Monday, January 30, 2012

That Old Bird

I recently came across an Inuit soapstone carving of a ptarmigan that I had given a special friend many years ago, and it brought back fond memories…

Back in 1975, three college friends and I spent two weeks canoeing the lower stretch of the Coppermine River, terminating our trip in the Inuit outpost that bears the river's name, on the southern shores of Coronation Gulf in the Arctic Ocean. The entire trip was north of the Arctic Circle.

At that latitude, summer as a meteorological phenomenon only lasts about six weeks and we planned our trip smack in the middle of that window. (You know the joke about Minnesota—the place where many are cold, but few are frozen—they only have two seasons: winter and July. Well, north of the Arctic Circle it's really like that, so we went in July.) That close to the pole, the sun doesn't go up and down; it goes round and round. It dipped below the horizon for only 90 minutes a day (between 1:30-3 am) and it never got so dark you couldn't read. It was weird going into the wilderness and never needing a flashlight, or caring when you made camp because there was no need to preserve sunlight for cooking dinner.

People speak in awe about the legendary mosquitoes of northern Minnesota, but they're a joke if you've ever been to the Arctic in summer. Having done our homework beforehand, we wore a double layer of clothing at all times and hats with veils when not on the water (where the wind dispersed them). On that trip our record confirmed kill with one hand slapped against your thigh was 29 carcasses. Just think about that density of insect eagerly drilling test holes in your clothing hoping for a gusher. Now that's mosquitoes.

Nearly My Last Trip
As much fun as I get out of horrifying listeners with stories of big league mosquitoes, the most memorable feature of the Coppermine trip was that I almost died.

Several days into the trip, Ann and I were in the lead canoe when we came upon a relatively moderate set of rapids. After quickly scouting them from shaor we decided to run them in our loaded canoe (which saves gobs of time—as long as you don't flip). While we negotiated the white water just fine, our trailing canoe (with Kip & Tony) did not. When they swamped, we had a problem.

Our #1 priority was getting the dunked canoeists out of the water. They had life vests on and were in no danger of drowning, but the water is cold that far north. In addition, there were duffle packs, paddles, and a canoe bobbing in the water, merrily continuing their downstream journey without us. Thus, after quickly unloading our canoe on shore, Ann & I ventured into the water downstream of the riffle and guided our wet friends to safety. Once they were secure, I left Ann to help them get out of their wet clothes and dry off while I immediately took my pants off (wet jeans act as a sea anchor), donned my life vest, and went into the water in an attempt to collect the unmanned canoe, after which I hoped to round up the baggage.

As aluminum canoes are packed with styrofoam ballast in the bow and stern compartments, they float about 18 inches below the water when swamped. As you can still see the tips of both ends sticking out, it was no problem locating the boat. But it was traveling at the speed of the current (about three miles per hour) and I needed to overhaul it. Passing up the canvas Duluth packs (which were traveling more on top of the water and thus were not as much in the grip of the current), I breast stroked and frog kicked my way directly to the canoe. By not putting my head in the water, I conserved precious body heat.

While I made steady progress, it nonetheless took me about a mile to finally reach the wayward 17-foot Grumman. The good news was that by the time I got the canoe, the near shoreline was close enough that I could touch bottom. The bad news was that we'd already reached the head off another set of rapids and the pull of the current was increasing. After several moments of struggle, I realized that I had enough strength to be able to hold the canoe in place, but not enough to be able to wrestle the waterlogged canoe out of the current. Sigh. Accepting this tactical defeat, I climbed into the canoe and decided to take my chances on having better luck further downstream. (It's much safer to ride a rapids inside a swamped canoe that aside it, where you might get pinned against a rock.)

While rolling through the rapids was rather fun (in a Six Flags kind of way), this next set didn't ended quickly and it dawned on me that I needed to be concerned more with getting out of the water because I was losing too much body heat. I knew enough about hypothermia to know that I was at risk for it, and that the symptoms include sluggish muscle response and clouded thinking—which meant that my ability to access critical judgment was degrading even as my danger was increasing. Uh oh.

As the canoe was responding to the laws of hydrodynamics (centering itself midstream, where the pull is strongest), I decided to abandon ship before we (the canoe and I) entered the next set of fast water, figuring, not unreasonably, that my survival trumped all other concerns. After a couple minutes of purposeful stroking—the shore was only about 25 feet away—I wasn't making much headway and I was dismayed to turn around and see the canoe only five feet behind me. With considerable reluctance, I again reentered the canoe as the current quickened for the next set of white water. This was starting to get serious.

Fortunately, there was enough slack following the next rapids that I was able to swim to shore. Though I was numbed by the cold and not thinking straight, the sun was shining and I had enough residual energy and sense to start walking upstream along the shore. By the time I got back to my waiting friends (who were getting increasingly anxious about me), my mind had cleared, I was no longer cold, and we all enjoyed a heartfelt reunion. Whew!

The truth is, I was woolly headed enough that I really don't know how close I was to succumbing to hypothermia and there were no eyewitnesses to offer a more objective opinion on the matter. That said, I satisfied myself that that was as up close and personal as I ever cared get with dying young.

In one of those fate-takes-a-holiday turn of events, there is a humorous postscript to my near-tragic failed canoe rescue. When the four us continued our trip the next day (with one walking along the shore and three crammed into our remaining canoe) we happily encountered our beached canoe less than a quarter mile downstream from where I had abandoned ship to save my life. That's right, after nearly dying in an unsuccessful attempt to get the damn thing out of the current, it accomplished that seemingly impossible feat all on its own shortly after I withdrew from the scene. While I was totally baffled by how that happened, we were more than grateful to have a second chance with the second canoe.
• • •
While there are additional stories from this canoe trip, I'm going to fast forward to the last days, which we spent in the northern outpost of Coppermine (it was renamed Kugluktuk in 1996, but back then it as still Copperimine). It's my one and only time on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, and we enjoyed our brief immersion in Inuit culture. Coppermine is one of a small number of settlements scattered within a vast tract of land (and you thought Wyoming was sparsely populated).

