Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On Being a Good Meeting Participant

As a cooperative group process consultant I mostly focus on the role of the facilitator, because it's a major leverage point in how well meetings function. It has, for example, been my experience that a skilled facilitator can single-handedly turn a poor meeting into a good one.

However, most folks will seldom or ever wear the hat of facilitator. For the vast majority, they will simply attend meetings, not run them. That does not mean though, that they, as participants, have no role to play in how well meetings go.

So let's focus on what it means to be a good meeting participant. I have a number of suggestions.

Do Your Homework
Read handouts and reports ahead of time and organize your thoughts. Coming with an open mind is not the same thing as coming with an empty mind.

Be Disciplined About Speaking
Meetings are not open mic. You are expected to speak in turn, on topic, and without repetition. Once the meeting begins, participants are expected to be circumspect about when they speak and what they say. Here's a sentence of condensed advice that I call the Participant's Mantra: 
 
What does the group need to hear from me about this topic at this time? 

If you don't have a good answer, please consider the option of not talking.

Commit to Engagement
As long as the group has been diligent about only allowing work appropriate for the whole group to take up plenary time, then there is an important role for everyone to play on every topic. Essentially, all agenda items are subject to a binary sort: either you're a stakeholder on a topic, or you're not. 

If you are, then you’ll be motivated to pay attention because the outcome matters to you. If you aren't then you are perfectly poised to safeguard the process, helping people bridge differences. Your active assistance in that capacity is more likely to be well received if you are disinterested in the outcome. All of which is to say, please don’t fall asleep in meetings, or zone out doing sudokus in the back of the room just because a topic doesn’t grab you.

Assume Good Intent
If someone says something or does a thing that comes across as bizarre or mean-spirited, the meeting will go much better if you can pause and ask for more information instead of launching into reactivity. Because one thing is certain: the other person's story about why they did what they did will not be that they are bizarre or mean-spirited. While their thinking may not have been sound, and their choice may have been unwise, it will almost always be well intended and it will behoove you to hunt for that when their motivation is opaque to you.

Shifting Perspectives
Though this is an advanced skill (and beyond the reach of some), it can be tremendously helpful in bridging differences if you can learn to see an issue through the eyes of others, and not insist that everyone see it your way. 

Be Sensitive to How Much Air Time You Take Up
Although it's not strictly necessary that speaking time be divvied up equally among participants, it's generally desirable that everyone has a protected point of entrée. If you are the kind of person who is quick to know what they want to say, and does not find speaking in front of the whole group daunting, please be mindful of leaving room for others who are not so quick or comfortable, so that they can get their oar in the water, too.

Emotional Literacy
While mostly groups work in the arena of ideation (what's our best thinking about how to handle issues X, Y, and Z?), there will be times when feelings play a major role in what transpires. For that to go well, it's helpful if participants are self-aware (what am I feeling?) and able to acknowledge what's gong on with others (does this topic bring up strong feelings in you?). Not acknowledging strong reactions rarely goes well.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Community and Aging in Place

I spent 41 years living in intentional community. Though I left my long-established community home (Sandhill Farm) in an effort to save my marriage in 2014 (which didn't work out so well), and I've since relocated to Susan's well-established neighborhood in Duluth, my heart remains dedicated to cooperative culture. 
 
(Over the years I've become less attached to the specific form of community, yet very much committed to cooperation. If the incivility and mean-spirited boorishness of the Trump Administration does not convince you of the need for cooperative culture I cannot imagine what will.)

Although I moved out of intentional community just as I entered my senior years, that was an accident, not a strategy. As my cohort ages (we're talking Boomers), I've noticed that an increasing number of intentional communities are starting to have serious conversations about how to work creatively and realistically with an aging population.

While most communities did not think much for how they would handle growing older when they got started, that's not the case with all groups. For example, with the advent of "senior cohousing" (where no one south of 50 need apply), there are elder-friendly features built into the design—wider walkways, fewer stairs, additional space for live-in caregivers—and residents don't have to worry so much about kids screaming at mealtime or wayward Tonka toys on the pedway at night.
 
Regardless of how the community was designed, however, all communities will have to cope with an aging population if they are successful (that is, if they last long enough for original members to grow old). In the case of senior cohousing, they just don't have to wait so long to get there.
 
Because few, if any, intentional communities have been built promising members care through end of life, what we're talking about is aging in place—staying in the community for as long as possible. But what does it mean? What can members count on? Few communities define this ahead of need, and that's the main motivation for this essay—to get groups discussing this tender and important topic before the hard decisions need to be made and misunderstandings can lead to grief.
 
