Laird's Blog

Outbound for La La Land

As is my wont on weekdays, I awoke in the dark. Instead of stumbling downstairs and putting on the coffee however, Susan and I got into her brother Roger's Prius and caught a ride from him to the Minneapolis Airport. Susan boarded a jet to Salt Lake City at 6 am, outbound for a long girls' weekend of frolicking in Ogden. I winged my way toward the City of Angels 25 minutes later.

For the next three weeks I'll be galavanting all over the continent, with my time neatly partitioned into three segments:

a) For the next six days I'll be visiting Ceilee and family in southern California. While I'll still keep up with email and handle the odd phone call, this is mostly vacation.

b) In the middle stretch I'll take my time rumbling from Los Angeles to Ham-Nord, Quebec, the main highlights of which will be enjoying Amtrak's Coast Starlight end for end (LAX to SEA) and Via's premiere choo choo, the Canadian, from Vancouver to Toronto. This sojourn will take six nights and seven days. On the theory that getting there is half the fun, I intend to enjoy my scenic adventure in full.

c) The final portion will be five days of meetings at La Cité, a 32-year-old ecovillage in Quebec that I'll be visiting for the first time. The first two days will be a meeting of the newly constituted Global Ecovillage Network of North America, followed by the three-day fall organizational meeting of the Fellowship for Intentional Community. For the first time, I will be attending as an observer, without portfolio since having stepped down as Executive Secretary last December. 

I'm looking forward to all of it.

In Los Angeles I'll be seeing my son, his partner (Sarah), my grandchildren (Taivyn & Connor), and my granddog (Zeus). Yippee! In addition to simply enjoying the contact high of family, I will be rehabilitating a painful memory. The last time I visited LA was mid-December last year. It was there that my lower back pain reached a crescendo that continued for six excruciating bed-ridden weeks, eventually culminating in the discovery of three collapsed vertebrae and multiple myeloma. These were not my happiest days.

That prior visit was scheduled for six days, but was extended when I was in such pain that I could barely get out of bed, much less manage a bus ride to Las Vegas (where Jo and Peter awaited). No fun. In Los Angeles I had taken over Taivyn's lower bunk, which meant that she had to negotiate nighttime acrobatics sharing a narrow berth with her younger brother. (Much as she loves her grandfather, she was happy to see me depart the premises.) 

In any event, my visit last December was not the enjoyable family time we all had envisioned. In the coming week I get a redo, overwriting my visit of 10 months ago with fresher memories, featuring a recovering, more flexible Papa Ward (my nom de familia). While it's dubious how much I'll be available for bouncing on couches, and there may be questions about whether I'll be able to hold my own when Zeus (a boisterous 60-lb bulldog) wants to circumnavigate the block, I'm confident I'll be able to read to my grandkids in full theatrical voice, and be a demonstrable help in the kitchen, especially as dishwasher and sous chef.

How did I get to be "Papa Ward"? Glad you asked. Throughout my life I've never been that comfortable with honorifics and discourage their use whenever I can. (To this day, anyone trying to get my attention with "Mr Schaub" is immediately revealing that they don't know me well or my sensibilities on this topic.) To the extent possible I eschew honorifics and ask people to simply call me "Laird. When I became a parent it was easy to extend that preference to my kids. (I hadn't the least concern that they'd be confused about their paternal origin without its being steadily reinforced by calling me "Dad.")

As it turned out, when my daughter (Josefa) was a mere pup she had trouble pronouncing "Laird." It came out more like "Lerd" (which, incidentally, is what I often get when native Spanish speakers take a pass at my name). Her mother (Elke) found this amusing and enjoyed reinterpreting Jo's attempts as "Ward," as in "Ward, I'm worried about the Beav" (a semi-obscure reference to a line frequently trotted out by June Cleaver when talking parent-to-parent with husband Ward on the iconic '50s sitcom, Leave It to Beaver. This successful six-year sitcom lampooned the peccadilloes and misadventures of two boys navigating life in the suburbs—remember, this was back in the age of innocence, way before the bathroom humor of Animal House (1978), the raciness of American Pie (1999), or the vapidity of Clueless (1995).

One of the challenges I faced in prepping for this multi-stop three-week odyssey was puzzling out my travel wardrobe. While Ward does not intend to wear a robe, he does expect to be robed. According to Weather Underground temperatures are expected to threaten triple digits in southern CA this coming week; yet trekking across Canada the following week I expect to wake up to frost most mornings. Needing both shorts and a fleece-lined vest (in order to straddle an anticipated 75 degrees of ∆t) put considerable pressure on the modest capacity of my roll-aboard suitcase. Sigh.

Fortunately, I enjoy challenges. La La here I come!

How Quickly Could I Train a Facilitator?

I enjoyed a fabulous brunch yesterday at the Duluth Grill, a well-established local institution that features local, fresh, organic food—some of which is grown in raised beds in their parking lot! 

As the place was packed around noon (we were lucky to be seated in only 30 minutes) the wait afforded our party of four (Elph Morgan, Lorna Koestner, Susan, and me) just enough time to tour the parking lot and all the flora. It happens that Lorna has had a personal hand in the plethora of parking lot plantings and was able to tell us all about them. In addition to a variety of fall-thriving vegetables that are an easy fit with the cuisine (rhubarb, chives, and many varieties of lettuce and kale) there were ornamentals in bloom (cosmos, poppies, datura, mullein, and pansies) and fruiting exotics (black nightshade and white everbearing strawberries) that we could munch on.

When we got inside we found the menu was almost as distinctive as the raised beds. I had the Everything Skillet, Susan went with the Mairzy Doats Bowl, Lorna selected the Rabbit Marsala, and Elph opted for the Salmon Bowl. Yum! 
• • •During breakfast Elph (an old friend from Ann Arbor) had a question for me. How quickly could I train someone to be a decent facilitator assuming they started with no familiarity with consensus. What an interesting question! He wasn't talking world class; just baseline competent.

I thought about it for a bit, and came up with this response: It all depends on the person's ability to be able to shift perspectives. If they stumble with this basic facilitation skill—the ability to step back from one's own viewpoint to see the same dynamic through the eyes of others (reference Trump, the classic one-trick pony who only sees the world through Donald's eyes)—then it would be a project. While I'm confident I could coach them up to develop that capacity (assuming they aspired to learn it), it would probably take months. 

On the other hand, if the person already had that capacity, I felt I could get them to decent in a single weekend.

Elph was lamenting that he was unable to find any programs to help people learn basic facilitation skills in a cooperative setting (think inclusive culture) in a short time. When I reflected on what I offer, I had to admit I don't have much in my portfolio to meet that need—even though I consider facilitation training a specialty. While I conduct a number of two-year trainings (I have three going concurrently) and I expressly welcome people into my classes from any background and with no prior experience, it nonetheless is a 24-month commitment, which is a fairly steep barrier.

I also conduct consensus trainings (and facilitation trainings) for communities, most of whom would be willing to have one or two outsiders join the party for a reasonable fee, but I haven't done anything to promote this possibility and it rarely happens.

Finally, I do a number of workshops at events each year, and it's common to offer something on facilitation once or twice. But those are just 90-miute introductions designed to inspire, not train. Training requires a sequence that is way beyond the scope of a one-session workshop: 
—Presentation of theory
—Demonstration of principles and skills
—Practice under supervision
—Flying solo

Over dinner last night I discussed with Susan my intention to follow up with Elph to see if we could put together a prototype facilitation training weekend for dummies, where the target audience is people who are interested in cooperative culture yet have no particular background in consensus or community living. I have a long train journey coming up next week (when I rumble from Los Angeles to Quebec by way of Vancouver BC) which should give me the perfect occasion to piece together a proposal.

If you, the reader, have interest in participating—or know someone who might be—please let me know and I'll make sure that you're informed about what bubbles up. Contact me directly at

Elph also asked me what I had available in writing about consensus facilitation. I told him (as I tell everyone) quite a lot, though it's scattered among my blog entries, Communities magazine articles, and client reports. Now that I've retired from administrative work for FIC and have my multiple myeloma under control, I'm laboring regularly on organizing my writing into books. Elph encouraged me to not dawdle and had this advice about what would be a useful presentation to him:
—Elucidation of principles
—Step-by-step guide to execution (think cookbook)
—Stories that breathe life into the above

As I'm still in the organizing phase (trying to figure out what I already have and what's missing), I admitted that I haven't yet given much thought to layout of the material. That said, Elph's sequencing appeals to me, so we'll see what develops. His request that I include stories has special resonance for me. I view stories as the oldest vehicle extant for transmitting information and the easiest way for people to retain lessons (there's a reason that traveling minstrels were so popular before the invention of movable type or the internet). 

Fortunately, after 30 years as a professional facilitator, I have lots of stories. All I have to do is pay attention.

The Ten Commandments of Scribing

Last month I was conducting a facilitation training on the West Coast with one of my co-trainers, Ma'ikwe Ludwig. As commonly happens, when student facilitators work they often ask another person in the class to scribe (capturing the essence of what people are saying on flip chart paper, a whiteboard, or a chalkboard) to help participants track what was said—giving them a visual reminder, so they needn't rely solely on memory. 

