Saturday, March 30, 2013

Seder of Opportunity

I'm visiting my daughter (Jo) and son-in-law (Peter) for 10 days, sandwiched between 10 days in northern California and the FIC's spring organizational meetings in Prescott AZ, April 5-7.

As it happens, my visit coincides with Easter (coming up this Sunday), which means there's a Seder lurking in there somewhere. Pesach (Passover) started Monday, March 25, and runs until Tuesday, April 2 (notice it takes a looong time for it to pass over—there are some Broadway shows that don't last that long). 

In any event, we decided to celebrate Thursday, about in the middle, by having a dozen of Jo & Peter's friends over for a Seder. It's not so much a religious holiday as a cultural one, marking the Jews' exodus from Egypt (you know, Let my people go), and what can be better than an all-skate dinner, eating and drinking to the theme of libation liberation? As my daughter and I enjoy celebration cooking about as much as anything, we got into it. 

Though I'm not Jewish, Jo's mother (Elke) is, so we had legitimacy (it's a matrilineal thing). While I left it to Jo to suss out a suitably liberal haggadah (yes, we had an orange on the Seder Plate), she and I collaborated on the menu:
o  Lotsa matzo
o  Two kinds of haroset
o  Prepared horseradish
o  Fresh parsley sprigs, paired with dipping bowls of salt water
o  Chicken soup with matzo balls
o  Stir-fried green beans 
o  Baked salmon encrusted with seasoned matzo meal
o  Flourless chocolate cake (think intense)
o  Lotsa wine  

Notice the bookend sacraments of unyeasted bread—served both neat and as a featured ingredient in multiple dishes—washed down with plenty of yeasted grapes. Think of it as the yin and yang of Passover.

We did the shopping Wednesday evening, and then jumped right into prep. Jo popped a whole chicken in a pot to stew with carrots and celery. I mixed up the matzo ball dough (it needed to condition in the fridge overnight) and shelled pistachios (for the Persian haroset). Jo whipped together the chocolate decadence & baked it.

The next afternoon, while Jo was at work, I set aside report writing to boil an egg for the Seder Plate, picked the chicken for the soup, boiled the matzo balls, ran both batches of haroset through a Cuisinart (a regular Ashkenazi version with walnuts, honey, apples, cinnamon, and red wine; and the aforementioned Persian offering, featuring pistachios, dates, fresh orange, and wine), French cut the string beans & blanched them, portioned the salmon into servings & rubbed them down with seasoned matzo flour.

One of the things I appreciate most about Seders is that everyone gets to play. It is expressly a time when Jews and non-Jews can sit together, making common cause at a common meal. While I didn't participate in my first Seder until college, I've now been to 20 or so—in a wide variety of settings—and as far as I can recall, there has always been at least one participant who was attending a Seder for the first time. I just love that—gradually widening the circle of people raising a glass to anti-oppression, expressly bridging across lines of ethnicity, creed, and sexual orientation, where the heavy lifting needs to be done.

While the ritual of Seders always draws attention to oppression—as it should—it is celebrating the movement away from oppression and is essentially a joyous holiday, replete with singing, responsive reading, and jocularity. For the children (and more frisky adults) there is the ritual hiding of the afikoman, a broken piece of matzo that is meant to be the last thing consumed at the meal. While that was not a big hit when offered as an alternative to chocolate cake, it kept the kids in the game. In an interesting juxtaposition of hoary ritual in a contemporary setting, it took quite a while for the someone to locate the afikoman, which had been sequestered by a clever child in the narrow slot under a computer keyboard.

All and all, it was a lovely way to spend a Thursday evening. In essence, we were celebrating collaboration and I couldn't help but reflect on how it stood in sharp contrast with the Sweet 16 games from the NCAA men's basketball tournament that were also taking place that evening, representing a ritual of competition.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Group Works: Invitation

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:
1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith 

In the Intention segment there are five cards. The third pattern in this segment is labeled Invitation. Here is the image and text from that card:

Bring people together by expressing a clear call toward shared purpose, tuned to getting the right people into the room with shared intent. Let people know why this is important and what to expect, while requesting the honor of their presence.

While the image and words on this card are elegant, they also tend toward the formal and come across as a bit too starched. To be fair, there are some gatherings in life freighted with sufficient ritual and weightiness to justify embossed letterhead and formal attire (a wedding?) but they are few.

Most meetings are come as you are, and the invitation (or reminder) will arrive electronically through a list serve. Or perhaps you'll get a postcard or a phone call. 

Though I've begun this post by lampooning the tone of this card—all facilitators know you have to play the card you're dealt, and as the choice of words and image were made purposefully, I figure that affords me a free poke at formality, which I've mostly been allergic to in my life, and which I find often masks authenticity and stifles creativtity—I want to mine a few golden nuggets in the ore of Invitation.

1. Getting the Right People in the Room
For the most part, this translates into the stakeholders (those affected by an issue or the proposed responses to it) and the people with authority to do something about that issue. If we're talking large numbers then this almost certainly means representatives of stakeholder constituencies, rather than everyone.

When it's not possible to have all stakeholders represented, you can make sure that good minutes are taken, that they are disseminated to the missing folks as soon as possible afterwards, and that an effort is made to allow those folks an opportunity to offer delayed input.

2. Being Clear about Objectives
It's one thing to know what the agenda is before a meeting, it's another to have a clear and commonly held idea about what is expected to be accomplished by focusing on those topics. 

Your answer here can vary widely depending on factors such as:
o  Has there been prior work done on this issue or is this the first time ti's being tackled in plenary?
o  Whether or not there are existing agreements that bear on this issue .
o  Whether there are strong feelings evoked by this topic, and whether those feelings have been expressed and/or resolved.
o  Are you ready to do problem solving?
o  How much is this about addressing an issue, and how much about building relationships?

3. Doing Your Homework
Part of the reason for extending an Invitation is to give attendees the chance to get ready for the meeting. It's not just a matter of showing up; a prepared participant is an informed one who has read the background material, discussed the issue with his/her constituency, and taken the time to organize their thoughts and concerns ahead of time.

That said, there is a significant difference between coming into a meeting with an open mind and coming with an empty mind. While there may be a purity and innocence about an empty mind (in a tabula rasa kind of way) it is not honoring an Invitation to have skipped your homework, and then play catch-up in the meeting. (Hint: if you're reading a proposal for the first time in the meeting at which it will be discussed, somebody has fucked up: either the drafting person (or group) didn't circulate it far enough ahead of the session, or you misspent your time getting ready.)

