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Laird's Commentary on Community and Consensus
For 25+ years I’ve been a community networker & group process consultant. I believe that people today are starved for community—for a greater sense of belonging and connection—and I’ve dedicated my life to making available as widely as possible the tools and inspiration of cooperative living. I’m on the road half the time teaching groups consensus, meeting facilitation, and how to work with conflict. This blog is a collection of my observations and musings along the way.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • Select Plus
    This past week I achieved a status I never expected to reach: Select Plus with Amtrak.

    What does this signify? For one thing, it means I've ridden the train a lot this year.

    Here's how it works. For every dollar you spend on Amtrak travel you earn one Tier Qualifying Point (TQP). If you spend as much as $5000 on train tickets in a calendar year you will reach Select status for the following year. (Note: this is good only for yourself; money spent buying tickets for others does not accrue TQPs for you.)

    As a consultant and community networker who prefers traveling by rail, I've been able to reach Select status a number of times. In addition to earning some coupons that way (good for upgrades, passes to first class lounges, and discounts on tickets) people who have Select status get a 25% bonus on all train travel expenditures. Thus, for every $400 spent on Amtrak travel, I earn 500 TQPs as a Select member.

    To get to Select Plus status, however, you have to earn 10,000 TQPs in a calendar year, which seemed beyond the pale. I was able to grab the brass ring this time only by virtue of taking advantage of a relatively new credit card option.

    Let me explain. For many years Amtrak has offered a credit card that earns train miles—much as other credit cards earn airline miles. To be clear, "train miles" are not TQPs. Train miles are merely "points" and can be traded in for tickets or upgrades, but that's a separate reckoning from TQPs. However, about three years ago Amtrak switched from Chase to Bank of America as the bank through which their credit card was offered and they created a new option: you could either get a no-fee credit card where every dollar run through it earned a point, or, for a $79 annual fee, you could get three points for every dollar spent on train travel, plus 1000 TQPs for every $5000 you ran through the card.

    I paid the $79, and that was the key to reaching Select Plus.

    Why is that big deal? Here are the highlights. During 2018 I'll get to enjoy:

    • four one-class upgrades (from coach to business class)
    • unlimited access to first class lounges
    • access to United Club lounges at major airports
    • 50% point bonus on Amtrak travel

    While all of that is helpful, the thing I have my eye on most is access to first class lounges. As a mere Select traveler I got a couple passes a year, now I'll get it in every major city where I board or change trains—Chicago, Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Portland, Los Angeles, St Paul, New Orleans, Raleigh, and St Louis.

    That means comfortable seats, wi-fi access, complimentary beverages, and free bag storage—all very appreciated by the weary traveler.

    Further, it's relevant that I earn regular points at an accelerated rate. I've been stockpiling these against the day when Susan retires as church lady for St Paul's Episcopal in Duluth and she can occasionally travel with me. If I use my points for sleeper car accommodations she can ride with me in a roomette for no additional charge. Yippee! That's worth saving for.

    All in all, it has been definitely worth the $79 per year.

    P.S. My remaining train fantasy is to own my own private train car, replete with kitchen, bar/lounge, desk, and sleeping compartment. Hah! I should live so long.

  • An Older White Man's Response
    Over the last month this country has been going through a spate of revelations about men in power (including elected officials, Hollywood celebrities, captains of industry, spiritual leaders, you name it) being accused of having abused their positions of influence to pressure women into sexual relations. It's pretty disgusting.

    As an older white guy, I have a number of thoughts about this. 

    I. Tip of the Iceberg
    As bad as the revelations have been so far—which are terrible—you can be sure that the total scope of what's happened is much worse than we know today. Most abuse never gets reported, or is hushed up when it does.

    One of the more pathetic excuses being offered by Roy Moore and his apologists is that they do not find the allegations against him to be credible because the incidents happened almost four decades ago. Surely, they argue, occurrences that bad would have been reported right away. Huh? If they knew anything about the psychology of abuse, they'd appreciate how hard it is for the victim to come forward. There is no correlation between delay and authenticity.

