אינטאראקטיבי

מאמרים והוצאה לאור

דף בית רשימת הזנות הפרשנות של לארד על קהילה וקונסנסוס

רשימת הזנות

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.

  • Key Facilitative Skills: Durable Containers for Hard Conversations

    As a professional facilitator for more than three decades, I've had ample opportunity to observe which skills make the most difference. As a facilitation trainer the past 15 years, I've collected plenty of data about which lessons have been the most challenging for students to digest.

    Taken all together, I've decided to assemble a series of blog posts on the facilitation skills I consider to be both the hardest to master and the most potent for producing productive meetings. They will all bear the header Key Facilitation Skills and it's a distillation of where I believe the heavy lifting is done.

    Here are the headlines of what I'll cover in this series:

    I. Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy
    II. Working Constructively with Emotions 
    III. Managing the Obstreperous
    IV. Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require
    V. Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression
    VI. Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations
    VII. Walking the Feedback Talk
    VIII. Sis Boom Bang
    IX. Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement
    X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous)
    XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing
    XII. Becoming Multi-tongued
    XIII. Not Leaving Product on the Table
    XIV. Sequencing Issues Productively
    XV. Trusting the Force   

    • • •
    Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations 
    Fortunately, healthy groups do not need much active facilitation. By "healthy" I mean there is a well-defined agenda, participants come prepared, they speak on topic, they respect air time for others, they are willing to voice their views (even if they expect they may be unpopular), they listen well to others, disagreements are expected and worked with compassion and curiosity, the group gets a lot done (respecting the preciousness of meeting time), and the group conducts its business in such a way that relationships are enhanced.


    Unfortunately, all groups are not at that level of functionality, with the consequence that facilitators have to be more active, helping the group understand what kinds of contributions are wanted from different phases of engagement. In this blog I want to highlight three different kinds of containers—the need for which occur relatively frequently in plenary dynamics. In my experience, few groups are solid about the need for these nuances or how to set them up.

    A. Clearing the Air
    In all groups there will be times when there are unresolved nontrivial tensions that impact a topic. When this occurs, it's necessary to address the tensions before you tackle the issue. Why? Because unresolved tension is associated with distortion (and the greater the tension, the greater the distortion). In fact, at the extreme, if the upset is great enough it can be all consuming and that person is not capable of hearing accurately what anyone says. In short, they are not able to listen well, nor can they usefully participate in the constructive give and take of ideas. 

    And it's worse than that. Depending on the level of upset, if the people around the upset person are aware of fulminating distress they are likely to distracted by it and the possibility of imminent eruption (perhaps they are worried about the upset person getting support; perhaps they are worried about getting caught in the lava flow as collateral damage).

    Thus, it's generally a poor plan to attempt to solve problems with upset people. Groups often do it anyway because: a) they don't know what else to do; b) have no confidence in their ability to contain an examination of feelings (even if they know that's the right thing to do); c) do not have a history of productive results from such an examination; or d) don't have permission to work emotionally. Yuck.

    Where the group is unused to working with strong feelings (I am talking mainly about fear and anger, rather than unbridled joy or ennui) it can be scary to go there and the facilitator will need to be courageous. In most groups, a majority of members will be conflict averse and will not typically meet a request to examine raw feelings with enthusiasm. There will, however, be times when you'll need to do it anyway and it behooves a group to: a) lay out ahead of time the conditions under which it's appropriate to clear the air (for more of my thinking on this see When Groups Should Address Conflict in Plenary); b) how you will do that (so that people know what they've signed up for); and c) what authority is being given the facilitator to run this phase of a meeting.

    OK, so it's hard. How do you clear the air effectively? First of all, I think it's important to separate this completely from fact finding, problem solving, determining truth, or assigning blame. Your priority in this phase is relationship repair. Nothing more. While the possibilities can be profound (I've experienced some amazing breakthroughs over the years), at a minimum you want to get to the point where the protagonists can function together in a group setting, rather be constantly triggered by each other. Thus, clearing the air may not result in the their signing together in next year's Christmas choir, but maybe they can serve productively on the same committee. That's victory enough.