Going the other way, it is abusing an Invitation to make up your mind about issues ahead of the meeting such that you are not available to be persuaded by what others say on the subject. In short, you want to cultivate curiosity and flexibility, while eschewing naiveté and unpreparedness.

Finally, there is a more subtle version of getting ready that entails getting centered, such that you are in a suitable psychic space to listen fully and think well. Arriving at a meeting late, frazzled, or distracted is not taking the Invitation seriously. Honoring an Invitation is much more than getting your body in the room and sitting quietly while others speak; you need to be energetically present as well.

4. Selecting Formats and Settings that are Inviting & Congruent with Objectives
One of the most delightful things about people is also the most maddening: we are all so different. While meetings (at least those conducted in a cooperative setting) are almost always meant to be equally welcoming to all participants, the truth is they aren't. 

Not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in groups, not everyone takes the same amount of time to know their feelings or to know their mind (which are not at all the same thing), not everyone hears accurately, not everyone can sit for 90 minutes and remain focused and productive. If you want the meeting to be inviting to all participants, you need to give some thought to how best to do that, which almost certainly means variety—as there is no format or setting that works best all the time.

Your vocabulary here includes:
Time of Day 
Some people are like chickens—full of energy in the morning, and asleep when the sun goes down; others don't hit on all cylinders until the pm or after they've had at least two cups of coffee strong enough to float a spoon.

Choice of Formats
The default format for most groups is open discussion, which is often the most expeditious way to tackle an issue, yet that choice inadvertently favors extroverts, the garrulous, and the quick. Sometimes you have to slow things down or make the setting more intimate (such as with small group work) in order to protect an ingress for the diffident.

Working with the Whole Person
Almost all meetings are set up to work with ideas, yet people are much more complex than that. We "know" things emotionally, intuitively, spiritually, and kinesthetically as well as rationally. With consciousness of this richness, meetings can be structured to access these lesser honored forms of knowing, enhancing the quality of the consideration.

Selection and Orientation of the Meeting Space
There is nuance to selecting a suitable place for a meeting and the orientation of people's attention. You want a room large enough that it's not crowded, yet small enough to contain the energy. The ceiling needs to be in proportion to the square footage (too low feels oppressive; too high dissipates the juju).

In most cases, you'll want a variety of seating choices. Some like well upholstered, cushy couches; some prefer straight backed chairs with firm seats; some will sit on the floor if that's an option.

Meetings tend to go better if there's natural lighting in the room (especially daytime meetings), but you want the main bank of windows behind participants rather in front of them, where outside activity will tend to distract. Windows, if they can be opened, will also help with ventilation and temperature control.

Matching Ambience with Objectives
If you want a heartfelt meeting that emphasizes connection, then you'll want a softly lit, cozy environment—think floor lamps and candles—not harsh fluorescent lighting or a place where participants will have to compete with loud street traffic or raucous children to be heard. 

If you will be tackling a complex topic where visuals will be relied on to convey important information you'll want a space with excellent lighting and either a flat wall for posting flip chart pages, a chalkboard, or a screen to project images and graphs onto.

If you want to do an exercise that involves movement, you'll need a space where the furniture can be moved in and out of the way easily, or have access to a nearby space that is sufficiently uncluttered. 

Forcing activities into unsuitable spaces is not inviting.
• • •
As you can see, there are many elements to a well-crafted Invitation. If you want to participants to feel truly invited, and to anticipate an experience of movement—meetings that are dynamic and not stationary—it requires much more than the right stationery.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Unclear on the Concept

I was recently visiting a long-time friend who's had a long-term association with a student cooperative system. In the course of catching up, she shared with me the following cautionary tale about power and size in a cooperative setting.

The Background
1. Not surprisingly, the people living in student co-ops are overwhelmingly students (duh). We're mostly talking about young men and women 18-22 years old and it's generally their first taste of cooperative living—which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it's a terrific, relatively low risk entrée to the world of community, and many student co-opers graduate to become serious shoppers for intentional community later in life. That's the good news.

On the other hand, many young people, are motivated to join co-ops more by the prospect of cheap rent than the lure of group living. What's more, they're often focused more on academics (or other distractions available in college town culture) than on what's happening in the house, the end result of which is a high degree of apathy about governance.

2. Student co-ops have a fundamentally hard time with culture transfer. They have high turnover built into their reality (as students tend to move on to pursue careers once they finish school). Thus, hard-earned progress made one year in developing a cohesive group with social savvy and clear agreements is at considerable risk of erosion the next year based on member retention and the willingness of returning members to screen new prospects for a good fit and then applying themselves to integrating the newcomers into the house culture. While I don't suppose student co-ops are any worse at this than other intentional community—few communities are very good at this—the price here is higher because the turnover is higher. In short, there is weak institutional memory. 

3. For any community to gel—not just student co-ops—members need to understand that you don't successfully create cooperative culture by merely reading a book about it or passing an agreement mandating cooperation. It requires personal work to understand and shift the competitive and adversarial lenses through which we've been thoroughly conditioned to see the world. 

4.  In almost all cooperative groups—students co-ops being no exception—there is rarely clarity about: a) what kind of leadership is wanted from members; and b) how to create a culture that selects leaders wisely and balances thoughtful evaluation with genuine appreciation.

The Specifics
5. The co-op system in question was especially large, with many houses. Thus, scale was an additional factor, making it that much harder for each individual member to grasp the whole, and feel well connected with it. Another way of putting this is that it was relatively easy to slip into internal us/them dynamics. 

Because of size, the system relied on a representative democracy, whereby each house selected reps, who in turn comprised the governing Board of the system. Further, the Board was so big that it used Roberts Rules of Order instead of consensus, which makes the shift to cooperative culture (point #2 above) that much more difficult.

6. To streamline operations the system relies on an Executive Director (ED), who is hired by the Board. This is a full-time paid position and the person in this role typically lasts much longer than anyone on the Board. In addition there are a handful of other paid staff who oversee day-to-day operations of key system functions. These positions are typically not filled by students though it's common to fill them with system alumni.

7. To streamline governance, the Board selects a Steering Committee. It is their task to draft plenary agendas, oversee committees, and generally be the first set of eyes looking after the health and well-being of the system.

