Friday, December 15, 2017

Advice for New Intentional Communities

I recently received an email inquiry from Tree Bressen, a friend and process peer living in Eugene OR. She was putting together a list of recommendations for new cohousing groups and asked for my input. As this struck me as a good topic, I decided to post my thoughts here.

Note: Honoring Tree's request, I have cast my comments specifically for the world of cohousing, which is a subset of the Intentional Communities Movement (perhaps eight percent) that I am thoroughly familiar with (over the course of the last 20 years I have worked professional with 66 different cohousing groups, many of them multiple times). Looking over what I've assembled, almost everything here applies just as well to all intentional communities—not just those flying under the cohousing flag.

Here are Tree's recommendations for developing cohousing groups (in italics), followed by my comments in roman.

1. Before the group is 12 people, make an agreement that everyone will assist regularly with common meals (either cooking or cleanup). By the time you are bigger than a dozen people it may become prohibitively difficult to pass that policy, and passing it leads to more common meals which makes for a more cohesive and vibrant community. Eating together regularly preemptively solves many other potential issues.

While I'm a big fan of common meals, you can be a happy and valuable community member without eating with others. Pressuring people to eat together when it doesn't work for them doesn't strike me as sound approach. Better, I think, is to make the meal program so compelling that people will surge to participate. (Use the carrot not the stick.)

Historically, cohousing communities tend to see their meal programs shrink over time. The cooks get weary of coping with so many dietary restrictions, seniors can't hear well over the din of boisterous youngsters, and those clamoring for inexpensive prices undercut those looking for gourmet menus. Ugh. Common meals are an opportunity for creativity and diversity, not one size fits all. They're well worth doing and can be a precious social lubricant, yet aren't the only way to build connections.

2. Make sure anyone considering joining agrees (preferably in writing) to follow all preexisting agreements. Index agreements by subject, not just date, to make it easier for both new and old members to find items by topic.

More important than written agreements (in my view) is establishing a cooperative, collaborative culture. If people want to be assholes, they'll find a way to accomplish that no matter what documents they've signed to the contrary. The key moments are when people disagree and the stakes are high. If you can navigate those times with relationships enhanced—rather than exhausted or degraded—you're in the sweet spot. [See points 4, 9, and 13 below for more on this.]

3. Cohousing communities generally use consensus decision-making. Get training in how to do it effectively. Later as more members join you'll need another training to catch them up; in the interim, include some kind of internal orientation to the decision-making system as part of bringing new people on board. When I teach consensus decision-making, it takes at least one full day.

I want to broaden this to new member orientation and integration. Certainly the decision-making process is part of it, but there's much more, and all kinds of mischief ensues when this is handled poorly. Warning: it is insufficient to create an "owner's manual" and expect that alone will get the job done. Only a fraction of the culture you create will be elucidated in writing, and reading is not everyone's preferred mode of learning. What's more, new members often don't even know what questions to ask. I suggest assigning a buddy to every new household for about six months. (Warning: being a proactive buddy is a skill, and may require training; don't treat this cavalierly.) Remember: it is far easier to retain a member than to replace one.

4. Take steps early on to establish whatever culture you want to foster regarding giving each other feedback. Conflict avoidance causes problems to snowball, later becoming giant and expensive and awful (angry departures, lawsuits, and so on). You need a way for people to talk when they are feeling unhappy or critical toward each other. It's OK if someone needs to take a breather, cool down for a few days before engaging. But long-term unresolved conflict corrodes the community. Don't discuss anything emotionally charged via email. Meet in person (or by phone if necessary during development before everyone is on site) and help each other to listen well.