We ended our trip there both because we ran out of river and because we could get scheduled air service (on a recycled DC-3, that workhorse two-engine aircraft that was developed in the mid-30s and is still in use in the hinterlands today) from there back to Yellowknife, where we'd parked our car. Scheduled service was a big advantage in that it cost only a quarter of what we spent chartering a float plane to drop us off at the west end of Dismal Lakes, where our journey began.

While the native people still engage in traditional hunting and fishing, their income has been significantly augmented in recent decades through the sale of art, especially prints and carvings that feature simple lines and abstract representation. While in town, we particularly enjoyed visiting an artist collective where all four of us bought soapstone carvings to take home.

As I recall, Ann and I bought at least three pieces. One was a small loon that she still has (though it's neck broke in a fall, it's been epoxied back together) and I enjoy seeing it every time I visit her in Floyd VA. Another was a bear that I had for a number of years and then gave to Kip as a wedding present several years later. By then, Kip had gotten seriously interested in Inuit art. While he concentrated on collecting prints by certain artists, I knew the carving would have special meaning for him.

The third piece was a massive ptarmigan, weighing perhaps 10 pounds and standing 10 inches high. With the bulk of the carving was 400-grit smooth and minimally defined, birdness was evoked by the merest details: a sharpened beak on the head, the outlines of rough circles for eyes, and feet scratched into the base to suggest feet. I lovingly gave that carving to an older friend who was very dear to me. For years, she kept that bird in her bedroom, on the carpet near her bed, where she'd see it every day. When I'd visit her over the years, I'd get to see it also. While the floor may seem a lowly place to display art, I always enjoyed that the location was subtle and echoed the habitat of the ground dwelling ptarmigan, who survives by blending in.
• • •
My friend died in 2003 and for a while I lost track of the bird. Then, unexpectedly I ran across it recently, now in the possession of relatives. While happy to see the bird again (I've circled back to where this blog began), I was chagrined to see that the carving was now being used as a doorstop to channel a breeze from the back porch into the house. Looking closely, I saw that there were now scrapes and nicks in multiple places over the bird's body, marring the smooth finish of the malleable stone that the artist had worked so painstakingly to effect.

I was awash in sadness. It was like seeing a Chippendale chair pressed into service as a substitute sawhorse on a construction site, or finding a Monet having been rigged as a window screen. You could see how it would do the job, yet how could the regard for the artistic achievement have sunk so low?

As I sat with it though, my feelings began to change. The relatives undoubtedly had kept the bird as a memory of their mother. For years, their mother had kept the bird on her bedroom floor, where it had probably been used on occasion to prop the door open. They were just continuing mom's tradition. What I took to be defilement, they probably saw as reverence. Where I had a connection to a living artist eking out an existence on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, my friends were honoring their mother's quirky and conversational choice in a doorstop. Nobody was wrong.

The bird was still being loved, just in a different way. Who was I to claim that my old ptarmigan friend was being abused. Maybe the old bird was happy to be useful, and preferred that to sitting on a piano, collecting dust.

Now that I'm approaching old bird status myself, it occurred to me that being reliably useful in one's latter years is not necessarily a bad way to go. Certainly it's preferable to being placed on a shelf and admired from time to time for what one used to be able to accomplish. So I patted the old bird on the head and sat back down without saying a word. After all, I've got plenty of nicks and scars myself.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Fair Hope of Success

Ma'ikwe and I just spent four days visiting my brother, Guy, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, where he and my sister-in-law, Elaine, retired two years ago.

It's different here than in the Chicago suburbs where they lived for 35 years. For example, when we went to bed Wed night the outdoor temperature was still north of 70 degrees. For Jan 25, I considered that a little odd. Pleasant, mind you, but definitely odd.

As an example of the amusing ways that Fate tends to spring little surprises on people, Guy & Elaine have inadvertently settled in a town that's home to one of the longest lasting communal experiments in US history: Fairhope, Alabama. That's funny because I've been totally immersed in the relatively obscure world of intentional communities since 1974. And while my family still loves me, my four siblings all think I'm a little (or you could substitute a more robust adjective here) weird for having removed my particular acorn so far from the Republican conservative tree from which we descended.

To be clear, Guy & Elaine moved here because of the climate, the ambiance, and the year-round golf—not because of any late-breaking egalitarian urge inspired by brotherly propinquity. Consider it serendipity, but Ma'ikwe and I enjoyed an informative hour in the Fairhope Historical Museum Wed afternoon (there's a sandwich board on the downtown sidewalk outside the building, informing strollers in chalk that there's "Commune inside," in much the same you might be enticed by a shoe sale, raw oysters, or gingerbread lattes).

• • •
The intentional roots of Fairhope go back to 1879, when the economic philosopher Henry George published his seminal work, Progress and Poverty. While apparently dry reading, it was nonetheless a hot item in its day—outselling everything except The Bible for several years. George's basic premise was that people should be entitled to the full benefit of what they created with their labor, while that which was produced by nature—notably land—should be shared equally by all. To address what he saw as the inequalities of modern life and the uncertainties generated by boom and bust industrial growth cycles, George came up with the single tax concept, based on the value of land, as a potential remedy.

Among other things, George's writing inspired the Populist Party in the latter part of the 19th Century, which reached its peak in 1892 when
James Weaver ran as a presidential candidate. He carried four states in that election, making it one of the strongest showings by a third party candidate in US history. Breaking from the Republicans led by Civil War hero Ulysses Grant, Weaver felt that the party of Abraham Lincoln had fallen too much under the control of big business (do some things ever change?).

The Populist Party ran on a platform which included the advocacy of
direct election of US Senators, graduated income tax, and relaxation of the gold standard for backing US currency—all reforms that were eventually adopted. While the Populist Party waned after the 1892 election (its support eventually absorbed by William Jennings Bryan), there was a cadre of folks in Des Moines who were inspired to experiment with Georgist thinking on the ground, rather than through the ballot box.