(One significant advantage to the training is that students learn the craft as a cadre of peers who can help each other along the way. That means there are plenty of people willing and able to fill support roles in service to whomever is the lead facilitator. That includes conducting openings and closings, creating graphics or charts of background info, doorkeeping [taking latecomers aside to fill them in on what's happening, allowing them to get up to speed without slowing everyone else down], and note taking. The most common support request is having a fellow student scribe.)

Because there is often awkwardness about how to do this well, Ma'ikwe took the time to spell it out in an impromptu teaching moment. Inspired by her summary, I'm recapitulating it here, embellished with my own commentary.

In no particular order, here are Scribing's Ten Commandments (well, guidelines):

1. Nuggetizing
The heart of good scribing is being able to accurately capture the essence of what someone says—in less time than it takes them to say it—with a phrase or perhaps a couple of words. We call it "nuggetizing," to distinguish it from court transcripts, or verbatim minutes. (One of the reasons that we like students to use scribes is that it gives them useful practice at a bread-and-butter facilitative skill: separating signal from noise. Thus, when one student is behind the wheel and another is scribing, two are getting on-the-job training at once.)

2. Form Follows Function
It's worthwhile for the scribe to pause at the outset to reflect on how their product will intended to be used. The answer often suggests a way to organize what you collect. For example, the simplest way to record statements is on a running list that goes from top to bottom of the first page, then top to bottom of the second page, and so on. But if you know ahead of time that comments will likely fall into four major categories, the utility of the list may be significantly boosted if you prepare five sheets of paper: one each for the four anticipated categories, plus one catchall for anything arriving from left field. Now you've got a home for whatever comes along and the end product will automatically be sorted. Nice.

Hint #1: In the end, it's far likelier that what was said will be more useful than when it was said.

3. Clump Like Comments
If you leave enough space between entries, it is often possible to add later comments that are similar (though not identical) to previous ones already posted. Any aggregating of like sentiments on the fly will be greatly appreciated when your done and looking for themes (which I guarantee will happen, or should).

Hint #2: If someone offers the same comment to one already up, you can adopt a simple convention to denote that: use a check mark or a star (*) next to it to indicate that that thing has been said an additional time (** would indicate that it's been said thrice, etc).

4. Grammar Amnesty 
In the heat of the moment such niceties as spelling and grammar can suffer collateral damage. Even though Strunk & White may turn in their graves, don't get hung up on proper English. As long as meaning is preserved, take your best pass at it and move on. (Going the other way, if you're the facilitator and your scribe has written "god judgement"—instead of "good judgment"—I suggest you grin and bear it.)

5. Eschew Obfuscation
All the clever wording in the world will count for naught if your scribblings cannot be discerned from the far corners of the room. With that in mind, only choose from among dark markers: steer clear of yellow, orange, pink, lavender, and light green. And while we're at it, be wary of scented markers as well: in a poorly ventilated space there are people who can get rather huffy if they're forced to be huffing marker fumes. No need to push the edges of your audience's sensitivities.

Hint #3: It can assist tired eyes to track clearly if you employ alternate colors when recording adjacent thoughts, and you can earn extra credit with drawings (even cartoons) that capture the essence of the point—rebuses can work as well or better than words, and it can make for more aesthetically pleasing charts into the bargain.

6. Write Large 
Bowing to the same god as in the previous point, make sure that the size of your lettering is sufficient that aging eyes can easily read your offerings from across the room. Your prime directive here is legibility; not saving trees.

7. Handle Push Back with Grace
Speakers will not always agree with your word choices when summarizing what they said. If a speaker believes you've mischaracterized them, try to be at ease when fielding their request for modification. (And it's OK, by the way, to stop the action now and then to ask a speaker if your nugget captured their point well enough—so long as you don't do it too often.)

Hint #4: For some people paraphrasing does not work; if you do not use their exact words they will object to what you've written. For those folks you'll have to mirror what they said—even if you discern no difference between what they said and what you offered. Just go with it.

8. Match the Number of Scribes to the Need
For most conversations (whether open discussion or rounds) one scribe is generally sufficient to keep up with the traffic. That may not be true however, if you're conducting a brainstorm, which can often be energetic and fast-paced. Rather than slowing down the creative process (heaven forbid), it typically works better to assign a second scribe, where they each take turns capturing comments.

9. Don't Scribe Everything
Scribing is an option, not an imperative. You should have a clear sense of the benefit you'll derive from using a scribe, or don't use one. In general it's to help capture ideas, both to reduce a tendency to repeat and to not lose an idea because there were too many to remember. It can also help a group identify themes and next steps.

That said, scribing can be distracting (perhaps people are watching the scribe more than the speaker; perhaps the scribe is drawing attention away from the facilitator). It can also pull people away from the energy appropriate for the task at hand. Thus, it's typically beneficial to scribe brainstorms, yet too heady for heart circles—where the focus is more on enhancing or repairing relationships and less on problem solving.

All in all, be judicious about using scribes.

10. The Facilitator Is the Boss
Finally, at the end of the day, you are in service to the lead facilitator and you should bow to what they want from you as scribe. If you are at all confused or uncertain about how to carry out your role, be sure to huddle with them and clear that up ahead of the meeting. If you disagree with their thinking and are unable to persuade them to your viewpoint, don't sabotage their work; do your best to accommodate their wishes and talk with them about it further after the meeting.

That said, if you find yourself confused midstream, it's perfectly fine to stop the action for a minute and ask for clarification. While no one wants to witness a floor fight between the facilitator and the scribe (perhaps battling for control of the dry erase markers), neither does anyone want to witness an uncertain scribe twist in the wind. Use your common sense.

Sharpening the Coversation

Last weekend I was conducting a facilitation training with co-trainer María Stawsky The weekends run from Friday morning through Sunday afternoon and are a mix of presenting material, answering questions, conducting practice exercises, and facilitating live meetings. That said, we emphasize the last approach above all others: devoting three-fourths of every weekend to having students prepare for, deliver, and evaluate the facilitation of real meetings—on the pedagogical theory that people tend to learn faster and more deeply if they're facing live ammunition.

As teachers, María and I face the challenge of identifying a teaching moment as it develops and figuring out what intervention (if any) might be both effective and elucidating. Here are the elements of this:

o  Because the teachers are experiencing the situation as it unfolds in real time—the same as the student facilitator—it means we have only a short time to recognize that there's a problem with how things are going.

o  Immediately after we identify that something is off, the next question is whether we have a solid idea about what would correct it. While María and I are experienced facilitators (which means we have access to personal memories of untold numbers of prior meetings to draw on) each situation is unique and thus considerable discernment must be used in choosing an alternative path.

o  In the context of training weekends, we have to put our ideas through two screens before acting on them: 

a) Will our idea be more effective than what the student is doing? Will it help the meeting be more productive?

b) Will it help the student learn how to be a better facilitator (presumably the prime directive for a training weekend)?

o  Less obvious perhaps, yet still a factor, is how to get in and out quickly so that we are minimally disruptive to the meeting's flow (we're trying to bolster students; not pull their pants down). That means we have to be able to execute (or explain) our idea with precision, so that the reins can be returned to the student as quickly and as seamlessly as possible.

Let me give you a recent example. In the context of a training weekend, a student was facilitating a meeting of the host community that was focused on how the group should proceed in the face of a recent decision by their developer to end their relationship, leaving the community high and dry in their attempt to find suitable property and get their dream homes built. There were a handful of ideas in the room about where to focus energy, one of which was to make sure that the community had learned whatever lessons they could before jumping ahead (and being at risk of repeating mistakes).

While no one was against the idea of learning from mistakes, there was push back about how much that was needed at that time; about how much that should be a priority (what is being prudent, and what is being timid?).

When the dissent was first voiced it wasn't clear whether the speaker's point was that taking time to focus on lessons was a waste, or whether that had already happened sufficiently to move on. When the facilitator allowed others to contribute to this topic (a good instinct) you could tell that the group was uncomfortable being in a conflicted dynamic and was trying to find middle ground (perhaps by seeing to it that all ideas about what to do next—there were four main ones—were honored and supported). After a few minutes of spinning their wheels (spreading oil on troubled waters takes time), it appeared to me that the facilitator was unsure how to handle it.

To be clear, this was not a disaster; it was just ineffective. It was a loss of momentum, a shying away from the dynamic moment. It was also a teaching moment, where I could simultaneously accelerate the consideration and showcase for the student how to do it.

In this instance it was by doing something that many consider counter-intuitive: leaning into the differences for the purpose of trying to bridge the gap. The principle I used to guide me was a simple one: if you can identify who holds the ends of the conversation (the people with the positions that are furthest apart) it can often be effective to focus especially on them, with the idea that if you can find a way forward with those folks on board then it's highly likely that everyone else will be carried along as well. 

There are two reasons that this flies in the face of traditional approaches to facilitation (and therefore is not employed much):

a) In cooperative culture, groups tend to move away from tension, not toward it. If you direct attention toward the people on the edge there is the sense that you risk fanning the flames—an undesirable result.

b) In cooperative culture, there is a core value of inclusivity and trying to equalize voices. Giving extra attention to a few people (and less to everyone else) is directly counter to that idea. (Won't you be rewarding people with extreme positions by giving them extra air time?)