I want to separate this chunk into three distinct components, all of which are important:

a) Working with Emotions
I urge groups to make a commitment to this as early as possible. You cannot count on folks new to community understanding the primacy of emotional literacy because the vast majority of us grew up in a world where this was not addressed outside of therapy or intimate partnerships. People take in, process, and express themselves in a wide range of ways and one of those is emotionally. Humans bring feelings with them everywhere they go, why not commit to learning the language? Insisting that everything be translated into rational thought (or it somehow doesn't count) is a bad idea. Hint: you can welcome feelings while objecting to aggression.

b) Nurturing Critical Feedback
Just as pain is a necessary biological feedback loop (if you step on a nail it's a damn good thing that your foot hurts), groups need clean channels of feedback so that members can inform each other how actions and statements are landing. This is not about bad intent; it's about finding out that someone had a reaction to something you did as a group member. It provides the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and to repair damage to relationships before fissures become chasms. Feedback may be awkward to hear, but it's always in your interest to find out. It's like going to the dentist—you may be squeamish about the experience but it's essential for maintaining healthy relationships, the lifeblood of the community.

c) Working with Conflict 
This can be a scary thing, but avoiding it doesn't work. You really have only two choices: pay now or pay later. And the interest rates on unaddressed upset will eat you alive. You need to identify at least a few folks in the your group with the talent and motivation to work with conflict, and agree on one or more methodologies that the group endorses. If you don't have that among your membership at the outset, invest in training and promote that resource being used. It can pay big dividends.

5. Give everyone basic facilitation training. Even if they never volunteer to facilitate full-group meetings, it will make them better participants. Establish a strong and supportive culture around facilitation and your facilitators will stay involved and happily contribute to everything else flowing well. A strong and supportive culture means facilitators doing more than just calling on whoever has their hand up to speak next; it's a more active model. At every full-group meeting, ask for specific feedback at the end: what worked well and what could have been better. That models graceful reception of feedback, and leads to a spiral of improvement over time.

While there's nothing wrong with everyone getting facilitation training, it seems overboard to me. Instead, I recommend that the group train a cadre of facilitators (if your have 40 in the group I'd recommend aiming for at least six) and anyone else who wants it. Warning: outside experience in a corporate setting only partially translates into the cooperative world of community living. It's much more complex than that.

Further, I think it's important to explicitly define what authority facilitators have to run meetings. They will need that to rein in poor behavior from participants who color outside the lines.

6. Have fun together. "There's no time for that!" you will protest. "There are a zillion committee meetings and everything else to get this place built." Yes. Have fun together anyway. It's the positive social rapport, the relationships nurtured, that will carry you through the work and make all that work worth it. Organize potlucks, reading groups, movie showings. Take things people would be doing individually anyway and invite them to do it together in pairs or groups, long before you are actually living together. At least once a year, have a big recreational outing together, a full weekend with no business meetings, just for enjoyment.

I'll say this a bit differently. Try to emphasize having fun in all that you do. And yes, that includes meetings, that bastion of sobriety. You can pretty well tell the vitality and health of a community by how much and how easily people laugh together (not to be confused with laughing at one another). Invite everyone to group activities, yet be gracious about people opting out. People tend to have busy lives and households can vary widely in the factors they attempt to balance when deciding how to spend their precious time. Whatever you do, don't create an orthodoxy about having fun.

7. Participate actively in the movement: 

—Join the Cohousing-L email list. There is a wealth of accumulated wisdom, it's an amazing resource. In addition to current conversations, there are extensive useful archives. 
—Go visit other cohousing communities. See what you like, and ask them what they wish they'd done differently when they started. Learn from them. 
—When you start writing policies, make use of the policy library (, and contribute back to it. 
—Encourage group members to attend as many conferences and cohousing-related events as they can. 
—Join the cohousing association and give back what you can.

This is a choice, not an imperative. While I agree with Tree's list of benefits, first you should ask whether outreach and social change activism are part of the community's vision. If they are, you'd be foolish not to engage with your natural allies. If however, that's not part of your mission (perhaps you're mainly aspiring to leverage resources to create and sustain a great life for members) then it's prudent to be aware of your sister communities as potential resources, while deciding the extent to which you want to invest in those outside relationships relative to all the other amazing choices in front of you. Maybe creating a community choir or a biodynamic garden are more compelling. Hell, it's your home. Make it be what you want. If reinventing the wheel is your shtick, knock yourself out.