Under the guidance of newspaperman E B Gaston, this forming group articulated the following mission:
—to establish and conduct a model community or colony, free from all forms of private monopoly, and to secure to its members therein equality of opportunity, the full reward of individual efforts, and the benefits of cooperation in matters of general concern.

In 1894, the group bought a few hundred acres on the undeveloped eastern shore of Mobile Bay, and the experiment was begun, with "a fair hope of success." The Fairhope Single Tax Colony was begun with 28 intrepid souls, nine of whom were children. With the exception of one couple from Pennsylvania and another from California, all the first settlers came from the upper Midwest—foreshadowing a migratory trend that continues today [I couldn't help but notice that the calendar section of the daily Press-Register ("connecting coastal Alabama since 1813") is chock full of meetings dates for the Michigan Snowbirds, Iowa Snowbirds, Minnesota Snowbirds, Indiana Snowbirds, etc].

While progressive and adventurous, the early colonists were not particularly well off. Their early self-descriptive tagline was: Fairhope is a place where none are rich yet few are poor. Their modest original landholding was greatly expanded in the 1910s when philanthropist Joseph Fels (scion of the Fels Naptha fortune) was sufficiently inspired to pony up the money needed to increase the holding by more than 4000 additional acres—which is essentially what the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation owns today.

(Fels also provided the financial backing for a second Georgist colony in Arden, Delaware—started in 1900 and also still going today.)

Sprouting from its progressive rootstock,
Fairhope created an enclave that was an early proponent of gender equality, and a strong supporter of education and artistic initiative. In 1907, Marietta Johnson founded the Organic School. Singled out for praise in John Dewey's 1915 classic, Schools for Tomorrow, the school continues to this day based on Johnson's original (and surprisingly modern) philosophy:

1. We respect a child's individual learning style and pattern of growth.

2. We encourage children to experience the world by trying new tasks and ideas, experimenting and experiencing with all their senses.

3. Rather than requiring traditional tests, examinations and pressure to achieve an adult-designed goal, we allow freedom in approaching learning experiences according to the individual child's needs.

4. We strive to create an atmosphere that promotes the desire to learn by offering a flexible, free-flowing structure, adaptable to each child's needs.

Early on, the colony became an artistic center, and the tradition continues with the annual Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival which has straddled a mid-March weekend for 60 years running, and now attracts a quarter million people to a town that only boosts 16,000 year-round residents. (Talk about a boon to local business, it must be about as easy to find a Fairhope motel room around the vernal equinox as it it get one in Louisville the first weekend in May.)

In its early years, Fairhope was a relatively isolated outpost. Most of the colony's income was earned from docking and ferry fees (boats were the only reasonable way to get to and from Mobile until the causeway was built across the top of the bay in the 1930s—prior to that it was a two-day road trip because you had to go up around the extensive delta wetlands north of the bay).

Holding its land in common, the single tax corporation was able to use its lease fees for the common benefit and developed extensive public parks and also utilities. Though mostly these public assets were turned over to the town in the 1930s, when lease income was no longer sufficient to cover property taxes, it provided the town with such a strong financial base that Fairhope was able to operate without a local sales tax until only a few years ago.

Today the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation quietly continues with about 1800 leaseholds, owning somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% of the property in town. From its start as a utopian experiment, the community evolved to become an artist and intellectual enclave, eventually transforming into the boutique resort and affluent suburb of Mobile it is today.

Nov 15 is Round Up Day in Fairhope—marking the day that the 28 original settlers first set foot on the land. Rather than the sinister associations that adhere to "round up" in connection with pogroms or Monsanto, it's nice to know that there's a fair hope of rehabilitating that term down in Alabama.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

When Good Facilitators Step Down

I recently received this inquiry from a group I'd worked with before, asking about how to navigate the delicacy of encouraging folks to join their facilitation team, while at the same time protecting the quality of the work and the solid internal relationships that the team had worked so hard to develop. Here was the communication (suitably modified to obscure the identity of the group):

I have a question that I am hoping you might be able to help us with. Our Facilitation Team has been able to accomplish some really important things with our community over the past two years, in large part because of the wonderful training we received from you.

More recently, the community has had a series of thefts and muggings in the parking lot and this has lead us to organize a series of meetings to figure out a security plan that fits with the values of our group and that tries to bridge the strong opinions members have on how to make the community safe. We would never have been able to figure out how to approach this contentious discussion if we hadn’t had your training.

All this background brings me to our present concern. The members of our team who went through your training are all beginning to think about serving the community in different ways. One has already left to go back to school; another will leave the committee once her house sells; one is thinking of serving on the board next year instead, and a fourth may need to leave suddenly if an adoption comes through.

So, we are trying to figure out how to make sure the community continues to have effective facilitation.

To that effect, we have invited two other students of yours from other groups to come at some point in the spring and lead an intensive training weekend for people we have identified as having potential strengths in facilitation. (We are going to include those individuals who may be too busy to join the committee now but could perhaps become available in the future.)

A big concern for us is that over the past six or eight months we have had a few community members who have joined the team who to our minds do not have much promise of being good facilitators (too scattered to be able to track conversations, in one case, and too accustomed to running meetings in the corporate world, in another). We also have a new team member who has had some disasters in her attempts to facilitate so far. While we might be able to work with her to do some limited facilitating or to participate in some team facilitation, the other two would be very hard to work with. We want to encourage them to stay on the committee and serve in other capacities, but that might be a hard sell.

Our question is whether you have suggestions about how to recruit good future facilitators and how to discourage those who might not be gifted in that direction. We were hoping that you might be able to speak from your experiences or from your wisdom about how to set up a system for continuing facilitation in a community that would keep individuals who are interested but not well suited from feeling as though they have been rejected. We know that our community will not tolerate inadequate facilitation after what they have learned to expect over these past few years, so we feel the need to ensure the best possible facilitation. At the same time, we also don’t want to offend people and potentially set up a bad dynamic in the community.

