Dancing Rabbit, experimenting in cohabitation with my wife. That represents 23% of my nights.

o  I spent 98 nights with Ma'ikwe at Moon Lodge, her house at Dancing Rabbit. That's an additional 27%. Plus there were 30 nights we spent together on the road, and five nights together at Sandhill. Taken all together, we were in the same bed—wherever it was—36% of the time, up 10% from the year before, so that's progress.

o  It's amusing to note that if you add up my nights at Sandhill and my nights at Moon Lodge, 85+98=183, which is exactly half of the 366 nights available this year. I've been telling people I'm on the road 60% of the time but I reckon I'm more of a home body than I thought.

o I slept at clients' homes (usually in guest rooms) 14 times for 47 nights in total—pretty close to the same as last year.

o I slept at the house of family members seven different times, for a total of 28 nights.

o I slept at 21 different friends' homes for a total of 45 nights.

o I slept 11 times at places associated with FIC meetings or events, totaling 36 nights.

o  Only once did I end up in a hotel (when the Empire Builder arrived too late into Chicago to make my connection home and I inadvertently woke up Thanksgiving morning in downtown Chicago).

o I was on overnight trains 24 times and once took a red eye from the West Coast to the East Coast.

o Most nights I was in an actual bed. Only two nights were spent in tents, four on couches, and 15 on air mattresses. (I'm noticing as I get older that my hosts are more solicitous of finding me a bed—and I'm not complaining.)

o All together, I slept in 52 different locations outside of Rutledge (up sharply from 39 last year), which placed me in 20 states and every continental time zone—and that's only counting the beds that weren't moving across state lines while I slept.

While I've always wanted a life that was full of moving experiences, it was not always clear to me that I'd be moving around so much to accumulate them. As an ardent fan of whimsy it amuses me to realize that my life has become an enactment of a Dr Seuss title: Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Dryer, the Chain Saw, and the Laptop

The title for this essay was inspired by The Starship and the Canoe, Ken Brower’s 1978 biography of scientist Freeman Dyson and his rebellious son, George: a study in contrasting values and lifestyles.

In reflecting on how affordability and self-reliance intersect with my life, it occurred to me that my answer depends a great deal on what part of the elephant you’re touching, and it seemed apropos to compare and contrast choices, just as Brower did with the Dysons 35 years ago.

I’ve been leading a homesteading life at Sandhill Farm, an agricultural income-sharing commune, for the past 38 years. While my intention all along has been a life that was an experiment in simple living, my relationship to self-reliance has rarely been simple. Let me walk you through three examples that illuminate the complexities…

The Dryer
Sandhill’s founding group was two couples: Ed & Wendy plus Annie & me. When we first arrived in 1974, our property had one small livable house that featured one bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, plus a back pantry and a tiny bathroom. We arrived in May, and the couples took turns: one month in the bedroom, and the next in a tent. Meanwhile, we committed ourselves to a 16’x30’ expansion of the house so that by the time it was too cold to sleep outdoors we’d have two more bedrooms (plus a house that was better insulated, rewired, reroofed, and with an expanded bathroom).

For washing clothes we relied on an old Maytag wringer washer (complete with mangle) and a clothesline. I can still recall my sister visiting in our third summer and not understanding how we could choose to live without a clothes dryer. To be fair to her, she had two small children at the time and was probably thinking about managing diapers with a husband who worked all day, leaving domestic chores solely in her hands. To be fair to us, we’ve raised many babies at Sandhill—all of them in cloth diapers—and have never owned a clothes dryer.

While it’s true that my sister had to cope with laundry for a family of four on her own, and at Sandhill the number of adults capable of washing clothes has always outnumbered the quantity of small children dirtying them, it’s also true that at Sandhill we’ve always had a strong commitment to being aware of the ecological consequences of our choices. When it comes to clothes drying, the sun works just fine. Yes, it takes longer and the sun isn’t always conveniently available when you’d like to do a batch of laundry, but we have indoor clothes racks and it always works out.

How much difference does not having a dryer make? According to US Department of Energy statistics, Sandhill is among the less than four percent of American households with a washing machine but no clothes dryer. They estimate that the average household will use about $100 worth of energy per year running a clothes dryer (interestingly, though gas dryers are twice as efficient as electric dryers, they’ve captured only 20 percent of the US market). Given that we’re a community of 7-10 adults (depending on whether or not it’s intern season), I reckon we do twice as many loads of wash as the typical American household, which means we’ve been saving $200 annually by air drying. If you throw in the cost of the dryer itself and figure we’d at least be on our third one by now, our savings are in the vicinity of $10,000. Note that this does not put any price tag on how our choice has beneficially slowed demand for the next power plant.

Just this month I was installing a submersible water pump in Ma'ikwe's cistern at Dancing Rabbit (a neighboring community, just three miles from Sandhill) and needed to make a watertight splice to power the pump, as the connection was going to sit in several feet of water. From an electrical supply house I bought a heat shrink tube that you slide over the splice and then seal by applying heat. Well, we had the devil’s own time trying to find a hair dryer or a heat gun in either community. Who needs ‘em? (We finally made do with a propane torch, used gingerly, and the resultant connection is indeed waterproof. Whew.)

So when it comes to dryers, we mostly do without. It isn’t worth the money to buy one, and it certainly isn’t worth the energy to run one.

The Chain Saw
The first outdoor construction project that we tackled at Sandhill was building a barnyard fence. We inherited an old barn (that lasted for another 20 years or so), but needed a fence around it if we wanted to keep our chickens separated from raccoons and dogs. Never having used a chain saw before, we decided to experiment with building the fence by hand. The barnyard encloses about seven-tenths of an acre, so this was not a trivial matter.

Using axes and a two-person crosscut saw, Annie and I felled black locusts growing on the property to yield all the fence posts. For the larger segments, I split them into halves or quarters using a maul and wedges. We dug all the postholes by hand, and stretched the woven wire employing a wooden clamp, log chains, and a hi-lift jack. For the barbed wire used at the top and bottom, we relied on a hand-held fence stretcher that produces a mechanical advantage through ropes and pulleys.

In short, I have a very good idea how much faster it is to cut wood with a chain saw. Though they’re noisy (you’re an idiot if you don’t wear ear protection), smelly (two-cycle engines spew out all manner of exhaust), and dangerous, you can accomplish an incredible amount of work with one. Given that Sandhill owns and actively manages 60 acres of trees, there is no question in my mind but that we’re better off operating a couple chain saws—one for dropping trees of 16-inch girth or more, and the other for limbing and trimming. (Also, if you own two, the second one can be used to free up the first one if you read wrong the stresses on a log and pinch the bar part way through your cut.) 

How much difference does having a chain saw make? Chain saws last us about five years. Given that we didn’t start using two until the ‘90s, we’ve owned 10 in our history. At an average purchase price of $300 a pop, plus annual operating and maintenance costs of $100 per machine, we’ve sunk around $8000 in that technology. Have we gotten our money’s worth?

In addition to the time saved by not cutting wood by hand, all of our space heating is accomplished by burning wood (which translates into no additional heating costs), we cook all of our sorghum with wood (from which we typically earn $20,000/year), we cut our own wood for fencing, rely primary on home grown wood for construction and trim, and we cut our own oak logs for shiitake production. In recent years we’ve established a steady market for some of our surplus black locust at Dancing Rabbit, where it’s in demand for post and beam construction. Taken altogether, I figure conservatively that we’ve saved or earned at least 10 times what we’ve spent on chain saws.