8. Taking into account Point #1 (diffusion among members about why they joined the co-op and where they focus their attention) and Point #4 (how leadership can be viewed as more of a burden than an opportunity), it is relatively common that houses are scrambling to find people willing to serve as reps, and the Board is often happy simply to not have to beat the bushes to fill slots.

9. Recently the ED successfully pitched to the Board the idea of hiring a consulting firm to review organizational structure and make recommendations about how to improve efficiency and cohesion. While I don't have any problem with those objectives and I have no personal knowledge about the firm selected, I found it noteworthy that: a) the compensation for this contract was six figures; and b) the company selected had nonprofit experience (good), but no experience with cooperatives (no so good).

10. Even though the system was flush with money (they were, after all, well enough off to be able to afford to hire the consulting firm), the Board—at the ED's urging and with the Steering Committee's backing—decided to squeeze the long-term staff when it came time to renegotiate their labor contract. With no warning, the Board low-balled the staff with an initial offer that cut benefits, embraced a policy of replacing outgoing full-time positions with part-time people that wouldn't be offered benefits, and reduced wages. As far as anyone could tell, this approach was taken not in response to a tight budget or poor staff performance; it was done because the ED and Steering Committee thought they could get away with it, and could save money for other uses. Yikes!

11. Bad as that was, it was worse they way they went about it. The Steering Committee hired a legal team noted for union busting (more prima facie evidence of the system not being under financial strain), met continually in executive session to restrict Board access to information about their negotiating position and strategy, denied permission for the staff to present their position to the Board, spread false rumors about the legality of the prior contract, and made wild allegations about the staff trying to bankrupt the co-op. In short it was Haymarket ugly.

While the Machiavellian ED was eventually forced out and the sleeping Board is currently waking up to what has been done in their name, this is a sobering tale about the risks of largeness (think of it as a counterbalance to economies of scale) and the need for vigilance and engagement as an appropriate check and balance on the use of power and the healthy distribution of authority.

The Lessons
12. Houses would benefit from developing a clearer idea about what characteristics are desirable in their reps before they're selected, both so that there can be more discernment about how to assess candidates and how to evaluate their performance after they're in harness.

13. Similarly, the Board would be well advised to develop characteristics wanted from members of the Steering Committee and from their ED for the same reasons. Note that this is different from a job description and a delineation of duties and authority (though that is needed as well).

14. The houses need to exercise oversight of their reps, expecting a flow of information and making sure members voices are heard on the issues that reps grapple with. In the same way, the Board needs to be up to speed about what the Steering Committee and ED are doing. An apathetic membership, or passive Board, leads to mischief and courts the risk of mission drift.
The biggest ouch in this story is that the ED was able to create a viable, aligned coalition with the Steering Committee to drive a wedge between the students and the long-term staff, pitting one against the other. How can it possibly be OK for the leadership of a cooperative to embrace the goal of undermining the long-term security of staff and then rubbing salt in the wound by engaging in such demonstrably uncooperative tactics? If you're behavior is not congruent with your core beliefs, what the hell do you stand for? 

I'm talking about negotiating in good faith, supporting fair wages, being committed to the diffusion of power (rather than its concentration), and commitment to information flow and transparency. These are co-op fundamentals, not open-to-interpretation bargaining chips.

While the goals and tactics advanced by the ED and supported by the Steering Committee may be acceptable—even laudable—in the corporate world, they are anathema in cooperative culture. The ultimate question here is what this particular cooperative system will take away from this embarrassment. Will they get more committed to culture change and manifest broader based involvement in governance, or will they just get outrage, take down the current crop of leaders and then go back to business as usual?

We'll see.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Group Works: Commitment

This entry continues a long series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:
1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith 

In the Intention segment there are five cards. The second pattern in this segment is labeled Commitment. Here is the image and text from that card:

A group dedicated to its work persists through obstacles, distractions, and lulls. Remind yourselves of your larger purpose and what you really care about. As the group moves toward action, support effectiveness by getting clear on who will do what by when and how to ensure it really happens. 
For me, commitment mainly distills into: a) dedication to cooperative process; b) persistence in working toward goals; c) steadfastness with respect to relationship; and d) integrity when acting and making decisions consistent with values. 
The challenges to commitment manifest as awkwardness, isolation, impatience, weariness, self-absorption, and distraction. There may be times when it's tempting to cut corners, give in, give up, settle for less, or otherwise weaken one's resolve, but committed people don't do those things; committed people stay the course.
Finding the strength to sustain commitment (especially when one is tested) is often related to clarity of purpose and proximity to personal values (or identity). The closer to the bone, the firmer the resolve. 

In cooperative groups (in contrast to competitive ones) it matters as much how you do things as what you do. Thus, I rank commitment to process equal to commitment to objectives. In cooperative settings you need to listen to both drumbeats, not just give obeisance to the god of product. 
While there's no question that attention to implementation is appropriate—the who does what when and with what resources—that's not where the heavy lifting of commitment is done. For my money, commitment is mainly tested in the trenches of discussion and proposal generation. For more on these concepts, see my blog of Jan 30, 2010, Nurturing the Culture of Collaboration and Curiosity.

All of that said, it can be an interesting nuance distinguishing commitment from stubbornness. When does dedication to principles degrade into pigheadedness? When does the gold of loyalty debase into the lead of chauvinism? I believe that the litmus test is whether there's curiosity and a willingness to be wrong. The love-it-or-leave-it folks have essentially checked their minds at the door (a mule has commitment, but who gives a shit?); while those who are prepared to seriously entertain opposing viewpoints are the one's whose dedication is inspiring. They are the ones who thoughtfully sort the wheat of principle from the chaff of casuistry, and the bread baked from that grain is both uplifting and nourishing.
Wouldn't you like a thick slice of fresh-baked commitment right about now?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Group Works: Purpose

Today I'm going to start a long series in which I'll explore concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me, as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is simply an amplification of what each pattern means to me. I am not intending to suggest a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order suggested in the manual that accompanies the deck:
1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith 

in the Intention segment there are five cards. The keystone pattern in this segment is labeled Purpose, so that's where I'll begin. Following is the image and text from that card:

Purpose is the destination we choose from a sea of possibilities. Shared purpose calls us together and focuses us, evolving as understanding deepens. It gives impetus and energy to our work—when we're connected with genuine purpose, energy flows and things happen.
For me, the concept of purpose varies considerably by scope. I'll illuminate four, working from larger to smaller.
Purpose of the Group
For groups to function well, it helps if everyone is mindful of the reason the groups exists;  what it's trying to do in the world. This helps members shift perspective from what they'd like with respect to a given issue, to thinking about what's best for the group

While holding the group's purpose clearly doesn't tend to be a problem when groups are first founded, there can be drift over time and occasionally groups are well advised to pause to reflect on whether their vision and/or mission statement are still valid or in need of adjustment. 