8. Build the common house first.

I don't know. While the common house is intended to be a hub of relationship-building activity, it doesn't always play out that way. Design is not destiny. I've seen groups do fine without a common house, and I've seen many groups struggle to pay for it and then grossly underuse it. The key point—which the common house is meant to stand for—is the quality of relationships. That should be the god you bow down to.

• • •
That was Tree's list. Now I want to add five (not so) easy pieces that I think are important tickets to punch on the road to Camelot:

9. Emphasize Social Skills
Based on more than four decades of community living I've come to the view that there is nothing more predictive of a prospective being a good fit than assessing their social skills, by which I mean the ability to:

o  Articulate clearly what you think.
o  Articulate clearly what you feel.
o  Hear accurately what others say (and be able to communicate that to the speaker such that they feel heard).
o  Hear critical feedback without walling up or getting defensive.
o  Function reasonably well in the presence of non-trivial distress in others.
o  Shift perspectives to see an issue through another person's lens.
o  See potential bridges between two people who are at odds with each other.
o  See the good intent underneath strident statements.
o  Distinguish clearly between a person's behavior being out of line and that person being "bad."
o  Own your own shit.
o  Reach out to others before you have been reached out to yourself.
o  Be sensitive to the ways in which you are privileged. 

These are the skills that it takes to build cooperative culture. Everything else is negotiable.

10. Power and Leadership
Take the time to define what qualities you want in people who fill leadership roles, and then celebrate it when you get what you asked for. People tend to come to community with plenty of bad experiences with leaders who abused their power, which leads to a knee-jerk suspicion of anyone who steps forward to fill slots in the community. If you don't purposefully set up positive models, the default will be that leaders are expected to take plenty of arrows while being starved for appreciation. Surprise! In that oxygen starved environment it doesn't take long before no one puts their hand in the air when there's a call for volunteers. Don't be that group!

11. Diversity
Almost all communities list diversity as a core value, but what does it mean? The real question is how much diversity you can stand and how to talk about it when someone feels the group is at its limit. You cannot be all things to all people, and there are sure to be differences in where your members will want to draw the line. This is a touchy subject, yet it's even harder to talk about if you wait until the conditions arise that force you to apply the standard you have not yet created. Talk about a train wreck!

12. How much do you want to be in each other's lives?
There is a wide range among communities when it comes to expectations about how much members will interweave their lives by virtue of being in the same group. It's better to sort this out early—before you spend $10+ million dollars building roads and houses. There are many good answers, the important thing is that everyone in your group knows what they're signing up for and doesn't discover a mismatch until after construction.

13. Take control of membership selection 
Unless your community is completely financed privately, it will be subject to fair housing laws. However, there is a persistent misperception that this means the community has no say in who joins. That is not true! Fair housing laws state that you cannot discriminate on the basis of seven protected classes: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status. Discrimination on any other basis is permitted. Thus, you can legally screen for people who align with the community's values, or who possess sufficient social skills (see point 9 above), which I suggest you do. Think of it as an ounce of prevention.

You do not want exiting members to be in charge of selecting who will join the community next. While this may work out well, it's rolling the dice. It's far better to develop a waiting list of people you have already cultivated and identified as a good fit, ready to write a check when there's an opening.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Teaching from the Edge

This past weekend I was conducting a facilitation training in North Carolina and my co-trainer, María Silvia, shared with the class that she's teaching "at the edge of what she knows"—by which she meant she often goes into a situation not sure of her footing; where she doesn't know ahead what will occur or how she'll respond. She confessed that there have been times in the class where she felt she had nothing new to say on a given subject, and that it's highly uncomfortable to be in that place (why am I teaching if I don't have more to offer?).

