Sunday, April 29, 2012

Having a Good Time Playing at a Consensus Workshop

I've been a process consultant for 25 years now. My first gig was back in December 1987, working as an outside facilitator alongside Lysbeth Borie from Alpha Farm assisting Appletree, a fledgling income-sharing group outside Cottage Grove OR that's no longer extant (they slid below the waves in the early 90s).

From that tentative start, I've slowly built up my consulting business to where I do 15-20 jobs a year—ranging from workshops and trainings to crisis management, which includes mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, expulsion hearings, and soft landings for groups trying to split up (without tearing each other apart).

Throughout, the two bread and butter services that I'm asked to provide most frequently are consensus training and outside facilitation. I spent yesterday doing both for a collection of 19 brave souls who chose to spend a nice spring Saturday with me at the Raleigh Court United Methodist Church in Roanoke VA. It was a lot of fun.

I had six hours for the workshop, which is incredibly spacious when contrasted with the much more spartan 90 minutes I typically have to shoehorn my delivery into. My audience had a nice range: one woman had spent the last five years as part of a Quaker meeting; six came as part of a forming cohousing group in Floyd VA (Jubilee) that had committed to using consensus as their decision-making process (and had gotten far enough along to realize that was a good idea to learn how to do it); one guy was hoping it would help him figure out how to have more meaningful conversations with his seven adult daughters (two of whom were in the room); a few were connected with local peace and conflict resolution centers, hoping to expand upon their skill set; one was a minister curious about the ways that he might develop a more robust sense of community among his congregation; and one young man in his 20s was there because his mother had suggested it and he couldn't say no (she was sitting right next to him). In short it was an eclectic, more-or-less average group.

During the morning I was able to cover the highlights of consensus theory, with ample room to explore interesting side inlets as they opened up along our way traveling down the main channel of my presentation. There was also enough breathing room to tell illuminating stories that reinforce the theory (or showcase my aha! experiences en route to consensus enlightenment).

After an hour-long lunch break (where yummy locally-produced food was brought in), we shifted in the afternoon to test driving my theories. Participants were encouraged to name tricky group dynamics to see how they might play out using consensus.

The afternoon flew by as way sampled a smörgåsbord of group issues. Along the way, the group got to see:

o  How tricky it is to respond to distress with curiosity (instead of reactivity).

o  A demonstration of translation: being able to restate what Person A says into language that Person B can hear better (with less reaction) while still conveying the essence of what Person A intended.

o  The importance of a group being clear about the expectations of members providing a known channel for receiving feedback to each other about their behavior as a member of the group, and being able to recognize when interactions that would normally be seen as private drift across the line into having an impact on the group. (The issue here was a forming group that two women both wanted to join—but not if the other was a member. The group was too new to have any agreements in place about how to handle interpersonal tensions. As if that's not complicated enough, dynamics were further compounded by the fact this was a peace group. Uh oh.)

o  How to work a thorny issue (whether or not to have restrictions on outdoor cats in a residential community) by giving two people with tense energy a lot of air time (rather than just their proportionate share), so long as neither is stuck and they're moving toward common ground. The idea here is that sometimes it's more efficient to give outliers a greater focus under the notion that if you can find something that will work for them, the rest of the group is likely to go along. While demonstrable unequal, it can be surprisingly effective.

o  The value of a facilitator who can maintain an open and connecting attitude to all statements. We worked the topic of whether to allow musical instrumentation other than an organ in church services. We discussed whether other instruments were somehow less spiritual (by virtue of being less traditional), whether it made a difference if the other instruments were acoustic or electric, whether the congregation could afford it, and the potential impact of attracting younger and/or more culturally diverse members by embracing instrumentation that was more appealing to those under-represented segments of the population. They were inspired by how I could weave together all the threads of that conversation in one summary, honoring everyone's input.

At the and of the day, I got a bucketful of positive comments:
o  Can see clearly how skilled facilitation can make a large difference to the tone and productivity of a conversation
o  The day was done without Power Point (or any electrics)
o  Interactive and inspiring
o  The interactive role plays worked wonderfully after lunch to counteractive the near-universal desire for a nap
o  Was able to apply the principles to a variety of real issues
o  Laird's enthusiasm and passion for this work
o  The material inspired one participant to reevaluate their life (not just their meeting behavior)
o  Ability to manage workshop time well (protecting breaks and ending times)
o  There was plenty of room for questions
o  Introduction to working emotionally
o  Use of brass bells to call people back to their seats after a break (much nicer than shouting)
o  Humor and up-tempo energy
o  Stories that illuminated the theory
o  Accessibility of the information
o  We want more!

On the the other side of the ledger, people mentioned that:
o  I could have done a made more room to hear from those who were more quiet and less assertive
o  The amount of information was overwhelming
• • •
My favorite moment of the day was right before lunch when someone asked how to work with feelings in consensus, and I gave a five-minute overview (condensed radically from a multi-hour presentation) of the importance of being able to connect with a person's feelings as an essential first step if that person is reporting non-trivial distress (yes, there's nuance to knowing whether distress is "non-trivial" but I was just driving down the middle of the road).

At this point there was a woman in the circle who started wiggling in her seat. When I paused and asked her what was going on, she leaned toward her husband (sitting two seats away), waved her hands excitedly, and blurted out, "Did you hear that, honey?"

With any luck, I'll get some takers for the next round of my two-year facilitation training that will start in Pittsboro NC this coming Sept. If you're interested, contact the coordinator, Maria Stawksy:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Draft Day

This evening starts a three-day stretch that's the apex of the hot stove league for professional football. Even though the season runs September through December (through January if you count the playoffs) and late April is pretty far removed from the action on the field, this is when NFL teams select 620 of the top players coming out of college, giving them a chance to compete for roster slots. In the world of football, today is known as Draft Day.

It's also the day I drove from Carrboro NC to Floyd VA—a four-hour jaunt spent mostly on interstate highways where I frequently drafted behind semis amidst intermittent rain. The final 30 miles was spent winding along US 221 as it snaked northeast along the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

At an elevation of 3000 feet the air temperatures were in the 50s even at midday and a few houses were sporting wood smoke curling out of chimneys. I noticed that they seemed to be drawing well, which is something you can't always count on in springtime. If the chimney stone (or brick) is colder than the air temperature, you get an inversion which can result in a smoke-filled room. While that may be normal and expected in political caucuses, it's an altogether unpleasant surprise in one's living room. Fortunately, the chimneys appeared to be drafting well today. 

As I cruised past Fancy Gap, Galax, and Dugspur (I'm telling you, they have a flare for names in the hills and hollers of southwest Virginia), it was delightful to see the vibrant greenery interwoven in the rolling terrain, dotted with well-seasoned barns and colorful livestock—mostly cows, but every now and then I'd glimpse a flock of sheep, or a draft horse or two.