When a group labors over how to respond to a given issue, it is often wise to refer to common values and purpose in order to build a solid foundation for a response.

Given the potency of purpose, it's important that groups do a solid job of inculcating in new members a sense of common values and mission.
Purpose of the Meeting 
In the sense of what you're hoping to get out of a particular meeting, purpose can be a synonym for "objectives"; what we want to get out of this time together. Lacking clarity about that can lead to considerable drift in how time is used.

For example, there is often tension between using plenaries to address issues and using plenaries to build relationships—which are different purposes. If half of the group is prioritizing the former and the other half the latter, it can lead to a train wreck when someone says something like, "I don't know, but there's something about this proposal that just doesn't sit well with me." The problem solvers will be ready to go on (until and unless the speaker can get less nebulous), while the relationship builders will want to hear more. Instant tension.
Purpose of a Format
There are many ways in which to approach topics, and many factors that go into selecting which format to employ. In selecting how the group may most productively engage on a topic, a skilled facilitator will be weighing such things as whether the group needs:
a) To move physically
b) To change pace
c) To work in small groups so that more people will get air time in a less daunting environment
d) To share in such a way that everyone hears what's being said.
e) To focus on feelings more than problem solving
Purpose of a Comment
While you might think that statements are always self-explanatory, it's not at all unusual for a comment to be confusing, with the group not understanding why a person said what they did. It might appear to be off topic, it may make no sense, it may have been too rambling to follow accurately. 
In any event, if you don't understand where a comment is coming from, it's that much harder to know where it's going—or how to work with it constructively. 
• • •
In sum, whenever purpose is unclear—at any scale—you need more information. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Aunt Sylvia's Game

Have you ever had a long-term goal such that you've been trying for years—even decades—to accomplish a thing and been unsuccessful for so long that you reached the point where you weren't sure it was going to happen in your lifetime?

I have. More than once.

1. The Friendly Arctic
I looked for a used copy of this 1921 classic about Arctic exploration and Inuit culture for decades, before I finally stumbled upon a hardback copy (for just $8!) in a used bookstore near the Amtrak station in Eugene OR. I wrote about this recently in my Jan 13 blog, Freezing & Starving to Death.

This took around 25 years, but perseverance finally paid off.

2. San Francisco Giants
This has been my #1 sports affiliation ever since Horace Stoneham moved the team from New York City to the City by the Bay in 1958. While the Giants have had more good years than bad, they were only able to get to the World Series every once every other decade, and seemed (at least to this die-hard fan) to be snake-bitten when they did. Over the course of their first 50 years, they got invited to the ball three times, yet always reverted to a pumpkin when the clock struck midnight:

o  In 1962 the Giants overcame a two-game deficit with just three to play on the final weekend of the season, catching the hated Los Angeles Dodgers at the buzzer. That forced a best-of-three playoff, which the Giants survived by plating four runs in the top of the ninth of Game 3. Whew! Alas, in the Series, they fell to the New York Yankees in seven games, losing the last one in a heartbreaker, with Bill Terry out-dueling Jack Sanford, 1-0, where the only tally came on a bases loaded double play, and Willie McCovey ended the game by lining out to Bobby Richardson in the bottom on the ninth with Felipe Alou on third and Willie Mays on second. We were so close! These were the Giants of Mays, McCovey, Juan Marichal, and Orlando Cepeda.

o  In 1989 the Giants were swept by the cross-bay Oakland A's, in a series that was most noteworthy because of the Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked the Bay Area while Candlestick Park was full of people awaiting the start of Game 3. Luckily, no one in the stadium was injured. These were the Giants of Will Clark, Robbie Thompson, Kevin Mitchell, and Matt Williams.

o In 2002 the Giants squandered a three-games-to-two advantage and were unable to close the deal against the Anaheim Angels. Especially galling was how the Giants coughed up a five-run lead in the sixth inning of Game 6. These were the Giants of Bobby Bonds, Jeff Kent, Jason Schmidt, and Robb Nen.

Then, in 2010, a miracle happened. Not expected to go far in the playoffs, the Giants rode their magnificent pitching staff to post-season dominance:

o  In 2010, the Giants were inspired by the play of rookie sensation Buster Posey (called up in June), taking them all the way to a five-game beat down of the Texas Rangers, and a Series win for the first time since the franchise had moved west. These were the Giants of Posey, Tim Lincecum, Aubrey Huff, and Brain Wilson (fear the beard!)

o  In 2012 the Giants caught lightning in a bottle for a second time. This team won six straight elimination games in the playoffs to capture the National League pennant and then de-pantsed the Detroit Tigers in four straight. These were the Giants of Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Matt Cain, and
Marco Scutaro.

It took 52 years, but the San Francisco Giants finally got 'er done.

3. Aunt Sylvia's Game
As a child, I played a lot of card games. In addition to such standards as War, Crazy Eights, and Hearts, my sisters and I played a gob of solitaire, including an obscure two-deck monstrosity that my sisters picked up from a distant relative, Aunt Sylvia—whose location on the Schaub family tree is a complete mystery to me. Here's how it works:

After shuffling the two decks together, you turn cards over one at a time filling 13 piles in sequence. From your supply, you set a card aside face down to form a new stock pile every time any of the following happens:
A. The turned card lands in its corresponding pile (such as a four landing in the fourth pile, or a queen in the twelfth pile).
B. You turn up an ace or a king.
C. You complete a round of adding a card to each pile.

Thus, if you turn up an ace in the first pile, you add two cards to the new stock pile (one for A and another for B). If you turn up a king in the 13th pile, you add three cards to the stock pile (one for A, one for B, and one for C).

In a typical layout you'll have around six cards in each pile, with 26 cards (more or less) in the new stock pile. If you've been less lucky in the layout you may have seven cards in the first few piles and fewer than 26 in the stock pile; if you've been fortunate you may have only five in the last few piles and few more cards in the stock pile.