The key to this working is that the facilitator needs to be able to work accurately with each player, establishing both that their position is understood and what it means to them. If this is done well, each player relaxes (they won't be left behind) and it's possible to negotiate a way forward that everyone can get behind. In this case, I first found out that the person who was leery of looking for lessons felt that that had already been done (the juice had been sucked out of those bones) and was worried that supporting more of that at this point was diluting group energy when it was most needed to be laser-focused on essentials. 

Turning to the person who advocated for more analysis I asked specifically what they wanted. The response: two hours of committee time, leading to a report to the plenary. I then turned back to the objector: "Can you swallow that?" Answer: "Yes." I then announced: "OK, we're done." Looking over to the student in the facilitator's chair, I offered: "Back to you," and sat down.

It only took about two minutes to run through the whole sequence. Along the way I was able to give the facilitation class an excellent example of what can be gained by sharpening the conversation, and by focusing on the outliers in service to the goal of efficiency without leaving anyone behind.

The Descent of Winter

Earlier this year I moved to Duluth MN, which for many weeks of the year can claim to be the icebox of the US. While there's no telling where the heart will lead, in my case it was here. Susan has been here since 1984 and that was good enough for me.

To be sure, others come for the salt-of-the-earth people, for the thriving art scene along the North Shore, for the glorious views of Lake Superior, or for easy access to the output of Bent Paddle Brewing—but what people don't do is to come for the balmy weather. (There are better locations for working on your tan.)

Although here it is October 6th and we still haven't experienced a killing frost (Susan and I harvested fresh basil this afternoon), the "high" tomorrow—and I use that term loosely—is projected to be a crisp 45 degrees. So here we go; time to make sure that the furnace filters are clean.

Fortunately, I like winter. To be sure, I don't particularly like ice, but I love creating a warm cave in our double bed each night, snug beneath the down duvet. I love hot soup for dinner, accompanied by cold butter melting on steaming rolls. I love how the diamantine stars dance on a clear new-moon night in January, sometimes accompanied by a curtain call from the Aurora Borealis.

In Duluth we expect the summers to be shorter and the winters to be longer. Even knowing that however, it's hard maintaining a good attitude in the face of spring's shy appearance. April is the cruelest month of all—when the calendar says it's spring but the ice persists in the harbor, delaying the start of the shipping season, as well as gardening. In anticipation of that Susan and I have finagled a Schaub sibling rendezvous in San Antonio for the first weekend of April in 2017, which we expect will net us a 30-degree gain in differential ambient temperature (we'll be trading 40 degrees in Duluth for 70 degrees in San Antonio—quite the upgrade). Will we be ready or what?

It was interesting this summer (when I was in Rochester for five weeks, getting my stem-cell transplant) that whenever I told folks that I was from Duluth, most southern Minnesotans commented on how lovely it is up here. This stood in sharp contrast with the opinions offered by most of my friends (living in balmier climes) who immediately expressed sympathy for what they considered my Nordic exile. (Oh, you poor boy.) Over and over I've had to explain that I like living in Duluth. Winters have never been a  problem for me, as long we've had enough dry firewood and good caulking around the windows.

As the thermometer drops, Susan and I start turning our attention toward holiday cooking opportunities: there will be Thanksgiving next month, followed by Christmas. Those are chances to warm the house from the kitchen outward, with good food marinating with family and good company. Somehow the food tastes better when it's cold outside.

Winter is also the best time for reading. For a couple years now I've been on a serious campaign to reduce my material possessions, with special attention being given to the enormous volume of books I've gradually aggregated over the years. Essentially I'm trying to turn around my habit of buying books faster than I read them. As a frame of reference I've plowed through 23 titles in the last quarter. As soon as I complete a title (I tend to alternate between fiction and nonfiction and have very eclectic tastes) I turn it over to Susan: either she can hang on to it to read herself (maybe one in four), we send it on to Goodwill, or I deposit it in one of the free lending libraries sprouting up in Amtrak depots these days. Slowly but surely, we're debooking the house, and I'm having a lot of fun getting exposed to all manner of ideas and wordcrafting.

You just gotta like winter.

Doing the Can Can in Richmond

I've always considered myself a can-do guy. True, I'm a bit more limited these days because of my cancer—due to calcium leaching, for example, I have to be careful about how much weight I lift—but I've recovered a great deal of functionality since being hospitalized last January and am getting around pretty good these days.

Thus, it was amusing last night to be eating at the Can Can Brasserie in Carytown, a tony urban retail strip along Cary St in the capital of Virginia, where the legacy of the Civil War (referred to here as the War of Northern Aggression) continues to simmer. Our brief journey to the restaurant, for example, took us right by a prominent well-lit monument to Stonewall Jackson. Hmm. I reckon it's a matter of perspective. To locals, Appomattox was barely 151 years ago; what's the hurry in getting over it?

History aside we had a lovely dinner. As you might guess, the Can Can featured French cuisine (though no petticoats). Marty and Dan raved about the pan-roasted grouper and Jenny seemed well pleased with the coq au vin. Unfortunately, my lamb chops (the Sunday special) were disappointing: stringy, undercooked, and the flavors not well blended with the polenta melange on which they were presented. Oh well, no restaurant can expect to ring the bell every time, and the meal ended on an up-tick when the four of us shared two high-calorie desserts.

For me the highlight of the evening was the company. I had not seen any of my dinner companions since before my cancer had been discovered and it was lovely having two hours of unstructured laughter and free-flowing conversation with them last night. They traveled over 90 minutes each way for the "privilege" of my company and we made the most of it.

On the way back to the car I confided in Jenny that my recent brush with mortality has helped me focus on the primacy of spending time with friends—further, I'm learning to not count on being able to do later things that I blithely pass up doing today.

Over fresh bread (and an oozing appetizer of baked brie, quince purée, raspberry compote, and candied walnuts—ooh-la-la), I caught up on the doings at Shannon Farm (Afton VA), where all three live. There is a proposal to bring fiber optic cable into the community, finally assuring residents of access to high-speed internet connections (welcome, Shannonies, to the late 20th Century!); and Marty's pod is about to hook up to a solar panel array that promises to significantly diminish the revolutions of the dial on his electric meter. Nice.

Both Dan (an independent insurance agent) and Jenny (one of three partners operating Heartwood Design, a well-established custom woodworking shop that focuses on up-scale kitchen remodels for the DC market) are wrestling with the same questions that Susan and I are: how best to segue into our retirement years, juggling:

A. The desire to keep active (though at a gradually decreasing level).

B. The desire to maintain a decent income flow (through a judicious combination of savings and current earnings).

C. The desire to have increasing control of one's time (where B is robust enough to cover what you'd like to do with C).

It's always interesting hearing how others are solving this equation, with each situation having unique characteristics to weigh.

Last night's social configuration is a precious artifact from my FIC days. Dan and I were part of the original group that founded the Fellowship in 1987. By the time that Dan was ready to step back (in the mid-90s) Jenny (his partner) had already made the transition from onlooker to imp (as we whimsically styled "implementers" back in the day) and I wound up working closely with her for nearly 20 years. Marty stepped into the circle in 1997 and continues on the FIC Board today. All of which is to say that I've been through many fires with these folks—both in service to community and in service to relationship.

Last evening it was a delight to stir the coals and bask in the considerable warmth of our mutual friendships—whether the South ever rises again, or not.

Good News from Mayo: Steady As She Goes

Yesterday I was at Mayo Clinic for my Day 60 check-up (two months after my autologous stem-cell transplant, July 29) and everyone was smiling at the end of day.

The headline is I’m doing well. I met with Dr Buadi (my Mayo hematologist) and he officially labeled the transplant as “very good”; one notch below “terrific.” I didn’t earn the top rating only because my lambda light chain number was 2.7 (for reference, it was over 1800 when I was first hospitalized in January!) and not zero, and my creatinine number (measuring kidney function) was slightly above normal (though Buadi felt that was likely an artifact of my taking Bactrim, a medication that helps me tolerate other medications. Essentially the tests indicated that the cancer is still present, though in minuscule amounts.

In addition to having 12 vials of blood drawn Tuesday, I also had a bone marrow biopsy (my hip will be sore for a week), but there was not time before the meeting with Buadi to have it analyzed. Also, Buadi wanted a more detailed urine analysis (not yet in his hands) to get a more complete picture. However, I had had one done two weeks ago in Duluth and the result then was excellent, so I’m not worried.

The essential news is that I’m in good shape (for someone with multiple myeloma) and Buadi does not expect to see me again until next July, at the one-year anniversary of the transplant. Meanwhile, he has recommended that I go on a maintenance chemotherapy program where I take a single drug (Kyprolis) twice a week for three weeks, followed by a week off. If that regimen goes well, we'll back that off to every other week after three cycles.