What a good topic! Let's take the two aspects separately:

A. Recruiting Good Prospects
The first thing I'd recommend is to develop a job description, listing the qualities you want in a Facilitation Team member. If you're open to people serving on the team yet have different criteria for plenary facilitators, then create a separate list of criteria for that. While you may have already done this, the fact that you've attracted some candidates that aren't that well qualified makes me wonder.

Beyond that, it's not hard to imagine the veteran members of the team sitting down and walking through the entire group roster to determine who you'd like to recruit. I would not be shy about doing some sidewalk jawboning to try to talk the more promising prospects into applying. You may need to sweeten the pot by having one or ore of the exiting team members committing to continuing long enough to offer the new folks some decent mentoring.

Maybe you could invite those sitting on the fence (from among the pool you deem worth recruiting) to attend a few debriefing sessions after a plenary, to get a peek behind the curtain on how you operate, and what kinds of things you attempt to take into account. Maybe that would persuade them.

It also may make sense to have a session with the community where you talk up the importance of the job, and the qualifications, to generate some excitement in the work. It seems like the community had a good response to your skills development and you probably have some social capital you can draw on to ask the group to prioritize filling this with folks you deem qualified to follow in your footsteps.

B. Discouraging Inappropriate Prospects
In many ways this is trickier. I think in the long run, you simply have to commit to being honest (as we tried to do in the training class). There's an important distinction between encouraging someone to improve being fed a steady diet of positively slanted feedback, and blowing sunshine up their ass such that they're not really getting it about the gap between how they think they're coming across and how they're perceived.

It's my view that the key assessment here is how well someone hears and absorbs constructive criticism (I'm not talking about someone being able to handle being blasted; I'm talking about how open someone is to working with honest feedback in a debriefing from fellow facilitators where you're being frank.) I figure it's easier to train a naive person who's open to growing and listening, than it is to correct or advance someone who's ears are closed.

Toward that end, I'd make it clear both that openness to constructive feedback is an important criteria in the members you're seeking for the team, and that you'll assess candidates (during a trial period) for their ability to hear accurately, their ability to exercise appropriate discretion with the information they hear, and their relative lack of defensiveness.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Turning South

Ma'ikwe and I are entering the final week of our January trip. The highlight of what remains is a visit to my brother and sister-in-law (Guy & Elaine), who retired to Fairhope AL (on the east side of Mobile Bay) after 35 years in the suburbs of Chicago—no more shoveling snow. They've been down here for two years ago and I have yet to visit.

Alabama is generally not identified as a hotbed of cooperative living (it's more a hotbed of competitive football), and in all my travels crisscrossing the country, my itinerary rarely gets takes me through LA (which my friend Dan Questenberry, who grew up in Bay Minette, playfully uses in reference to Lower Alabama).

Back in the fall, it occurred to me that my regular winter trip to Dunmire Hollow (to see Harvey and conduct some FIC business) would get me about as close to Guy & Elaine as I would get, and a number of factors coalesced for me to book the upcoming visit:

o Harvey lives just one county north of the Alabama border.
o January is not a busy time at home.

o January does not fall in hurricane season.

o Ma'ikwe cordially detests cold weather (enhancing the attraction of lingering in the Deep South).

o While the Gulf weather may not be balmy this time of year—though it may—neither will it be 100 degrees with 100% humidity, which I find about as appealing as wilted iceberg lettuce.

o January has an R in it (think oysters).

Late this morning we'll be driving over to Memphis (the real one in Tennessee, with 2/3rds of a million people and an NBA franchise; not the one near and dear to us in northeast Missouri that's our county seat with merely 2000 souls) so that we'll be in position to catch the southbound City of New Orleans at dawn tomorrow. After arriving in the Crescent City in the afternoon, we'll board a bus to Mobile, from where my brother will collect us. Next Friday we'll do it all over again in reverse, as we head for home and the return of winter.

While the layover in New Orleans isn't long (probably not enough time for a mad dash to the Acme Oyster House), I'm hoping to snag a muffaletta.
Later today, I'm looking forward to a half day in Memphis. We'll be staying with friends of Harvey whom he met years ago on the annual BRAT (Bicycle Ride Across Tennessee). While we may not get to Beale St or Graceland, it appears likely that dry-rubbed barbecue is on the agenda. Yum.

I'm posting this blog courtesy of the wi-fi signal at the Village Coffee House in Selmer TN (it's how people in Boston would pronounce the Alabaman town made famous for its 1965 We Shall Overcome march in supporting of black voting rights)
. We stopped here for lunch en route to Memphis, wisely selecting this over Pat's Cafe on the corner—home of the slugburger (don't ask). Poignantly, the Village Coffee House is closing its doors tomorrow. I got here just in time for the crab/lobster bisque and a double latte.

One of the not-so-secret joys of my traveling life is sampling the specialties of local and regional cuisine en route. Thus, while I've never visited Mobile Bay before, and my brother chose it more for the prospects of year-round golf (what can I say, he lives on Niblick Loop), I'm anticipating gustatory encounters with shellfish. (While Ma'ikwe considers that "selfish"—she doesn't care for fruits de mer—she's admirably open-minded about what passes my lips as long as I brush afterwards.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reports and Little Fishes

When Ma'ikwe was a child her maternal grandmother had a habit of venting frustration with the semi-outrageous—especially coming from a woman born in 1915—ejaculation, "Shit and little fishes." As a naturally curious (and semi-outrageous) child, Ma'ikwe picked it up, and that particular oddment of phraseology became incorporated into Ma'ikwe's repertoire of the myriad ways she lets others know that all is not beer and skittles with her in the moment.

To be clear, she reserves that matrilineal derivative for moments of minor irritation. Bigger moments call for hand gesticulations and language more calculated to give a longshoreman pause. This one has a touch of whimsy and even mild amusement—which I think is appropriate in that it's hard to conjure up a school of small fry in a state of ennui or consternation, much less collective rage.

While neither Ma'ikwe nor I have the faintest idea what the etymology of this choice phrase could be, it appeals to me for its quirkiness and as a way to evoke a grandma I never met. Idiosyncrasies like this are charming.