    On the positive side, each time a woman finds the courage to tell her horror story it gets a bit easier for other victims to speak up as well. Though I am not at all happy that abuse occurs, I think we need to shine a spotlight on it if we're going to make any significant cultural change. In this current surge of revelations, a number of brave women have been doing the hard work of speaking up, and that should be celebrated and supported.

    II. A Person's Right to Their Sexuality
    After more than 60 years on this planet I've come to understand that the breadth of human sexual orientation and turn-on is incredibly varied and complex. While I believe that, in the ideal, everyone should have the freedom to express sexual desire (to extend an invitation) whenever they want, I think that's incredibly dangerous unless there is a concomitant commitment to responding respectfully when invitations are declined. If you can't hear "no," don't ask the question.

    While I'm generally fine with individuals exploring auto-eroticism to their heart's content*, if you're wanting to interact sexually with others then you need their willing participation (for more about coercion see Point III below). As easy as it is to write that, however, there are a number of complications that need to be recognized.

    Sexual abuse is mainly the misuse of power to gain sexual favors. If the power imbalance among potential partners is too great, how can you be sure you have consent (as opposed to acquiesence)?

    Let me lay out four versions of this:

    •  If the age differential is too great
    I know an intentional community that developed a guideline for teenagers that they needed to be within two years of each other for sexual contact to be acceptable (above and beyond mutual consent). For adults I've heard it proposed that sexual contact be considered inappropriate unless the younger person is at least six years older than half the age of the older one.

    Frankly, I don't know where the line is with respect to age differential, but there is one, and it's a dynamic to be reckoned with.

    •  If there is an implied threat to safety, or possible retribution (say loss of a job, or a withheld promotion)
    Suppose the invitation comes from a bodybuilder who is known to be prone to anger. Or from your boss, and you need the job, or covet a special assignment. Even though you want to say "no," you might hesitate.

    And it can be even worse than that. If the person grew up in an abusive family (perhaps where the father beat his wife and kids), they may be sensitized to the danger of a male losing his temper, and may overreact to a raised voice because it triggers bad memories. I'm not saying it's the man's responsibility to know that ahead of time, but you can commit to paying attention to how your words and tone are landing, and making appropriate adjustments.

    •  If the invitation comes from a guardian or protector
    If you receive a sexual invitation from your father, your minister, a police officer, or district attorney (shades of Roy Moore)—someone you've been taught to expect safety from, it can be very tricky ground to navigate.

    •  If the invitee does not have the capacity to give informed consent
    It's inappropriate to have sexual relations with partners who are not able to respond thoughtfully to a sexual invitation due to incapacitation (think of Bill Cosby), or who do not have the cognitive ability to understand what's being asked.

    For all of these reasons, it's important to develop clear norms about what kinds of sexual invitation are appropriate to extend.

    * Even with masturbation there should be limits. I believe it's abusive, for instance, if you're pressuring others to watch (a la Louis CK). Also, I'm aware of an instance where a man tried to heighten his pleasure through near-strangulation and failed to stop in time. His accidental death left an incredible mess for others to clean up. The standard, I believe, should be sensitivity to how your self-focused act may place others in an awkward or compromised situation.

    III. A Person's Right to Freedom from CoercionIf a sexual invitation places the recipient in a dilemma—where they don't feel safe to decline, or they anticipate having to pay a price for "no"—that's abuse. It is not enough that the powerful person did not mean to be coercive. It is incumbent on them to look ahead of the curve, at how their invitation may be hard for the recipient to handle.

    In essence, the more power you have, the more circumspect you should be about extending sexual invitations, or even being available for sexual liaisons invited by the person with less power (because of the potential for the dynamic being misunderstood by observers if, say, the secretary seduces the boss, or the student their instructor).

    IV. What's a Reasonable Strategy to Get from Where We Are to Where We Want to Be?
    If we envision a world in which men and women and are equally powerful, does it make sense to flip privilege—where we preferentially support women being more aggressive than men—in order to close the gap more quickly? And if so, for how long? 