    While there are multiple ways to accomplish this, an approach that works well for me is to work in dyads. Even when there are several people involved (a multi-car accident) it's productive to keep the conversation focused on two exemplars of the dynamic and see what you can accomplish there before opening it up to others. I've found that witnessing others unpacking and moving past hurt can often be just as helpful as being in the middle yourself. And if it isn't, you can always work more dyads as needed. 

    If you allow every stakeholder to participate in one conversation there is a tendency to have too many worms on the floor at one time, and it can be the very devil getting them all back in the can. Too often, different people have different points of stress and different reactions. With everyone striving to get their piece out it on the table, listening often suffers and no corners are turned.

    The method I use for examining conflict is a series of four questions:
    1. What are the feelings?
    2. What's the story (what triggered the feelings)?
    3. Why does this matter (what's at stake)?
    4. What are you willing to do about it (in the interest of repairing damage to relationship without changing personalities or values, or even admitting that you did anything wrong)?

    [Details about this were laid out in a previous blog in this series: Working Constructively with Emotions.]

    The tricky parts of establishing and maintaining this container are:

    •  Redirecting any attempt to problem solve (that will come later).

    •  Resisting any plea to take sides. There is a deeply ingrained tendency for people in tension to try to convince others that there's is the "real" truth, and the other person is either confused or purposefully misleading. Don't go there! What really happened isn't the point; it's understanding how each person's actions make sense when seen through the lens of their perceptions.

    •  Making sure that people speak fully about their feelings. Some are uncomfortable doing so, yet that's where the heart of the stuckness resides and it's very difficult to move past it until it's been expressed and acknowledged.

    •  Being scrupulously honest about what you've heard. It's OK (even helpful) to point out legitimate places of agreement or similarity, yet you also want to point out where stories or motivations do not align. While you want to be optimistic, don't sugar coat disagreement.

    •  On a more sophisticated level, I've found that it helps if the facilitator gets the affect right (not just the words) when reflecting back what a person has said, and it is often useful to probe if something doesn't hang together. Protagonists we permit quite a bit of directiveness from a facilitator so long as they are perceived as neutral and even-handed.

    B. Discussion—Identifying the Factors
    Once you've determined that an issue is worthy of plenary attention [see Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas for more on this] it's useful to diligently separate what needs to be taken into account (an expansive step) from what to do about it (a contractive step). Most groups are not aware of this distinction and allow the conversation to dance back and forth between the two, with the result that the group gets confused about what kinds of comments are appropriate, and often has to back track on elements of the solution because they were advanced prematurely. This is a major contributor to meeting fatigue.

    Better, I think, is making room at the front of the consideration to identify all the factors that a good response to the issue needs to take into account, and completing this step before moving on to problem solving. In general this is about identifying what common values are in play, and whether or not some values should be weighed more heavily than others.

    Here is a serviceable way to work through this in three relatively quick bites:

    1.  Brainstorm (a free form, unevaluated collecting of ideas about what should be taken into account)
    Because you don't get extra credit for saying a thing twice, it doesn't take that long to run out of new things to say. A key element of this step is allowing speakers to make an impassioned pitch for the factor they have named (say 60 seconds on the soap box).

    2.  Vet
    At this stage you review the brainstormed list and see if anything comes off, presumably because it was a personal preference (or possibly a joke) instead of a group value. If the group was fairly disciplined about the brainstorm perhaps nothing comes off. In any event, the end product is a group-approved list, which is far different than a brainstormed list.

    3.  Prioritize
    In this last step you make a cursory pass at whether all factors have equal weight or do some trump others. In my experience you only need to identify two levels: either everything has equal value, or there may be some factors that are "musts" while lesser priorities are merely desirables. This can be important guidance for the problem solving phase.