After dodging raindrops (and truck spray) for a few hours, I was grateful to pull into Annie's yard circa 2 pm. (Though I was still 125 miles southwest of Stuarts Draft VA, that was as far as I was driving today.) Luckily the rain had let up and we were able to tour her garden and new hoop house. Like many of her Floyd County neighbors, Annie had lit a small fire in her wood stove this morning to take the chill off. Afraid though that she might have overdone it, she had opened an upstairs window in the late morning before going out to putter. The first thing she did upon entering the house with me was to race upstairs and close the window, to stop the cool air from creating too much of a draft in her bedroom.

Now that I'm settled in for a two-day visit (I brought some wine, olives, and cheese that are open on the counter, plus a few bottles of draft beer that are cooling in the fridge), it's time to puzzle out a theme and start drafting today's blog…  

Monday, April 23, 2012

What's on Community Minds?

Yesterday was the first of three days devoted to the Fellowship for Intentional Community's spring organizational meetings. We're being hosted (quite graciously, by the way) at Arcadia, a 16-year-old cohousing group in Carrboro NC. As is our wont, we buckled down to work during daylight hours, and used the evening for something more social—in this case, we invited residents of the host community to linger with us after dinner and get to know each other better in an informal setting. Happily, we had a nice symmetry: in a circle of 20 folks, eight were Arcadians, two were visitors from other parts of North Carolina; eight were FIC folks, and two were the partners of FIC folks.

The conversation lasted about 90 minutes. After brief introductions, we opened it up to whatever folks were inspired to talk about and I thought it might be illuminating to lay out what this semi-random gathering of eight community members (who are not networking fanatics like us FIC folks) chose to discuss. Our hosts introduced three threads:

I. Sustainability
As commonly happens, this topic immediately led to a focus on ecological impact, starting with energy usage. The conversation first veered in the direction of probing the pros and cons of solar panels and whether to be off grid or not (off grid has the advantage of independence and insulation from disruption in the case of utility company power outages; grid intertie means you don't need to buy batteries, which are both expensive and have a deleterious ecological impact of their own). This meandered into energy conservation as distinct from new or more benign technologies, where you can achieve much more profound savings more quickly (using compact fluorescent instead of incandescent bulbs; reducing infiltration around doors and windows; turning off lights when you're not in the room; etc.).

This morphed into vehicle use and the opportunities for members to consider shared car ownership (establishing a private car co-op) or at least ride sharing (when you're going in the same direction to work, or can manage to orchestrate multiple errands on the same trip). 

From there the conversation blossomed into consideration of the social and economic aspects of sustainability. For example, one of the reasons so many people own their own cars (which is a poor ecological choice) is to avoid the potential awkwardness of needing to work it out when multiple people want use the same vehicle at the same time for different purposes. That is, the best ecological choices often require a degree of social sophistication to make them work.

Similarly, one woman reported being drawn to live in the community, in part, because ecological impact is a core value at Arcadia. However, that woman's job is 28 miles away, requiring a weekly commute of 280 miles. If she didn't have that job, she could save enormously on travel costs—but if she didn't have that job she couldn't afford to live in her house. Thus economic needs constrain how ecologically she can live.

In short, it's complicated.

II. Aging
Like the rest of us, members at Arcadia are getting older (duh). Is the community concerned about being able to age in place? 

One thread of this examination was whether the community was at risk of having too many seniors at one time, such that it would be too much of a burden on the able-bodied to get basic maintenance covered. While some community members have created spaces in their homes where someone could live and provide assisted care, others were planning to leave the community when their health deteriorated to that place where such assistance was needed.

One woman poignantly disclosed her tenderness about reaching the point where she might need more from the community than she could give. Never mind that she's been running a positive balance in that department for more than a decade, she'd feel awkward asking others to support her operating at a giving/receiving deficit in the future. How does the community want to handle that? (Underneath the issue for a specific person—where that individual's personal history with the community would be part of the equation—is how many limited-functioning folks can the community handle at a given time? That's a limits-of-diversity issue and can be quite delicate to get out in the open—at what point do you tell someone the life boat's too full to permit one more?)

We also spent time approaching this issue from the other end of the spectrum: rather than shining the light on the growing senior segment, we considered the dearth of members in their 20s and 30s. To some extent this is an affordability issue (as the price of houses has spiraled upward in the overheated housing market of the popular Research Triangle area). 

This led to a discussion about whether the community would be better off with limited equity agreements (where leaving members would limit sale prices to what they paid, adjusted for cost of living increases) or market rate agreements (which is what they have now at Arcadia and is part of the reason that younger folks find the community out of their price range). With limited equity it would be easier for young folks to buy homes, yet the departing people would be losing flexibility as they wouldn't be selling their Arcadia home for the money they'd need to buy a comparable replacement.

I mentioned that some communities have creatively dealt with this by setting aside a portion of their monthly HOA dues in a fund that can be used for bridge loans available to new folks who cannot otherwise scrape together a down payment. [See my blog of Feb 14, Doing the Heavy Lifting on Affordability for more on this.]

III. Participation
Finally, we took a swipe at the array of issues that arise from some residents being perceived to be doing less for the community than others. In addition to the awkwardness associated with people pulling unevenly on the oars, there tends to be ambiguity about expectations and uncertainty about how to address both hard feelings.

Some of the concern is that everyone may not be contributing equally to the maintenance of the community, or at least not equally now (while you may have done yeoman service in the past, what have you done for the community lately?). And it's worse than that. This concern can easily expand to include social contributions—where bringing chicken soup to sick neighbors counts just as much as washing dishes after potluck dinner; where taking the neighborhood kids on a nature walk may mean as much as raking leaves.

We asked the Arcadians in the room what they knew about why people weren't more involved in community life, the better to know if there was anything that could be done about it. We suggested that they were likely to enjoy much more success if they tried enticing the reticent with outrageous fun, rather than hoping they'd step forward in response to venting.
• • •
One of the interesting things about the evening was that there were no surprises for us Fellowship folks about the topics selected. All three of these aspects of group living are bread and butter issues (about which we try to make sure we offer workshops whenever we hold events—such as our Art of Community weekend queued up for Sept 21-23 in Occidental CA).

It turned out that the non-fanatics wanted to discuss the same things the fanatics are interested in, which was comforting. While it may be well and good to not be reverent all the time—as an activist you're often out there on the edge, shaking things up—it's highly desirable to be relevant most of the time—directing energy toward the questions that everyone recognizes as the tough ones.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Happy Birthday, FIC!

Today's a party day!  

I'm in Carrboro NC (at Arcadia Cohousing) for the Fellowship for Intentional Community's spring organizational meetings—marking the 51st time we've gathered together a cadre of community networkers from around the country to discuss what we can do to build more cooperative culture.

Our first meeting was way back in May 1987—as in before email (talk about antediluvian)—at Stelle IL, where Charles Betterton succeeded in attracting about 30 people to explore the possibility of creating a national network focused on intentional community. While Charles didn't continue in a regular FIC role after the first year, that seedling nonetheless survived to become the robust community network we are today. 