Once the layout is complete, you turn over cards from the new stock pile one at a time. If, say, you turn over a seven, then you pick up the seventh pile and can look at every card--all the while retaining their order in the pile. Based on what's in that pile, plus the top card on the other 12 piles, you can move cards from the 13 piles onto eight discard piles: there are two for each suit; one built from the ace up to the king, and the other from the king down to the ace. After completing all the moves that are possible (or that you choose to make), you return the pile that you had fanned out to its place in the layout and draw a new card from the stock pile, repeating this process until the stock pile is exhausted.

The object is to collapse all the cards into the eight discard piles. Until Wednesday, I'd never won.

There is one more nuance to the rules. As the two discard piles in a given suit approach each other, there is a special point where the card wanted in one pile is the exposed card in its mate (this will happen whenever you have exactly 13 cards in the two piles combined, which is halfway toward the 26 you are trying to get into those two piles). At that point, and that point only, you are allowed to move cards from one discard pile onto the other, to take advantage of accessing a card in that suit that is currently available in the 13 piles.

Also, if the same card is available in two places, you are allowed to peek underneath both to see if you have a preference for which one to take.

It is almost impossible to win this game. Most attempts result in only half the cards (or less) making it into the eight discard piles. Wednesday though, just outside Salt Lake City, my ship came in. On the very last card I turned from the stock pile, I was able to play over 20 cards to win the game. It was an exceptionally lucky finish. Woohoo!

This took 55 years, and I don't know if I'll ever play that game again. (How could I ever derive more satisfaction from it than I got today?)

Now I'm wondering about the existential meaning of it all. Should I buy a lottery ticket, or be prepared to die?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

One Track Mind

Back in August 2011 I took the California Zephyr (that's train #5 if you're keeping score at home) out to northern California to conduct Weekend II of my eight-part Integrative Facilitation training. The host group was Yulupa Cohousing in Santa Rosa.

Ordinarily I try to arrive at least 24 hours ahead of time, to settle in at the training site and fully recover from travel before going on stage, but I was in a time squeeze by virtue of having participated in the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference the weekend before, and it takes three days to cross the country by train. Leaving Monday morning, Thursday afternoon was the quickest I could get to the Golden State (given that I was sticking with my decided preference to avoid air travel whenever possible). As training weekends start with a check-in Thursday evening, I was cutting it close.

As it turned out, I cut it too close. My train was due into Emeryville at 4:10 pm , but it didn't arrive until 4:10
the next day—12 hours late. So much for check-ins. I was lucky to make it on site by 9 am the next morning, just in time to start teaching. That was the most spectacularly late train ride I've ever experienced (although the one I took earlier this week competed for that dubious honor), and wouldn't you know that it occurred when I had almost no cushion to work with. Murphy's Law. Fortunately, the facilitation class was able to roll with my travel misadventure and the weekend went fine. (Isn't that what coffee is for?)

Now fast forward (or perhaps slow forward is more like it) 19 months to this week, where I was once again on board train #5, was again en route to a facilitation training weekend being hosted by Yulupa Cohousing (the seventh in the series), and I was again woefully late. What is it with late trains and Yulupa trainings?

By the time we got halfway across Colorado—which meant about halfway to the West Coast—the train was already more than four hours in arrears and sliding further with each stop. 

Fortunately, I allowed for more wiggle room this time, and bought a ticket to arrive on Wednesday instead of Thursday. However, not one to let grass grow between my toes, I scheduled six hours of work today in nearby Sebastopol, starting at 9 am, and can't be too late without putting at risk a good night's sleep (in a bed that isn't rumbling along at 50 mph).

So why are trains so often late? Part of it is the route I was taking, which I believe has the worst on-time performance of any in the Amtrak system. There are two reasons for that. First, it's one of the longest routes, giving it more chances to get into trouble. Second, it crosses two mountain ranges (the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas) and operates at the highest altitude of any train in the US, which translates into more chances for snow adventures, frozen switches, and freight train derailments blocking the path.

In addition, there are only so many stretches of double track, where trains can pass each other. If a passenger train is trying to overtake a slow freight, or pass one going in the opposite direction, it has to wait until there's a siding or a stretch of double track. Sometimes the freight train gets there first and the passenger train has to cool its heels—which, when you think about it, is much preferable to trains playing chicken with each other to see who can race through single track sections first. Wheee!

Siding hopscotch accounted for our losing a couple hours Monday night as we chugged across Nebraska (we were on time reaching Omaha). The other half of our delay was caused by our engine clunking into a boulder that appeared on the track in Gore Canyon Tuesday—somewhere between Granby and Glenwood Springs. Oops! While the engineer saw it coming and it was more of a fender bender than a collision, we apparently sustained enough damage that the engine couldn't run at more than 20 mph. As that wasn't going to get the job done—we were still 1200 miles from the Pacific Ocean and wanted to get there sooner than Thursday afternoon—they pulled over at a siding and dos-i-dosed the engines (they regularly assign pairs to long hauls like this, just so they'll have a back-up), putting the frisky one in front and the dingled one second (bad engine, no biscuit).

After that, things started running better... until we got to Grand Junction (which is only one stop beyond Glenwood Springs). There we developed a new malaise, such that we didn't get more than 200 yards out of the station before we stopped and they shut the power down to poke around. After an inconclusive diagnostic, they decided to put it in reverse and limp back into Grand Junction. I feel asleep while they were sorting out what to do.

I woke up Wednesday amidst the beautiful snow-tipped Wasatch Mountains… and learned that our delay had doubled again. Ugh. (I was getting the impression that closing my eyes is hazardous to on-time performance.) Amtrak officials finally resorted to pulling the bad engine and swapping it out with a Union Pacific freight engine—which while no doubt a gamer, was red lined at 50 mph, essentially insuring that no ground would be made up on the straightaways. What all of that added up to was our sashaying into Salt Lake City a fashionable 10 hours behind schedule, and just in time to enjoy a balmy spring morning. Even though I had a guaranteed Amtrak bus connection from Martinez to Santa Rosa, I didn't get there until a little after 1 am and Amtrak hired a taxi to schlep me and two other weary passengers to Santa Rosa. Boy, did bed ever look good.

• • •

As much fun as I had on the train ride, that's not the only adventure I had on this journey. Here's the back story about how I almost didn't make the train in the first place...

Ten days ago I had been approached by folks at Dancing Rabbit to facilitate a community meeting Sunday, March 10, where the single topic would be how the community wanted to respond to cost research that revealed that they couldn't build everything they wanted in their new common house for what they'd budgeted. Did they want to stick with the budget and strip down the features; increase the budget (and the attendant member fees) to keep all the desired features; or something in between? They were facing tough choices that involved balancing affordability, functionality, and the desire to be an inspirational model for sustainability (both in how the building is constructed and the economics about how it would be paid for and maintained).