It’s still dangerous (or perhaps I should say Stihl dangerous, as that’s our preferred brand), but it’s definitely a positive cost/benefit ratio.

The Laptop
Sandhill was slower than many groups to embrace computers. What’s a foregone conclusion today appeared as an explosion of indiscriminate information just a generation ago, and it was by no means obvious at the time whether computers were more intrusive or instructive. When a friend sent me a free cast-off desktop computer in the late 1980s my community was so skittish about letting the genie out of the bottle that I was not allowed to even open the box. Instead we transshipped it sight unseen to a sister community that was more ready to embrace the brave new world.

A few years later, in 1990, my close friend Geoph Kozeny took up residence at Sandhill for several months to work on the FIC’s first edition Communities Directory. During that visit I had daily contact with his Mac Plus desktop and got my first glimpse of what was possible when regularly immersed in the information candy store that is the world wide web. While it wasn’t all that fast—modem speeds were slow enough that you could actually read email messages as they downloaded—and you didn’t dare send images (it took eight hours to transmit a single photo back then, and cost $100), it still seemed like magic to me.

By 1995 the mood had shifted enough at home that I was allowed to take receipt of a used laptop when Geoph upgraded (I got his old Outback—a Mac clone), and my world has not been the same since. Today I spend an average of three hours a day in front of a computer screen, and it simply wouldn’t be possible to function as the administrator of a continental nonprofit or to work nationally as a process consultant without a computer.

At first, I simply relied on Geoph to be my supplier. Whenever he got a new one, I got his old one. That strategy lasted until 2006, when I experienced a mother board meltdown at the start of a two-day train ride, and I freaked out realizing how dependent I was upon what I stored in my laptop and my having ready access to it. In addition to getting religion about backing up records, I realized that relying on used computers was not the same as buying used cars (where you could avoid first-year depreciation by never owning something less than a year old).

In fact, much of my work life depends so much on my having a dependable computer that I changed strategies and started buying new machines, trading them out every three years when the extended warranty expired. When I buy a new laptop. I don’t need extra memory, I don’t need an extra large screen, and I don’t need a titanium case. I just get the basic machine, which already comes bundled with more bells and whistles than I’ll ever ring or toot. At this point I doubt if I use more than one percent of my laptop’s capacity, but that’s good enough for me.

Being partial to Macs, I always get a white one (or whatever color is least expensive). It’s hard to imagine people who are willing to pay an additional $400 to make a fashion statement with the color of their computer case, but you know they wouldn’t offer that option if people weren’t buying it.

How much difference does having a computer make? Today Sandhill has three laptops and one desktop. Two of them are for the dedicated use of members who regularly work off-site (Stan & me), and another two are for general use in our office. It’s rare to not have a computer available when you want one. Does it mean members are no longer as connected to one another (because they’re so connected to the internet)? No. Community, at its roots, is about relationships and we’ve kept our eyes on that prize.

Even as my time at a keyboard has gone up, my time on the phone and writing letters (remember typewriters?) has steadily declined. I can stay in touch with many more friends than before (even without Facebook), and I don’t spend more time doing it. Amortized over three years I’m paying about $300 annually for my laptop. Last year I earned 100 times that as FIC Executive Secretary and as a process consultant. It’s a tool of my trades and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s worth it.
• • •
In summary, we try to make choices with our eyes open, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the technology door is wide open. Sometimes it’s better to do without; sometimes it’s better to have it as an option, and sometimes it makes sense to use it every day. While we can effect simple repairs and perform normal maintenance on chain saws and laptops, when it comes right down to it, we couldn't manufacture either if our lives depended on it. If those technologies become too expensive or unavailable, then we'll have to adapt. 

While the impact of that adaptation may be profound, I've no worry about whether we'll figure it out. It will merely be another chapter in our experiment with simple living and self-reliance.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Wrapping and Relating

It's Christmas Eve. And I'm back home with Ma'ikwe after a quick weekend visit to the suburbs of St Louis to see my son, Ceilee, my daughter-in-law, Tosca, my granddaughter, Taivyn, my grandson, Connor—AKA Bobo, my eldest granddog, Zeus, and my ex-partner and dear friend, Annie (who doubles as Ceilee's mother). It was the first time that particular configuration had been together in more than a year, and it was delightful to see everyone in good health. (A year ago Taivyn was battling a serious C diff infection that made for a more cautious and exhausting holiday season. See my blog of Nov 16, 2011, Granddaughter Down, for more on that.)

Starting two days ago, pretty much all semblance of work has ceased. Now is the time for relationships; for suspending our regularly scheduled lives to be with loved ones. As such, it's one of my favorite times of the year.

After experiencing balmy weather yesterday in St Louis (nice enough that I needed neither hat nor coat on a 1.5-mile late morning walk in the neighborhood), today I witnessed winter's return as I drove north. In the process of gaining about 150 miles in latitude I started out with no snow on the ground whatsoever, and ended up on rock roads that were 100% snow packed. While I left Ceilee's with temperatures hovering near freezing, it was 20 degrees and dropping by the time I got back to Rutledge midday, and rendezvoused with Ma'ikwe for a final foray into town for last-minute gift purchases, festively accompanied by snow flurries. In northeast Missouri it will definitely be a white Christmas.

Ma'ikwe and I were pleased to have the car unloaded and all of our driving done by 6:30 pm, so that we could turn our attention to hearth work (which, interestingly, also turned out to include heart work and health work): cranking up the wood stove, taking an infrared sauna, cooking for tomorrow morning's Christmas potluck brunch at the Milkweed Mercantile, and wrapping presents.

This year, the Moon Lodge Christmas contingent includes Ma'ikwe, Jibran, Marqis (an ex-partner of Ma'ikwe's & Jibran's dad), Adam (the visiting 17-year-old son of a different ex-partner of Ma'ikwe's), and me. As I compose this holiday paean to seasonal traditions and the primacy of relationships, Ma'ikwe is taking her turn in the wrapping room and Marqis sits next to me grinding pan-roasted fenugreek and black mustard seeds with a mortar and pestle—to be added to the mixture of turmeric, cumin, coriander, and cayenne, yielding a distinctive home-made curry for the chicken salad dish we're bringing to tomorrow's potluck. The aromas are wonderfully aromatic!

While the curried chicken salad is a new recipe, we are also bringing with us a Schaub family tradition: Famous Wafers and Whipped Cream (see my May 17, 2011 blog for more on that). With a dessert that essentially features cream, chocolate, and vanilla it's hard to go wrong. (If Santa ever got into one of those logs while dallying during a delivery he'd never got back up the chimney—this is not a low-cal concoction.)

While Ma'ikwe, Jibran, and I are rather casual about hiding presents from one another and don't insist on having everything wrapped, it's too much fun to bah-humbug the whole thing, and we carefully reserve a portion of Christmas Eve for the wrapping ritual. Now that Ma'ikwe has finished with hers, it's time for me to wrap up this blog, and to get more present with my presents.

With apologies to Clement Moore (who more famously wrote about the night before Christmas 190 years ago), I want you to hear me exclaim (before I disappear from your sight): Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!  