I've been reflecting on that dynamic and believe there's something inspiring about it. I used to believe that, as an instructor or as a facilitator, the ideal was to be calm and confident. Now I think almost the reverse—to the point where I see it as a bad sign if I'm too relaxed or too sure of myself. Now I believe it's better to be somewhat on edge and unclear where the floor is.

Don't get me wrong. I am not advocating going into a meeting or a classroom unprepared or unfocused. Rather, I am advocating being loose (not tight) and open to the unknown. While I am not anti-planning, there is a danger of falling in love with your script and missing clues that it isn't working (to defend your investment in creating it). These days I prepare for facilitation or teaching with an outline of what I want to do, yet prepared to go off road based on emerging needs. The most important thing I do is to take time to become centered and clear-headed.

In this way I see facilitation as more of an art form than a science. When I am at my best I rely heavily on my intuition (which is generously informed by three decades of experience in the field). While I am prepared to offer all manner of analysis about facilitation dynamics, in the end, I have come to believe that my most effective teaching is done in the occasional moments when something potent happens—and you never know ahead when those moments will occur. I think of it as teaching improvisation, which turns out to be something that María is very good at it. It has more to do with paying attention and pattern recognition, than with pontificating or proselytizing.

• • •
If you're with me so far—seeing the benefit to operating on the edge of one's knowledge—it necessarily leads to a couple of milestone questions that I've had to wrestle with in the course of developing my career—questions that I believe all professionals must address, though perhaps it's more challenging when there is no accreditation program against which to measure one's proficiency:

Question #1: When Am I Solid Enough to Hang Out a Shingle?
To be in integrity with clients you need to have a certain amount of confidence (or chutzpah) that you can ring the bell if hired. There are a lot of sub-questions embedded in this:

•  Do I love the work or is it just a job? On a more subtle level, if your answer is "yes," why do you love the work? Because you like being in the spotlight? Because you like being the hero? Because you like being in charge? Because you want to help people in need? Because you want to build cooperative culture?

•  Do I know enough to be able to consistently handle a sufficient range of group issues that I can be a full-service facilitator? Or should you limit what you tell the world you can do?

•  How well do I know the literature (and the emerging thinking) in my field?

•  How open am I to evaluating what I encounter in my work to deepen my understanding of group dynamics, adjusting my thinking as appropriate? This may sound obvious but tweaking means reworking materials and revising approaches, sometimes undoing what you had previously thought. It can even be embarrassing.

•  Am I quick enough on my feet to be able to assess developments in the dynamic moment, and make effective choices on the fly? Sometimes there are awkward surprises and sometimes the planned focus or activity is ineffective. Now what? You may be expected to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Can you make good choices in those moments? It's not nearly good enough to be able to articulate an hour later what you should have done.

•  Can I break down what I've done (especially when it works) so that clients can learn to do it themselves?

•  How well can I road map where we are at any given moment and articulate my thinking behind that choice (where are we, where are we going, and why)?

•  Am I OK face planting in front of an audience? Anyone who facilitates regularly will occasionally have bad days (or at least bad moments). If it's excruciating for you to be criticized in public, or to see the meeting you were running fall apart in the last 15 minutes, please know going in that this will sometimes be your fate, and I don't care how good you are. Events are never wholly in your control. If can't pick yourself up off the ground and get back on the horse, don't ride horses.

•  How open am I to receiving critical feedback about my work? Hint: if that door is closed you can't very well expect others to listen to what you have to give them—never mind how accurate and insightful it may be. 

•  How accomplished am I at being able to shift perspectives and see things through the eyes of others (to the point where they regularly acknowledge that you both understand their point and its meaning)? This is a bread and butter skill when trying to bridge differences among strongly held viewpoints. Professionals need to be able to do this heavy lifting.

•  Can I function well in the presence of strong emotions? Can you create sufficient safety for people to articulate their feelings and a strong enough container that the examination doesn't devolve into isolation, accusations, and defensiveness? Heaven help you if you can't.