    The tricky parts of establishing and maintaining this container are:


    •  Not allowing evaluative comments during the brainstorm. This is a free-flowing, creative process and negativity is sand in the ointment. You have not bought anything yet; these are only suggestions at this stage.

    •  Making sure that participants understand the soap box option for selling their brainstorm ideas. This may be their only chance to cut loose and you don't want anyone to misunderstand that.

    •  Allowing the brainstorm to go through at least one cycle of slowing down and reviving before ending it. Often the first surge of ideas are the obvious ones, with the more creative (and often more valuable) ideas surfacing in the second surge.

    •  Deflecting solutions (they come later). You want to be adamant about completing the Discussion phase before entertaining solutions.

    •  Vetting can be tricky if the group is not conversant in its common values. Fortunately, the more you invoke them the more the group will be familiar with them, and they will be alive in your work, creating a solid foundation for building solutions.

    •  Be careful about getting bogged down in prioritizing. This only needs to be one simple sort, and shouldn't take too long. The heavy lifting is not here, but in the balancing of the values that occurs under problem solving.

    C. Proposal Generating
    This is the contractive phase that follows Discussion (the prior container). Notably, this has a completely different energy than Discussion, which can be fast-paced and somewhat raucous. In this phase you are done with advocacy. We have already determined what needs to be taken into account. Now you want bridging statements. Who has ideas about how the various factors can be balanced in proposed agreements or actions? Now we are putting together and everyone is on the same team.

    The energy here should be softer and more gentle. It is a creative process. It is coming home.

    The test here is how well a suggestion addresses the various factors that were the output of the prior step. There is no need to hurry. Silence can be productive here.

    The tricky parts of establishing and maintaining this container are:


    •  Not allowing people to repeat why a factor means a lot to them (that boat already sailed). The soap box is no longer available.

    •  Not allowing the energy to devolve into a tug of war, with winners and losers. You will not have a good solution unless everyone feels their input was respectfully worked with—this is not the same as everyone getting their way, but neither do you want anyone feeling like they've been run over or bullied.

    •  It is better to go slowly and accurately, than to hurry and regret it later. Sometimes an idea needs to incubate for a while before its wisdom is evident.

    •  Maintaining enthusiasm in the face of disagreement. Some people despair at the first sign of discord, and you need to model curiosity and interest in that moment, reminding people viscerally about how differences ultimately create a broader base (surer footing) on which to build durable solutions. Often it is helpful to highlight differences and draw the group's attention to the specifics that are not resolved, asking them to drill down on the question of how to resolve this apparent impasse. Don't be afraid or intimidated by differences.

    •  There can be delicacy about deciding when a solution is good enough to go with. You have to have had enough examination to identify flaws or reservations about a proposal to generate a feel for whether the concerns are fatal, or further work is likely to bring improvement. Keep in view the option to employ a sunset clause if people are worried about being trapped in a flawed agreement.
    • • •
    While the above three containers are by no means the only ones that facilitators will be called upon to use in the pursuit of their craft, if you only become adept at these three, it will make a huge difference in productivity and meeting satisfaction.

  • The Convener Role in Coopoerative Groups
    One of the challenges that cooperative groups face is developing governance structures that are appropriate for the culture they are trying to create. When all the models we've been exposed to growing up are derived from a competitive Roberts-Rules-of-Order voting culture, it may not be obvious how to accomplish this.

    In this blog I want to drill down on a specific instance of this phenomenon—one that I encounter frequently as a group process consultant—the role of the committee convener. In most cases this is never explicitly defined and people filling that role are often given the latitude to handle it as they see fit (under the dubious principle that if a person is willing to accept responsibility then we won't look too closely at how they do their job).

    In the absence of group guidance about what's wanted, I see behavior from conveners that ranges from the iron-fisted control exemplified by Mitch McConnell—who has sole power to decide what gets discussed on the floor of the US Senate (never mind what the other 99 senators want)—to I-don't-know-what-do-you-want-to-talk-about laissez faire passivity, where the committee members collectively bumble their way through the question of what to discuss as the meeting progresses.