Friday, December 21, 2012

Snow Day to Go Out

Most mornings I'm the last one to get their first cup of Sandhill coffee. Sometimes I miss the first pot all together. Not because I sleep so much, but because I often work past midnight—long after more sensible communitarians have danced a round or two with the Sandman. When I awoke yesterday, sure enough everyone else was already in the kitchen, huddled around the coffee thermos, nattering away about the day ahead.

Two days ago the weather had turned rainy—alternating between drizzling and showering since the afternoon—and I felt fortunate to have safely completed a trip to Quincy IL (60 miles away) to accomplish marathon photocopying at the cheapest place around (I did over 8,000 impressions for $200, taking more than four hours to orchestrate, tying up two machines). That evening I happily collated and stapled my output from the copiers, glad that I didn't need to venture out into the bad weather any more. By the time I turned out the lights it was 1 am, and the outdoor temperatures were sliding toward freezing.   

In the morning, I could tell that something special was happening from the excited timbre in the voices that floated into my bedroom from the kitchen. Though I couldn't make out the words, something was in the air. 

It turned out that something was snow! Our first storm of the season was roaring across northeast Missouri, pushed by plenty of arctic wind. We got perhaps four inches of wet snow, sculpted into drifts of more than a foot at strategic points along our half mile of gravel access road.

While some Sandhill members couldn't wait to get out and play in the white stuff—led by the boisterous enthusiasm of Emory, our four-year-old, who was itching to build snowpeople—others were more measured in their excitement, thinking of wet firewood, icy paths, and the general orneriness of navigating bumpy terrain where solid ground is hidden from view.

As it happens, Thursday is one of the two days each week when Mae Ferber from Dancing Rabbit does a regular order fulfillment shift in the FIC Office. Despite the weather she arrived on time, delivered by Kurt Kessner, who dropped her off on his way to town in the DR diesel pickup. While Kurt did slide off the road at one point he was able to horse his way out of the ditch (with only minor damage to our mail boxes). It takes a much bigger storm to scare off a Minnesotan like Kurt from meeting the weekly beer truck for resupplying the Milkweed Mercantile.

My plan yesterday was to linger at home long enough to hand over the photocopies to Mae (who needed them to fill orders for out-of-print back issues of Communities magazine) and attend the weekly Sandhill meeting. Afterwards I was going to mosey over to DR, where I had an afternoon date with Rachel to transfer files from my old laptop to my spiffy new MacBook Pro Retina, followed by pizza at the Milkweed Mercantile (a Thursday night tradition that would give me a chance to quaff some of that fresh micro-brewery malted beverage that Kurt had ventured out to collect), and a cozy evening with Ma'ikwe at Moon Lodge, at first near the wood stove, and later under the covers. Yum.

While all of that looked good on paper, our Hyundai Elantra sedan (nicknamed Ruthie, after Joe's grandmother, who bequeathed it to us) was not as stout as the DR pickup and we (Mae was trying to hitch a ride home with me) were not able to blast through the drifts blocking the last 100 yards to the blacktop. Sigh. While Mae got out and completed her journey by foot, I walked back half a mile to our homestead to bring Kathy, our D-17 Allis Chalmers tractor, to bear on the problem.

While Kathy had no trouble with the drifts and I was easily able to extract the Elantra with a log chain, 90 minutes after I'd begun I was right back home with Ruthie in her parking spot, Kathy in the barn, and no prospects for pizza or faster computing with a backlit keyboard. Discouraged, I figured I could at least schlep the box of master copies that I used for photocopying back to the FIC office trailer (before someone inadvertently drove them to St Louis for the holidays, while they rested quietly into Ruthie's trunk). 

Balancing the box precariously as I entered the trailer, I needed to negotiate a narrow hallway to get to the room where the back issues are stored. Wanting to set the box down as soon as possible, I didn't take time to knock the snow from my feet—which turned out to be a big mistake. 

To get to the magazine room you have to pass through the main work space, in the midst of which there's a floor covering transition from carpet to linoleum tile. Blithely walking across the room my snow packed footwear did fine on the carpet yet offered no traction whatsoever on the linoleum and down I went in a heap, with arms, legs, and envelopes of master copies akimbo. I'll be damned if I didn't wrench my damaged right knee, again. [See my blog of Sept 12, Wounded Knee, for the story of the original injury.]

Sitting in my bedroom typing this (on my old laptop), I am reflecting on how yesterday afternoon didn't go the way I thought it would at all. I'd have been better off if I had taken a snow day, and simply stayed indoors.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

From Purple to Indigo to Green

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple 
With a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me.

These opening lines from a poem entitled "Warning" by Jenny Joseph has inspired a slew of OOWs (outrageous older women) to adorn themselves in eye-catching raiment and even to establish the Red Hat Society for spunky women over 50. I recall sitting across from a pair of these gals in the dining car on the Sunset Limited back in 2004 as we rumbled across Texas. From where I sat there didn't seem to be anything limited about their sunset years.

Now I'm wondering what older guys should wear. Maybe indigo. Plumage that's a bit more subdued and midway between the entitled purple of kings and Garth Brooks...

In any event, indigo is on my mind today. Over the past decade there's been a fair amount of attention given to the New Age concept of Indigo Children (which, like the offspring in Lake Wobegon, are all above average) and the Indigo Girls. While I may have raised a couple of the former and have certainly listened plenty to the latter, today I'm making my first foray into crowd funding, with Indiegogo.

• • •
This colorful opening brings me to what I really want to talk about today: Green.

FIC has launched an Indiegogo campaign that will endeavor to raise $45,000 in 45 days, representing half the money needed to construct a new 800 sq ft office for our Missouri headquarters. This will replace a funky '70s-era house trailer that's only green if you count mold.

The new office will be green in the sense that we're committed to energy efficient construction that emphasizes renewable materials. While it will take a substantial amount of long green to build this baby, and FIC is relatively green when it comes to capital campaigns, I am hopeful that we'll succeed, giving us the green light to break ground this spring. Two years from now, when we're able to move into our new digs, I expect nonprofits everywhere to be green with envy.

While we're already making headway with major donors and foundations en route to manifesting the first half of our construction budget, the concept with Indiegogo is that we'll try to raise the second half by aggregating small donations from many people—$10 here, $25 there, and occasionally a splurge of $100 or more.

Over the course of the last 25 years more than 50,000 people have contacted FIC looking for information about community living. If each of those folks gave us as little as $1, we'd surpass our goal. We'd also fill the pot if we received a $10 donation from 4500 supporters—less than 10% of those who have looked to us to keep the candle of cooperation burning in the window.

As we head toward winter solstice and the time of short days and long nights, now is an excellent time to remember the light. Please visit our Indiegogo campaign, watch our video clip, and tell your friends. Every donation—no matter how small—effectively pushes back the dark, and keeps FIC's flame burning brightly!

And now for my concluding hue and cry. The upcoming holiday season is brought to us by the colors red and green. When you see red, I invite you to recall the festiveness and spunk of the Red Hat Society. When you see green, I hope it will evoke the vibrancy and growing reach of FIC in a world hungry for community.