Question #2: Can I Teach What I Know?
Or perhaps more accurately, do people learn what I teach? This is an additional layer, in much the same way that having a product or service for which there is demand is not the same as having a viable business. I may know something well enough to be able to able to ply my craft as a facilitator, yet may not be effective as an instructor. Here are some sub-questions:

•  Do I want to teach? (Hint: if your heart is not in it, students will sense that and it will undercut your efficacy.)

•  How flexible can I be in how I teach, to cover the breadth of learning styles that I'm likely to encounter?

•  Can I move easily (and accurately) between the specific and the general? If you teach principally from principles, it will prove to be too heady for some. If you teach solely from specifics, the lessons may prove to be too narrow in their application. You need, I believe, to be able to move from one side of the street to the other. 

•  Can I teach groups where there is a significant range of accomplishment among the students (can I bring the novices along without boring the experienced; can I challenge the accomplished without overwhelming the tyros)?

•  How accurately can I describe what skills I can teach? If someone becomes your student, in what detail can you tell them what they'll learn?
• • •
As you can see, thoughtful facilitators need to grapple with a plethora of edgy questions. My advice is to learn to get comfortable with being on the edge of your discomfort.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Role of Stories in Cooperative Groups

Way before writing, humans communicated via stories. We still do. 

Stories are how we make sense of the world, and they guide us in how we make decisions. When stories clash it's unsettling and it can be hard to reconcile. It can be scary opening up the possibility of changing one's story (where is the rock I can stand on?), or even admitting that alternate stories are possible.

Most of Western civilization has been driven by the notion that there is one true story that explains how the world works, and one of the appropriate tasks of humans is to figure out what that is, and vanquish false stories along the way (take, for instance, the ongoing tension between creationist Christians and scientists). Of course, humans have not always agreed on what the "one true story" is, but it hasn't been for lack of trying. What constitutes the most popular version at any given time has undergone a great deal of revisionist thinking over the millennia, generally accompanied by much bloodshed and gnashing of teeth every time there is a shift. Interestingly, the history of stories—which are meant to provide stability and a common frame of reference—makes for a fairly uncomfortable story all by itself, given how often humans change their minds.

For a current example, you need look no further back than the massive tax cut bill that the Republicans passed last week. It's probably an understatement to say that Democrats are holding a very different story about that than the GOP. What Republicans believe will unshackle corporations and fuel a robust economy (all boats rise in a flood), the Democrats see as an inexcusable lollipop for the very rich (just in time for Christmas), while saddling the economy with $1.5 trillion in increased debt. Pretty different stories.

While I have definite views about the tax cut bill, that's not what I want to examine in this essay. I want to focus on how our fundamental need for stories can inadvertently complicate cooperative group dynamics—unless we realize what's happening and what's at stake.

Stories in Cooperative Groups
I will start with the premise that it's normal for conflicting stories to surface in the context of problem solving—not every time, but often. Even though cooperative groups are usually founded on the bedrock of explicit common values and an agreed upon vision, people are not clones and you have to be prepared for divergent perspectives.

Can conflicting stories coexist? Good question. According to cosmologist Viola Cordova (a Mescalero Apache), it is considered normal among Native American tribes that they each have different origin-of-the-world stories, all of which are place specific. There is no native impulse for one tribe to feel threatened by another tribe's differing creation story. Struggling to define and control orthodoxy is a European inclination. And since US culture is dominated by European thought and tradition, most of us have learned to be uneasy in the presence of conflicting stories. Our tendency is to let them fight it out until one prevails—like two queens in a beehive. My point here is that this is a choice, not an inherent human quality.
It's my view that we need to resist the temptation to fight for control of the frame of reference, and learn how to work with the phenomenon of multiple stories constructively. When we succeed we open ourselves up to the benefit of parallax, and the richer field of perspectives with which to see the factors and possibilities. Also, we can stay out of the ditch (where we fight for control of the story) on the road to heaven (a solution to the issue). So there's a lot on the table.