    I think we can do better. If nothing else, isn't it an improvement to lay out what's expected before asking people to fill a role?

    With that in mind, here is what I suggest be used as a template:   

    Generic Description of the Committee Convener Role

    —This is mainly an administrative, coordinating role, not a decision-making or power position. In pursuit of this the convener's essential duty is to mediate a healthy relationship between the plenary and the committee, with maximum grace and transparency. This is about greasing the skids, not creating a fiefdom.

    —The convener is the point person for fielding questions about the committee, such as:
    • what is the committee’s mandate
    • what authority does the committee have, if any, to make decisions that are binding on the full group
    • what is the committee’s budget (and how much has been spent or committed to date)
    • when and where the committee meets
    • what’s the draft agenda for the next meeting
    • how to access the public minutes
    • whether a particular issue falls within the committee’s purview
    • whether the committee has established policy regarding something that falls within its bailiwick
    • how does one join the committee
    • what are the expectations of people who serve on the committee
    • how does the committee make decisions

    —The convener notifies committee members of upcoming meetings and communicates the draft agenda and background material for that meeting in a timely way.

    —The convener makes sure that the committee has process agreements and functions in accordance with them. Examples include:
    • How people get on the committee.
    • The circumstances under which a committee member may be asked to step down.
    • Expectations of committee members to attend meetings, and do the prep work needed to be ready to go.
    • How frequently the committee will self evaluate (this may be specified in the authorizing mandate).
    • When the committee meets, for how long, and where.
    • Standards for notifying committee members about the draft agenda and passing along background materials.
    • Standards for notifying group members who are not on the committee about upcoming meetings and their opportunity for contributing timely input on issues to be examined.
    • Standards for how minutes will be taken, how they will be reviewed for accuracy, and how they will archived and accessed.
    • Whether meetings will be facilitated, and, if so, how facilitators will be selected, and what is expected/authorized for people serving in that capacity.
    • The conditions under which the committee has the right to close a meeting, if any.
    • Expectations about how the committee will work with emotional input.
    • How will committee decisions be made (this may be spelled out in the committee mandate).
    • Expectations for how the committee will work through interpersonal tensions.

    —The convener makes sure that meetings have been adequately planned for:
    • that an agenda has been drafted (or suggests that a scheduled meeting be cancelled because there’s no work to do)
    • that an appropriate facilitator is lined up (if you use one)
    • that a minute-taker is lined up ahead, and that minutes get reviewed and posted in a timely way afterwards
    • that the meeting space has been reserved
    • that visual aids are secured (such as flip chart, markers, and an easel; or a laptop, projector, and screen)
    • that notice of the meeting to the full group (if the meeting is open) has been posted ahead of time, according to standards set by the group

    —The convener makes sure that coordination happens when issues require two or more subgroups or managers to collaborate.

    —The convener makes sure that committee issues requiring plenary input are passed along to those responsible for setting plenary agendas.

    —While the convener may be involved in committee agenda setting, they need not be, and they have no special power in setting the agenda. Their bottom line is that it happens in a timely way; not that they do it.

    —While the convener may facilitate committee meetings, that is not automatic. Facilitators (if used) should be selected because they have the skills needed to do that well, not because they are the convener.

    —The convener is expected to have a working grasp of all work being done by the committee (why the committee is handling the work on its plate, what the committee is expect to accomplish, who is doing the work, when the work is due, and what progress has been made on completing the work). This is independent of whether the convener is personally involved with the work. In line with this responsibility the convener is expected to monitor the progress of all tasks taken on by the committee, troubleshooting as appropriate.

    —The convener is expected to respond promptly, cordially, and accurately to inquires about the committee, regardless of whether those inquiries come from committee members or group members who are not on the committee.