So long as I tolerate Kyprolis well (which I did this past spring) and it continues to be effective in suppressing the cancer, he thought I’d be on that protocol for two years, after which everything would be reassessed. It all sounded good to me. Having a two-year window in front of me where he was expecting things to go well was the best news I’d had since my receiving my diagnosis in January. Susan and I are breathing much more deeply today. I feel like I just went off the endangered species list.

The only wrinkle in this good news is that Kyprolis needs to be taken by infusion (via intravenous transfusion into the bloodstream) which is accomplished as outpatient work in the hospital. On the one hand, this is a routine I’m familiar and comfortable with in Duluth, but it complicates traveling and my work as a teacher and process consultant. I’ll have to huddle with my oncologist in Duluth (Alkaied) to figure out how much wiggle room I’ll have around delaying some treatments in order to shoehorn them in around my road trips.

It will be a new dance, but it looks like I’ll be around a for a good while yet. Yippee!

Unpacking Impacted Tensions

As a professional consultant in group dynamics I rarely get asked to work with a group when everything is going fine. Usually they're leaking oil, have a busted leaf spring, or can't seem to shift into third gear—and are hoping for inexpensive repairs from me, the itinerant shade tree mechanic.

Overcoming Inertia
First of all, it can be awkward admitting (to a stranger, no less!) that your group has troubles that it's not able to navigate on its own. For most of us that's a humbling admission. 

One of the most important milestones in the history of my community (of 40 years), Sandhill Farm, was when we started asking outside facilitators to guide our annual winter retreats—where we'd set aside 4-5 days to conduct strategic planning; take a deep look at unhealthy patterns; and/or try out a new way of relating to each other based on the skill set and training of the facilitator. Unfortunately, it took us more than 15 years to start that tradition—to admit that we needed help. Up until then we relied solely on ourselves, and it was a bumpy ride.

But let's suppose you're past that hurdle. In general, the most complicated situations I encounter feature tension that's triggered by current events—yet is mainly fueled by a historic pattern of unresolved distress. In a blink, once the old pattern gets evoked the group enters gridlock, with frustration and despair souring the air. Not pretty.

So let's break down what's happening. Yes, it's complex, but it's not brain surgery. For the purpose of putting flesh on the bones let's say that the old dynamic centers around long-term member Dale, and the pattern is that Dale is all-too-often late in offering input on plenary topics (maybe Dale misses meetings, maybe he/she doesn't always read the minutes, maybe it takes Dale a while to formulate his/her thoughts). Suppose that some version of this has been going on for years and there have been a number of attempts to articulate the pattern and why it's problematic, yet the behavior persists. That's the back story.

The Presenting TriggerIn the most intriguing cases, the surface issue is compelling in its own right, and the groan response from the group can be baffling to Dale. (Why is everyone being so reactive to my germane comments?)

The key here is understanding that Dale is looking at one thing (the relevance of his/her input) while others have their attention on its tardiness. Dale feels disrespected by so many cold shoulders; the group feels disrespected by Dale (again) not contributing in a timely way. Both of these views can be examined and worked with, though not simultaneously.

The Dysfunctional Pattern
While some groups are not that stout when it comes to members giving each other constructive feedback (to be fair, it's a difficult skill to master), let's suppose that the group is ahead of the curve and is pretty good at it, and that serious attempts have been made to illuminate the dynamic for Dale. However, if the pattern persists for any length of time and the group feels that it's made reasonable efforts to try to turn it around, it won't take long before the group will gradually give up on Dale, expecting bad behavior—to the point that they might not even hear Dale's input; they'll just proceed immediately to "Here we go again" and "Wouldn't we all be better off if Dale would just shut up?" Not good.
The key point is that if the dynamic goes unresolved then it tends to continue to deteriorate. In addition to having problems with Dale, now there is a tendency on the part of others to not hear Dale, which undercuts the community's commitment to inclusivity and working with the input of all. Uh oh.

If this persists further, the group will start to be both irritated with Dale for coming in late and for failing to work with the feedback (as evidenced by there being no change in behavior). Perhaps the most insidious part of this is that the group will tend to believe that responsibility for the dynamic lies solely with Dale—not seeing their part in closing off to Dale. 

Instead of trying to talk it through (which experience has shown doesn't work), the group moves quickly from bad behavior by Dale to eye rolling, deep sighs, and crossed arms. Yuck.

Help Is on the Way
So how do you get off the merry-go-round? While every situation cannot be turned around (just as everyone is not meant to live together), I always believe it's worth a try. The approach that I use is to unpack a current example of the core dynamic—in this instance, Dale entering into the conversation late. Carefully, I would select someone in the group who is irritated by Dale and work this in a dyad, just as I would any conflict, relying on a four-step sequence of questions:

1. What are the feelings?
What is the emotional experience of each player?

2. What's the story?
What is the relevant series of events that is associated with the strong feelings? 

3. Why does it matter?
What is the meaning of the reactions? What's at stake?

4. What are you willing to do about it?
Now that you've had the opportunity to explain your experience in depth—and learned what the experience of the other player is—what are you willing to offer in the way of a unilateral olive branch meant to repair damage to the relationship without selling out, disavowing your values, accepting blame, or altering your personality. It has to be an honest offer that can be freely given. 

Note that this step is not, "What do you want the other person to do?" I find that offering something tends to land much better than making a request (which can land as a demand).

In my view it is essential that the above sequence be facilitated with curiosity rather than judgment. Just as the group comes to expect Dale to misbehave, Dale will anticipate the group's hostility and the facilitator will need to set a different tone—one that steers clear of blame and that opens the door to possibility. It is not an easy thing to do (maintain an attitude of wonder in the face of tension), yet it's worth gold.

The key to this working is that Dale and their counterpart be given an honest chance to follow through on their commitments to do something new, and that hearts do not remain hardened against that possibility. Of course, this won't get you very far if Dale (or their counterpart) makes an offer that they subsequently renege on. They have to follow through for there to be hope of turning the corner. 

It's important to see this is the lynch pin of the dynamic. If you can establish that Dale and others can change their behavior, then everything can shift—which is what you wanted all along.

Where's Walden?

Today's essay will unfold in four parts, where "Walden" is the common thread that weaves hem together.

1. Walden Pond
For most readers this will be the first association that comes to mind, the modest body of water about 20 miles west of Boston, made famous because philosopher Henry David Thoreau lived the simple life there during the period 1845-47, and then wrote about it.

Thoreau's best known work was Civil Disobedience, in which he laid out his thinking about the right relationship of the individual to government. He was also a naturalist and thus something of an inspiration—well ahead of his time—to those seeking back-to-the-land simplicity and a spiritual connection to place in the 20th Century. I was such a person when I helped start Sandhill Farm in 1974, an income-sharing agrarian community.

2. Walden Two
In 1948, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner chose to popularize his thinking by publishing Walden Two, in which he describes a fictional utopian community that operated under behaviorist principles.This book subsequently became the core inspiration for a handful of intentional communities that blossomed in the Hippie Era of 1965-75, including Twin Oaks (Louisa VA), Lake Village (Kalamazoo MI), and Los Horcones (Hermosillo MX)—all of which still exist today.

As someone who was deeply invested in community networking for 35 years, this was just one of the fascinating strands of cooperative living that I became aware of and tracked. Although behaviorist thinking never became dominant in the Communities Movement, the root principle of positive reinforcement (as opposed to controlling or guiding behavior through punishment) is alive and well in almost all cooperative living groups. It simply works better.

3. Woodsburner
This is the title of John Pipkin's first novel, published in 2009. I read it last month and it's the fictional account of four lives—Henry David Thoreau, Oddmund Hus (a socially awkward orphan Norwegian immigrant), Eliot Calvert (prosperous bookseller, inept playwright, and discreet purveyor of pornographic postcards), and Caleb Ephraim Dowdy (renegade minister and opium addict) whose lives intersect on April 30, 1844 in and near Concord MA when Henry accidentally sets the woods on fire—a thing he actually did.

In this treatment Thoreau is in anguish over whether to drop out (by building a cabin on Walden Pond and devoting his life to writing) or returning to the family pencil business, where they've been able to set the gold standard for domestic production based on a superior source of graphite called plumbago. Should he focus on civil obligations or civil engineering?

Simultaneously the other members of the dramatis personae are wrestling with important life choices, even as they strive to determine just how bad the fire is and what role they should play in containing it.

It's a barn burner—even if few actual outbuildings succumbed to the flames.
4. Walden Farkas
Earlier his week I spent an agreeable 18 hours visiting with Walden (and his two boisterous English Setters) at his home in McMinnville OR. Though it had been 43 years since we'd last seen each other, amazingly, we had no trouble dropping back into a depth of sharing that was the reason we had been friends all those decades ago.

Walden and I lived on the same dorm floors our freshman and sophomore years at Carleton College (1967-69) and became good friends. Although our relationship was strained when Walden dropped out before our second year ended, we managed to keep the pot stirred by getting together a few times during the first half dozen years immediately following. Then we lost track of each other… until two weeks ago, when a message from Walden magically materialized in my In Box.

In a laconic two-sentence email he reported that he'd stumbled across my blog and now lived in Oregon. Knowing that I was coming his way last week he suggested we get together. Well, hell, it seemed like a good idea to me, and it worked out that I could be dropped off in McMinnville Sunday evening, en route to my Monday afternoon rendezvous with train #28, the eastbound Empire Builder.