    Sandra Day O'Connor had to wrestle with this question when, as a Supreme Court Justice, she had to lay out guidance in support of affirmative action as a legally defensible tactic in the battle to eradicate racial inequality. She chose 20 years.

    While I have no idea how long it will take to dismantle male privilege (or even if it's possible in this day of alt-right Neanderthal politics and throwback gender roles), I am sympathetic to the argument that women deserve to be treated better then men, at least for a while, in order to counterbalance the negative impact of a lifetime of disadvantage.

    In the world of intentional communities, where I have spent most of my adult life, there is an important distinction between groups that have a spiritual focus, and ones that do not. Among secular groups there is a strong commitment to creating feminist culture (by which I mean gender blind, not pro-female). However, spiritual groups can be all over the map when it comes to gender: anything from Old Testament patriarchy to New Age there-is-the-divine-in-all-of-us. 

    As my experience is rooted in the secular side, my work is slanted toward creating feminist culture. As an older, college-educated, Protestant, heterosexual, able-bodied, articulate white man, I am oozing with privilege, which means I'm susceptible to misunderstanding (or being oblivious to) how the field is slanted in my direction. As someone who has been active in the Communities Movement I've always understood that my privilege was going to be scrutinized under a microscope. 

    I'm OK with that. I don't want to be the recipient of unearned advantages, and I'd like to help develop models of appropriate male behavior—even though I'm still in the process of figuring out what those are.

    V. How Does This Impact Me Personally?
    The intersection between my societal objective (working toward a feminist culture) and my own sexuality has been very challenging to integrate. Once I became aware of the pervasiveness of male abuse, the societal double standard for sexual exploration by men and by women (if a man does it he's "sowing wild oats"; if a woman does it she's a slut), and the phenomenon of date rape, it gave me pause. 

    I became suspicious of sexual attraction. What was inherent, and what had I been conditioned to? What is my birthright as a human being, and what is a brute reptilian urge broadly tolerated under the permissive shibboleth of boys will be boys? Not wanting to be that guy, I became sexually buttoned down in response.

    Even though I came of age just as the fires of the Sexual Revolution were burning brightly (I entered college in 1967, right after spending the Summer of Love touring Europe), I resolved to proceed with caution. I was deliberate about romantic liaisons, and never slept with a woman on a first date. I wanted to make sure she was interested as well, and didn't feel pressured into sex.

    Being aware of how men misuse their power (there is nothing in general about today's news that is revelatory to me—men have been acting as predatory jerks for a very long time) to gain sexual access to women, I made a commitment to do my best to not be part of the problem. The phrase "casual sex" became oxymoronic for me. I was either going to be thoughtful and emotionally grounded, or it wasn't going to happen.

    Now fast forward through those awkward early years to a time in my 40s when another piece to the puzzle became clear. I was making love with my partner one night when something triggered an intensely sad memory for her and she lost all desire to continue. As the memory wasn't connected with me, and she felt badly about asking me to stop mid stride, she suggested that I simply finish without her. That is, she invited me to engage with her physically while her mind and psyche were elsewhere.

    I was appalled. While I understood that her offer was well intended, I could not imagine how I could continue on my own. Sex by this time had become for me an inextricable union of energies, something my partner and I wove afresh together on each occasion. It was not something either party mailed in. Thus, as soon as she became sad, I became detumescent. 

    Later, I pondered that exchange more deeply. While I couldn't imagine forging ahead with intercourse when my partner had lost interest, she had expected me, as a man, to either prefer to continue (once aroused), or perhaps be unable to stop. I realize, of course, that some men act that way, but are there men who really can't stop? I didn't understand.

    Years later, while still with the same partner, I noticed that my erections were becoming unreliable. There is one time in particular that stands out because my partner wanted intercourse and I was not able to deliver. While it was frustrating and somewhat embarrassing for me, she was angry. She thought I was withholding my erection, like it was something I could control at will. What an interesting juxtaposition!