Together we are making a difference.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
—from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Coleridge (1798)

It was a rainy winter morning in northeast Missouri today. With outdoor temperatures in the 40s, it was lovely sitting snug inside, next to the wood stove at Moon Lodge—Ma'ikwe's house at Dancing Rabbit—drinking coffee, and visiting with Ma'ikwe's brother, Mark, who's visiting from Fennville MI for three days. 
I was reminded of Coleridge this morning because outside there was water running everywhere, and inside there was none. Though Ma'ikwe has been living at Moon Lodge since Halloween 2009, all the water in the house has been hauled in buckets and jugs (in a stretch, you could say we regularly run to get it, but it's really more like walking).
Today, however, all that changed. Ma'ikwe, Mark, and I conspired to devote the last three days to eliminating the final barriers standing in the way of being able to manifest running water when you turn the faucet at the kitchen sink. The picture tells it all.

Ma'ikwe and I think of it as an early Xmas present to ourselves. While there's still tile work to complete the work surface and back splash around the kitchen sink (which means we'll have to disconnect the water and pull the sink), that's not very difficult. With any luck, we'll have that wrapped up before it's time to plant broccoli seedlings (in February).

There remains plenty of work in the bathroom, too, where there will be both a sink and and a shower, but enthusiasm for completing the bathroom (more tile work) is tempered by the fact that running hot water is still two-plus years down the road, requiring the construction of an additional building. While cold showers may be fine if you're a teenage boy, or in the navy, it takes a very warm day to choose that experience over a shower where you can mix hot with the cold.
Here's why the hot water tortoise is going to be so far behind the haring cold. Ma'ikwe shares with neighbors Bear & Alyssa a plot of land (called a "warren" in DR argot, extending the rabbit theme) that they lease from the community. Both have homes on the warren and both are designed to be principally heated with hydronics—radiant floor heating. As it's cheaper (and more communitarian) to share utilities, they've conceived of building a separate Power House on the warren that will include:
o  A wood-fired boiler to supply hot water both for domestic use and for the hydronic systems.
o  The batteries and master panel for their solar photovoltaic power system.
o  A washing machine.
o  A small rental housing unit, the income from which will cover their warren fees. As the ecovillage is growing at a steady clip, housing is always at a premium and they anticipate an easy time finding renters.

The main drawback to this plan is that they don't expect Power House construction to start sooner than 2014. Of course, the good side of such incremental improvements is that they get to savor each one as it comes along. (Think of how many people miss the chance for that particular pleasure by moving into a house that's completed built!)

As the electrician on the team, it was a somewhat embarrassing and anticlimactic moment this afternoon when we finally had everything hooked up and I had everyone pause while I dramatically flipped the switch… and blew a breaker. Hmm. My nightmare thought (which flashed in my brain in a nanosecond) was that I'd failed to make a watertight connection when wiring the submersible pump and I was going that have to wade into four feet of 42-degree water to fish that sucker out. Ugh.

However, there were other things to try first, and my spirits were buoyed when I isolated the pump from the circuit via an outdoor cut-off switch, reset the breakers, and tried again—only to blew the breakers a second time. Aha! That meant the problem was before the pump, and by studying how I'd wired the pressure relief box I realized that I'd done it wrong. Whew. That was an easy fix, and after reconfiguring the wires, the next time we actually got water (and no blown breakers). Eureka!

Like many things in life, plumbing and electrical work are both quite easy when you do them right. The corollary to that adage is that plumbing and electrical work can be quote humbling when you mess them up. Today we got a bit of both. But the main thing we got today was running water.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Village of Light

I just spent a delightful 24 hours visiting Ananda Village in Nevada City CA, a well-established intentional community of more than 200 folks (counting kids) that started in 1969, and has been influenced throughout by the teachings and spiritual guidance of Donald Walters, who goes by the spiritual name Kriyananda, and is still plugging away at age 86.

While Ananda Village is the original residential enclave for Kriyananda followers, and has the largest population, their network has expanded over the years to include eight other residential communities (two in India, one in Italy, and five more in the US—all on the West Coast), with a combined population of about 1000, plus a hundred meditation and teaching centers distributed all over the world.

Though it's now well into the rainy season in Nevada City (they average about 50 inches annually, all of it coming in the eight-month stretch of October to May), my visit was blessed by magical weather: sunny skies and daytime temperatures well into the 60s. Kriyananda wrote a short book last year, Cities of Light, that offers an overview of his thinking about what intentional communities can accomplish in the new age, and it was easy to appreciate Ananda's light with everything bathed in sunshine.

[Cities of Light, the book, is not to be confused with Paris, the City of Light, nor with Cities of Light, the 2007 documentary film that explores the rise and fall of Islamic Spain in the first millennium after Christ.]

Of course, Kriyananda was using light as a metaphor. He was thinking of the way that communities can illuminate a better way to live—one that emphasizes personal integrity and operates from a place of higher purpose.

As someone who has been a community networker for more than 30 years, it's a bit embarrassing that it's taken me this long to visit such a well-known community, but better late than never. The main impetus for my visit is that FIC is casting about for a different venue in which to hold our Art of Community gathering in 2013 and Expanding Light—Ananda's conference/retreat facility—is our most promising option. As I was already on the West Coast to conduct a facilitation training, it was a relatively minor deal to shoehorn into my travel itinerary a stopover in Nevada City en route home (the California Zephyr stops in Colfax, which is less than an hour's drive from Ananda), to see their facilities first hand and to meet the people we'd be partnering with (email and skype will only get you so far).

What I experienced during my whirlwind stay was highly promising on an energetic level, yet we still need to see if we can make the numbers work. FIC loves to put on events, and we have a great Event Coordinator in Susan Frank, yet we can't do it if we lose money. Last September's Art of Community was an overwhelmingly positive experience for participants yet we finished $15,000 below water, so something has to shift.

In partnering with a living community interested in expanding its outreach activities, we are asking Ananda to accept that part of their compensation come in the form of delivering on their mission and the opportunity for its members to participate easily in an event that both showcases what they have to offer and makes available to them what's being learned in other communities. We think of it as cross-pollination, and they're interested in the concept.

The past two years FIC held Art of Community gatherings at Westminster Woods in Occidental CA. While we were happy with their facility and the quality of experience we were able to create there, we were just another client to them. With Ananda, we are hoping that what we feel comfortable committing to (in the way of compensation) is high enough that they'll feel fairly treated, where significant portions of what they receive in exchange are non-monetary benefits.

Because of the lead time needed for marketing and program development, FIC is committed to making a decision about this no later than mid-January (for an event next September). That gives us a month to sort it out. 

During my 24 hours on site, I was easily able to establish that Ananda would be a suitable partner in that they share FIC's ecumenical spirit and are wholly supportive of others sharing their wisdom about community living, not just Kriyananda devotees. Even better, there appears to be a good match with FIC's mission to make available the lessons of intentional community to those desiring a greater sense of community where they are. (We figure a lot more people want more connection, neighborliness, and civility in their life than are open to jointly owning property with others.)

In nine days we'll reach the winter solstice, when the length of night is longest. Even as the light slowly returns to the northern hemisphere, FIC and Ananda will be trying to figure out a way to combine energies and thereby become a brighter beacon for cooperative living than either of us can be shining alone. While the outcome has not yet been illuminated, it's a thoroughly agreeable task to explore the possibilities fro collaboration.