In this year of challenged health, I've enjoyed many wonderful visits with family and friends—people who made it a point to see me, not knowing if it might be their last time. Of course, no one knows for sure when the last time might be, but the question is understandably more in the forefront when you're diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. For all of that, the possibility of getting together with Walden had not been on my radar at all, and thus was a great treat.

I was touched both by his finding me, and by his deciding to reach out. He's mostly lived alone the past four decades (excepting his canine companions) and it meant a lot to me that he decided to interrupt his routine to invite me into his home.

Mostly we just yakked, allowing the conversation to flow wherever it wanted. There were funny remembrances, convoluted stories about what we'd each been doing the last four decades, bafflement that Donald Trump actually has a chance to become the next President, and the opportunity to share what we'd each distilled into life's lessons.

I may not know where Waldo is, but I seem to have no problem with Walden.

Reacquiring Warp Speed

This past weekend I was conducting Weekend IV of a two-year facilitation training in the Pacific Northwest. It marked the first work I'd done as a process consultant in three months—since co-trainer Ma'ikwe Ludwig and I conducted Weekend III of the same training.

As you can appreciate, this was an important marker for me as a cancer survivor who wants very much to be also be a career survivor, albeit on a somewhat modified (read humane) schedule. While the travel out (by train) was somewhat tiring, I came out a day early to arrive on site with enough breathing room to rest well before going on stage.

Under the model we use for the training, three-quarters of each weekend is devoted to preparing for, delivering, and debriefing real meetings that the students facilitate for the host group. The concept is that students learn faster facing live bullets than by hearing the trainers tell stories or conducting role plays. While I'm convinced that this is sound pedagogy, its efficacy hinges on the trainers being able to teach the moment—each of which is unscripted.

Thus, a training weekend presents a serious test of how far along I've come in recovering my cognitive agility. While the results in June were so-so, it was highly gratifying to be able to perform again at a professional level, to be able to come in and redirect sensitively as dictated by the situation. Whew. Thinking that I can do it is not the same as showing that I can do it.

An important teaching element is being able to demonstrate to the students how to make effective choices in the complexity and chaos of live meetings. In the most delicate moments this can mean being able to access any or all of the following skills:

o  Sorting the wheat from the chaff—extracting the essence of statements more or less as quickly as people speak.

o  Having a working memory of what has happened previously that bears on the current moment.

o  Phrasing comments such that the meaning is clear and requests are within the capacity of key individuals to respond positively.

o  Being ready to offer a deeper, cogent explanation of why your requests or observations are pertinent in the event the audience is confused.

o  Recognizing quickly when the group is heading in a dangerous or unproductive direction, offering a constructive redirection.

Describing such moments isn't nearly as powerful as witnessing them, so it's up to the trainers to be able to carry the mail.

While it's undoubtedly useful to be able to function on impulse power, there is nothing quite like achieving warp speed. It's nice to be back.

At the 16th Pole

The title for today's essay comes from the world of horse racing. In a one-mile race (typically once around the track), there are poles placed every 1/16th of a mile (every half furlong) which are visual indications to jockeys of how far along they are from the finish line. The last pole before the finish is the 16th pole.

In less than two weeks I'll be traveling back to Mayo Clinic to have my Day 60 check-up. Sept 27 marks 60 days since my stem-cell transplant, and Dr Buadi wants to see me then to figure out what success we've achieved in placing my cancer into remission. It's an important assessment, the results of which will go a long way in determining how best to manage my health going forward.

While the cancer was surely knocked back July 27 when I took melphalan (the poison that killed everything in my bone marrow, good cells as well as bad), the question is how far and for how long. As I have a relatively aggressive form of multiple myeloma the doctors need to keep a close eye on my markers, to be alert for its return. Both Dr Buadi (the hematologist who oversaw the transplant treatment in Rochester) and Dr Alkaied (the oncologist who oversees my treatment in Duluth) are anticipating that I'll be placed on a maintenance level of chemotherapy—because of the aggressive nature of my myeloma, how well chemo worked over the winter and spring, and how well I tolerated it. 

The tests coming up Sept 27 will determine which treatment will be selected. It might be pills; it might be infusions. While the latter is more awkward (infusions will need to be administered in a hospital or clinic on an outpatient basis, probably once every two weeks) pills can be taken anywhere. That said, I'll do whatever the doctors recommend.

Fortunately, I've been assured by Alkaied (I met with him this past Monday for the first time since June, before my trip to Mayo's) that there can be flexibility about dates. This is important to me as someone who hopes to resume his consulting/teaching career on a modified basis, and thus needs some latitude with respect to travel.

Meanwhile, the tests done Monday looked good. (I can hardly tell you how reassuring it is to watch your doctor scan the computer screen looking at your test results and saying, sotto voce, "Good" and even "Excellent." What you don't want to hear is, "Uh oh" or "Yikes!") Unfortunately, my Monday appointment with Alkaied did not allow enough time to return the most important test result: the amount of light chains in my blood and urine. In the kind of myeloma I have I was producing way too many light chain plasma cells and thus, in my case, this has been the most important indicator of the strength of the cancer. 

When I was first hospitalized in late January my light chain count was around 1600 (where 100 is considered acceptable). By the time I went to Mayo for the stem-cell transplant in July, the chemotherapy had driven that number down to under 50—proof that the chemo was working. So it was good news when Alkaied's nurse called Tuesday (I had left for Oregon by train Monday night) and told Susan that my light chain count was practically nonexistent. Whoopee!

Essentially, the test results at this stage (Day 48) could not be better. (Can you see me smiling?) Yes, it's early days and there will be more challenges ahead, but right now I'm enjoying the sun shining on my face, with the wind at my back. Today, life is pretty damn good.

Driving the Road to Recovery at a Safe Speed

I recently got this message from a regular consumer of my blog:

I am scratching my head. I had full faith that you would make it through, but I am taken aback by your—appearing to me utterly foolhardy—upcoming schedule. Do your doctors know?! Shouldn't you be resting and drinking lots of fresh juices, and work on de-stressing your life?

Usually, when people survive cancer they make changes in their lifestyle in order to rebuild their body's defenses. Let us know how you see that... reading your missive, I worry. 

As this is not the first time this question has come up, it seems worthy of a response. The inquiry comes from a concerned place and expresses reasonable questions. So… in no particular order, here are my thoughts about why I am doing what I'm doing as I recover from multiple myeloma, keeping in mind that I have every intention of rebuilding my body's defenses:

o  What can be more therapeutic than pursuing one's passion?
I'm convinced that attitude plays a large role in health. As such it's valuable to my health that I keep my social change work oar in the water, at least part time. While I no longer work full days (excepting when I'm on the job), it's important for my self esteem that I continue to contribute to making a better world, one meeting at a time, putting to use the knowledge I've accumulated over the years about the nuts and bolts of what it takes to function well cooperatively.

o  Yes, my doctors know my travel plans
I have two main doctors: Buadi (a hematologist) at Mayo and Alkaied (an oncologist) in Duluth. I have deep respect for both and both have signed off on my returning to work in moderation. So long as my body is telling me that my recovery is continuing and I'm not relapsing, I have a green light. They have even told me that ongoing maintenance treatments can be flexibly scheduled to work around my travel plans. If I go overboard I have no doubt that my body will let me know that I'm being overzealous.

o  My work is not aerobic 
While it requires sustained focus, process consulting does not strain my lung capacity, tax my kidneys, or pressure the tensile strength of my compromised bone structure. Further, you have to take into account that I have been doing this for work for three decades and have a fairly solid idea of what it takes. One of the distinct benefits of honing one's skills is learning how to conserve energy without compromising effectiveness. It's an art form.

o  I'm working about half rate
While my schedule may seem breakneck to others, it feels like coasting to me. For example, I expect to participate in no conferences this fall (last autumn I attended three). Here's what travel I have lined up from now through the end of the year, which covers a span of 16 weekends:
—one weekend community consultation
—four facilitation training weekends
—one FIC meeting (for which I have no organizing responsibilities)
—one visit to see my son and grandkids

o  Most of my work this fall will be training facilitators
The majority of what I'll be traveling to accomplish this fall will be conducting three-day facilitation training weekends. In each instance I'll be working with a co-trainer (not alone) and all three of the women that I'll be partnering with understand that they may need to fly solo for a time if I run out of gas and need to lie down to recharge my battery. What's more, I tested the waters in this regard last June (when I was weaker than I am now) and the training weekend went fine.

o  I'm a veteran train traveler
Per my wont these past three decades, I will generally travel to and fro via Amtrak, where I find the rhythm of the rails to be mostly relaxing; not draining. I know how to slow down my metabolism on board the choo choo and rest up for the work ahead (or how to recuperate from the work just concluded). Having done it already, I know that I sleep reasonably well in the reclining coach seats, bad back and all.

o  I am not you
Like most everything else, there is considerable variance among people's temperaments and accustomed sense of pace. What suits one may be overwhelming for another, or perhaps painstakingly slow for a third. In making choices for Laird I am not asking others to make similar selections. I am only asking others to give me room to find my own way.