    —If interpersonal tensions arise within the committee that do not resolve easily, the convener is expected to be proactive in getting the protagonists help. That may come from the convener but it could be from another person (or group of people) if they are more skilled, more acceptably neutral, or more available to the protagonists. In casting about for suitable help, the convener is expressly not limited to members of the committee in seeking the best choice.

    —The convener is responsible for maintaining accessibility and good relations with the conveners of other committees, as well as with all other group members.


  • Bedlam 2018
    After taking a year off, I'm reviving an annual tradition I started in 2011—taking a moment at the turning of the calendar to summarize where I slept during the past year.

    I refer to this as "bedlam" because: a) I'm on the road a lot and have a chaotic and confusing distribution of sleeping arrangements; b) some think that my travel schedule is prima facie evidence of mental imbalance (and I don't want to deprive them of data); and c) I have a congenital weakness for word play.
    So here are the highlights of where I was when the lights went out each night. Because I didn't post about this last year and 2016 was anomalous for health reasons, I'll compare my 2018 stats with 2015 as I sift for trends.

    o  It's always good to start with home. In 2018 I slept in my own bed (the one I share with Susan) 216 nights, or 59% of the time, which is about average.

    o  I stayed with clients 67 nights, which continues an upward trend in that regard (it was only 51 nights three years back, and that was an increase from 2014).

    o  I was with family 27 nights, down slightly from three years ago.

    o  I visited friends overnight a meager six nights, which was down dramatically from 42 nights in 2015. (I'm scratching my head over this one as I don't have the sense that I'm visiting friends less—maybe I'm just not spending the night like I used to?)

    o  As a cancer survivor I live with a compromised immune system and I was reminded of that last winter when I spent two brief stints in the hospital battling respiratory illnesses, trimming my total at home by five nights. 

    o  Coincident with my retiring as FIC administrator at the end of 2015, I only attended one set of meetings (as a Board member of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions) and one event (the Canadian Cohousing Conference in Vancouver last spring) in 2018. 

    o  As an inveterate train traveler I slept on the choo choo 30 nights, plus an additional three nights as Amtrak's guest in a hotel when I missed a connection. (Incidentally, those were my only nights in a hotel, for which I am thankful.) This was about average for nights on a train. I also spent one short night on a plane, winging my way from Atlanta to Madrid, where dawn and I arrived simultaneously.

    o  As an artifact of my battle with multiple myeloma, I have three collapsed vertebrae at the top of my lumbar section. While I've been able to adjust to this with minimal residual pain, I can assure you that I thoroughly enjoy lying down at the of the day on a nice mattress and letting my back unwind. As such, I'm happy to report that my days of sleeping on floors are completely behind me (as opposed to beneath me), and I was only on a couch or air mattress 10 nights. Whew. Sleep is important.

    o  Over the course of the year I slept and schlepped (my luggage) in 16 states, one province, and three cities in Spain (where Susan and I vacationed for nine days in October).

    o  It's amazing to reflect on my ability to resurface as an active consultant and teacher after my cancer was discovered three years ago. I was one sick puppy at the time, but responded well to treatments and here I am. Since then I have experienced full cognitive recovery, and my constitution has rebounded sufficiently that I can work an intensive four-day stretch with no loss in function. (Fortunately, faciltating and teaching are not aerobically demanding vocations.) Three years after dancing on the brink of checking out, I'm not only still getting up each morning, but have good things to do and good people to do them with. In all, I've got a pretty good deal.

    So that's my bedlam synopsis for last year. Here's wishing you and yours happy days and gratifying opportunities in the year ahead.

  • The Pros and Cons of Open Discussion
    For most groups, open discussion (where people speak to the topic whenever they're ready) is the default choice for how to work a topic. That said, familiarity is not destiny, and there are a number of format choices extant. Good facilitators, in my view, need a working knowledge of at least a half dozen to be able to consistently deliver solid meetings, and to accurately pair formats with needs.