While it's understandably appealing to stand as close to the flame of right livelihood as possible, we need to keep in view the dual imperatives that we want no one to be burned, nor anyone blinded by the light. Whatever the outcome, I'm confident we'll all be fine.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Consistency Versus Authenticity

I have two adults children: a son, Ceilee, who is 31, and a daughter, Jo, who is 25. Both essentially left home in the fall of 1999 and excepting for Jo returning to Sandhill for the 2006 growing season (after getting what she wanted out of culinary school), they've been on their own ever since. While they'll always be my kids and have a special place in my heart, they're adults now and my parenting role is mainly a memory.

Nonetheless I was reminded of that this weekend while conducting a facilitation training in Santa Cruz because I got into a conversation with someone about the value of consistency when holding people accountable for community agreements. While I had no trouble understanding the argument in favor of consistency (and its two sidekicks, fairness and predictability) over the course of the nearly four decades I've lived in community I've gradually come to a more nuanced understanding of group dynamics, to the point where I now pay greater homage to authenticity, and have relegated consistency to lesser god status.

Thus, when Member A gets irritated that Member B isn't doing their fair share of group work, I'm more interested in the strength of A's reaction (and what it means) than I am about scrutinizing B's work log. I've discovered that, at the end of the day, what matters most is clear energy among group members, not consistency. While there needs to be some sense of balance, that does not necessarily equate to everyone being treated equally (mainly because people are never actually equal).

That said, it tends to matter a lot that people know why they're being treated the way they are, and that they're being treated honestly. While the laws of physics may be consistent, it turns out that people rarely are.

I learned this lesson through parenting in community, where many adults interact regularly with each child. While at first we were very concerned with developing a uniform response to certain kid behaviors (such as refusing to clean up after they'd made a mess), it ultimately dawned on us that the kids would need to be able to function in a world where adults were not consistent at all (and not just one adult compared with another; adults are often maddeningly inconsistent themselves), and that it would be more useful for them to get consistently heartfelt interactions than the same response to the same dynamic. Thus, we shifted to asking adults to use their best judgment in any given situation with a child—and be straight with them about why—rather than to memorize a code book of responses. If you're mailing it in for the sake of following the party line, kids sniff that out in a blink and get mistrustful. Not good.

(If you think about it, even three-year-olds know which parent to go to for an extra helping of dessert without eating their carrots. After observing how easily they puzzle out how to navigate subtle differences among adults, you realize that consistency is overrated.)

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that consistency has no value. I'm only saying that authenticity has a greater value. When you realize that relationships are the core building blocks of community, and that authentic inconsistency better serves relationship than insincere consistency, you can grok the essence of how I came to this conclusion.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Accessible Language

I recently concluded a weekend with a group I was working with for the first time, and the comment I cherished most from the ending evaluation was an appreciation that "I could work with whatever anyone said: there was no 'correct' language." I loved it!

There is a considerable body of literature about group dynamics that encourages readers to be as self-aware as possible and circumspect about how they express themselves in the interest of being minimally triggering for others. While there's nothing wrong with this advice—I'm all in favor of self-awareness—it doesn't help much when someone is really pissed or scared. Especially if you're straining to not be triggering, which tends to come across as deliberate, rather than authentic.

In a culture that generally doesn't know how to communicate emotions cleanly (either giving and receiving), there is both the upset itself and the added nervousness about how the expression of feelings will land. People in distress tend to be hypersensitive to the energy with which they're met (or avoided) and when there's uncertainty about how to do that well it tends to be a perfect storm. The person in distress is uncertain what to share or how to share it, and the receivers are uncertain what they're open to hearing or how to respond in a way that's not an accelerant. Ugh. In the absence of agreements about what to try or what people prefer, our default is to offer what we'd like in return, and it's a crap shoot whether that will work for the other parties.

Fortunately, there's a way out that's relatively simple to remember: you can ask someone what they want. In my experience, what people want most in the moment of distress is to be heard. They do not want to be managed. While they probably also want sympathy and perhaps to be agreed with, they'll settle (mostly) for being accurately held and understood.

I think of it this way:
If there's no bridge between people, then there's no traffic;

If there's no traffic, then there's no exchange of information;
If there's no exchange of information, then there's no collaborative agreement;
If there's no collaborative agreement, then there's no buy-in with implementation;
If there's no buy-in with the implementation, then problems aren't solved.

You have to start with a bridge.

With this in mind, I try hard to work with people where they are (rather than expecting them to come to me, or to learn a certain way of expressing themselves as a precondition for communication to happen). I tell people to simply give me what they have, in their own words. If there's a problem I'll clean it up. 

As a facilitator, my nightmare is people not speaking. If they're talking, I can figure out what's happening; if they clam up I have to guess. (To be clear, I'm not claiming that I get it right the first time every time. I'm saying that if someone is talking, then they give me something to bridge to. If my first attempt falls short, they'll let me know and I can try again.) At the end of the day, it's not about being brilliant; it's about connecting, and people—even upset people—will forgive your getting it wrong at first so long as you get it right in the end. Connection trumps all, and the less constrictions you place on how people express themselves, the easier it is for them to be willing to share what's going on.

Truth as a Weapon
While there is no doubt that a lot of good can come from people being dedicated to seeking and speaking the truth, there are times when doing so can come at the expense of relationship, and then it's not so good. For example, I question the wisdom of saying something that you know will overwhelm or devastate your listener, and then defending your decision with, "It's my truth." I think the prime directive in communication is to establish or strengthen a channel of information between people (rather than to run your truth up their ass).

If you make the choice to share something (note that this can be about how and when you say a thing, as much as about what you say) that you might reasonably expect will overload someone's motherboard, how is that helping? Sometimes the truth can be used to punish, embarrass, or shock. These are hardly noble motivations and indulging in them comes at the expense of relationship and trust. It damages the bridge.

Looking People in the I
There is a lot of support these days for people owning their own statements and not attempting to speak for others. While I think that's excellent advice, I try to not be too picky when someone is in distress. I can work with "you" statements just as well. I only have to listen for the feelings and use that as a bridge to their experience (thereby neutralizing the poison from the "you" statement). 

Sometimes groups that are nervous about the possibility of inadvertently encouraging too much aggression (read personal attacks) when allowing the expression of strong feelings will insist on members using "I" statements. Unfortunately, that can backfire. Either because: a) upset people can become so tied in knots over how to access language orthodoxy when agitated that they shut down; or b) when someone is straining to use an "I" statement the clever listener will automatically translate it back into the "you" statement they suspect underlays it.

It works like this. Jan is furious with Kelly and thinks Kelly is a dickhead. Knowing that the group doesn't want to hear that, Jan sits with it until the upset comes out translated into "I'm furious with you, Kelly—your behavior seems grossly unmindful!" In turn, Kelly, witnessing the unnaturalness of Jan's vocabulary, translates the statement into the mind bubble, "Whoa, Jan thinks I'm a dickhead." So what's to be gained by insisting on "correct" language? If everyone is thinking "dickhead," let's quit dicking around and speaking in tongues!

Reflective Listening
One of the most powerful tools in deescalating  tension is getting people to demonstrate that they've heard what another has said by reflecting the essence of it back to them. While this is an excellent practice, it's depressing how often people signal the attempt to do so with the banal and superfluous opening phrase, "What I hear you saying is… " which adds nothing.