It was touching that we received salutations and congratulations from Charles on this occasion of our Silver Anniversary, sent from his home in California. We also received a sweet note from Don Pitzer, who founded of the Communal Studies Association in the '80s and was the Director of the Center for Communal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana when FIC was headquartered there 1989-92.

While there are only two of us here today who were present at Stelle a quarter century ago—Dan Questenberry (Shannon Farm) and myself, there are many more here in spirit (including my wife, Ma'ikwe, who is too stricken with chronic Lyme to travel right now). She has been active in FIC affairs the last 10 years, and sent homemade blueberry jam in lieu of her corporeal presence. 

The day consisted of a four part harmony:
a) Everyone shared what connection they had with FIC (and when), what it meant to them, and what role community plays in their life today.

1990: Published our first edition of Communities Directory 
1992: Took over as publishers of Communities magazine
1993: Produced the Celebration of Community, a six-day event in Olympia WA
1994: Launched
1997: Produced our first Art of Community weekend
1999: Took over Community Bookshelf from East Wind
2002: Launched
2002: Published Visions of Utopia, Vol I
2004: Offered the online Directory with a searchable database
2005: Expanded FIC's mission to include Creating Community Where You Are
2007: Created
2007: Created to chronicle media coverage of intentional communities
2009: Published Visions of Utopia, Vol II
2009: Launched an FIC presence on Facebook

b) Next we looked at what FIC has accomplished in 25 years, and explored the environment we're in today:

o  steady decline for print material
o  rise in popularity for video

o  demand for information about community is on the rise
o  hard to distinguish who really knows what they're talking about, especially when one takes into account how hard it is to explain what life in community is like to people who have never experienced it
o  FIC has committed to creating a new office in Missouri as part of Dancing Rabbit's new common house, to be built to the exacting standards of the Living Building Challenge
Communities magazine and our family of websites struggle to turn a net profit
o  While there is substantial friendliness, there is minimal collaboration among nonprofits with a core commitment to promoting community
o  There is a rise in interest about sustainability

o  The organized best poised to focus on sustainability—the Ecovillage Network of the Americas—is in disarray
o  There is a rise in formation of Transition Towns—local initiatives focused on preparedness in response to the issues of climate change and peak oil

o  Travel costs have been steadily rising and that trend will continue
o  There is increasing chaos and economic instability
o  There is simultaneously a need to increase local resiliency and a pronounced lack of local roots
o  There is increasing political polarization, and dissatisfaction with the status quo
o  Increased disparity between highest paid and lowest paid
o  There was surprising strength and staying power to the Occupy phenomenon last year

c)  Next, we asked what FIC should be focusing on in the future, and identified these themes in the replies:

—Recruit more people under 40 years old to get involved.
—Create stronger experiential offerings (as opposed to lectures).
—Generate a stronger income flow.
—Hold as goal reaching the point where everyone seeking more information about community would know to contact FIC for assistance.
—Do more with video on our websites.

d) Finally, we enjoyed a Happy Hour commingling with our hosts, which led to dinner and celebratory cakes (one vegan and another gluten free), ushered in with no less than five distinctive renditions of happy birthday songs. The day ended with everyone replete with scrumptious food, merry spirits, and camaraderie.

I can hardly wait for our 50th.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

500 Blogs

Incredibly, this entry marks my 500th blog. While French filmmaker François Truffaut settled for 400 Blogs as the title of his classic 1959 autobiographical movie, I've lapped him by a century and I'm still writing! Pretty good company, eh?

My greatest surprise as a blogger has been how much I enjoy my personal relationship with practicing my craft. Producing this blog has turned out to be valuable to me as a writer independently of whether anyone actually reads these journal entries. It has demanded that I be much more disciplined about what I'm feeling and thinking, and clearer in my articulation. Often enough, I'd start with what I considered a brilliancy, only to discover my gold transmuted into lead once I tried to illuminate it in prose.

While I had been easing into an increased level of writing for years, I crossed a line when I committed to posting a blog every three days. Now writing is part of my identity. Interestingly, it's also helped me be a better teacher (when I create handouts at workshops, I teach from them as a point of departure, not as something to hammer home) and a more effective public speaker (where there is a premium for concision).

I was worried when I first started—1,587 days ago—that I'd run out of things to say (no point in blogging a dead horse). Now I'm not. After embracing my entry into the blogosphere as part of my every-third-day reality, I've discovered that all I have to do is pay attention to what occurs around me and material maifests. In a stretch of three days there is always something happening that's interesting to reflect upon.

It turns out that being a columnist is not dissimilar to being a good facilitator—both require that you quieten [isn't that a lovely archaic verb?] the inner voices and take in as fully as possible what's going on around you. At this point any self-respecting Buddhist would gently insert the admonition that this is a spiritual practice, not just something you do in front of a keyboard or a meeting. In this sense, blogging has turned out to be an invitation to being more fully alive. Who knew?

The commitment to posting entries also forces me to set aside reflective time, which is something I am otherwise prone to giving away in a life that overfloweth with domestic chores, adminitsrative duties, and service opportunities. My In Box never really empties and it can be hard turning down a request or delaying a response to attend to self care. Blogging helps with that.

My original impetus to start this blog was to help drive online traffic to the FIC website. While I think some of that's been happening, it's hard to tell who reads my musings or what websites they're inspired to visit afterwards. As a promotional strategy, blogging is floating bread on the water (where you're hoping that some will be taken up before sinking, or at least not lead to the constipation of a blogjam—now there's a dreadful image).

One of the delightful things about blogging is the unexpected correspondence that it spawns.
Opening up a blog-generated email has turned out be like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates—you never know what you're gonna get. While sometimes it's a note from a person I've never met, other times it's a chance to connect with someone I don't hear from often—perhaps a client from years ago; perhaps an old college friend; perhaps a community member from decades past; perhaps a prior lover; perhaps my brother-in-law. Like a box of Cracker Jack, there's a surprise in every click.

I'll close this paean to online prose with a specially prepared lyrical adaptation, with apologies to Peter, Paul, and Mary:
If you miss the train of thought I'm on
You will know it by the time I'm gone,
You can hear my whistle blow 500 blogs.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Calvin and Hobbes

Though I don't now if this is what Bill Watterson had in mind when he launched his beloved comic strip in 1985, I find it amusing that if you ask folks to free associate with the names of the two main characters separately, you get replies that veer in a altogether different direction.

Calvin (1509-1564)
While one of my favorite bridge partners, Leon McCarty, has a son named Calvin and I've no doubt that's who'd first pop into his head, I suspect most of us would come back with John Calvin, the influential French theologian who lived smack in the midst of the Protestant Reformation.

He followed in the Augustinian tradition and believed in predestination—where your assignment to heaven or hell is known to God (the Omniscient) right from the get-go and there ain't nothing you or anyone else is going to do about it. While a lot of folks have trouble reconciling that notion with the concept of free will, and the idea that humans may choose to accept God or not, I have, fortunately, not been asked to facilitate that conversation.