I am frequently asked what it takes for cooperative groups to succeed, and my most common answer is social skills among the members. [For more on this see my blog of Nov 30, 2013, Gender Dynamics in Cooperative Groups.] One of the key elements of this is the ability to shift perspectives—to see an issue through others' eyes. Or to put it another way, to hear and respect stories about what's happening that are different than your own (or at least believe that other stories are possible). 

While this may seem like a rather small thing, it turns out to be harder than you think, especially when the stakes are perceived to be high. Too often, in the heat of the moment, the dynamic becomes a battle over which version of reality will prevail; which story will dominate. Participants become consumed with selling their story, rather than curious about how other stories can explain different reactions and offer different insights.

There are two parts to this: a) creating a container in which there is explicit room for different realities to be articulated; and b) the skill to hold alternate realities as possibilities, without the conversation devolving into bickering.

Let's walk through an example to illuminate why this is precious. (While this comes from an intentional community that I worked with earlier in the year, it's a cautionary tale that's played out in many cooperative groups.)
o  The group moved in together 15 years ago and went through a long period of establishing itself as a viable community. There were the usual struggles and awkward moments, but on the whole the people who stayed the course gradually developed a culture and governance style that worked and the group enjoyed many good years. There was some turnover, but it was modest.

o  Because the emphasis was more on results than systems, the structure was loose and the process was informal. While there were written operating agreements, members didn't feel the need to capture everything on paper because everyone who lived there knew how things worked.

o  Then shift happened. The original members got older, and some of those who weren't spring chickens to start with aged out—some died and some moved to assisted living. While this was a natural progression, it was a challenge to digest a cohort of new folks all at once. The new folks tended to be younger, which helped with the demographics (good), yet they struggled to figure out how things worked (not so good). 

o  Having enjoyed a fairly stable population for years, the membership team was rusty and the community wasn't so great at integrating new members. The established members had forgotten what it was like to be new.

o  The new folks read the rules (such as they existed) and tried to follow them, but soon discovered that what actually happened was only somewhat related to what was written. They were confused, and didn't feel accepted. In particular, they were not typically invited to the behind-the-scenes conversations where solutions to common issues were often developed.

o  The new folks complained about being systematically excluded from power. The established folks didn't understand the issue—they were just doing what they had always done, which had heretofore worked well. Couldn't the new folks figure it out like they did?

o  To the new folks it appears that they were purposefully being kept from power. Out of frustration, when nothing changed they intentionally started being pushy, to mimic the way they perceived that they had been treated. (We'll show you what it's like.)

o  In being pushy, the new folks were seen by the established folks as provocative.

o  Now both sides were seen as provocative! Worse, each thought the other had started it.

o  Under pressure, the longer-term folks fall back on what felt safe: informal gatherings to sort out how best to proceed, thereby inadvertently reinforcing the impression among newer folks that backroom politics ruled the day.

What a mess! And it can all be explained without anyone having bad intent. That is, everyone was acting in ways they thought was respectful of the group's long-term health.

What I Tried
It was at this point that I was asked to help the group sort things out. Seeing the factions, and how the stories didn't match up, my first move was to establish among all players that I could hear their story and understand the good intent beneath it. That is, that I could accurately hear all sides. Unfortunately there were too many requests about what issues to tackle while I was on campus and I had to narrow the agenda to what might fit within the time constraints. Whatever I picked was bound to disappoint the advocates of the topics not selected.

I ultimately chose to focus on developing a protocol for how to proceed when one member perceives another to be breaking a community agreement. There was nothing in place to handle this phenomenon and the group had been paralyzed by multiple recent examples (coming from multiple directions) with no clarity about how to proceed. It was one of the things on the community's wish list and I selected it because it was obvious that a robust tool could be put to immediate use in putting out fires. 