Better, in my view, is to cut to the chase with, "Wow, Jan, you're really pissed about how unmindful Kelly was." My mantra is: keep it simple; keep it direct; and get the affect right.

The main point here is that good communication is not about learning the right rules of the road, so much as it's about speaking from the heart and being able to capture the essence—both the content and the energy—of what another has said. It doesn't have to be more complicated than that.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Making a Hash of Breakfast

Saturday morning my daughter Jo & son-in-law Peter took me to breakfast at Hash House a Go Go—voted the best breakfast in Las Vegas multiple times.

What you see in the photo is me five minutes into my gargantuan serving of their signature dish: Andy's Sage Fried Chicken Benedict. Note the robust 12-inch sprig of rosemary whose Kundalini is rising right out of the middle.

While I was sorely tempted to also order the house bloody mary, I played it safe with strong coffee. Here it is 14 hours later and I'm still not hungry.

This over-the-top offering features boneless fried chicken breasts (that's right, plural) sitting atop scrambled eggs, balanced on a stout cross-hatch of thick bacon strips, nestled into a foundational base of biscuits and mashed potatoes. Interspersed in the middle are artfully placed slices of fresh tomato and pockets of raw spinach. After slathering the whole thing in a house recipe chipotle hollandaise sauce, they gild the lily by sprinkling this concoction with a handful of deep-fried angel hair pasta, fat wedges of cantaloupe and orange (which serve both as garnish and buttress), and the aforementioned rosemary flagpole. Going home hungry was not an option.

Jo & Peter were sure I needed this culinary experience (if nothing else, to cross it off my bucket list) and they were right. As it happens, this particular dish was featured on the Travel Channel's hit television program, Man Versus Food, where host Adam Richman made the same pass at Andy's extravaganza as I did. I'm telling you it was a monster—though thoroughly delicious.

I knew right off that the restaurant (a chain that's growing as steadily as the waistlines of its clientele) includes additional locations in Reno, San Diego, Chicago, and one about to open in Montville CT) must be special when we arrived for Saturday breakfast around 10:30 am and there were about 20 folks in line ahead of us. Amazingly, the wait list evaporated rapidly and we were seated less than 20 minutes after we arrived. Having been there before, Jo judiciously ordered "only" a side of biscuits & gravy, and was thus able to pick up a bit of the slack when I couldn't eat the whole thing (you have to wonder about anyone who can).

As a father/daughter duo that self-identifies as foodies, Jo & I try to be strategic when it comes to eating. Though I typically limit my consumption to a single meal a day when visiting Vegas, it tends to be a whopper (and I'm not referring to anything from Burger King). Today, for example, Jo & I will prepare a mult-course meal for about a dozen of her friends, and I'm determined to stick with a liquid diet until dinner is ready circa 5 pm. 

The menu we've crafted includes a crown roast of lamb (with homemade mint jelly on the side), scalloped potatoes, stir-fried green beans with crimini mushrooms and pearl onions, creamed spinach, pear strudel, and bananas foster. Craftily, we shopped for ingredients right after we went went to Hash House a Go Go, which helped suppress our natural impulse to buy buy. With any luck we'll have minimal leftovers and I won't be enticed to eat again until Wednesday.

Somewhere you have to draw the line—even if it's only one eye-popping meal a day.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Totems on the Bosque

I was in Albuquerque this morning, visiting dear friends Peggy & Earl Loftfield. After coffee and a light repast of banana bread smeared with piñon butter they suggested a field trip to a patch of open space owned by the city near the Alvarado Elementary School (where Earl attended 2nd to 6th grades).

There, in a field that had been employed as a corn maze the month before, I saw thousands of Sandhill Cranes recently arrived from their summer breeding grounds in Canada, pausing to enjoy the clement weather and the abundant gleanings. They were peacefully sharing the space with rafts of Canada Geese (who were focusing more on the alfalfa than the corn). A variety of people were strolling or jogging on the dirt pathways that bordered the fields, enjoying the nearly perfect day of full sun, a slight breeze out of the north, and temperatures in the 60s.

I've always had a strong affinity for large birds. Perhaps their awesome grace and wingspan evokes in me a vestigial linkage with their majestic ancestors, the dinosaurs (in ways that mere wrens and robins do not). I love watching the long-legged cranes float in for landings, dropping their legs from the horizontal to help create drag just before they commence back flapping to spill their air speed.

While the birds closest to us kept a wary eye on our approach—fully prepared to honk a throaty warning if we got encroached within 50 feet or so—most of their brethren gave their undivided attention to the steadfast divestment of kernels from ears, in an earnest attempt to recapture the calories they had expended in migration. Their silvery backs glistened in the sunshine.

In addition to enjoying these birds because they were large and because they were many, I have an affinity this species because I live at Sandhill Farm and thus enjoy a namesake connection. For me, the Sandhill Crane is a totem (in part, I suppose, because they are seen all over the US). Back home, I'll occasionally see one or two in flight overhead or resting on one of our ponds during the spring or fall migrations. This isn't that surprising in that our farm is located in northeast Missouri and falls well within the boundaries of the greater Mississippi flyway. But before encountering the jackpot I witnessed this morning, I doubt I'd ever seen as many as 50 at one time. Wow!

As scrumptious as it was for the cranes to feast on unharvested corn in fields where humans aren't permitted to walk, hunting isn't allowed, and dogs must be leashed, they also need access to water and a safe haven at night (because raccoons and feral dogs do not honor no hunting signs and tend to enjoy fowl dinners every bit as much as we humans did last Thursday). When I asked Peggy & Earl where the cranes bivouacked at night, I was told that they repair to the riparian zone along the Rio Grande, whose wide watercourse snakes sinuously through the city just a mile to the west. 

The floodplain there is known as the bosque, and it's protected from development because of the unpredictability of water levels when the snow pack in the Sangre de Cristos melts each spring. Large cottonwoods thrive in proximity to the life-giving water and their broad branches make ideal nighttime perches for the visiting cranes—who are no doubt grateful for the spacious accommodation of their convention-sized numbers. From there it's an easy commute back to their corn(ucopia) each dawn.

Corny as it sounds, I was amused to realize that it was the Loftfields who introduced me, right after breakfast, to hordes of Sandhill Cranes lofting into fields for a breakfast of corn. The symmetry still makes me smile.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Day at Home

Today is exactly halfway between my birthday (Oct 25) and Christmas—which I've always considered auspicious (of course, May 25 is also halfway between those dates, but spring is too far removed from the holiday season to have the same gravitational pull on my psyche). Occasionally Thanksgiving falls on this date, which makes it extra special, but this year it's only one of the days in waiting as part of the long Thanksgiving Weekend. 

While many good citizens are out shopping this weekend, responding to the clarion call of Black Friday and the materialistic imperative, I'm enjoying a quiet weekend at home. I haven't left my zip code in three days! That's noteworthy in that my arrival home Thursday afternoon—just in time to make the prune stuffing and giblet gravy for the 5:30 feast—ended a 90-day stretch where I was only home 15 days.