Calvin's brand of reformed Catholicism ultimately led to the creation of the Presbyterian Church. While this seedling mainly grew to maturity in Scotland (not France or Switzerland, where Calvin held sway), Presbyterian doctrine was rooted in the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and the necessity of grace through accepting Christ as the son of God.

Hobbes (1588-1679)
For this one, I think most would come up with Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher and author of Leviathan, which was profoundly influential in framing Western political philosophy from the perspective that good government necessarily entails a social contract between the government and the governed.

While Hobbes believed in the absolute power of the monarchy (meaning kings and queens were above the law), he also was an early advancer of a number of political principles that have become the bedrock of modern liberal thinking:
o the concept of an individual's rights
o the inherent equality of all people (though I don't believe that Hobbes extended this to gender equality)
o legitimate authority must be representative and based on the consent of the governed
o people should be free to do whatever the law does not expressly forbid

• • •
While I have no inside information about what it was like to sit around and shoot the shit with either John Calvin or Thomas Hobbes, there is nothing about their biographies that suggests these two were "wild and crazy guys," a la Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd. I mean you don't naturally associate "Presbyterian" with "fanciful child with a vivid imagination and robust fantasy life"; you don't automatically link "political philosophy" with "stuffed tiger."

Maybe the name of the comic strip was just Watterson pulling everyone's leg ("Hmm. What character names least suggest what I'm going to develop?") After all, shouldn't whimsy have a place at the table alongside gravitas and pontification? I had a friend in college who called his black lab, "Red" and I just howled when I found out that the maid's horse in Mel Brooks' 1993 spoof Robin Hood: Men in Tights was named Fahrvergnügen.

Remember the joke about Al Gore's lack of charisma as a public speaker? It led to this bumper sticker 12 years ago: "Nixon in 2000; he's still not as stiff as Gore"

The way I see it, after four centuries or so, John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes could probably use a little limbering up. Think of it as fluffing their auras. You know Calvin & Hobbes would.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tony Blodgett: My Benchmark for a Good Friend

Hey Bungalow Bill
What did you kill, Bungalow Bill?
—The Beatles

A few weeks ago I got a nice email from Caesar Sweitzer, an old Carleton College friend who has gotten inspired to do something in remembrance of Tony Blodgett, a mutual friend and fellow Carl who died in 2004. Caesar has raised the money needed to have a bench installed on the college campus, and he's proposing to have it dedicated this June, in the context of reunion.

I thought this a fine idea, but had to tell Casear that I couldn't attend the ceremony because of a prior commitment to be in Oakland for the National Cohousing Conference. Still, it occurred to me that I could share memories, and that's the subject of today's blog...

When I was a sophomore at Carleton College (1968-69), I lived on First Goodhue, a dorm floor that was wholly devoted to freshman (who had no choice in the matter) and sophomores with poor room draw numbers. It turned out to be one of the more powerful bonding experiences of my life.

This was back in the days when dorm floors were gender segregated, and the only two upper classmen on First Goodhue were the proctor, Bill Jokela, and his roommate, Bill Blodgett—who wound up becoming one of my best friends.

A Man By Any Other Name
The first thing to know about Bill, was that he was a man of many handles. Born William, he let us know early on that his family called him Tony (for reasons that escape me). Not content with that option (are college underclassmen ever content with the obvious?), we started working it. We kind of liked Buffalo Bill, which got shortened to Buff, and that more or less became his dominant appellation that year. As a variant, we tinkered with Bungalow Bill—a la the Beatles—which got reduced to Bung.

In the spring of that year, as he coasted toward graduation with a light course load, he spent a lot of time working on his tan, self promoting himself as Bronze Man. Later, when he took on a desk job for Social Security and found it hard to get outdoors, Annie—who nearly always got the last word—would lampoon him with the moniker, Alabaster Man.

After graduation, we resolved into a close cadre of friends who liked to go wilderness canoeing (the core included Tony, Kip Lilly, Annie Shrader, Sue Anderson, and myself, with a number of other college buddies joining us in different configurations over the years). After seeing Tony emerge from the tent each morning with hair akimbo, we started calling him Beaver Lodge Blodge, or Blodge for short.

For all of the shenanigans we indulged ourselves with at the expense of his name—all of which he put up with good-naturedly—over the years we eventually circled back to calling him Tony, right where he was before we met him.

The Carleton Years
Tony was a creative goofball, and was never one to let a little homework get in the way of a good time. I recall the afternoon he spent carefully reworking the cover of a Superman comic, strategically pasting some beard hair atop Lex Luthor's otherwise bald pate, and then employing an Exacto knife to excise the letter "L" from the screaming headline, that originally declared:
Public Enemy #1!

There is a reason they call this kind of humor "sophomoric," and Tony knew his audience.

For entertainment (Minnesota winters are long, and this was before global warming) we played endless rounds of Hearts, hallway bottle frisbee, and Strat-o-matic Baseball. It became common to play a "quickie"—five hands of Hearts—right before dinner, with the loser having to get drinks for everyone when we sat down to eat.

Hearts is a game of tricks, with each person contributing one card per trick. The winner of a trick is the person who plays the highest card in the suit led. In its pure form there are four players, and a hand of hearts consists of 13 tricks. The object is to avoid taking points. There is one point for each heart and a whopping 13 points if you take the trick containing the Queen of Spades—known as the Bird. The person with the Two of Clubs leads to the first trick, and the winner of a trick leads to the next. You are not allowed to lead hearts or the Bird unless someone has already taken points in a previous trick unless those are the only cards remaining in your hand. If you do not have any cards in the suit led, you may play any card in your hand, excepting that you are not allowed to play a point card on the first trick.

As a significant alternate strategy to attempting to avoid tricks with points, you may try to take all the points. If you succeed, this is the best of all outcomes, as you score zero while everyone else racks up 26 points. It's called Shooting the Moon—an achievement that will almost certainly mean you will not have to get your own drink at dinner. Of course, there is no fame—only infamy—if you only get close to taking all the points. Thus, if you attempt to shoot and fail to get one of the hearts, you will have garnered 25 points, another player will get the one remaining point, and the other two will get zeros. This accomplishment is a referred to as a Junior Moon, and strongly suggests the need for picking up an extra tray when you get into the cafeteria line.

I explained all this so that you could fully appreciate a legendary tale from our first month together on First Goodhue. We had a freshman on the floor named Mike Jewczyn (JEFFson) who was about three bricks shy of a load. In an effort to eel his way into the social scene he sat down for a quickie one afternoon. Early in the game we played a hand where Mike took the opening club trick and switched to a diamond on the next trick. He was eager to play his high diamonds before someone was out and could start dropping points on him. This was not bad thinking as far as it went, but it turned out that Mike was just masquerading as a card player.

He played one round of diamonds and everyone followed suit. He then pushed it a little by playing a second round, yet his luck held and everyone followed again. Thinking for sure we'd see a switch on the next trick (a low spade was a popular ploy, referred to as "driving her out"; an attempt to put pressure on the person holding the Bird), imagine our surprise then when Mike led a third round of diamonds. Incredibly, everyone followed suit again.