    Despite its being the default format—which means it's relied on heavily in some groups—I've observed that many groups struggle to realize the potential of open discussion, and dissatisfaction with this plenary experience has motivated some to try something more structured and more diffused (where more heavy lifting is attempted in small groups or committees). Instead of running the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water, however, I want to take a close look at why and how to improve open discussions, which is a format I believe offers a number important advantages—as well as liabilities.

    For the purposes of this essay, let's consider open discussion in the context of a plenary of 20+ participants.

    Pros
    • It tends to be quick. You can get a lot of information and viewpoints out on the table in a short amount of time. While consensus (and other forms of inclusive decision-making) protect the right of participants to give relevant input on all topics, the truth is, it is rarely necessary for everyone to speak in order to get all input expressed. (Rounds, for example, do a terrific job of protecting everyone's chance at the mic, yet can be incredibly boring as later speakers have little to offer that's new, yet use their time to say it anyway.)
    • It's great at flushing out the diversity of views (so long as strong speakers are not allowed to dominate or intimidate) where it can be digested and weighed in the context of the whole group (it's not the same thing to aggregate small group output, where people are hearing summary reports, but not receiving the full presentations). When views are shared in plenary, everyone gets a chance at the information at the same time—all from the horse's mouth and with full affect.
    • If the group is facile at working with differences (warning: this is a mature skill; new groups typically struggle with this and so do green facilitators) even a large breadth of opinion can be handled expeditiously.
    • It is possible to build cohesive energy when work is accomplished in plenary that is not available as the sum of committee work. If you were in the room and the outcome reflects your input, the buy-in (and therefore the implementation) is noticeably enhanced.

    Cons
    • It favors those who are quicker to formulate their thoughts.
    • It favors those who are more comfortable speaking in a large group.
    • If the group is unsure of its footing in working emotionally, it favors the emotional demonstrative.
    • Because open discussion in larger numbers is both more free wheeling (read chaotic) and can result in more balls being in the air, it calls for a higher level of skill to manage. This is a tough format for beginning facilitators to master.
    • There will tend to be a wider range of participant familiarity and comfort with the topic—simply because there are voices in play. In consequence, it can be tricky getting the unfamiliar up to speed without experiencing chafing among the more clued in. Also, some participants may be uncomfortable with a topic that others are eager to explore and the facilitator may have a pacing issue accommodating both subgroups.

    Taken all together, this is obviously not a simple calculus, and should make clear why it's a good idea to rotate formats. It's not a good idea to always use open discussions, and not a good idea to never use open discussions.

    Tools
    Now let's get into the trenches and try to demystify how to get the most out of open discussions. Here are a double handful of specific skills that the facilitator will be glad to have mastered. (To be fair, these are skills that will be beneficial in a wide variety of situations, yet they'll be especially helpful when facilitating open discussions.)

    1.  Knowing how to focus the conversation, so that you can guide the group productively and will be in position to redirect those who try (inadvertently or purposefully) to steer things in a different direction.

    2.  Having a good idea about how to contain (I did not say "gag") those who tend to speak a lot or whose contributions tend to result in others being quiet (perhaps because they don't want to risk voicing a differing view that might place them in that person's cross hairs; perhaps because they don't think they can speak as eloquently or persuasively and are afraid of sounding stupid). If left unmonitored, the 15-20% of members who eat the mic will take up more than 50% of the air time, which is dangerously unbalanced.

    3.  The ability to accurately and even-handedly summarize the conversation every 6-8 speakers. This does a number of things: a) keeps everyone on the same page; b) cuts down on repetition (if a point of view is in the summary it doesn't need to be said again); c) gives the group a sense of progress; and d) helps people focus on what's missing (what hasn't been said yet).

    4.  The ability to notice and bring to the group's attention when body language is not aligned with statements—signaling that something is off. While you may not know what it means, it's worth exploring.