This evening, for the first time in more than a year, I'm hoping to play duplicate bridge. It will end my longest break from it since I first ventured into that arcane world in 1999. While I wasn't seeking a hiatus, one came to me anyway by virtue of the confluence of: a) my moving away from northeast Missouri (and the familiarity and comfort of my local club); b) my lack of a partner; and c) my ill health.

Now though, I'm doing much better in managing my cancer and I have the bandwidth to gradually reestablish social patterns in my new home (it is not enough to be catching up with Susan on Louise Penny novels and watching West Wing reruns). With Susan's blessing I'm venturing a return to what had become my favorite recreational pastime since I turned 50: duplicate bridge.

One of the niceties about the bridge world is that if you show up early to almost any club game, the directors will work hard to find you a partner. Thus, you need not arrive with a partner in tow (though that's preferable). In Duluth there is a game every Monday at noon and every Wed evening, which will afford me plenty of opportunities to play.
• • •As I thought about what to write about today, it occurred to me that the term "bridge" evokes a plethora of positive meanings for me, which it might be fun to illuminate:

1. Lift Bridge
This is perhaps Duluth's most distinguishing structural feature: the aerial bridge that connects downtown with Park Point, a long spit of sand that extends south, protecting St Louis Bay (which is the mouth of the river of the same name) and the estuary where all of the city's port facilities are located. In the image above you can view an ore boat making the transit between harbor and lake. Taconite (low grade iron ore mined in the Arrowhead country that Duluth is the gateway to) is loaded here on ships such as these, outbound for the steel mills of Indiana and Ohio.
The lift bridge was originally built in 1905 and then rebuilt in 1929 to be what it is today. To accommodate ships of all kinds the canal is 390 feet wide and the deck of the bridge can be lifted 135 feet (in about a minute via hydraulics and counterweights). It's raised and lowered about 5000 times annually, which works out to about 14 cycles daily.  2. Bridging Positions
A lot of what I'm called on to accomplish as a professional facilitator is creating a pathway between people where none exists, so that I can effect a restoration of flow of undistorted information and (hopefully) understanding. It's like being a plumber unclogging pipes. While not always noxious, dynamics among afflicted parties can definitely get anaerobic and tense at times. Thus, like plumbing, it's not so much that the principles are hard to grasp as that you are often asked to perform (with grace and even-handedness) under difficult and volatile conditions. 

To be good at this kind of bridging you need to be able to hear and see people where they are (rather than where you or others think they ought to be), which skill requires that the practitioner be facile at shifting perspectives and empathizing with the person feeling isolated (and possibly misunderstood). It's one of my most valuable skills.

3. Caring Bridge
This refers to the blog site used by my partner Susan and others to report on my progress as I steadfastly work to treat and contain my multiple myeloma (first discovered in January). While I mostly post about my health on this blog; others who have visited me or served in the capacity of being part of my care team have been encouraged to write their impressions and share information about my progress on the Caring Bridge site.

This site has now been visited more than 5000 times (since it was launched in late February), doing yeoman's work in keeping people informed—for which I'm thankful. It's great getting a variety of voices and viewpoints in play, especially ones for which I have no responsibility for directing or editing.

4. Duplicate Bridge
As noted at the outset of this essay, I am itching to start playing bridge again after a break of 15 months (reading Frank Stewart's weekday column in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune is not nearly enough). 

Tonight I'm hoping to put my toes back in those waters, bridging from my old life to the one I have today as a cancer survivor living in a new town.

In closing let me share a good laugh I had a couple months back when Sharon (Susan's sister-in-law), who is a very accomplished duplicate player, explained that there has been a brisk sale of bill caps emblazoned with the common bridge bid "No Trump" among American Contract Bridge League players—especially since the Republican National Convention. Maybe I can find one available at a tournament in nearby Carlton MN this weekend.

Hah! I figure if we can't retain our sense of humor, what hope have we?

Not Falling Behind

Susan put on wool socks yesterday—a sure sign that fall is in the ascendant. Also, we can't help noticing that it's getting darker and darker when the alarm goes off at 6:15 am each weekday. It's not our failing eyesight; it's an inexorable seasonal trend.

At least it is in Duluth. At COB Monday, the ice cream shops will shutter their windows until May, even as the locals begin to shudder in the presence of breezes off the lake. So the wheel of the calendar is turning, and I'm gearing up for the fall process season—where I'll (cautiously) step back into the rhythms of an itinerant consultant, freshly recovered from getting my multiple myeloma under control these past seven months.

Though it's too soon to know exactly how much of my health I've regained (or how much I've been able to maneuver the cancer into remission), it's not too soon to begin living the life I can with the health I have. In 10 days I'll board the westbound Empire Builder (train #27 if you're scoring at home) for the City of Roses. In Portland I'll be met by Luz Gomez, who will drive me the rest of the way to Medford, where Weekend IV of the Pacific Northwest facilitation training will be hosted by Ashland Cohousing.

I can hardly wait for the opportunity to teach again. It's one of the things in life I enjoy most, and is a great fit with my accumulated knowledge (40+ years of group living and almost 30 years as a process consultant) and limited energy (as I gradually continue to rebuild my stamina following the stem-cell transplant in July).

Two weeks after my gig in Oregon (note that I'm protecting a week of recuperation in between), I will be in Richmond VA starting a different version of my two-year facilitation training—this time in the Southeast (centered around NC and VA) hosted by Richmond Cohousing, a forming community in the capital of the Cavalier State. Following that I'll be enjoying fall in Duluth, leading up to a trip to the City of Angels to see Ceilee and my grandkids in late Oct.

If I have my way, I will springboard off the end of that visit to use Los Angeles as my point of departure for a romantic (and heroic?) traverse across the breadth of North America to attend the fall organizational meetings of the Fellowship for Intentional Community at La Cité, a well-established ecovillage just east of Montréal. 

My hope is to negotiate the entire trip from Los Angeles to Ham-Nord QC and back to Duluth via choo choo—to the extent possible. It will take me five days and 4839 train miles eastbound (with a sharp dogleg right in Vancouver) plus two days and 1505 miles on the rebound (from Montréal to St Paul via Schenectady and Chicago). It's a fantasy train trip, and includes a ride on the Canadian (Vancouver to Toronto) end for end—it's the only long distance train across the continent that I haven't ridden. I'll get home in the wee hours of Nov 9 and will happily spend the rest of the month in Duluth, snuggling with Susan and giving thanks.

While Wikipedia cautions would-be travelers on the Canadian (Via's train #2) that the scenery can get monotonous (lots of pine trees and lakes), I am, after all, a deeply experienced bourgeois in backwoods canoeing and have a special affinity for both the North Woods and the Canadian Shield (the Precambrian granite that dominates the terrain from Winnepeg to Toronto). As it happens, in the early morning hours of the fourth day the train will chug through some of my most familiar territory in western Ontario, including a refueling stop in Sioux Lookout, from which I've launched many a canoe trip on Abrams Lake. So I'll be fine. 

My trip aboard the Canadian will simultaneously be both eye-opening (new scenery, especially as we crawl through the Rockies where we'll glimpse Banff, Jasper, and the impossibly picturesque Lake Louise) and nostalgic. A nice mix. 

While I'd much prefer to conduct this journey with Susan, she has used most of her vacation days to support me in my health crisis this year and she feels the need to stay closer to her desk at St Paul's the remainder of the year—paying back the church's kindness and understanding in letting her take off a good deal of time while serving as my main support. I'm fervently hoping that 2017 will be more characterized by our traveling together for our mutual pleasure than for attending to my medical treatments.
• • •In closing I note that one of the regular features of autumn is the shift from daylight savings back to standard time, the mnemonic for which is "spring ahead and fall behind." Looking backwards, it's easy to see that my health was falling behind last fall (though I didn't know it at the time, my deteriorating back ultimately resulted in my hospitalization with excruciating pain and the discovery of my cancer). This year, ironically, I'll be "falling ahead," taking advantage of the change of season (when vacations are over and communities return to full strength) to reenter the orbit of my consulting career, cherry picking the aspects from which I derive the most pleasure (and believe I'm delivering the most good).

Hopefully, this year there will be no falling behind.

Monday, Monday

Monday, Monday, so good to me
Monday mornin', it was all I hoped it would be

   —opening lyrics to Monday, Monday by the Mamas & Papas (1966)

I know that Mondays generally have a poor reputation, but yesterday turned out to be a really terrific day for me.

1. Health Costs
After being buried in medical paperwork over the course of my hospitalization last January and subsequent battle with cancer (multiple myeloma) the last seven months, I've been in limbo regarding what portion of my staggering medical costs would ultimately fall to me to reimburse. While I had Medicare coverage in place as well as supplemental insurance (with Aetna for the period Jan 1-March 31, and with Medica from April 1 onward) it has not been easy to tell who was going to foot the bill for everything when the music stopped.