• • •
For the period Friday through Tuesday, Ma'ikwe and I have been fully immersed in five days of meetings: three days of facilitation training followed immediately by two days of the Fellowship for Intentional Community's Oversight Committee. While both of these went well, there is necessarily a plethora of obligations that are generated in such sessions, many of which adhere to me, plus a fair number of which fall onto Ma'ikwe's plate. Blissfully, there is a stretch of 10 largely unstructured days laying in front of us, providing excellent prospects for digging out from under and arriving home at the end of the month with a reasonably light heart and a light ongoing workload.

Wednesday was a travel day—600 miles of driving from Afton VA to Waynesboro TN—and we needed to arise early. Though it was free of meetings, it was also free of an internet signal. Hence no posting until we could make it into the Waynesboro this afternoon (we're ensconced at Jeanette's on the northwest corner of the downtown square while our host, Harvey Baker, moseys over to the high school for soccer conditioning).

Our first thought was to hole up at the public library, which offers free wi-fi, but you're not allowed to plug in your computer there. Huh? I'm trying to figure out their reasoning. Are they afraid that a flood of geeks (in south central rural Tennessee, mind you) will suck all the electrons out of the wall and there won't be enough left at the end of the day to vacuum? I'm scratching my head over this particular line in the administrative sand.

As we stirred from a warm bed in the pre-dawn light yesterday morning, Ma'ikwe leaned over and observed that we had a lot of "reports and shit" to do over the next several days. Never one to willingly pass up a chance at word play, I riposted, "You mean reports and little fishes?" To which she playfully rejoined, "You understand me!"

Well, sometimes.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Facilitating Elders

One of the exhilarating aspects of creating cooperative culture is the opportunity to do things differently—the chance to create norms that are different than the ones we were raised with, with the express purpose of making things better. That said, there can nonetheless be some unintended consequences that don't go down well.

At Sandhill, for instance, we have intentionally raised our kids with the expectation that they deserved an explanation when adults asked them to do something—not they had the option of opting out if they didn't like the answer; only that they deserved an explanation if one was requested. Years ago, I can remember when we had a member in her mid-20s and how irritated she felt at being expected to provide a rationale to my teenage son when he asked for one after being asked to help out. In her view, she was getting the worst of both experiences. As a minor she was expected to be satisfied with "Because I told you so." Now finally an adult, kids suddenly had more power and being imperious with children was no longer acceptable behavior. Grr.

• • •
I'm immersed in a facilitation training this weekend hosted by Hundredfold Farm, a two-thirds built cohousing community in Gettysburg PA (they have five lots left). Yesterday, a question came up about how to work with elders. What a good question!

The interesting aspect is to what extent you should you treat elders (by which I mean people who have been in the group for a long time and who are up in years and probably no longer as active today as they once were) differently than anyone else. Alternately, what if the elder expects to be treated differently, whether consciously or not? As this comes in a number of flavors, let's taste each in turn:

1. Founder's Syndrome
For some elders, their tenure with the group may go all the way back to the beginning days, or at least close enough that there is a substantial gap between their time in service to the group and that of many current members. Sometimes the elder will hold the view that so many special things happened in those bygone times that the latter day members cannot possibly understand what it was like back in the day.

When tension develops over how to respond to an issue and the elder with Founder's Syndrome holds a different view from that of newer members, the elder can get locked into the opinion that the disagreement is caused the newbies' lack of perspective and insufficient breadth of experience. While that may be a factor, it can be the very devil to convince elder that they have indeed been fully heard—they just aren't being agreed with.

If this is the dynamic then the leverage point is figuring out how to demonstrate to the elder's satisfaction that they have been heard, as a prelude to doing any heavy lifting around the triggering issue.

2. Diminished Capacity
As people age, it' not unusual for senility
(or at least diminished capacity) to enter the equation, yet the decay is rarely linear and there can be considerable delicacy in diagnosing this.

o Perhaps they're
living with one foot in the past, insisting on reminiscing instead of keeping the focus current. Warning: Be careful! Stories about what the group did in earlier years may be highly relevant to the current conversation. Being old does not necessarily mean being in the way.

o Perhaps they don't hear or see as well as they once did and miss a lot of what's happening.

3. Family of Origin
The roots of how a person responds to elders can go back to how they were conditioned as a child—to what extent were grandparents treated differently (read deferentially) growing up? For most of us, the "normal" response is to recapitulate the way you were raised, yet it's almost certain that people's conditioning will be all over the map in this respect, especially when you digest that most people living in cooperative groups have already demonstrated some degree of willingness to break from their roots in choosing that culture. (Thus, for those who identify courage and pathfinding with a shift, it may actually be knee-jerk negative for them that someone responds to elders with deference. That is, what is meant as respect by one person may come across as unenlightened and/or chicken shit to another. Talk about a mess!)

4. The Power Gradient
Elders can derive power by virtue of their age (see my previous point) and also by virtue of experience—which is often associated with age, though not always. Experience is something an elder has earned (or at least accumulated) and, so long as it's relevant to the group's purpose, not something you want to throw out with the bath water in an egalitarian purge. In this respect elders are no different than anyone else with background that bears on the issues and functions of the group, and is one of the ways in which it's appropriate to discriminate. That is, it makes sense to give more weight to the opinion of those who have more knowledge about a topic than those who don't. While experience doesn't necessarily translate into wisdom, it helps.

What makes this murky is that appropriate discrimination can be interwoven with privilege and it can be delicate teasing out the difference. When you have a plumbing issue, are you listening more to the advice of the older white guy because: a) he's done more plumbing; b) he's older; c) he's white; or d) he's male. While you may think you're only doing it for a), how can you be sure?

5. Stepping Down
The opposite side of the elder who tries to hang on to power too long, is the one who gives it up before the group is ready. This is where the elder recognizes the need for transition—perhaps because of weariness; perhaps because the need for the next generation to develop their leadership capacity before the elder is literally gone. In this dynamic there can be resentment directed toward an elder who is perceived to be withholding their care and sagacity. (Tough love does not tend to be received with grace when not requested.)