Because my son, Ceilee, asked me to visit him south of St Louis that weekend and family comes first, I turned down DR, but tossed them a bone—I'd be willing to facilitate a community meeting Monday afternoon, in the narrow window between my return from Ceilee's and my departure to board the Zephyr in Ottumwa IA. As the train was due in at 6:53 pm, and it's normally a 75-minute drive to Ottumwa, I'd be fine if I left Rutledge by 5 pm. However, I wanted to leave at 4 pm in order to get to the Milton Creamery (en route to Ottumwa) before it closed at 5 pm, to secure a bag of their delicious cheese curds for the trip. Thus I told DR I'd be willing to do a 1-3 pm meeting, which offer they took me up on.

Waking up on Ceilee's couch at 6:15 am (at which hour there was no hint of dawn), I made coffee, drank a couple cups, hugged my son goodbye, and hit the road. I made it to DR around 11:30, went immediately into meeting prep, and then did the meeting, ending a bit after 3 pm. Hugging my wife goodbye (I won't see her for three weeks, until we rendezvous in Prescott AZ for the FIC spring organizational meetings), I jumped in my car, raced home, threw clothes in my suitcase, crammed paperwork into my tote sack, quickly handled some accounting, mailed bill payments, gave Sandhillians a Cliff's Notes version of my visit with Ceilee, and forewent a shower in the greater pursuit of cheese curds.

Unfortunately, after all that fast-paced action I couldn't find my driver. I knew it had been narrowed down to either Joe (from Sandhill) or Amanda (my FIC Development Assistant, who lives at DR but was working at the FIC Office that day) but I couldn't find either one. There was a rumor that Joe was in another building, but when I went over there I was told that he'd taken Kathy (our Allis Chalmers D-17) to pull Amanda out of the mud after she made an ill-advised attempt to get to Rutledge via the back road, which was a sea of mud after two days of heavy rain.

So I tossed my gear into one of Sandhill's cars and slewed up the back road as far as the gravel went to see if I could find them. When I got there (about half a mile), there was no car or tractor in sight. Sigh. So I zigzagged back through the muddy road to the house, to try another tack. When I got out of the car Joe saw me right away and let me know that Amanda was my driver (good to get that cleared up) but that she'd gone to DR to get me. Ufda.

Unfortunately, after driving the three miles over to DR, there was no Amanda to be had. Someone called around and learned that she was in Rutledge washing the mud off the DR car that she'd been driving. Haring after her into Rutledge I found the DR vehicle parked outside Zimmerman's cafe, where Amanda was inside getting an order of cheesy fries. At least I'd found her!

As her car was full of supplies needed to assemble screening kits for a movie she's promoting, she wanted to first transfer everything into the SH car (in case someone else wanted the DR car while she was taking me to Ottumwa), but the boxes were too big to fit. Grr. (I'm telling you, this was better than the Keystone Kops.) Giving up on the box transfer, we both drive back to DR so that she could drop off that car and ride with me to Ottumwa. By now it was after 5 pm and I'd completely given up on cheese curds. I was just hoping to catch the train.

Luckily, we encountered no further delays, she and I had a productive conversation in the car about various FIC tasks we handle together, and the Zephyr pulled into the Ottumwa station 10 minutes after I did. Whew!

When people ask what I do for excitement living so far out in the boondocks, I answer with a smile and a single word: "Travel."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Tears and My Father

As is true for many, my relationship with my father has been a pivotal one in my development. It roughly sorts into two phases: a) the first 17 years of my life, which covers birth through when I left home for college; and the next 23, which takes me from my Carleton years until his unexpected death of a heart attack in 1989, at age 72.

As I tend to access memories using the LIFO inventory system (last in, first out), I recall the college years and beyond more vividly. They were mainly a stormy time, when my values and life philosophy individuated and diverged from those of my father. He was disappointed in me, and I was frustrated that I could never gain his acceptance for having made different choices.

Ironically, by the time our relationship had progressed into open warfare I had already been deeply steeped in the self-confidence he instilled in me, which allowed me to sustain an independent identity without his approbation. Having grown up in the Depression (he was born in 1917), my father's options for higher education and job prospects were sharply limited, and he was determined that his kids would have more choice. While he succeeded in that ambition, I think he was dismayed and saddened by what I chose. As a successful entrepreneur himself, he expected his son with the high SAT scores to parlay opportunity into an appointment as a midshipmen of industry (as a stepping stone toward the captaincy he foresaw as my destiny).

It didn't work out that way. 

Instead, I got interested in social justice and group dynamics. Cooperative living appealed to my sensibilities far more than the competitive rat race, and I retired from the 9-5, M-F treadmill at the advanced age of 23. Mind you, I've never been allergic to work; I've just never been motivated by material gain.

For most of the years since my father died, I've been busy continuing down the path of community. When I thought of him at all, it was mostly in the context of what I left behind, and how much I rued the squabbling and sarcastic repartee that characterized our interactions from college onward. I knew I didn't want to be like him.

In the last half dozen years, however—and especially as I've gotten within range of the age that he died—my memories of Dad have softened. For one thing, I've come to see that I am like him in many ways.

o  My enthusiasm for work & making a meaningful contribution
o  My high standards for quality
o  My love of words
o  My delight in games
o  My enjoyment of professional sports, baseball especially
o  How I like vacations to be a mix of time off tempered by 2-3 hours of concentrated work
o  We both were comfortable manifesting money (though I've applied my talents mainly in the nonprofit field and he worked the other side of the aisle emphasizing private accumulation, there's no doubt that we were both entrepreneurial)
o  We even both smoked cigars
o  We both were people with strong feelings who wrestled with anger and worked hard as adults to find ways to be more tender and less harsh

This past week I established a different connection with my father, in a place I wasn't expecting to find it. Let me tell you the story...

In working with our marriage counselor Ma'ikwe and I were excited to bring to her an example of how we'd gotten stuck the week before. After being apart for three days we started filling each other in on what had happened during the interregnum. Ma'ikwe had just concluded three days of retreat that ended on something of a sour note and she was pretty tired.