Part of what makes it hard is the long time lag between services and billing (in some cases months). Another is the way that doctor and hospital bills are typically recorded separately, even though they are coming from the same entity (in this case, St Luke's Hospital in Duluth) and arriving under the same letterhead. It is the very devil knowing how costs have been attributed and whether or not you've seen everything.

When you further add in the likelihood of 500-lb sumo wresting between the hospital and my insurance carriers, it leaves a financial lightweight like me breathless and confused. I want to be responsible for my bills—but what, exactly, are they?

I had delayed making payments on my St Luke's bills because the numbers kept changing and I am loath to accidentally overpay. I wanted to make sure both that the bills were complete and that all the intramural wrangling with the insurance companies was complete before I started signing checks. 

Thus, imagine my chagrin when I received a call last Thursday from a collection agency that was inquiring about my overdue St Luke's account. Yikes. I had hardly had any contact (other than routine paperwork) from St Luke's accounts receivable department and here they'd turned it over to a collection agency. 

From the person I spoke with, I was—for the first time—able to get straight answers to four questions: a) did this cover hospital bills, doctor bills, or both (answer: just hospital); b) over what period of time were the bills for (answer: Jan 1-March 15); c) could I count on the hospital bills being complete for that period (answer: yes); d) had all the negotiating with Aetna, my supplemental insurer, been completed relative to my bills (answer: yes). OK, that's what I needed to know to be ready to start making payments.

I was quickly able to negotiate a payment plan whereby I contributed $250/month against an outstanding debt in he vicinity of $5500.

That done, I still had important outstanding questions about my overall financial liability:

Open Question #1:  What would be my portion of the doctor fees for the first quarter of 2016?

Open Question #2:  What might I yet owe for hospital charges for March 16-31, the remainder of the time I was covered under Aetna? While I was not hospitalized that final fortnight of the first quarter, there was ongoing testing and infusion therapy, so I'm expecting further charges.

Open Question #3:  What would I owe while being under Medica's insurance umbrella (April 1 onward), which offered superior coverage, yet would include the entirety of my stem-cell transplant at Mayo Clinic. This had the potential to be a very large figure.

In Monday's mail I got a bill from St Luke's for $111.18. I had no idea what services it covered, or for what period of time, so I called to ask. It turned out to be the total of what I owed for doctor services for the first quarter of 2016—everything else was being picked up by Aetna. Whoopee, that was good news. I had been girding loins for a bill that was at least four figures.

While it was curious to me (as a retired administrator) that St Luke's accounts receivable was handling the doctor bills so differently than the hospital bills, I didn't ask why. I was just happy to get such a friendly answer to my first question.

Next, I called Medica to get a handle on what I might expect in the way bills for April 1 forward. Here the news was terrific: in all likelihood, everything would be covered by Medica! Now that's what I'm talking about!

Once I had committed to moving to Duluth from North Carolina at the end of March I had to switch insurance policies (it turns out that under federal guidelines one's options for supplemental insurance under Medicare are specific to the county in which you reside and the policy I had with Aetna—suitable for Orange County in NC but not St Louis County in MN—was no longer an option). With the help of a local broker, I chose to go with Medica's best policy: Prime Solution. While I contribute a small co-pay on medications, and my policy doesn't help with housing (such as staying at Transplant House for 5+ weeks in Rochester, which ran into four figures), it pretty well covers everything else, with no deductible. 

That was a great stone lifted from my shoulders (and a wonderful answer to my third question). While I don't yet have the answer to my second question, my exposure there is fairly limited (only two weeks of outpatient services), so I expect to be able to weather it.

Of course, I'm still paying hefty monthly premiums for both Medicare and Medica, I had bills from my time at the rehab unit of Ecumen Lakeshore in February, and I've still got cancer (which translates to more treatments and doctor visits ahead), yet it now looks like I have a decent chance to end the year with a bit of money still in my checking account—a possibility that did not at all seem likely a month ago. In that regard it was huge that I've received over $8000 in donations to help with my health care costs in response to the appeal I posted in this blog July 7 (My Health and My Finances). Almost 30 people (both individuals and couples) generously responded and it's made all the difference. Thank you one and all!

2. Maskless in Duluth
While the news about my financial exposure would have been enough to have made Monday a stellar day, it got better. I had taken a blood test Friday and Dr Alkaied's nurse (Alyssa) called Monday to let me know that everything was in the normal range. That meant I could stand down on mineral supplements (such as magnesium and potassium) and my neutrophils (disease fighting white blood cells) were now strong enough that I no longer needed to wear a mask in public. Hurray!

Every day, things are getting better.

Cancer as Opportunity

I've just read Tom Brokaw's A Lucky Life Interrupted. Published last year, it's a breezy, personal account of his journey with multiple myeloma, the same disease that I have, contracted two years ahead of me. While he doesn't have the exact same version of myeloma that I do, it's close enough. Especially his coping with chronic back pain amidst all the chemotherapy.

One the things that helps most in navigating a life-threatening illness is stories from others on the same journey, and Brokaw's offering was terrific in that aspect. While upbeat, it is not sugar-coated.

What I'm finding—which parallels what Brokaw reports—is that coping with cancer is another life experience, a chance to find out powerful things about yourself, even though you didn't sign up for the exploration. You can fight it, lament it, or roll with it.

o  Life gets stripped down to essentials. If you have limited time and/or energy, how will you budget what you have? This question suddenly looms large. While it may always have been there in some capacity, now it is front and center.

o  Beyond "why me?" there are richer existential veins to mine. Tom, on the advice of a close friend, was able to shift it subtly to "why not me?" which I adore. There is a lot there. First of all, you need to move beyond self-pity, and make peace with your mortality (which is surely coming, no matter how fast we run). One's life is changed by serious illness (you have to make adjustments to diet and concessions to the limitations of a body now more frail), but you can still be you. All you have to do is sort out what that is, and how to pursue it within your new constraints.

I fully intend to be as vital as possible, for as long as possible. While that's not a change of plans, it is now a concrete plan, not a vague ideal.

In writing the book, Tom ultimately made the choice to share his journey publicly. I have made a similar choice, and it helped me to have this peek behind his private curtain. Not because I am suddenly so wise or heroic, but simply because sharing our stories is the oldest coin in human relations, and, ironically, you don't grow richer by hoarding—only by spending.

o  I have written previously about how cancer can become a potential bridge to others who feel isolated by health challenges—something that I sense will, on occasion, be an asset for me as a professional facilitator. But there's more.

For example, I'm finding out a lot about my tolerance for pain, and my motivation to be physically functional. It's one thing to give up rock climbing (which I hardly ever did); it's more urgent making sure I can bathe myself and recapture my agility and stamina in the kitchen—while I can accept a wide range of limitations on my choices, I want to be minimally reliant on others (Susan especially) to meet basic needs. Apropos this dance, it was helpful to read what Brokaw wrote about his debilitating back pain and how difficult it was for him to accept limitations on what had been a freewheeling lifestyle.

While I don't aspire to complete independence (does anyone?), I do want a balance of give and take with Susan, where our relationship can settle into a rhythm that is a more partner:partner than nurse:patient. That's my goal.

o  Cancer, unexpectedly, gives me a forum to speak about wrestling with difficult choices, about death, about what it means to live a life well. I like having a chance at that bully pulpit. Like Tom, I'll be sharing about a life that has been full of magic moments, yet not without bumps and missteps along the way.

Cancer as Opportunity

I've just read Tom Brokaw's A Lucky Life Interrupted. Published last year, it's a breezy, personal account of his journey with multiple myeloma, the same disease that I have, contracted two years ahead of me. While he doesn't have the exact same version of myeloma that I do, it's close enough. Especially his coping with chronic back pain amidst all the chemotherapy.

One the things that helps most in navigating a life-threatening illness is stories from others on the same journey, and Brokaw's offering was terrific in that aspect. While upbeat, it is not sugar-coated.

What I'm finding—which parallels what Brokaw reports—is that coping with cancer is another life experience, a chance to find out powerful things about yourself, even though you didn't sign up for the exploration. You can fight it, lament it, or roll with it.

o  Life gets stripped down to essentials. If you have limited time and/or energy, how will you budget what you have? This question suddenly looms large. While it may always have been there in some capacity, now it is front and center.

o  Beyond "why me?" there are richer existential veins to mine. Tom, on the advice of a close friend, was able to shift it subtly to "why not me?" which I adore. There is a lot there. First of all, you need to move beyond self-pity, and make peace with your mortality (which is surely coming, no matter how fast we run). One's life is changed by serious illness (you have to make adjustments to diet and concessions to the limitations of a body now more frail), but you can still be you. All you have to do is sort out what that is, and how to pursue it within your new constraints.

I fully intend to be as vital as possible, for as long as possible. While that's not a change of plans, it is now a concrete plan, not a vague ideal.

In writing the book, Tom ultimately made the choice to share his journey publicly. I have made a similar choice, and it helped me to have this peek behind his private curtain. Not because I am suddenly so wise or heroic, but simply because sharing our stories is the oldest coin in human relations, and, ironically, you don't grow richer by hoarding—only by spending.

o  I have written previously about how cancer can become a potential bridge to others who feel isolated by health challenges—something that I sense will, on occasion, be an asset for me as a professional facilitator. But there's more.