At this point it was hard to tell whether Mike: a) was amazingly lucky; b) knew something that we didn't (perhaps he was setting us up to shoot); or c) was an idiot. Then he played the Ten of Diamonds to start the next trick, and removed all doubt. As this was perforce the final diamond (since 12 had been played on the previous three tricks), Mike picked up two hearts and the Queen of Spades, for a fat 15 points. He was well on his way to a Junior Moon.

The reason this hand is so well remembered is not because Mike made a bonehead play—that happens all the time and is hardly worth commenting on—it's because of the incredulity on his face as he gathered the trick and blurted out: "The Ten of Diamonds? Are you blowing me?"

As it turned out, Mike blew himself (as well as his cover about having any card savvy) and as far as I know he never played another hand of Hearts on our dorm floor again. His words however lived on, and to this day there is no quicker way to express naive surprise among my Carleton friends than to say, "The Ten of Diamonds?"

Tony was an English major and his senior composition was on the subject of John Milton, whom Tony referred to as "Uncle Miltie," which also happened to be one of the jocular stage names employed by comedian Milton Berle. (Can you tell why I fell in love with Tony so much? Here I was an impressionable 19-year-old and he was schooling me on obscure cross-cultural word play). As spring rolled around and the deadline for his senior paper drew nigh, Tony would reluctantly head for the study carrels in Goodhue basement to commune with Uncle Miltie and remove himself from the temptation of game playing on the dorm floor. (In deference to Tony's sensibilities, I refer to that time as Pair of Dice Lost).

Carleton attracted many students from the Chicago area, and the summer after Tony graduated, a number of us got together for a party at my parents house in suburban La Grange. While I'm sure there were more than three of us at the outset, the only ones I am certain were in attendance were Tony, Caesar Sweitzer and me—all survivors of that magical year together on First Goodhue. As the party wound down, the three of us nutballs hit upon the inspiration to watch the sunrise on Lake Michigan, which was close to where Caesar grew up on the north side. We drove up there in time to dig out and inflate a rubber raft that had been stowed in the Sweitzer garage, and get it launched before dawn. I still have this glorious telephoto picture I took from shore with Tony and Caesar a couple hundred feet into the lake, paddling ineffectively with all the frenetic energy of the sleep-deprived, laughing wildly as I caught them silhouetted against the breaking sun. Those were the salad days.

The Canoeing Years
As a kid I spent a number of summers at a boys camp in northern Minnesota, where I learned to love wilderness canoeing. At the end of that First Goodhue experience,
a number of us celebrated with a trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (Caesar, Peg Salagovic, Annie Shrader, Fred Rogers, Carla Lukermann, Bonnie Wolstencroft, Steve Real, and me). Though Tony wasn't on that first trip, that soon changed.

In my early 20s, I'd look for chances to get out on the water with my college friends as much as possible, and a number of times it would just be Tony and me. Though my first trip in the Boundary Waters was as a nine-year-old in 1959, my last was with Tony in the fall of 1970. Noticing that that premiere protected area was increasingly drawing traffic to the point where it was hard to consider it "wilderness" any longer, I decided after one last post-Labor Day cruise with Tony that it was time to head further north. I still have a photo of that final BWCA trip 42 years ago, with Tony sitting on a rock overlooking Curtain Falls, as the waters thundered out of Crooked Lake into Iron, straddling the international boundary with Canada.

Two years later, after all of us graduated, we did our first epic trip, covering the upper reaches of the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan, paddling from Ile a la Crosse to Otter Rapids on Lac la Ronge. This trip featured all of the stalwarts—Tony, Kip, Sue, Annie, and me—traveling in two canoes. We did this in September, when the water was still warm but the air temperatures were starting to get iffy 350 miles north of the Canadian border. We began the trip in sunshine and t-shirts and ended it 18 days later in the sleet. This was the first trip where I started to grok how Tony's creativity (and sense of misguided thrift) could lead to frustration.

Knowing we needed two canoes, Tony promised me he'd secure a 17-foot aluminum Grumman to match the one I had. That particular boat was the standard workhorse of wilderness canoeing before lightweight composites came along, and I didn't want to dick around with an inferior boat that far north. Unfortunately, despite Tony's assurances to the contrary, when it came time to pull out of Minneapolis (all of our post-college trips in the '70s started and ended at Sue's apartment on Columbus Ave)
we didn't have a second 17-foot Grumman; instead, we had a 15-foot Alumacraft—a clunker that featured the hydraulic stability of a bathtub with a keel.

As this canoe had been around the block and had accumulated more than its share of dings, we quickly dubbed it "Dentocraft." Tony's last-minute substitution was an albatross the entire trip, and we were not sorry on the final portage at Otter Rapids when Dentocraft—all on its own—got loose from the shore and shot the rapids empty (of passengers, gear, and regret). We watched in horrified fascination as the swamped boat slowly drifted into the deeper waters of Lac la Ronge. Rather than paddling after the little mischief maker, we simply waved good-bye and drove home without looking back.

One of the more magical moments in the annals of our canoeing history occurred in the middle of that '72 trip. Excited by the thrill of shooting white water, sometimes we disagreed about whether to run a rapids or to portage around it. One such moment occurred when we encountered Snake Rapids, guarding the entrance to Pinehouse Lake. Tony & I wanted to shoot, while Kip, Sue, and Annie favored portaging. It was raining lightly, but Tony and I were pumped with adrenaline. After successfully running the rapids without mishap, we then had an unexpected problem figuring out how to rendezvous with our more prudent travel mates. While portages around rapids almost always run parallel to water courses, ending near the mouth, that was not the case at Snake Rapids and we had no idea where the other three members of our party had ended up.

Baffled, we finally figured that we couldn't go wrong if we paddled back to the bottom of the fast water, beached the canoe, walked up the rapids, and then hiked down the portage trail. We knew we were in for a singular experience when our slow slog up the rapids by foot (which is not nearly as much fun as running downstream in a canoe) took us inland to avoid a dense stand of mangroves along the water's edge, and we stumbled upon what I can only describe as a fairy circle—a clutch of large, moss-covered stones that covered an area about 100 feet in diameter and contained no trees at all (which is highly unusual in the North Woods). Splayed out atop one rock was a dead white pelican. Whoa!

While this stark visage presented as a macabre tableau on a drizzly day (it was like a portend out of Macbeth—would we ever find our misplaced comrades?), imagine how much those eerie feelings were amplified when we noticed that there was a single upside down playing card laying next to the pelican. When we turned it over… it was the Bird! All right, enough was enough. It was time to leave.

We eventually made it back to the head of the rapids and found the portage trail where we'd left Kip, Sue, and Annie hours before. After walking the portage, we were overjoyed (in the failing light) to find all three of our compatriots waiting impatiently by the shore of Pinehouse Lake wondering where in the hell we were. They had the tent set up and a cooking fire going, but we still needed to retrieve the other canoe. Tired though we were, Kip, Tony and I dutifully groped along the shore until
we got back to the base of the rapids, and it wasn't until 10 pm and pitch blackness that we were finally able to get all the equipment and people together again in the same location. What a day! That marked the last time we thought it was a good idea for some to portage while others shot a rapids. From then on, we stuck together.