I started relating some of the struggles I was having managing various aspects of my FIC responsibilities and that triggered a critical analysis from Ma'ikwe about how it might be time for the old lions to step down and get fresh blood. While that's a good topic and one I've been exploring, in that moment I was looking for support and understanding from my partner as I related in an unguarded way what I was wrestling with. I felt blindsided. For her part she felt I was being defensive and closed to considering tough choices. When I considered my options for expressing anything other than complete agreement with her position and having that be a constructive exchange, I felt completely hopeless—which was why it was an excellent dynamic to bring to our counselor.

While I suppose we deserve partial credit for realizing fairly quickly that we were in dangerous waters and stopped before we inflicted much damage, we were both tender after the failed attempt.

When the counselor asked me what I was feeling once Ma'ikwe and I got stuck, my response was overwhelm and despair. Her inspiration in that moment was to ask me to work with her on a guided visualization, on the theory that it might be useful to know more about the roots of my feeling overwhelmed.

In an open-ended way she asked me to go back to any point in my childhood and see what surfaced. Surprisingly (at least to me—I'm not sure our counselor is ever surprised) the image that popped up was one from the summer of 1958 when I was eight years old and just returned from four weeks at summer camp in northern Minnesota. That time had been, by far, the longest stretch I'd ever been away from family and my father took time off work (which was noteworthy even to me as an eight-year-old) to pick me up at Union Station in Chicago when I returned. 

My Dad took me out to eat and asked me the questions you'd expect from a caring father just reunited with his son. The key moment of the exchange came when my Dad asked me if I wanted to do it again and I answered in tears, with "Yes!"

The way I remember the moment, my tears surprised us both, and neither one of us knew what to do with my expressing intense emotion—especially tears associated with elation. As near as I can recall, we didn't talk about what that meant in the moment, nor did we discuss it at a later time. To be clear, my father didn't do anything wrong and this is not an unpleasant memory for me. But it was a remembrance of overwhelm.

My father, of course, was from an earlier generation—from a time when there were far fewer models for males being emotionally expressive. The way I've pieced it together, his alcoholism (which got progressively worse as he aged) was closely related to his struggles to find acceptable ways to express his feelings (people are much more accepting of a maudlin drunk than a guy who weeps at chick flicks). While his sarcasm masked his love, I always knew it was there.

What a precious memory my counselor helped me find! And it came from those foggier earlier years with Dad, the ones that I remember less well—the ones that have been mostly masked by my anguish as an adult trying to find his own way.

My Dad may not have known what to do with his feelings, but he clearly had them and he tried to figure it out. I reckon my take away here is it's never too late to feel and, more importantly, it's never too late to heal.

Thanks, Dad, I needed that.

• • •
P.S. I apologize for posting this so quickly after my previous entry, but I had written it March 6 and was appalled to discover this morning that it was listed only as a "draft" on my blog administration page and was hidden from public view. Grr. Worse, the draft only contained half of what I'd written, so I devoted a chunk of my journey along the Colorado River today to resurrecting this entry. It was worth it for me to write as a journal entry; I hope it's worthwhile reading it.

Maybe it's time for that new laptop after all.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Operating at the Edge of My Technological Tether

Last December I bought a new laptop. I have a good friend who works at Apple and was able to parlay their employee discount into a 15% savings on a MacBook Pro Retina, Apple's spiffy new offering with splendid visuals (great for aging eyes).

I've had this new toy tool for three months now, but unfortunately it's still in the box, waiting patiently for me to get all the data transferred from my current MacBook (just three years old but now out of warranty).

As I’m outbound today for a six-week West Coast swing, this embarrassingly long stretch of hot new technology gathering dust on Ma'ikwe's bedroom floor won’t end sooner than late April. I'm shaking my head (and so has my community, Sandhill Farm, who has been waiting patiently for my old laptop to replace an aging desktop in our community office—it's the domino effect of new technology).

There are three problems that I’m trying to manage:

1. I’m so busy using my laptop that it’s not a trivial matter manifesting the hours of down time needed to anesthetize my computer long enough to safely effect the mind meld.

2. I’ve acquired new—at least to me—laptops a number of times. (I believe this is my fifth since the hand-me-down Outback I got from Geoph Kozeny in the mid-90s that first gave me access to the information superhighway from a machine that was dedicated to my sole use.) This transfer, however, has been the most complicated I’ve ever faced. Witness:

For the first time, my new machine came with less memory than the one I was leaving behind. That means I can’t blithely dump everything from the old computer into the new one on the chance I’ll want it later. This time I have to do some judicious sorting and dumping so that I can wriggle into my svelte new memory chip. Fortunately, I have a lot of stuff rattling around in my files that I no longer need and going on a memory diet is not in and of itself that daunting.

o  More problematic is that three of the programs I use most won’t work in my new machine: Word, Excel, and Eudora. On the good side Word and Excel are fully supported programs available in updated versions that are compatible with my new operating system (mountain Lion), so there’s a clear pathway to translate my old files, even if it necessitates some extra hocus pocus. On the less good side, it’s the end of the line for Eudora, my trusty email program and the only one I've ever used since I first started noodling around with computers more than 20 years ago.

While it’s not that hard to select a replacement program that will allow me to bring all my old messages forward, the coding and labeling are likely to be messed up and l have to make some hard decisions about what kind of accuracy (such as knowing whether a message has been read or responded to) I’m willing to sacrifice on the altar of trading up. Yuck. Change can be highly irritating.

o  Though there aren’t many people in my immediate circle of northeast Missouri friends capable of piloting me safely through the shoals of data transfer, I was fortunate enough to have secured the support of Rachel Katz, one of my long-time neighbors at Dancing Rabbit, to serve in the role of lead doctor for the transplant surgery. While she and I got right on it in December (as soon as my new laptop arrived in the mail), we weren’t able to complete the work before Christmas and it’s been the very devil finding time when we’re both in the same zip code since. (Am I subconsciously dragging my feet just to eke out a few more weeks with my beloved Eudora?)

3. This need for a careful transfer has exposed a major weakness in my life. While I depend heavily on what my laptop can do, I really don't know that much about how to manage its care and feeding. While that's partly why I purchase an extended Apple Care Warranty with each new machine, it's humbling how little of the transfer I can manage without Rachel holding my hand (or at least my keyboard).

Eventually this will be resolved. All the transfers will be completed, I'll learn the new software, and life will go on. Maybe by May. So far—knock on hard plastic (which is far more available than wood in my upper level seat on the westbound California Zephyr)—my old laptop is still functioning well, so this cautionary tale of a retrograde upgrade is more amusing than devastating. Hopefully I'll be able to keep all my electrons playing well with one another for six more weeks and it will stay that way.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Proxies & Pricklies & Pixies (oh my!)