    5.  Being able to quickly and accurately distinguish signal from noise, noting which threads are worthy of including in a summary of product, and which comments don't need to be highlighted. While it turns out that only a small number of contributions are original and insightful, you need to be diligent about capturing them.

    6.  Being light enough on your feet to sense when a tangent is powerful and timely enough to justify suspending the approved agenda to follow.

    7.  Being skilled at seeing common ground among viewpoints that can serve as the basis for a balanced solution. Oftentimes the facilitator is the first to see the way through a complex issue, merely because good facilitators look for agreement before looking for differences—a skill that is glaringly underdeveloped in our culture.

    8.  Being willing and able to sensitively name strong feelings and interrupt attacks whenever they occur. Of course, this work will be significantly aided by a group agreement to work emotionally, but the facilitator should attempt this even without such an agreement, because of how powerful it can be to accept a wider range of relevant information (embracing emotional knowing) and to calm potentially troubled waters.

    9. Knowing how to structure the conversation so that the group agrees on what a solution needs to address before attempts are made to craft one. (Hint: if your first plenary consideration of an issue begins with a statement of the problem and the presentation of proposed solution, then you've already placed the cart before the horse. Oops!)

    10. Being diligent about making sure that the plenary is only engaging on matters worthy of its attention and that details that fall below that standard are promptly delegated to managers or committees.
    • • •
    While this essay doesn't provide a foolproof screen for when to use open discussion to examine issues, it hopefully gives you a richer sense of its potential and the facilitative tools that are needed to get good results. 

    May your meetings be frutiful.

  • Dark Night of the American Soul
    It's 4 am on the longest night of the year and I can't sleep.

    After lying in bed for an hour without being able to find where I misplaced my REM cycles, I gave up trying. I made coffee (a cup of which is sitting close by), and pancake batter, which will turn into breakfast in about four hours (breathing helps dissolve the micro-clumps of batter).

    Update on My Life
    The physiological explanation for this mid-night dance with my keyboard is drugs. Per my chemotherapy protocol I take 20 mg of dexamethasone—a steroid—every Thursday, which invariably means I'm on an energy high every Friday. While manic is not necessarily a good state to be in (think Mr. Toad's wild ride), I've learned to control the wave and Fridays offer a pleasant burst of productivity. It means that Susan typically wakes up on the last day of the work week in an empty bed (if you don't count Lucie, our 50 lb lab/retriever love ball who likes to join us in the family bed), but she knows the drill.

    While I rarely rise this early in the day (excepting on Fridays and when I need to catch the shuttle to St Paul to connect with the eastbound Empire Builder), I've always enjoyed the night—this thing that mostly slips by me with my eyes closed. It's quiet. The phone doesn't ring, and there's ample time for the three R's—readin', 'ritin', and reflectin'—all of which are precious to me.

    Today is solstice, the Earth holiday that occurs toward the front end of Xmas season. It's the official start of winter, which is something we Duluthians embrace as part of our boreal heritage (that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger). This is our time. All the snowbirds have left by now, and we're down to the hard core natives and winter sport nuts. Even though I don't ski, curl, or play hockey, I like winter.

    Yesterday I wrapped up back-to-back reports for work I did on the East Coast two weeks ago, which frees me up to address a modest backlog of non-urgent emails, and positions me perfectly to enjoy the social side of the holidays, where friends and family come first. I've always loved this break in the daily routine. It's the one time of the year when it's socially acceptable for a fortnight to feed our ritual-starved souls. 

    On the micro-level my life is going pretty good. My cancer is quiesecent (knock on wood), I have a loving partner, all four of our kids are out of the nest and doing well (all are in their 30s and have partners they're happy with), I have work as a process consultant and teacher in proportion to what I want, I'm making enough money to tread water with my health care bills, and I even get to play duplicate bridge twice a week when I'm in residence. What's not to like?