Simultaneously, I worked hard to establish the existence and legitimacy of divergent stories about what was happening, in the hope that it would lead to a deescalation of hurt feelings—because there was a reasonable explanation for everyone's actions when seen through the lens of their perspective. I tried to explain the reality of the new folks to the old folks, and vice versa. But I don't think it worked. I came across more as an apologist than a bridge builder.

Shortly after I left I received reports that the group had rubber banded back into the same tensions that existed before I came. Each side, apparently, had retreated back to the security of their story, which only reinforced the anger with which they saw what they other side was doing. Yuck.

The Back Story
Over the years I have worked with this community multiple times. Frequently, my work involved processing some unresolved, anaerobic interpersonal tensions. Whenever these are in play I have discovered that the road to problem solving entails working through the tensions first. Working around them doesn't work. 

However, unpacking interpersonal shit is uncomfortable and takes time. People were impatient to get to the issues and hadn't digested the main lesson from my previous visits: drawing the poison first; solving problems second. So I allowed them to talk me out of starting with tensions. It was a mistake. Not having cleared the air, the conversations aimed at developing the protocol for handling out-of-alignment behavior were brittle, and trust was not restored.

Paying attention to relationships, I was accused of ducking the issues. Sigh.

The Way Forward
In thinking about this community and its ongoing struggles, I am wondering what it will take for the members to be more comfortable with divergent stories—where they can be more consistently open to hearing those stories and curious about where they came from, what they mean, and how they can be bridged—rather than abridged.

Given the strength of hurts on all sides, this may be a tall order. The trap is that each side may only be willing to extend themselves to listen to the stories of others if they have been heard first. Who will be courageous enough to set aside their hurt long enough to listen to the hurt of others, on the speculative hope that they will get a turn later? It's asking a lot.

But that is the fundamental challenge of cooperative groups: how to turn moments of disagreement into a deepening of connections and betterment, rather than an occasion for embattlement and embitterment.

To get there we will have to learn to open our hearts to divergent stories, and how to bridge between them. The bad news is that this can be hard to do. The good news is that it can be done.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Laird's Crazy, Mixed-up Travel Day

It all started innocently enough at 3:30 am, when Susan and I emerged from my warm bed so that she could give me a ride to the Holiday gas station on 27th St in west Duluth, where I rendezvoused with the 4:15 am Skyline Shuttle, headed for The Twin Cities. Although the wind was howling and the temperature had dropped into the teens (it's December after all), the shuttle arrived smack on time.

However, Mark (the regular driver on the 4:15 am run south) warned me right away that the van would be full because they'd closed down the Duluth airport the day before and there was a passel of would-be flyers that were scrambling to catch connecting flights in Minneapolis (one was headed for Cancun, of all places, and it was iffy if the shuttle would arrive at MSP in time for her to enjoy margaritas on the beach tonight). 

In any event we headed down I-35 and the road wasn't too bad. The rain of Monday had shifted to sheet and then snow in the night, but traffic kept the interstate fairly clear and we made good time to Hinckley, which is the halfway point. Unfortunately, by the time we hit the northern suburbs, traffic slowed to a crawl (think hippos on ice skates). While it's typically a lock to reach downtown St Paul by 7:00 am on that run (plenty of time to catch the eastbound Empire Builder, scheduled for an 8:00 am departure from Union Depot), today we limped in at 7:56 and I was cooked. 

By a perverse twist of fate the train (which originated in Seattle Sunday afternoon, and has an on-time performance record of only 59 percent) was running on time—even though vehicular traffic in and around The Cities was running like molasses. So by the time I'd ridden the Green Line light rail from the drop-off spot to Union Depot, it was 8:06 and the choo choo was vámanos. Now what?

I had tight train connections in both Chicago and Washington DC, and needed to be in Durham NC no later than dinner time Thursday, for the start of a facilitation training.