6. R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find Out What it Mean to Me
In the 60s, Aretha Franklin made this into a hit single. One of the things that makes this song compelling is that the lyrics pose a timeless challenge. It turns out that respect does not mean the same thing to everyone. Thus, even if everyone agreed that it was appropriate to extend respect to elders (not instead of respect to non-elders, but as a class deserving of special treatment), it would be dangerous to assume that everyone understood that agreement translated into a uniform set of behaviors.

For some, it would mean not speaking until the elder had spoken; for others, it might would mean making sure that the elder had the last word. For some it would mean never raising one's voice in front of the elder; for others it would mean being strong in the presence of the elder, meant to honor how the elder has inspired strength in the group. For some it means reserving a favorite chair for the elder; yet for some elders this is embarrassing and comes across as coddling.
• • •
For all of these reasons, it can require careful work on the part of the facilitator to tease out why people—including elders themselves!—are responding to the elder role as they do and figuring out how to navigate these waters without foundering, pitching the founder overboard, or going overboard in obeisance to the founder.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Relationships Passing in the Night

Yesterday was a travel day.

That meant 12 hours on Amtrak negotiating the distance from Canandaigua NY to Gettysburg PA (which translated into riding the rails from Rochester NY to Harrisburg PA via New York City). I know it's not the most direct route, (only 270 miles by crow, it's 566 by choo choo) but the days of hamlet-to-hamlet train service are gone the way of the passenger pigeon (there are those who might argue that I'm a latter day passenger pigeon to be a regular Amtrak patron, but that's a blog for another time), and I consider myself fortunate to be able to cobble together a rail itinerary that works at all.

The amazing thing about yesterday's peregrination was not that we had to spend 30 minutes changing trains in Penn Station (which was a whopping 200 miles east of the route we would have taken by car); it's that Ma'ikwe and I managed to hook up (so to speak) with a dear friend (and ex-partner of mine), Susan Patrice, during the layover. For all of three minutes we enjoyed hugs and an animated exchange before our boarding call was posted for the 5:10 pm Keystone Service to Harrisburg. I was gobsmacked that all of this could come together so quickly.

The miracle was made possible by Facebook, plus the fact that Amtrak now offers wi-fi connectivity on all its northeast corridor trains. Here's how it worked. Ma'ikwe was impressed enough by her virginal experience of being online on a moving train (it's not that uncommon to be able to grab a usable wireless signal during a random station stop, but satellite service while rolling is a new thing), that she posted a breezy sentence about it on her Facebook wall. (Perhaps "breezy" is redundant when used in the same sentence as "Facebook," where the emphasis is on flow, not depth, but I'm honoring here—as someone who has steadfastly kept his distance from the crack cocaine of electronic social media—that Facebook was an essential component to yesterday's serendipitous rendezvous.)

A few hours after Ma'ikwe posted her travel note, Susan was cruising Facebook and noticed that Ma'ikwe had tangentially mentioned that she was en route to the Big Apple. While we hadn't been thinking about Susan at all on this trip (she was still in Asheville NC the last we'd heard), it turned out that she'd moved up to Ganas (a well-established Staten Island community with whom she has maintained a long-term relationship) and actually had business in Manhattan yesterday. After a bit more Facebook back-and-forthing with Ma'ikwe, they determined that it just might work for Susan to wrap up her downtown engagement in time to hustle over to 34th St and catch some face time (as distinct from Facebook time) with her itinerant friends from Missouri.

While it was simultaneously weird and delightful to have Susan just walk up to us beneath the big departure board (which, disappointingly, no longer goes clackety-clack as trains head out and all the announcements for later departures advance up the board digitally now instead of mechanically), how do you even attempt to catch up in 180 seconds on all that's happened in the 18 months since we'd last seen each other? Faced with the impossibility of it all, we complimented her on her auburn hair, and she admired our new glasses.

The world gets a bit smaller all the time.
While it was early evening—not that you could tell from the bowels of Penn Station—it was preciously sweet that our passing ships somehow found each other for long enough to experience a touch of tenderness and connection smack in the midst of the anonymous crush of humanity that iconically characterizes rush hour in urban America. How could it get any crazier than trying to find a friend at 5 pm midweek in the middle of Penn Station?

On the other hand, what am I complaining about; we had three New York minutes. My cup overfloweth.

There are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Critical Judgment

One of the most valuable aspects of intimacy is the willingness (and courage) of your partner to illuminate one's character defects. Ma'ikwe has been working with me lately about how critical I am, making it clear how worn down she feels being in its corrosive presence. (It's not that I'm like that all the time, or even most of the time; yet I'm like that often enough to be an exhausting pattern.)

As you might imagine, the worst dynamic for her is when I'm directing this negativity toward her. However, she's also tired of witnessing my picking apart others, and has been urging me to be both more gracious in my comments and more mindful about when to give criticism.

(While Ma'ikwe appreciates that I'm not one to indulge in false compliments, or to sugarcoat feedback to the point where you have to shift through layers of cotton candy to uncover the substantive nugget buried in the verbiage, her main concern is my tendency toward the caustic; not my willingness to speak up, or my ability to be incisive.)

Like most people, she has some of this in her as well, and I'm nervous about the possibility of my lashing back at her if she points out my doing it at a time when I feel she's giving as good as she's getting. While it wouldn't be fair that I be held to a standard that she is exempt from, she's not asking for that. I just don't trust that the exchange would be constructive (that my pointing out her criticality will come across as deflection, or anything more than another example of my negativity).

Ma'ikwe thinks that I'm mostly unconscious about how much I'm negative, and I suspect she's right. That is, we both agree that I probably drift into being critical without awareness, and she's offered to let me know when she thinks it's happening, with the idea that increased awareness will help me get a handle on it. We've agreed that she can simply say "Ouch!" in those moments as a shorthand signal. Unless I can see her fingers pinched in a door jamb (suggesting that the pain she's feeling may not be caused by me), I'll know that she's having a reaction to my dumping.