As I lay in bed this morning thinking about what to write about, it occurred to me to simply describe what I'll do on my Sunday at home, as it does a fair job of capturing my exotic mix of homesteader, process consultant, partner, and network administrator…  

o  Butcher a Deer
Yesterday Mica & I started working up the four deer that had been shot during the hunting season and were hanging in our walk-in cooler, which represents the major portion of the community's meat supply for the coming year. Starting yesterday morning, we took our time with the first one, slowly reacquainting ourselves of deer anatomy. Once in the groove, we polished off two more by mid-afternoon, leaving the final one for today, when Cody, a nine-year-old neighbor from Dancing Rabbit, comes over for his first up-close-and-personal encounter with a deer carcass.

o  Decant Wine
Every year, the bulk of the community's black currant crop goes into homemade wine. Twenty pounds of fruit is enough for seven gallons, which is the size of our largest carboy. Often we harvest enough for two or more batches but the fruit set was poor this spring and there will only be one batch. Per usual, I started the wine right after the fruit was harvested in July and it's a tradition to bottle it (siphoning it from the secondary fermenter) Thanksgiving Weekend. Now's the time.
Scrub the Kitchen Floor
There are a bunch of chores on the farm that don't need to be done every day (there are also a bunch that do, but that's a different rhythm) and we divvy up most of them among the membership to see that they all get covered without anyone being asked to shoulder too much. One of my tasks in this regard is scrubbing the kitchen floor. 

While cooks are expected to sweep thoroughly at the end of their shift each day, it's a rear guard action where we're slowly losing ground to stray food scraps and feral dust bunnies that breed behind storage buckets and in the corners that escape the reach of the broom. In the end, there is nothing for up but to get down periodically on your hands and knees and push entropy back. Today's my day for that.

o  Do My Laundry
I'm between road trips (home Thursday and out again Monday) and aim to take advantage of a sunny forecast to sneak in a load of laundry to have clean clothes in hand (and on body) for when I board the train west tomorrow evening. Tomorrow there's a chance of snow flurries, so it's prudent to get it done today. As we rely on a clothes line for drying, you have to take what Nature gives you.

o  Fill the Back Porch with Firewood
We have four buildings with bedrooms at Sandhill and I live in the White House (the original farmhouse), which also has the community's kitchen and serves as Sandhill's nerve center. Our primary heat source for the White House is a reliable airtight wood stove that we've had for more than 35 years, and we stage about a week's worth of split and dry cord wood to fuel it in our back porch, just eight feet away. As the wood there gets used, we resupply it from an open-sided storage shed out back. It's timely to fill the porch today, ahead of tomorrow's snow flurries.

o  Write Text for a Capital Campaign
As FIC's main administrator, I'm also the main fund raiser. Our Board made a commitment last spring to building a new office, replacing a funky '70s era house trailer that has served us for the last 15 years. The new building will cost us $90,000 and we'll be trying to raise half of it through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that will launch Tuesday (if everything comes together in time). It's my job to write the text that will be posted on the campaign website, succinctly making the case for why this project is worthy of support.

o  Put Out Lunch
At Sandhill all the adults take turns cooking. Your shift starts in the afternoon and continues through lunch the next day. As I was the dinner cook yesterday, that means I'm responsible for lunch today. While this tends to be dinner revisited and no big deal, it nonetheless has a guaranteed slot on Laird's dance card today.

o  Listen to a Football Game
I'm a sport fan and enjoy following football, the NFL in particular. Having grown up in Chicago, I'm a Bears fan. They've stumbled the last two games against strong opponents and have fallen into a 7-3 first place division tie with the Green Bay Packers—their archrival. The Bears badly need to get back into the win column this afternoon against the Minnesota Vikings. Kick-off is at noon. 

o  Write a Blog Entry
I aspire to post something every three days, and I'm overdue…

o  Post a Homework Assignment
I conduct facilitation trainings around the country and in two weeks I'll be in Santa Cruz for Weekend VI of an eight-part training. The teaching theme will be Delegation and it's time to send out homework in advance of the class, to get the students thinking about the topic before I send them the handouts.
o  Complete My Report from Last Weekend
A week ago today I was up to my eyeballs working with Vashon Cohousing in Seattle, offering them my thinking (and skills) about how to handle conflict constructively. I worked with them three days, culminating in seven hours Sunday. For each client I have as a process consultant, I make a commitment to write a report afterwards providing an overview of what we did, what I observed, and what I recommend they think about. While I sketched out my report on the train ride home, I still have a chunk of work to wrap it up and send it off.

o  Eat Dinner with Ma'ikwe
My intention is to complete my chores at Sandhill this afternoon and sashay over to Dancing Rabbit in time to enjoy the late afternoon and evening with my wife. It's a priority to spend time with her when possible, and I'm leaving tomorrow for 16 days.

o  Take a Sauna 
I was first introduced to saunas as an eight-year-old, when I attended summer camp in northern Minnesota and I've always loved them. A silver lining to Ma'ikwe's battle with chronic Lyme disease is that her doctor urged her to get an infrared sauna as part of her treatment protocol (Lyme bacteria don't like the heat) and this summer she did. Ma'ikwe aspires to take two sauna sessions daily (30+ minutes each), and I can get in there with her if I'm around at the right time. This activity is all the more enjoyable now that the weather is turning cold. And besides, I like seeing my wife naked.

o  Play a Game with Jibran

My wife's son is 15 and we enjoy playing board games together. Sometime between the sauna and bedtime I'm hoping that we can connect for a game or two. It'll be the middle of December before we get the next chance and I'd rather not wait that long.

So that's my day this November 25.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What Sucks the Air Out of the Room

I was asked recently what can be done when a member of a consensus group reported dreading plenaries because there were frequently times when they "experience mind-numbing process that sucks the air out of the room." OK, that doesn't sound very good. As I contemplated what might contribute to that condition—and what the remedies might be—a number of things occurred to me. In fact, it got interesting enough that I thought I'd write about it…

o  Working Below Plenary Level
One of the big energy eaters for consensus groups is not being sufficiently disciplined about what's appropriate to handle at the whole group level. Lacking clarity about what's plenary worthy, I regularly encounter groups that inadvertently drift into discussing details that ought to have been handed over to managers or committees.

When groups are sloppy about this, and fail to delegate appropriately, members who are not interested in those details are trapped. If they attend the meetings at which this happens, they are forced to sit through conversations about what color to paint a wall, the menu for Thanksgiving dinner, or whether to buy Nantes or Danvers carrot seed for next year's garden. Shoot me now. If they don't attend the meetings (to avoid the mind-numbing conversations), then they're at risk of being accused of slacking and not sufficiently supporting the group. Some choice.

—The Remedy: It's important that the group has agreement about what kind of things should be discussed in plenary, so that agendas are drafted with that boundary in mind and facilitators know when to call people on coloring outside the lines. Further, there need to be clear mandates (and minutes) for handing off work to managers and committees, so that they'll know what they can decide on their own and when they'll need to return to the plenary for consultation.

o  Welcoming Passion
The default meeting culture in the US is modeled after the tone, pace, and civility characteristic of dinner table conversation in Northern European countries. That is, one person talking at a time in well-modulated voices. If someone raises their voice or speaks on top of another it typically means upset. While there's nothing wrong with that culture per se, it's not the way everyone was raised.

In Southern European cultures dinner table conversation is much different: people talk on top of each other, and with considerable energy—not necessarily because they're upset; but just because they're paying attention.