I first checked intercity bus options. I knew they could make the run in a bit less time than the train, so I scrambled to find something via Megabus or Greyhound. I preferred Megabus because it departs from Union Depot and I knew that the Chicago drop-off point was only two blocks from Union Station. At first I thought I'd struck gold because there was a departure for Chicago at 9:40 am. But when I looked more closely, the arrival was listed as 6:50 pm—10 minutes after my next train left. Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

What about a flight? Cringing at what I might have to pay for a last-minute flight, I went to Expedia and held my breath. Amazingly, there was a United offering for $40, scheduled to arrive at O'Hare at 4:50 pm. Would that work? I knew there was a CTA line connecting O'Hare with downtown Chicago (the Blue Line), so I Googled how long that would take. The answer was 46 minutes, depositing me two blocks from Union Station. Allowing for time navigating the airport (O'Hare is huge), I figured that could just work so I bought the ticket (one of only four left).

Next I went to the Amtrak service window to see what I could salvage from the ticket I held for the train I had missed. While Amtrak's policy is that you can get a full refund (or travel voucher) for all tickets canceled before the train departs, if you don't ask for the refund until after the train leaves you're unprotected. Worse yet, they might cancel your entire itinerary if you miss the originating train.

Hat in hand, I approached the ticket window as a weary supplicant and the two guys running the place were bricks. They told me not to worry. It was Amtrak policy to honor refund requests when the problem was a weather delay, outside the control of the passenger. Just like that, they refunded the entire ticket price to my credit card, and reestablished the remaining two legs of of my trip (Chicago-DC and DC-Raleigh). Whew. Maybe an airline would do the same, but with experiences like that you can appreciate why I'm a confirmed train traveler.

What's more, the Amtrak agent told me that Southwest was offering seats on their 12:30 pm nonstop to Chicago Midway for $40, which was more convenient than the United flight I had already booked! Things were looking up.

Returning to the waiting room (where there was wifi access) I looked up the Southwest flights (they don't participate in Expedia) and confirmed the availability of a seat on the 12:30 pm flight. After buying one, I promptly canceled the ticket I had on the United flight (Expedia allows you to cancel for a full refund if you do it within 24 hours and I only held the ticket for about 20 minutes), and then queued up for a city bus from Union Station to Terminal 1 at MSP. Arriving there circa 9:45 am, I had to ride escalators down two flights, take a tram, and then two more escalators down to the light rail stop in the bowels of the terminal. From there I rode the Blue Line one stop to Terminal 2. After another series of escalators and moving walkways I arrived at the Southwest ticketing kiosk and checked my bag (another advantage of Southwest over United is that bags fly free, which meant the pocketknife I travel with wasn't confiscated).

After navigating the TSA security checkpoint I was in! I had 90 minutes until boarding, during which I enjoyed a revivifying latte and breakfast sandwich. The Southwest flight to Chicago turned out to be the start of a milk run, with stops slated for Chicago, St Louis, and Las Vegas before finally nestling for the night in Orange County, California. In any event the plane was only about two-thirds full for the first leg and the flight was short, though bumpy, with surface winds gusting to 40 mph. The approach was a bit of rodeo work, but we landed safely.

After collecting my bag I headed for the CTA stop (the Orange Line connects Midway with the Loop). About an hour after landing in Chicago I was walking into Union Station—15 minutes ahead of the arrival of the Empire Builder, the train I'd missed at 8:00 am.

All of a sudden I was back on schedule.

I'm typing this chronicle aboard the eastbound Capitol Limited, which left Chicago on time with me aboard. I've been traveling now for 16 hours, during which I've been in a car, a van, both light rail lines in The Twin Cities, a bus, a plane, the Chicago elevated, Amtrak, plus numerous escalators, elevators, and moving walkways. Sometimes I just plain walked. Just about everything excepting a Lyft ride, a pedicab, or a balsa raft. Of course, the night is still young.

See how much fun you can have when you go by train?