    Overview of the National Scene with Loki as President
    On the macro-level, unfortunately, I am brooding over the chaos that passes for national politics these days. Trump's capacity to be divisive and anti-relational knows no bounds. He's a one-trick pony who only knows to be a bully, and his boorish, spectacularly disruptive behavior has been given incredible latitude for mischief as a consequence of his surprise success as a presidential candidate two years ago. Now we're stuck with him. 

    I have to think that even those who have been inspired by his drain-the-swamp, plain-talking, fear-mongering rhetoric have to wince when they observe his unpredictable, unprincipled, misogynistic, racist, distorted, and vicious tactics. He unattractively showcases the self-discipline of an angry teenager, and the self-absorption of Dorian Gray. Later today we'll discover the outcome of his eleventh hour game of chicken with Congress because of the tantrum he's throwing over the legislative branch's unwillingness to authorize $5 billion for a border wall we don't need but which he rashly promised in his campaign two years ago. 

    Rather than accept political reality (never mind political sanity), he wants a fight, which is the role that bullies are wont to play. Rather than striving to pull the country together (you know, act presidential), he's willing to pull it down—apparently because it's more important that he deliver on his promise to his angry white base, who are determined to hold onto white privilege for as long as possible and/or feel they are being discriminated against and threatened by a steady flow of immigrants who are taking jobs that they have rejected. Never mind that the budget is going to hell in a handcart and that even some Republicans admit that the wall is a dumb idea, he's willing to ruin the holiday for about one-fourth of federal workers who may be laid off by midnight. Rather than allay the fears of his constituency, he fans the flames. In the spirit of this pagan holiday, it's clear to me that Trump is channeling his inner Loki. 

    To my disgust, Republicans have basically caved in to Trump and are offering him a largely unobstructed field in which to spread his seeds of discord and mistrust. To my frustration, the Democrats have yet to articulate anything approximating a cohesive response to the fears that Trump is playing to. Rather than objecting to Trump (that's the easy part) they need to be pitching jobs, health care, education, a sane international policy, a balanced budget, and a caring government to the disaffected. They need a coherent, inclusive platform and they need a candidate.

    Talk about Mr. Toad's wild ride!

    My Personal Challenge
    All of this presents a difficult societal challenge. How will we clean up the mess? And what is my role in that? 

    Years ago I made the decision to focus my social change work on the grassroots level. Thus, I work with groups trying to effect a shift from a highly competitive culture to one that is more cooperative. I am operating on the trickle-up theory, whereby success on the local level can (theoretically) be ratcheted up to neighborhoods, municipalities, states, etc. I've essentially been following that course since graduating from college in 1971. While I don't expect to see the promised land in my lifetime (I'm like Moses that way), I expect to continue the path I'm on for as long as I am cognitively and physically able. That part is relatively straight forward.

    More difficult is how to respond to the disruptive, demonstrably uncooperative behavior that Trump is championing at the national level. What can I do (what should I be attempting) in an effort to turn  around this orgy of negativity and love of the fight. What can I do to promote dialog in the age of invective?

    The truth is, I'm not sure. 

    I don't have connections on the national level and Washington isn't calling me asking for advice. While I believe my grassroots efforts are entirely germane to the issue, their impact is likely to take longer to bear fruit than the need calls for. I suspect that the best I can do at this stage is to invest at the municipal level. I can look for opportunities to selectively get involved in progressive groups locally (Duluth is a medium city of 85,000) in an effort to create citizen bridges that transcend party lines. Maybe Duluth could become a sanctuary city for the politically estranged.

    I was heartened by the fact that none of the Democrats who won election to the top three offices contested in November (two Senate seats and the governorship) ran negative campaigns. Maybe we can be different in Minnesota and a model of political healing.

    While Trump would likely object to that kind of sanctuary just as much as one focused on immigrant support, who cares? With Trump, I'm at the point of adapting Groucho Marx's admonition from a song he debuted in the 1932 classic movie Horsefeathers: 

    Whatever he wants, I'm against it.