As groups of any size are likely to have people from both sides of the aisle, there's a natural tension about what culture prevails. In most cases calm and deliberate dominates, with the consequence that the southern inclined are often discouraged from participating with their full range of expression. Essentially they're damping down their energy to accommodate their northern-oriented compatriots, who tend to get tense in the presence of passion, and struggle to differentiate between excitement and upset at the upper range of the register.

The Remedy: Most groups could benefit from a conversation—and an intentional decision—about how they're going to work with emotions. When groups don't do this, allowing any emotions air space in meetings is scary (where are the boundaries?) and passion tends to be the casualty. When people are not certain of what's OK, nothing is—and everyone gets the message (intended or otherwise) that you better keep a lid on it. The good news is that this can be turned around. Just have a conversation about how to take the lid off… without taking anyone's head off.

o  The Purpose of Meetings
While pretty much everyone knows that groups have meetings to address issues, that's not the only reason. In cooperative groups there is also the objective of building relationships among members. The reason that's important is that when groups haven't made that dual purpose explicit—and few have—there will come times when those purposes, which most of us intend to play nice with each other, can be at odds.

Here's how it might work. The group is discussing an issue and building momentum toward a unified agreement about what to do when someone says, "Wait a minute, something doesn't feel right." When the group dutifully asks what that something is, suppose they get, "I don't know; it's just an uneasy feeling." Now what? If you're at the let's-get-er-done end of the why-do-we-do-meetings continuum, you might respond to this exchange with irritation—where you had been building momentum nicely toward a solution the conversation has been suddenly shunted into a siding and there was no telling when you'll get back on track. For the let's-get-to-know-each-other contingent, however, it's just getting interesting.

The point here is that if you position yourself at one end of this spectrum, then you can get frustrated with meetings that are focusing more on the other end. It can even feel like the air is being sucked out of the room.

The Remedy: Have a conversation that illuminates these two objectives for meetings, so that the group will be able to navigate accurately when tension arises (a la my example above). Hint: Neither of these objectives is wrong, but it takes nuance to balance them from meeting to meeting, and from issue to issue. That will hardly be possible if you haven't got the language and concepts in place.

o  Understanding the Role of the Disinterested
For every issue that makes its way onto a plenary agenda, every member will be in one of two relationships to it: either they will be a stakeholder on that issue or they won't. For stakeholders it's a relatively straight path to their being interested in the conversation; for non-stakeholders it's probably less obvious but I want to make the case that they're perfectly positioned to safeguard the process by which the conversation unfolds. They can be active as bridge builders when stakeholders are having trouble hearing each other accurately—precisely because they care little about the issue, they can care a lot about the relationships.

The Remedy: If you can sell this orientation to the group, then everyone will have a solid reason to have their head (and heart) in the game regardless of the topic at hand (read less air sucking).

o  The Energetic Advantage of Separating Factor Identification from Problem Solving
In working an issue it's been my experience that it can help enormously if the group is disciplined about first surfacing all the factors that a good response to the issue needs to take into account before turning anyone loose on problem solving. While it sounds reasonable enough when presented this way, groups are uncommonly prone to two habits that don't align with this guidance:

a) Some groups expect that issues be accompanied by a proposal as a condition for getting onto the agenda. This misbegotten notion is used as a substitute for expecting items to come to plenary in a sufficiently mature condition. The problem is that someone has to invest time and effort in crafting the proposal and if they don't anticipate well enough, then their work can be trashed in plenary and that doesn't feel very good.

b) When someone names a concern (or factor) it's relatively common for someone else to immediately follow that with a way to address it, essentially moving from Factor Identification to Problem Solving. When a group dances indiscriminately between the two it can be crazy making. The former is expansive; the later is contractive. If the group is not careful about this, it's at risk of hyperventilating and losing its way. Kinda like having the air sucked out of the room.

The Remedy: Stop placing the proposal cart before the factor horse, and get religion about assiduously completing Factor Identification before moving along (deliberately) to Problem Solving.

o  Managing Repetition & Cross-town Bus Traffic
In most cases the two most common day-in-and-day-out meeting behaviors that undercut meeting efficiency are repetition and off-topic comments. On the challenge of repetition, it can be hard in a culture that embraces the philosophy that "everyone has a piece of the truth" to simultaneously digest that we only want to hear that truth once from you, and it may not even be necessary to hear it once if someone has already expressed the same opinion.

On the challenge of off-topic comments it can be hard to walk the line between encouraging safety, acceptance, and creativity, while at the same time chiding members for enthusiastically sharing insights that reach escape velocity from the orbit of the topic on the table.

The Remedy: To ride herd on these enemies of focus, you need facilitators that are willing to be firm with a lasso, and a group that will back up its facilitators.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Knowing When to Labor & When to Let Go

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Knowing When to Labor & When to Let Go.

When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect [posted Sept 3]
XI. Balancing voices [posted Sept 18 & Sept 30]

XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake [Posted Oct 27]
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
Sometimes work on an issue gets stalled and it's not clear whether to stay the course or lay it down. Today's examination is about how to discern which course seems wiser.

Here are questions you might reasonably ask, in the hopes that the answers will cut through the fog. While there's a great deal of subjective assessment in answering these questions, they're still better than relying on tea leaves, chicken entrails, or ouija boards.

A. How Close to the Finish Line Are You? 
If the end is in sight, the answer favors laboring on—both because you already have a lot invested in achieving the progress to date, and because not so much remains. If you've lost momentum near the starting gate, however, then the answer favors laying it down.

B. How Entrenched Are the People Who Aren't Budging?
The stuckness you're experiencing on this issue translates into individuals holding firmly to positions. If the people holding those positions see them as hard wired to core beliefs, it may be the very devil to get movement. If, however, the positions are more a representation of unresolved irritation with people on the over side of the aisle, then there's more reason to hope that laboring might yet be productive.

C. How Urgent Is Forward Progress?
Sometimes there's a deadline looming or an opportunity available in a defined window and it's unacceptably costly to delay. If that obtains, the answer favors more laboring. 

D. What Is the Cost of No Action Relative to the Cost of Pushing?
This question is related to the prior one, yet different in that you're estimating what the group may have to pay (in dollars, time, and energy) with either choice and than comparing price tags.

E. What New Approach Might You Try That Would Inject Hope of Breaking the Logjam?
If you're leaning toward laboring, it will help morale if you have an idea or two about how to get at the issue through a fresh approach. Do you have one?

F. Is There Any New Information Available That Might Shed New Light?
Whenever a group decides it's ready to start developing proposals there's the implication that you know enough to make a decision. While that may be an accurate assessment, the truth is that you never know everything. Maybe a search for additional information will provide an insight that can break open the stalemate.

G. Is There the Time and Psychic Energy Needed to Labor Successfully?
The decision to continue laboring is not made in a vacuum—it commits the life force of real people. Is there enough gas in the tank to get you to finish line? If not, maybe laying it down is a better strategic choice.

H. What Is the Fatigue Factor in the Group; How Badly Do They Need a Break?
How drained is the group as a consequence of the work to date not having been enough to resolve the issue? If the group is exhausted, it's not likely that they'll greet a decision to stay the course with enthusiasm.

I. How Many Concerns Need to Be Resolved in Order to Pass a Proposal?
This is another angle on Point A. When looked at through this lens though, you're conducting a census of how many questions remain to be resolved—essentially, the more the scarier. It's much more daunting to be facing four different concerns than four people with the same concern.