It's easy to understand the appeal of aging in place. Relationships are the lifeblood of community, and when groups are functioning well there is vibrancy, joy, and camaraderie among the members. It's a no-brainer that people would want to hold onto that in preference to a dubious future in assisted living.

With that in view, it is important for the community to start defining the limits of what it can provide for members, so you’ll know when it’s time to start talking about what help people can ask for, and when it’s time to start thinking about going somewhere else, because one’s needs have outstripped the community’s capacity to help.

—Hint: Don’t want to wait until you’re facing your limits to start determining them—these conversations should happen well ahead of need. 

Here are some things to consider:

A. Managing the Demographics
It will not work if everyone is infirm at the same time. While there are subtleties about where the limits are, and how to cope with a burst of needs that might blossom all at once (as if infirmity were contagious), it should be fairly obvious that the group will have a much easier time covering the care needs of 10 percent of the population, than it would if 75 percent needed that same level of attention. The former might be a powerful time of pulling together; the latter might be a horrific swamping of the boat.

Special note for senior cohousing: This point is all the more compelling for you in that you've purposefully selected a much narrower age range to work with. Instead of a span of 75 years (in a fully-fledged multi-generational community), you're only working with 25 years. That means you have to stay that much more focused on a viable ratio of the healthy to the infirm.
 
Digesting this, there is a great deal that can be done by an active Membership Team to recruit new members that are healthier (and younger) if your community is starting to get long in the tooth.

Word of Caution: Fair housing laws prohibit recruitment that is based on age, yet there is no law against targeting your recruitment efforts. So if you want families with young children, don't advertise for that in print; focus your outreach on Montessori and Waldorf schools, or the local chapter of the La Leche League. Go to the places where you are likely to find the values match you seek and the age range you're hunting.
 
B. Emphasizing Relationships as Security
To an amazing degree, it’s possible to substitute neighbor care for professional assistance. In most developed countries we tend to define security in terms of money or insurance. Yet community allows us to substitute relationships for money to a large extent. I’m not talking about asking your neighbor to perform surgery, but most care needs are modest and don’t require trained professionals. I’m talking about helping with physical tasks, being a buddy in going for walks (or to do gentle yoga), inviting seniors to social opportunities (like playing cards on Saturday night, or being part of a book club Tuesday afternoons), walking the dog, and driving people to town once a week.

Many will be able to live a lot longer in place if they receive a modest level of help in key areas. While extraordinary support can be sustained briefly (such as when a person is in a whole body cast for a month following a car accident), less heroic levels of support can be sustained for much longer—even years— if spread out over a large enough population, so it isn’t so much of a burden on any one individual or household.

C. Communication Support as Distinguished from Physical Support
Support can look like many things. While we most often think of physical aid (getting down high things for a person in a wheelchair; or feeding someone with broken arms), the group may commit to being a communication clearinghouse without committing to any particular level of physical support. I know one group, for example, that established a Care Committee (for any member in need, regardless of age), such that it would be available to help get the word out within the community about anyone's compromised health situation and what particular kinds of support that person was looking for. There is no promise that help will be forthcoming (individual members will respond as they are moved by the particulars of the situation); only a promise that the call will be put out, and that responses will be coordinated if the person wants that.

D. Balancing Social Capital
Because communities are comprised of individuals who have chosen to live together, you cannot mandate care. If it's “required” it will become a burden and the energy will be wrong. You want care to be given freely. This will tend to flow much more easily if the person in need has established social capital within the group—by having given substantially to the community (in terms of time and energy, more than money) prior to need. When a person has generously given of themselves to the community, the community naturally wants to support that person in return. If, on the other hand, a person arrives in the community with intent to run a negative balance (where they need more support than they can give) that doesn't work well.

E. Financial Safety Net
Despite what was said under Point B, there may be times when financial support is needed or helpful, and that too can be organized by the community. This can be done either through increasing dues to create a surplus to capitalize an Emergency Care Fund, or by asking those who are better off financially to donate to such a fund. This pot of money could then be administered by the Care Committee, working under guidance developed and approved by the plenary.

F. Trading Off One Kind of Support for Another
You cannot be all things to all people. Groups have to choose. The more money and time you give to aging in place, the less discretionary bandwidth remains for other worthy causes, such as supporting people with developmental disabilities, or providing transitional refugee housing. I am not advocating for any particular position when I state this; I am only pointing out that there are limits. The more you give to one thing, the less remains for anything else without risk of flooding the engine. 

I urge groups to discuss this and prioritize where they want their support to go, and how often they’ll review their decision.