To be clear, Ma'ikwe isn't asking me to forego critical judgment; she's asking me to use better judgment about when to be critical. There are definitely times when critical comments are in order (three obvious examples are: a) when they are requested; b) when evaluating proposals; or c) when I'm in a teacher relationship and am correcting ineffective or inappropriate student choices). Ma'ikwe is focusing on my tendency to be critical as one of the ways I share what's going on for me—without her (or anyone else) having asked for that analysis. What I see as transparency (opening up about what I'm chewing on, or what's chewing on me), she experiences as an uninvited dip in an acid bath.

At this point I've been soaking in Ma'ikwe's comments for six days and it's led to considerable introspection, along with some new wrinkles about how to proceed:

1. I'm trying to be more conscious before speaking, screening what's queuing up in my mouth for nastiness. On the whole, this deliberateness has led to my speaking less. While that wasn't Ma'ikwe's intention (at least I don't think it was), it appears that the world is getting along just fine with fewer pearls dribbling from my lips, and it's humbling how little of what occurs to me to say is actually worth voicing, once I reflect on it.

While all of this adds up to a less caustic auditory environment, what's going on inside Laird's head (you might ask), where the printing presses of my mind keep cranking out manifestos, even if the town crier no longer reads them aloud? Good question. While it's early days, and I don't know yet whether I'll be able to transubstantiate my stomach acid into something that will aid others in digesting my comments without experiencing dyspepsia, I see hope.

2. I can still process critical thoughts, even if they haven't been voiced. While talking things out is part of my normal routine, I can journal instead, talk to myself on solitary walks, or meditate. Wrangling with my wife (and close friends) is not my only option.

3. If I'm having a reaction to something (which is far and away the mostly likely reason I'm chewing on it) I have the option to report on the reaction, rather than launching into an attack. This is an important distinction and almost always works better (if I can only remember to do it). Here's how it might look—based on a not-so-pleasant exchange Ma'ikwe and I had on Friday:

Option A (the unmindful bull-in-a-china-shop approach): "Why are you asking me to create a new list without first checking to see what's been covered by the first one I gave you weeks ago?" [Don't miss the pained expression on my face as you read the script.]

Option B (where I report first on my emotional state): "I notice I'm having a reaction to this request. I'm feeling irritated and disrespected that you're asking me to do redo work that I think was mostly already sent to you."

While these two statements mostly convey the same thing, Option B has a much better chance of not starting a border dispute. If you're not sure this would make a difference, just ask Ma'ikwe.

Friday, January 6, 2012


One of the joys of living in sparsely populated northeast Missouri is the dearth of traffic. That's especially true at 4:30 am, which is when I aim to pull out of Rutledge to catch the early train to Chicago—departing Quincy IL promptly at 6:12 am every day.

I took that trip this morning, but the ride didn't turn out to be quite so mundane as I have become accustomed to finding it. There wasn't any more traffic than usual; there just wasn't as much fuel as usual either—and when the dashboard pinged to inform of us of that inconvenience it was too late to swap out cars. We needed diesel at 5 am and were not in a position to drive very far out of our way to hunt for it. Suddenly, things got a lot more exciting.

As we quickly decided to detour to Edina, the 15-minute cushion built into our schedule evaporated in a blink. Worse, we weren't sure we had enough fuel to reach Edina. As if that weren't challenge enough, we were also not sure the BP station would be open that early even if we made it that far.

While biting our nails, we quickly calculated our options for rerouting if we missed the Quincy train. We had the possibility of catching the eastbound Southwest Chief in La Plata MO, or the eastbound California Zephyr in Ottumwa IA, both of which were due in circa 10 am and would still get us comfortably to Chicago in time for our 9:30 pm departure on the Lake Shore Limited tonight.

(Amazingly, we have access to three daily trains to and from Chicago within a 60-mile radius. We almost always take the Quincy train because: a) it arrives earlier and can easily make all same-day connections with other trains; b) this train originates in Quincy and is thus almost never late, while the other two originate in California and have plenty of time to get into mischief en route; and c) it's half the price, due to subsidies from the state of Illinois.)

While changing trains wasn't our preference (it would take a gob more running around to make the connection and we'd pay an arm and a leg for last-minute tickets), it helped to know it wasn't Quincy or nothing.

Even after we glided into Edina on fumes and were lucky enough to have the station turn on its lights as we pulled in (we were their very first customer this morning), there was still a matter of hightailing it to Quincy in time. After refueling, we had exactly 68 minutes to cover 50 miles. It was going to be tight.

While it wasn't the most relaxing ride I can remember, Alline (our driver this morning) was up to the challenge and successfully eluded all wildlife and vehicles (including deer and highway patrol), and the train was blessedly still in the station as we skidded into the depot. After jumping out of the car, popping the trunk, and rushing aboard with our sundry baggage, we gratefully plopped into our seats and exhaled. The train pulled out two minutes later. Whew!

Tragedy of the Commons: Motorized Division

All the while we were doing this Keystone Kops routine, we were wondering why the car had so little fuel in it. At both Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit we maintain a community-owned fleet of vehicles and the refueling norms are clear: Don't (as in never) return a car with less than a quarter tank of gas.

As you can easily imagine, it doesn't take many experiences like the one we had this morning to motivate folks to promulgate such a norm. The trick though, is getting people to follow it. When you're the only one using a vehicle, you're much more likely to be attuned to the fuel gauge. When you it's a vehicle you seldom use, you tend to be less diligent. If you're only going for a short ride, you may not even look at the fuel gauge at all.

Unfortunately, this kind of casualness translates into someone occasionally being caught short with few corrective options available. This morning, that someone was us.

While we dodged the bullet today, this story poignantly illuminates one of the challenges groups must face when resources are shared: how do you maintain the level of responsibility associated with sole ownership while at the same time enjoying the substantial economic leveraging of joint ownership. This is a work in progress.

• • •

Meanwhile, today is the start of a 23-day road trip, during which Ma'ikwe's and my wanderings will describe a giant circle (actually, it will look more like a basketball with one side stove in) around the eastern third of the US: Quincy IL to Chicago to Rochester NY to Gettysburg PA to Afton VA to Waynesboro TN to Fairhope AL, then back to the Windy City and home. Roughly 4500 miles all told. Who says you have to stay at home in the dead of winter?