For example, I'm finding out a lot about my tolerance for pain, and my motivation to be physically functional. It's one thing to give up rock climbing (which I hardly ever did); it's more urgent making sure I can bathe myself and recapture my agility and stamina in the kitchen—while I can accept a wide range of limitations on my choices, I want to be minimally reliant on others (Susan especially) to meet basic needs. Apropos this dance, it was helpful to read what Brokaw wrote about his debilitating back pain and how difficult it was for him to accept limitations on what had been a freewheeling lifestyle.

While I don't aspire to complete independence (does anyone?), I do want a balance of give and take with Susan, where our relationship can settle into a rhythm that is a more partner:partner than nurse:patient. That's my goal.

o  Cancer, unexpectedly, gives me a forum to speak about wrestling with difficult choices, about death, about what it means to live a life well. I like having a chance at that bully pulpit. Like Tom, I'll be sharing about a life that has been full of magic moments, yet not without bumps and missteps along the way.

On Being a Cancer Survivor

I recently received an engaging email from a close friend who has been going through her own journey with cancer, parallel with mine. Though we have different diseases with different treatments and prospects, it's nonetheless been a time for deep reflection for both of us.

She wrote:

Just catching up on your blog and Caring Bridge after a challenging week. I'm so glad to hear things are progressing in good directions and that you are home! "Cancer survivor" is a label I have not yet become comfortable with myself, partly, I think, because of the uncertainty; partly because it seems strange to add badges of pride when I'm trying to learn to be more humble; and partly because "cancer treatment survivor" feels more apt in my case (and yours has been and will be much more grueling); but in any case may it be an accurate descriptor of you (and me) for many, many years to come.

This is a provocative topic for me, and I think there are a number of threads swirling around it, comprising the yarn ball of my thoughts:

o  It helps me to hold a positive image of my future that is not about whitewashing. I need to simultaneously own that I have been very sick and that a positive attitude going forward is an essential part of my healing—that one attains or sustains “health" by working on many fronts, attitude being one of them.

On the one hand, embracing the label of "cancer survivor" may be seen as whistling past the cemetery (acting braver than I feel). On the other, I think it's good for me to not forget that I'll have cancer the rest of my life—however long that is. Axiomatically, I'll be a survivor until I'm not. Meanwhile, all actions I take from now forward are those of someone who has cancer and has been working diligently to not have my blood pressure spike when I think about it; to find ways to be vital and healthy anyway.

o  I need to make peace with cancer in my body. I don’t want to ignore it and I don’t want to be obsessed with it. I want to accept it as part of the package of who Laird is today. I’m a person who is not done living and still has a lot to contribute in the world. Today though, unlike two years ago, I am a person with cancer and I need to make choices going forward that keep that in perspective. I do not know how much time I have left (do any of us?) and want to choose consciously how I apportion my time. It probably means more time with friends and loved ones, and less as a process professional, and that’s OK. (I think of it as a late-in-life course correction.) The key is wanting to be more conscious and the label helps me maintain vigilance about my choices.

o  As a professional facilitator, I am always looking for additional ways to bridge to people, especially outliers. I’ve come to understand that my history of good health has, ironically, been a barrier with some folks (how could anyone who’s been that blessed possibly understand what I’m going through?) even as it’s helped me maintain a heroic work schedule (until I collapsed in December). Thus, being a cancer survivor gives me another point of engagement, that I fully intend to use where applicable.

o  So much of what we identify as hard in life has to do with fear, and I’ve learned that by shining the light in dark corners fear is diminished. Because I want to make it easier to talk about fear, it’s incumbent upon me to take the first step. Thus, my cancer becomes an opportunity, and the label is an invitation.

o  You are right, I think, to point out that it's more accurate to say that we've survived our treatments than that we've survived our cancers, the remnants of which remain in our systems with uncertain futures. That said, it is not for me to tell another whether it is a label they should wear. 

Long ago I made the choice to be a public person. Not only does that mean that I ply my crafts in the public eye (as a public speaker, as a professional facilitator, as a writer), it also means that I have committed to live my life with a high degree of transparency and a willingness to explain how I got to hold the positions and viewpoints that I do. (If you're not interested, don't read my blog; no one's arm is being twisted.)

It means that I'm willing to share details about my personal life that many others consider private—not because I'm the arbiter of where the boundary should be or because I'm an emotional voyeur or a drama queen, but because I am often in the position of asking others to be vulnerable with me and I need to walk my talk.

Right now, cancer is a big deal in my life. While it's not going to stop me going forward and it may not remain the first article above the fold in the biweekly publication of What's Going on with Laird, it's a compelling complication and an entrée to the Pandora's Box of what remains of my life. Make no mistake about it; I am going to open the lid. And I'm going to write about what I find—warts, spiritual revelations, clay feet, and all. 

I can't not do it.

Potholes on the Road to Utopia

Saturday I had a phone date with a prospective client—a community that was experiencing increased tensions and wasn't sure where to turn. Interpersonal dynamics were deteriorating and the folks calling me on behalf of the community were worried that they were going to soon start losing people—good people—unless things got turned around soon. Could I help?

Boy, did that energize me! 

The group does not currently train new members in their consensus decision-making process and doesn't have any agreements about how to handle conflict—two deficiencies that go a long way toward explaining why the wheels are just about to fall off the wagon. Yet, the cupboard wasn't bare either. When I asked how many people might come to a special plenary aimed at focusing on interpersonal tensions, I was told over 80 percent, which would be a terrific turnout. Further, the group started seven years ago, so they have considerable common history together, most of which is positive. That is, they have something worth saving.

While there are a number of things going on, a key one is understanding better how to work through differences. Inadvertently, the group had fallen into an unproductive groove where dissatisfied minorities were not voicing their concerns early enough in the process, with the result that the minorities were feeling steamrollered (where is it safe to bring up differences?) and the rest of the group was feeling monkey-wrenched (why are major concerns not surfacing until the last moment?). Yuck. Each side believes they are acting in the group's best interests but that is not being recognized by folks on the other side of the aisle.

The good news is that this can be turned around. While the group is (understandably) nervous about how to work constructively with strong feelings and is not confident they have the internal skill or permission to facilitate those moments, that can be learned. If you attempt to do problem solving without having first addressed major distress, you have a train wreck. Yet if you are too scared to deal with the strong feelings you feel trapped. In these circumstances it's easy to see why the group may be leaking a lot of oil, and coming away from meetings feeling drained.
Apropos this issue, here's an helpful image that I picked up Saturday (right before the call I mentioned above), as a souvenir while strolling with Susan and Jo through the Arts Fair at the Tall Ships Festival in downtown Duluth. While a lot of people may choose to rely on this as a reminder to take a bath, I prefer assigning this 62-foot rubber ducky (nicknamed Paul Bunyan's bath toy) the task of reminding me to not duck the issues. Who knows, maybe Baja Smoothies (masking the duck's right wing in the image above) help, too.

Tall Hopes and Tall Ships

Today I wrap up in Rochester. I'll have my exit interview with the Transplant Team this morning, followed by a conversation with Dr Buadi (freshly back from Ghana), who will go over my status and give me final instructions for resuming my normal life, or as close as I can come to it at this time. It's a conversation I'm keenly looking forward to.

As it happens, our return to Duluth coincides exactly with the arrival of the tall ships (a flotilla of at least eight classic ships powered by sail) in Duluth, triggering a celebration that will extend through the weekend and is expected to attract 300,000 tourists. Ugh. 

While traffic arteries may be clogged, that will not undermine my good mood. Regardless of what's happening on the water, I'll be coming home to complete my recovery and to start my new life as a cancer survivor. I'm ready.

Gradually, I've been able to overcome residual aftereffects of my treatment: persistent nausea, lingering diarrhea, and a balky appetite. Each day I've gotten stronger. It's been great having Jo join the care team from Las Vegas for this final push, giving Susan a break from cooking and gaining her complimentary help in managing the obscure pop culture clues in the daily New York Times crossword puzzles. (While Jo didn't think she'd be much help, it's turned that where she's strong is exactly where Susan and I falter.)

Last evening we ate dinner with Randy and Jerry, a couple from Grand Marais (on the North Shore) who have been in Rochester since February as Jerry battles the ravagement of Agent Orange, which he was exposed to in Vietnam 40 years ago. Susan became friends with Randy 20 years ago when they were both working in the art gallery world, and the friendship has continued. Jerry is at Mayo's with the blessing of the Veterans Administration (who can't do as much for him a this point as Mayo's can), and it's a tough road for him, facing infusion therapy every day with no end in sight.

It was delightful to be in the presence of their grace and hopeful attitude. Very uplifting. If possible, Susan and I will try to manufacture a reason to visit Randy and Jerry in their second home in Truth or Consequences NM (quite the contrast with Grand Marais). I had once visited the River Bend spa and hot springs in town (right on the banks of the Rio Grande River), and would love to do so again with Susan. Perhaps next April, when the calendar says it's spring but the outdoor gods in Duluth laugh at such folly.

Today I stand with tall hopes and am ready to sail into my post-treatment future.