G. Safety
When should limits be placed on a person driving, operating dangerous equipment, or even supervising others? When does it make sense to limit a person’s power in decision-making because of deteriorating memory or compromised cognitive ability? Talk about how you'll recognize, discuss, and communicate about these delicate moments, balancing the need for disclosure within the community with appropriate discretion about who that information is shared with outside the group.

H. Dignity and the Opportunity to Be Useful
Even with deteriorating abilities, people can often continue to be helpful to the group if thought is given to how to set it up well, and this can make a large difference in quality of life for a person with diminished capacity. No one wants to be made to feel useless or a burden. Perhaps by pairing the senior with a younger person, or only giving them tasks that do not depend on the particular ability that’s been compromised, it will be more possible to engage seniors usefully in community life well into their later years.

If you like this idea, it could be made part of what the Care Committee handles when they periodically canvass members for an update about their limitations and needs.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ruminating on Feedback

I spend a good deal of time teaching multi-weekend cooperative facilitation and leadership training around the country (I have ones going on concurrently in New England, North Carolina, and the Pacific Northwest, with a fourth about to start in Ann Arbor).

Three-quarters of each training weekend is devoted to preparing for, delivering, and debriefing what students are able to do when facilitating live meetings for the the group that's hosting the weekend. In this essay I want to drill down on what happens in the debriefings, which are doubly important. 

First, it is invaluable for trainees to get immediate reflections on the work they've just completed, while the experience is fresh in their minds and in their bodies (they learn both ways). With this in view we invariable protect the hour just after students have facilitated a two- or three-hour meeting to go over and critique what happened. First the person facilitating self-evaluates, and then the rest of class gives comments, with my co-trainer and I blending our comments with those of other students. 

Comments cover the gamut from laudatory to critical, from questioning to affirming. We emphasis being concise and not being repetitious. When students receive feedback they are allowed to set boundaries around how it is delivered, yet are encouraged to do their best to take it as it comes and to not comment or explain their choices (excepting to ask clarifying questions). Their sole job during debriefings is to take it all in and try to learn from it.

Second, we are training students both how to give and receive feedback, which is a grossly underdeveloped skill in Western society, and a foundational piece in the cooperative culture we are trying to replace it with. It's my view that the wider culture does a piss poor job of acculturating its citizenry in this kind of communication. Mostly we grow up learning how to stonewall, deflect, belittle, defend, or counterattack. Listening for useful information, sadly, is frequently the last option considered.

After observing this for some time, I've made the choice to teach this straight up. That means I'm direct, and I never say something insincerely. That is, I don't blow smoke up anyone's ass. If I give you a compliment, you've earned it. If I offer corrective comments; it's because I think something can be done better and I want you to know that. If you did something that you always do well, I'm likely to not say anything at all (why bother; you already have that down).

Further, I don't embrace the technique of feedback sandwiches (where compliments bracket criticism), in part because I've learned that most people pick up on the technique and quickly learn to discount the bun and go straight to the meat. When people struggle to use I statements ("I sensed that the group didn't respond well to your strong suggestion about where to focus the conversation."), listeners learn to translate that comment back into the original You statement ("You blew it by not letting the group tell you where they wanted to start the conversation. When you pushed them you lost their trust in your neutrality.")

To be fair, there are times when I don't say something that I might—perhaps because I cannot think how to frame it in a way that I believe the recipient can hear. And there are times when I back off because I sense the person is overloaded, or because I'm becoming reactive rather than constructive. On top of that I make mistakes. Sometimes I'm too harsh; sometimes my comments are out of proportion; sometimes I've misread what happened.

More than any other aspect of my work as a process trainer and consultant, it is in the arena of giving critical feedback that I am most likely to get into hot water. Even though I feel professionally bound to reflect what I see, people's resistance to criticism can be impenetrable, or I may fail to see the opening. On top of that there is added danger when I'm working with a group that is conflict averse (which many are), and is weak in dealing openly with tough issues. It is all too common for people who don't want to hear what I have distilled from observation and listening to blame me for the problem ("No one else has ever said that to me; you must be driving your own agenda" or "We didn't have that problem until you showed up.") I don't get paid to be timid, but that doesn't mean I'll be celebrated for being brave.

To be clear I try to be more circumspect in how I give critical feedback to groups. (It is not unusual for permission to hire me to be predicated on the perceived benefit of my laboring with one or more "problem" members, and other members are unpleasantly surprised to learn that I think their behavior is part of what's not working—it did not occur to them ahead if time that that was a possibility and now they're outraged.) 