This morning I want to muse about a trio of consensus meeting phenomena that share a lot of letters but not much else. (I've always had a soft spot for alliteration—which, if you're a habitué of this blog, you already knew.)

One of the prime challenges with consensus is how to embrace the principle of inclusivity and still have a functional system of governance. While this doesn't tend to be a serious issue in small groups (say, six to eight members), it's an increasing concern as the numbers expand. In groups of 40-50 the group may never have a meeting where everyone is in the room at the same time—not because people don't care (though low morale can be a real issue, that's not what I'm addressing today), but because of all the normal claims on our busy lives:
o  out-of-town business trips
o  vacation
o  out-of-town visitors (it may be more politic to take your mother-in-law to lunch than invite her to attend a community meeting with you)
o  sickness
o  double booking (your daughter's once-a-year ballerina recital happens to fall at the same time as the community meeting; or there's a church function you don't want to miss)
o  taking care of small children 
o  the Dead are in town

So how do you balance the rights of all members to have a voice in group decisions while not being hamstrung by people missing meetings?

A common way this is handled in democratic processes is through proxies, giving your voice (or, in the case of majority rule, your vote) to someone else who will attend the meeting. In consensus, however, proxies are not a good solution.

The good side of proxies is that it's a protected way for the missing person to have their views brought into play. However, there are other ways to accomplish that laudable goal—such as having a conversation with someone who is sympathetic to your position and willing to commit to making sure that it's articulated in the meeting; or writing a note that lines out your views and disseminating it to the group ahead of time.

The flavor of a proxy is that the group is obliged to satisfy your concerns in order to gain your approbation, yet you won't be there to acknowledge whether or not that's happened, and it's not fair to ask your proxy to anticipate what your response will be. Since you need to resolve all principled objections in order to achieve a decision by consensus, it's possible for proxies to seriously constrict problem solving if they are permitted.

People need to be ready to actively—and creatively—work to find the best solution, and that's not compatible with the "dead hand" of proxies, where the people they are attached to are incapable of interacting with the rest of the group in the live meeting.

By extension, I also don't favor allowing people to block in absentia, because blockers have an obligation to make a good faith effort to resolve their concerns and that can't happen if they're not in the room. If you feel strongly enough about an issue that you're willing to stand in the way of certain things happening, then you have an obligation to let others know that that's brewing at your earliest convenience, and to make every effort to attend the meeting at which the issue will be examined. Going the other way, the group needs to try hard to find a meeting date that can work for you.

Note that for all of this to function well it's necessary that: a) draft agendas be posted far enough ahead of scheduled meetings (so people know when a hot topic is coming up); and b) that there be good enough minutes that members can make reasonable assessments about how important it is that they attend the next meeting on a given topic, or otherwise have an opportunity to see that their input gets considered.

For more on the subject of members missing meetings, see my blogs of:
—June 16, 2010, Working with Ghosts
—June 26, 2009, Status Quorum 
— Feb 7, 2008, The Pitfalls of Proposals from Meetings People Miss
For consensus to work well you need both a foundation of common values (so you know why you're willing to labor with someone to get through a rough patch) and a sense of ease with one another. The latter is needed to bolster confidence that you'll find mutually acceptable solutions when viewpoints don't easily align, and that solutions won't come at an exorbitant price.

If you have someone in the group who is readily triggered or contrarian by nature it's like sand in the gears, constantly gumming up progress and irritating others. It can make meetings exhausting and undercuts enthusiasm for joint work. This can effectively kill a group that is otherwise well-aligned on values and purpose.

With this in mind, I suggest screening members for an acceptable level of:

a) Emotional awareness and maturity.

b) Tolerance. If people can handle only narrow deviation from their ideal, you'll be grappling with theirs fears and anxieties on a constant basis. Yuck.

c) Communication skills, such as ability to: listen well; articulate clearly what they're thinking and feeling (which are quite different abilities); shift perspectives, such that they can see how things look to others; handle critical feedback without flipping out.

To be sure, all of these criteria are subjective and not easy to quantify. Still, just making them explicit will likely increase awareness and give your group a chance to identify early prickly member warning signals before you accept them into the fold, where you'll be obliged to work with them.

Having said all that, I also have two concluding caveats about prickliness: 

Shit Happens
Expecting everyone to be happy and nonreactive all the time is an impossible standard. Healthy people will have bad days and will occasionally be serious triggered no matter how well-adjusted they are. There needs to room for this to happen now and then without immediately regretting the decision to be in the same group together, or slapping a Drama Queen dunce cap on the emotive person's head.

Avoidance Happens
In the instance of a person who comes across as habitually prickly (as opposed to occasionally) there is the possibility that they are the canary in the coal mine, rather than the fly in the ointment. That is, the irritating person may be a lightning rod for unaddressed tensions in the group and their "acting out" may be a signal that the group has work to do, rather than Mr Grumpy needs remedial attention on their social skills.

Perhaps the most confusing dynamic is where both need attention, which is something I encounter from time to time as a professional facilitator, and can be delicate to unpack.

Moving on to Door #3, there is a personality that occurs in some groups that is sprite-like and fun-loving. At times this is delicious and leavening. Other times it can be sophomoric and distracting, even disrespectful and undermining. There is definitely a place for lightening the energy (think of it as sprinkling fairy dust on the group), yet it is not every place and timing can be everything. 

Mind you, I am not defending dark and heavy; I'm only saying that sometimes pixie energy surfaces in response to dynamic tension and can be more an expression of the individual's need for release (or even the pixie's unhealthy need for attention) than the group's. Dynamic tension can manifest in logjammed energy (where the strategic topical application of pixie dust can be just the ticket) or show up in productive foment (where diffusing comments from the class clown are a nuisance and essentailly a misread of the energy).
Making the waters even muddier, there is a also a woo flavor to this such that you can pretty well count on people having varied responses to the second coming of Tinker Bell in a meeting—anything from eyeball rolling and disdain (Are you for real?), to spontaneous singing and dancing (I can fly!). In short, pixie is tricksy (to borrow from Gollum).

Unless the group is expressly fond of fairy energy—and there are such groups—I suggest going light on the pixie dust, reserving its use for the occasional surprise and whimsical change of pace. A steady diet of the stuff tends to dull the appetite and promote dyspepsia.