In 1975 we upped the ante by selecting a route in the Northwest Territories (today that part of Canada is called Nunavut) Sue stayed home this time, and it was just Tony, Kip, Annie, and me. The best Tony moment came right at the beginning, when we were unloading our gear from the float plane that deposited us on the upper reaches of Dismal Lakes. I was just about to return to the plane for one more look when Tony put his hand on my arm and assured me that he'd checked and everything had been off-loaded. Taking his word for it, we waved goodbye as the plane taxied into open water and took off for the return flight to Yellowknife, leaving us on our own in the Barrens for the next fortnight.

As the plane's drone diminished in the sky to the southeast, we started organizing our stuff to set up camp and I couldn't find the army surplus ammunition box that I always canoe with. It's a waterproof container that I use for maps, first aid supplies, a clock, extra matches, fishing lures, and all manner of useful small items. Not illogically, we cleverly referred to this as "the metal box."

After repeated searches for this elusive item came up empty, Tony sheepishly confessed that it was probably still on the plane. He had thought it odd that the pilot had a metal box just like mine, but didn't see any need to bother others with that observation. Oh boy. Thus began the one and only canoe trip I've ever assayed without the metal box.

Two years later, we chose a circle route in northern Manitoba (north of Lake Winnipeg) that started and ended at the First Nation settlement of Cross Lake. To access the route we parked our cars at a wide spot in the road called Jenpeg, the site of a hyrdo generating station, and as near to Cross Lake as we could get by car. From there it was a 20-mile paddle to the Indian village, located on the Nelson River.

It turned out that our canoe route was more ambitious than our personnel could handle and we aborted the full plan part way through and arranged to return to Cross Lake via float plane. Inconveniently, this deposited us in the village around dusk, and we were still separated from our vehicles by a full day's paddle. After some thought, we figured we were well rested and decided to paddle into the night—which was one of the crazier things I've ever done.

While it was true that we were simply tracing in reverse a path we'd handled easily less than two weeks previously, things don't look the same in the dark (now there's a profound insight). Further complicating things (and unbeknownst to us when we committed to proceeding without benefit of sunlight) it turned out that it was the first of the month and there were a large number of natives returning to Cross Lake from Jenpeg in motorboats, also in the dark, after having having cashed government checks which had been liberally used to increase everyone's blood alcohol level. In consequence, we were not only trying to avoid running into rocks we couldn't see, we were simultaneously trying not be run into by fast cruising liquored-up Indians who couldn't see us. It was a lot of fun.

Somehow, we made it back to our cars around midnight without any accidents. Tired and tense from our foolish adventure, Tony decided we needed a celebration to pick up our spirits (in ways that didn't rely on the flow of spirits around us). In a blink he hit upon the uniquely Blodgettesque idea of opening a leftover can of Spam, toasting bits of the contents with a lighter, and then popping the tasty morsels in our mouth
flambé, thereby defining the outer limits of Laird's Second Law: everything tastes better in the wilderness. With Tony in the mix, you could never be certain when an adventure was at an end.

Tony was creative in a variety of ways when it came to camping on a shoestring:
—There was the time when he decided to waterproof his sneakers by smearing them with bacon grease
leftover from breakfast.
—Once he figured he could save on rain gear by using a Hefty bag with holes cut out for his arms. Though it was admirably lightweight, there was zero vapor transfer and it was like paddling in a steam vest.
—As someone who struggled chronically with constipation, Tony figured out that he could leave the Metamucil at home as long as we had selected a canoe route that featured white water every couple of days. There was something about the prospect of shooting rapids that worked wonderfully on loosening his bowels.

His Family Life
Tony's mother died suddenly of a stroke when Tony was only in his 20s. I was lucky enough to get to meet her once at their home in Gleview, a northwest Chicago suburb, and can still recall enjoying a family specialty that she had prepared: broiled oysters that had been wrapped in bacon. Yum.

Though his father was much older and had emphysema, he lived longer. After Tony graduated and started working for Social Security, his Dad moved into an assisted-care facility. Tony visited his father after work one Thursday afternoon in 1979 (May 17th to be precise—you could look it up). No sooner had Tony arrived than his Dad excitedly told him about a game the Cubs lost to the Phillies that day, 23-22. Uh oh, Tony felt sure this was a sign of advanced dementia, with his Dad transposing a Bears-Eagles score onto the baseball diamond. But it turned out it was all true—with the game ultimately being decided by a Mike Schmidt two-out solo blast in the top of the 10th! Undoubtedly the wind was blowing out that day at Wrigley Field, and I can only imagine how much Old Style was consumed.

His Dad died later that October and it was somehow fitting that Tony had that story to remember from the last season he and his father could enjoy together as die-hard Cub fans. It takes a special kind of dedication to persevere through the misery of coming back from a 12-run deficit and scoring 22 runs only to still lose. Years later, I can recall a visit to Duluth when I got a chance to sit in the dugout with Tony as he coached his son, Jamie's, Little League team that had a decidedly Bad News Bears feel about it. (I remember wondering at the time if Cub energy was an inheritable trait.)

To everyone's joy, Tony & Sue got married in 1979, and they moved to Duluth—home of the Patty Cake Bakery (it wouldn't be an official canoe trip unless we started with a Sacher torte from the Patty Cake) and gateway to Canada. From that point onward, every canoe trip I took went through Duluth, where I'd either be picking up Tony & Sue as part of the crew's complement, or I'd be stopping by for a visit and to borrow equipment.

While the frequency of canoe trips slowed down when we started families (Tony & Sue had Britta and Jamie; Annie & I had Ceilee; then Elke Lerman & I had Jo), it eventually got resurrected as the kids got old enough to be curious about their parents' wilderness legacy. The last time I saw Tony was when Ceilee and I passed through Duluth in the summer of 2004. He was losing the battle with the colon cancer that would ultimately claim his life, and I knew I was seeing him for the last time. It was a tough goodbye.

The last canoe trip I took was in 2006, almost two years after Tony died. Sue, Britta, Jamie, Annie, Ceilee, Tosca (his girlfriend then and now my daughter-in-law), Jo, and I all did a circuit trip in western Ontario, covering water that I first traversed with Tony 30 years before. Full circle indeed.

Tony the Romantic
Tony loved games (not just Hearts) and it was common for us to play together whenever we were in the same room. One of our esoteric favorites was Mah Jongg (it's not just for Jewish dowagers and/or Amy Tan any more), which we stumbled onto in our 20s and continued to play right up to that last visit in 2004.