    In the first instance she interacted with me as if I my erection signaled manifest destiny, where intercourse was not be be denied; in the second she expected me to be able to produce an erection on demand. Maybe other men are different, but my relationship with my penis did not match her expectations on either occasion. As I see it, men always have choices about their actions, though they may not always have erections.

    Over the last 20 years I've experienced a steady decline in the frequency and duration of my erections. While this varies from individual to individual, it is a normal consequence of male aging, and I accept that. Nonetheless, I wonder how much of my experience is physiological, and how much is psychological. 

    I raise this question because I suspect there may be a link between my declining erections and the deep questions I have about where desire may lead. (If I were fully open to it would I be at risk of unleashing passion that could result in abuse?) It seems reasonable to me that I may literally be embodying my ambivalence.

    This question is all the more up for me (so to speak) in that I've become aware over the years (partly through intense work with a female psychologist) that it is relatively common for some women, at least at times, to want to be "taken" in the height of passion. That there is a natural tendency in heterosexual relationships for the man to be directive and the woman to be receptive. Oh boy, talk about playing with fire!

    Having learned as a young man that there may be a monster behind the door of my unbridled sexuality (in service to which all manner of atrocities have been committed), I've worked hard to keep that door locked. Thus, on those occasions when an intimate partner has knocked on the door, asking me to open up, I've been scared to the point of paralysis of what I'll find. 

    What a complicated journey! Maybe I'll live long enough to figure it out.

  • Keeping Busy at Home
    Winter arrived in a hurry in Duluth. When I left for my last trip Oct 17, there was still plenty of color in the trees and there had not yet been a killing frost. When I returned home Nov 3, we were looking at 10 days without daily temperatures appreciably poking their collective heads above freezing. Yikes!

    Cold weather is a good time to sit by the fireplace and reflect. As a senior citizen (my odometer rolled over to 68 recently), I sometimes wonder about how best to put my knowledge to use. That means looking for the intersection of what valuable things I think I've learned in life, and what I think people might be interested in learning from me—which are not necessarily the same thing.

    Even as I've scaled back my workload since retiring as FIC's administrator at the end of 2015—I continue my work as a cooperative group process consultant and facilitation trainer, but that's only half time—I remain keenly interested in trying to make a positive difference in the world.

    Since regaining much of my health following a stem cell transplant in July 2016 (to treat multiple myeloma), I have enjoyed paid work (and had sufficient recovery to deliver quality service) every month since then excepting last June (which is often a time when communitarians take vacation and are not looking to hire consultants). That said, I have no travel scheduled this month. What gives? It turns out that the answer is other opportunities.

    While I haven't been hired to visit a struggling group to help them get out of the ditch, nor do I have a facilitation training lined up, I've been asked to do all of the following, preferably before Thanksgiving:

    •  Author 4-5 blogs for the FIC, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary by posting a remembrance once per day all month. (I've done three; two to go.)

    •  Review a fundraising letter for a community hoping to replace an $85,000 loan from ex-members that's being called. They have until the end of the year.

    •  Continue work as an arbitrator/facilitator for a longstanding group that's trying to negotiate an amicable separation between one couple and the four other members, where there have been serious breaches of trust, and each side feels underappreciated and misunderstood by the other. About once every week or two I am called upon to put together a progress report as we inch our way forward.

    •  Draft an assessment of a community that is struggling with integrating new members. It has largely turned into a tug-of-war and relationships have gotten seriously frayed. I'm not sure if it can be turned around before there's a mass exodus, but I have to try.

    •  Write an article about consensus for the third edition of The Change Handbook.

    •  Craft a testimonial for a long-time member of a client group in Colorado that I've known since 2004. They're celebrating his contributions and I've been asked to add a flower to the bouquet.

    •  Conduct regular phone consulting with a friend in Seattle who's hip deep in developing a multi-racial grassroots restaurant and events facility in an urban neighborhood that's struggling to maintain its identity in the face of gentrification. It's righteous work, but fraught with complications.

    So while I may not be hired to hit the road this month, there's no moss growing on me (or my keyboard).