We'll be doing a little of everything: visiting family, conducting a facilitation training, participating in FIC Oversight Committee meetings, and presenting a public award. It's a wardrobe challenge packing for both upstate NY and Mobile Bay in January, but we're tough (and so is Ma'ikwe's suitcase).

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Fine Line Between Driving and Navigating

One of the trickiest parts about learning to facilitate at a high level is understanding the dangers of surreptitiously inserting your agenda into the group's issues. It's the difference between steering the ship according to a map that only you are looking at, and guiding the ship in accordance with a map provided by the group.

Done well, it's actively illuminating a productive path for the group based on accurate listening, modulated by breadth of experience (both about cooperative groups in general, and about this group in specific). Done dangerously, it's about subtly steering (or even outright pushing if the facilitator is more bold or less sophisticated) the group toward the solution the facilitator thinks is best—not because the facilitator is evil, but because they think it's in the group's best interest and expedient to give the group a shove in the right direction.

When less experienced people watch a skilled facilitator in action, it can often look like the facilitator is steering the boat, when in reality they are merely identifying a safe anchorage that meets the group's criteria. The problem is that a good facilitator will often see possibilities (as well as shoal waters) before others and to the casual observer it may seem that they are using their power to impose their will on the group—much in the way committee chairs are able to orchestrate sessions under Roberts Rules of Order.

There can be a fine line between safeguarding how the group does its work, and influencing inappropriately what conclusions the group reaches.

Sometimes people are drawn to the facilitator role because they want to wield the power of that position and believe they may be more effective in directing the course of the group in that capacity than as a designated administrator or manager. This happens, in part, because of a failure to understand the primacy of making a commitment to cultural change. If one views cooperative meeting dynamics through a competitive lens, then the focus will be about who has leverage and control, rather than about how the group can share all the information collectively available to it, so that problem solving can be as broadly based as possible.

Some people believe that governance is too important to be entrusted to the people and should be left in the hands of those most competent to make decisions. Following this line of thought, the role of facilitator is that of a priest (or priestess) who interprets proper decision making in cooperative society. Some people are drawn to this interpretation like a moth to a flame.

To be clear, the role of facilitator is a position of power. The choices that a facilitator makes can have a profound influence on the energy and focus of the conversation. Aware of this, some people choose to facilitate timidly or passively—thus avoiding the risk of being labeled too directive, or too controlling. However, not wielding power does not guarantee that you are in right relationship to it. You can also be judged critically for not employing your power for the good of the group when it was sorely needed.

Here are two ways in which that commonly plays out:

1. Facilitator Neutrality
While the ideal is to have the person (or team) running the meeting be as content neutral as possible, on a practical level this is damn near impossible. Realistically, you are looking for facilitation that is neutral enough. If as a facilitator, you are aware of a viewpoint missing from the conversation—especially an opinion you would probably express if you were simply a participant (and not the facilitator)—then it's almost always better for the group if you find a way to get that expressed. To keep silent in service to the ideal of neutrality is rarely the best choice.

There are a number of ways you can handle this:
a) Tell everyone that you are calling on yourself to contribute content on the topic as a member of the group and not as the facilitator. When you are done, resume your role as facilitator.

b) If you cannot state your viewpoint and return to neutrality, ask for someone else in the group to replace you—at least for the duration of that agenda topic.

c) Call for a break and ask someone else in the group (someone you think suitably sympathetic to your concern) to voice your views after the meeting reconvenes.

d) Raise your concern in the form of a question: "I've been listening to this discussion for the last 30 minutes and I'm surprised that no one has raised a concern about affordability. Is that on anyone's mind?"

2. Floating Proposals
One of the hardest things to shift in making the transition to cooperative culture is the tendency to fight when people disagree and the stakes are high. The overwhelming majority of us have been raised in competitive culture, where we were heavily conditioned to battle for what matters the most to us. In cooperative culture, whenever we encounter resistance, we try to engender a response of curiosity instead. ("How did that person come to a significantly different conclusion than I did?")

In a cooperative environment, all ideas are valued and we look for ways to bridge differences, and creatively synthesize disparate views. In a competitive environment, ideas are encouraged to clash, with the idea that the fittest will survive. Weak ideas (or poorly articulated ones) will be vanquished.

Because most of us were raised in competitive culture, and because our society places a high value on individuation, we have been conditioned to focus foremost on differences and the ways in which our views distinguish us from those of others. As a facilitation trainer, I try to make the case for unlearning this conditioning, replacing it with an emphasis on agreement-seeking, and looking for common ground.

To the extent that facilitators are successful in effecting this change, it's not unusual for them to see potential solutions ahead of others (essentially because you tend to find what you're looking for, and people who have learned to look first for similarities will find the building blocks of sturdy solutions ahead of those more focused on differences).

There is a tendency among less experienced facilitators to stay strictly clear of suggesting proposals, for fear of being perceived as violating their commitment to content neutrality. While understandable, this is not clear thinking. I figure if anyone in the room has a good idea about how to put things together in an elegant way, let's have it on the table! If it's truly a good solution, who cares if it was first voiced by the facilitator?

The trick to handling this well is that the facilitator should offer draft proposals as a gift, and to back out gracefully in the presence of push back. That is, if a facilitator starts jawboning on behalf of their proposal, this may come across as arm twisting and then you've crossed the line. If there's balking, the facilitator should stop talking. ("OK, that didn't work. Does anyone have a different idea about how to put things together in a way that will better balance all the factors?")
A good facilitator will be obsessed with the question of how the group does its work, trusting that the group will find good answers if the stage has been properly set. The facilitator should be focusing on what questions to ask (and in what sequence), and how to promote deep listening to the responses that emerge. In a healthy process, good answers are uncovered because the group is working in a productive mind set, not because the facilitator cleverly salted the field with Easter eggs before the meeting.