As a romantic, Tony liked to go for the heroic hands that were hard to achieve but which scored fabulously when the stars were aligned. The epitome of this in Mah Jongg is a hand called the 13 Orphans, where you must collect one each of every wind, every dragon, and the end tiles of each suit—characters, bamboo, and dots. In my lifetime I've never seen anyone achieve it, but there came a time when Tony did, and I hold it as a measure of our friendship that he called up on the spot to share with me this singular accomplishment.

Mah Jongg is an ancient Chinese game that is rich in tradition and exotic phrases. One of our favorites was Catching the Moon from the Bottom of the Sea, which refers to a very specific occurrence: going out with the One of Dots, drawn as the last tile in the live wall (I should live so long as to see that happen). Figuring that such a flowery phrase was too good to be constricted to such a narrow use, Tony & I broadened its application to refer to any improbable event.

As a romantic, there is probably no sports team loyalty that is more iconic than affinity with the Chicago Cubs, where there is never any question of being a fair weather friend. (As the last time they won in the World Series was in 1908—a record of professional futility that is unparalleled in North American sports—I doubt there is even a single person alive today who can remember the Cubs bearing the mantle of World Champions.)

Naturally, Tony was a Cub fan, and one of my most cherished momentos of our friendship is that his Cub hat now hangs on a peg outside my bedroom door.

Tony also loved the quirky. One of my favorite Duluth stories is that Tony & Sue's most-frequented movie rental store was 8th Street Video—which wouldn't have been that noteworthy, excepting that the store was located on 9th St. With Tony, somehow that was perfect.

Finally, Tony was a gentle soul, who manged to sustain the wonder and curiosity of childhood
throughout his life. With Tony, it wasn't arrested development; it was retarded cynicism. He believed in the goodness of people, and in not taking oneself too seriously.
(He once confided in me that the most powerful aphorism he ever encountered was the Buddhist admonition: all is vanity.) He delighted in finding joy in simple things, thereby making life a little richer for all those whose life he touched.

As a process consultant I get a chance to practice curiosity all the time: Tony was my first mentor in learning how you could do that as an adult, and I think of him as a benchmark for modeling artless joy and generosity of spirit. It's only fitting that this June, Caesar will render unto Tony's memory an actual bench.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Up from the Gravy He Arose

It's Easter.

Awaking in Ma'ikwe's off-grid house this morning, our immediate joy was more associated with a clear sky and that the sun had arisen (good for solar gain), rather than that the Son had arisen. (Besides, Jibran, Ma'ikwe's 15-year-old boy child, is a night owl and arose after us, as is his wont.)

Two years ago on this holy day, the northwest quarter of Ma'ikwe's roof blew off in a gust of sheer wind [see my blog of April 7, 2010, The Roof Is Risen, Indeed for details on that], making it my more of a "holy shit" day. To complete the spiral, it happened that my wife's Mom, Kay, was visiting at the time of the roof drama, and she's en route for another multi-day visit today, even as I type. (Kay & Dick are expected momentarily, bearing ham and conviviality—both of which will be appreciated.)

Kay is happily living in Canandaigua NY with new partner (and fellow Bucknell classmate) Dick Manly (I know, but just think what it must be like for him—talk about a cross to bear). Dick is long retired from a career at Eastman Kodak (just up the road in Rochester) and drives a school bus. He has a week off for spring break and the two of them are on a driving tour (a real busman's holiday) of the Midwest, splitting time between Kay's daughter's homestead in Rutledge MO and her son Mark's homestead in Fennville MI. Think of it as a tour de offspring.

Tomorrow night Kay & Dick have set up a catered dinner at the Milkweed Mercantile (Dancing Rabbit's very own eco-B&B), for all of the familial clan to enjoy a belated birthday celebration for Jibran, who officially turned 15 last Sunday. I figure you can never get invited to too many parties as long as you enjoy the company, and this is a fun group.

• • •
I believe one of the secrets of a happy life is intentionally blurring the line between work and play. Here's how I put this together:

Step 1: Find joy in many things (I refer to this as LTD, or low threshold of delight). As there's not much payoff to misery, it's a terrific strategy to be amused easily.

Step 2: Insist on your "work" being as high a percentage of things you enjoy as possible. (Obviously this is easier if you've done well with Step 1.) Hint: count everything here—both domestic chores and what you get paid for, as they are equal opportunity consumers of the limited amount of time you have in this world.

Step 3: As you accomplish the first two steps, it becomes less necessary to look for breaks, and less tempting to watch the clock (longing for relief from the toils of "work"). Instead, you are drawn to a life that is "workful," because it's so strongly associated with joy and satisfaction. Further, there is less friction (energy drain) because there is less resistance to what you're doing. Thus, less need for recovery.

Essentially, this distills to the aphorism: love what you do, and do what you love. This is on my mind right now because of a serendipitous application that just popped up yesterday. Out of the blue, Sandhill was recently approached by a buyer for the Nourish Organic Market in Grand Rapids MI on the hunt for organic sorghum (and possibly our organic prepared mustard). While we concentrate the marketing for our food sales near us in northeast Missouri (to contain delivery costs), we try to be responsive to whatever opportunities come along.

While we don't have regular trips to Michigan—excepting my annual pilgrimage to Ann Arbor as part of the faculty for the annual NASCO Institute every November—it seemed like divine intervention (I'm trying to stick with the Easter theme here) that this inquiry would coincide with the highly unusual itinerary of a friendly vehicle coming to Rutledge with Fennville MI as its next scheduled stop this week. As Fennville is a mere 50 miles from Grand Rapids, we made a sale. Pretty cool, huh? I figure this kind of windfall is all the more likely to come your way if you don't put family visits in a box that is carefully segregated from "work." In any event, it was a much more favorable wind than the one that blew our way two years ago.
• • •
Finally, I want to explain the title for today's entry. It comes (as many long-play word mangles do in my life) from my ex-partner and dear friend, Ann Shrader. As a kid, she misheard the opening line in the refrain of the classic 19th Century Easter hymn by Robert Lowry. The actual words are:
Up from the grave he arose;
With a mighty triumph o'er his foes…

Annie puzzled over why the son of Christ had slipped in the sauce for the mashed potatoes, but then, as we all know, the Lord moves in mysterious ways. Perhaps this was just a secular adaptation to the meal that had become the centerpiece of contemporary Easter celebrations among the less pious. If gravy features in your holiday plans today, please try to keep it down in front.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Playing Cards & Cards Playing

Last night was a recreational tour de force for me.

Not only was I playing duplicate bridge for the first time in four months at my local club in Kriskville, it was simultaneously the opening night* of Major League Baseball, featuring the defending World Champion St Louis Cardinals christening the new baseball stadium in Miami with game against the Marlins.

While I was driving into town (during which I caught the first inning on radio—more about that below), it occurred to me that not only was I getting the chance to enjoy two of my favorite pastimes for the first time in many months, I also had a glorious opportunity to refer to the occasion with an obvious play on words (featured in the title of this blog)—which is a third major pastime for me. How good can it get?

In reality last night's contest in the Sunshine State was only the season opener in the US. For some reason the Oakland A's and the Seattle Mariners played two official games in Tokyo last week—broadcasts of which were available live, starting at 3:09 am Pacific time. Ufda. That inauspicious timing evoked for me the famous quip by impresario Sam Goldwyn, probably used to characterize an MGM production flop, "They stayed away in droves."

Playing By Ear
Given that my principally information channel is aural, there is something primal about listening to baseball on radio. It is, for instance, the absolute easiest way for me to stay awake on long-distance drives. I've been tracking games on radio for more than 50 years, and it's an ideal backdrop for handwork on the farm—whether canning tomatoes, carving wood, cleaning the kitchen floor, or making tempeh.

At this point I can generally tell whose winning—and by how wide a margin—simply by the tone used by the announcers and whether or not their comments are describing strategy on the field (in which case the game is probably close) or memories of their former playing days (it's likely a laugher).

Sometimes all I need to know is who's pitching. If the home team's starter is still toiling, while the visitors are employing a relief hurler, that's a huge hint that home team is likely enjoying a lead. If the announcers are raving about a spectacular defensive play, it tells you nothing about the score; if
however they're highlighting an offensive performance, that translates into runs, and you can count on much more being made of the key contributions to the team that's in the lead.

Like life (and unlike football), baseball has a rhythm where there are a handful of dramatic moments in each game where you really want to be paying attention. While there is always room for surprise (where a banjo hitter comes through with a bases loaded double down the line, or the Gold Glove shortstop boots a tailor-made double play ball with the score tied that would have gotten them out of a pickle in the late innings), about 3-4 times in a game there will be a key match-up…

—Perhaps it's the middle innings of a tight game with one out, the sacks jammed, and the clean-up hitter (a dead fastball slugger with poor wheels) is digging in to receive the 2-1 offering from the #1 starter who has been struggling to get his bender over for a strike...

—Maybe it's the bottom of the eighth with two out and two on and the visitors are nursing a two-run lead. The guy in #3 hole strolls to the plate, licking his chops. The set-up man is laboring and the batter owns this guy. What's the visiting manager to do? He'd really like to have the clean-up hitter lead off the bottom of the ninth, but what are his options? If he gets too cute with the batter his reward is the guy who's leading the league in ribbies; if he brings in his closer early he may not be able to use again him tomorrow...

—Possibly it's the third inning of a mid-season game and you've got the starter on the ropes. He's notoriously slow to find his rhythm and just gets stronger as the game goes on, so you want to punch something across if at all possible. With one out and ducks on the pond, your #7 guy comes to the plate. He's your back-up backstop who's calls a good game but has no pop in his bat. He's getting two rare starts in a row to give your main man a blow—the regular guy has caught every game for 10 days and his bat's been wilting in the July heat. The guy in the #8 slot is the slick-fielding shortstop who hits below the Mendoza line, so you need something from this batter. You're tempted to pinch hit with your regular receiver, but that means you'll have burned both guys and be down to your emergency catcher before the game is half over...

At moments like these I just stop breathing and wait to see what happens.

And of course (if you couldn't tell by now) I'm in love with baseball because there is no sport richer in arcane and quirky terminology. Everything I wrote above actually makes sense to me—as it would to any baseball nut. (For a number of years in the late 70s, baseball aficionados referred to a fastball as a Linda Ronstadt, with a nod to her hit single, Blue Bayou. As in "blew by you." As a word play guy, there is no journalism better than sports journalism, and baseball writers are the best of the best.)

• • •
What's up next? Today I get another trifecta: a community meeting in the morning (my first since our retreat two months ago), a Bloodmobile in Memphis this afternoon, and the chance to hunt morels in the Sandhill environs following last night's spring rain. Life just keeps getting better.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Being Married in a Different Tradition

Last night I received an email from my daughter Jo that included a JPEG of her and partner, Peter, standing joyously in front of a white wrought-iron gazebo with an arched sign reading, "Little White Wedding Chapel." The text of her mail was pithy:
Hey thought u might care to see this one. No this doesn't mean grandkids.

Hmm. As the subject line of the email was "4/1" I could feel a definite tug on one of my legs. Still, I hedged my bets with this riposte:
I wasn't thinking it did [mean grandkids].

Does it mean you're married though, or just fooling around on April 1? I'm guessing the latter because [if you were actually getting married] it seems highly unlikely that you wouldn't have mentioned it on our phone call the other night.

Mind you, I'm not trying to steer the ship—I'm OK with you being married or not being married—I'm just trying to understand what meaning adheres to the image you just sent me (in case it's something more than an April 1 goof).

This morning I was greeted with this:
Still married even though its not 4/1 anymore. Surprise!!!!! I didn't tell you because I wanted to see which way you would go with the April Fools or not and u have joined the ranks of everyone on the not believing side. [Laird's note: this seemed a bit mean spirited in that I at least acknowledged there was a chance they weren't kidding.] But... the real prank is that it's real. We just decided to do it last week and we didn't invite anyone but Ceilee to be a witness. We got married at the same place he did. But at least I'm telling you about it.

Sigh, I reckon this goes to show that even after they're adults, the capacity of one's children to surprise never wanes.

My reactions to all this are complex (though I suppose that in itself is not surprising):
o I'm happy for my daughter. She's been in a relationship with Peter since fall 2008, she loves him, Peter is a good guy, and the marriage is a recognition of that happiness. That's a good thing.

o I'm sad that I didn't get to celebrate the relationship by being present at the marriage. (I love receptions, especially when I actually know the couple and think they're good together.)

o I'm confused that she didn't tell me about it ahead of time. I don't understand the advantage of being secretive about celebrating happiness.

o I'm curious about why they got married. I'm guessing it may be a practical thing, like Jo getting covered on Peter's health insurance as his spouse (maybe the CBS affiliate in Vegas doesn't extend coverage to domestic partners), or maybe they get a better home owner insurance rate as a married couple (they just bought their first house). Who knows?

o I notice with some bemusement that I am probably in a select company of people who: a) had both their children play major roles in his first (and only) wedding—Jo was in charge of the reception menu and Ceilee ran the bar when Ma'ikwe and I got hitched in a four-day extravaganza back in 2007; b) generally has good relationships with his kids; and c) didn't get invited to either of his children's weddings, both of which turned out to be subdued, low-key civil affairs in a Las Vegas wedding chapel—in fact, the same wedding chapel. How many of us can there possibly be? About the only thing we three have in common is that all the weddings took place in a desert environment above 3000 feet. (And I had been hoping all three would have occurred in more of a dessert environment, as in wedding cake and champagne.)

I reckon parenting is mainly an exercise in letting go. If you need your kids to reinforce the choices you've made in life, it's a sure recipe for heartbreak. A main motivation for my having a large and multi-day wedding was the chance to make a positive statement about ritual and celebration. Hah! After being an integral part of my nuptials, when it was their turn both of my kids opted for a minimalist ceremony, as stripped of ritual as they could make it. So much for impact.

Maybe when I'm out for visit in June, Peter and Jo will let me take them out to dinner.