In the context of a facilitation training, I hold back less. Students are paying to be there and have been told that feedback training is an integral component of the course. Further, I have let them know that I will purposely not treat them with kid gloves. However much they may be embarrassed or feel shamed by receiving a critical comment from the instructor, they know I care about them and will never speak with intent to inflict pain—which is not something they can count on when someone in a group they are facilitating is unhappy with their choices. (I tell trainees up front that if they need to be liked all the time, and have all their choices praised, then they should quit now.)

If you think about it, you'll realize that feedback is most valuable when it exposes a problem. If someone misses a compliment, they are most likely to simply continue to do what they did before and that's not a problem. If critical comments are withheld however (or purposefully softened or made vague in the hopes of not damaging the recipient's self esteem), it's quite likely to lead to the inappropriate or ineffective behavior being sustained. Yuck.

So where does this leave us? What's an effective pedagogical choice for teaching people to get better at giving and receiving critical feedback? I wrestle with this a lot. Here are the guidelines that I've come up with so far:

Walk Your Talk
Don't ask students to do better with feedback than you can do yourself. If you want them to be more open to feedback then you have to be able to hear it when others are unhappy with something you've done. (Note that I didn't say you have to agree with critical comments; but it behooves you to be open to that possibility, and to demonstrate that you accurately heard what was said.)

Being Direct Does Not Mean Being Mean
Communicate with clean energy. Do your best to avoid giving feedback when upset. At the very least, own your reaction.

Care about your audience. Hint: distinguish outcomes and behaviors from intent and values. All too often when people are told that they did a bad thing, they hear that they are a bad person; don't allow that mistake to prevail!

Don't Dogpile
If someone else has already given a similar critical comment, don't repeat it. Doubling down on a criticism will far more often lead to overwhelm than additional learning.

Give Choices about Setting
In the end, it should not matter that much to the giver how the feedback is delivered, so long as the recipient fully hears and understands it. To that end, give the intended recipient options:

o  Alone, with a witness or advocate, or in the whole group
o  In writing or orally
o  On the spot, or at a later date

In short, give the person a heads up that you have some feedback for them and would like to know what their preferred setting is. Not surprisingly, feedback sessions are much more likely to go well (be constructive) if the set up is mutually agreeable.

Notice that I did not say give them choices about whether or not to hear the feedback (you don't want a culture where it's acceptable to opt out of hearing feedback); only choices about how they receive it.

Tips on Giving Feedback
—Be specific about what didn't work for you.

—Talk in terms of specific actions or behaviors; resist the temptation to interpret intent.

—Name your feelings ("When you did x, I felt y, and it has z meaning for me").

—If you know, request specific behavior changes that will work better for you and see if they'll agree to try to make the adjustment(s). You may not get what you want, but you can ask. If an agreement is reached, it is often prudent to put it in writing (memories being as selective as they are).

—Discuss consequences if the recipient agrees to make changes and then fails to do so. It is completely demoralizing to slog through a difficult negotiation, feel that you ultimately made important progress on dealing with an irritating behavior, then have it unravel through weak follow through or relapsed behavior, and find yourself back where you were before and without recourse. This can tear groups up.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Onion Rings!

Cooking is one of the things I find great joy in. 

As a male growing up in the '50s (with one brother and three sisters), I was not expected to cook. I was expected to mow the lawn, shovel snow, and take out the trash. My sisters did laundry and helped in the kitchen. (The only gender neutral chore was setting the table, and my mother carefully wrote down the rotation for the entire year as soon as she got her annual calendar, to settle bitter fights over whose turn it was.)

So I came to cooking late in life. I didn't start picking it up until college. Right after graduating I began living cooperatively (something I sustained until I started keeping house with Susan last year). By virtue of living in small groups from ages 21-66 it has basically been my turn to cook about once a week for the last four decades—an arrangement that works perfectly for me. That one day I'd give myself over to nurturing my housemates as the most important thing I'd do that day. I came to think of cooking as karma yoga. On the other days someone else cooked for me, and no one was taking advantage of anyone else. Perfect.

I even got to the point of enjoying doing dishes, though that took longer than discovering the joy of cooking (which was more or less coincident with discovering Rombauer and Becker's classic by the same name).

Every so often I get inspired to learn something new in the kitchen and this week it was onion rings. I've always been partial to alliums (think onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives), and often order this American diner staple when eating at a roadhouse. Unfortunately, restaurant onion rings have often been disappointing. All too frequently they are either too greasy or undercooked. Yuck.

This week I'd finally decided that enough was enough. I was inspired by an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives hosted by Guy Fieri on the Food Network, that I caught while doing outpatient infusion therapy at St Luke's Hospital (something I do every fortnight to keep my cancer in check). The show I watched offered the featured restaurateur's recipe for onion rings, for which that place had a regional reputation. I was all ears.

I turns out that there are two keys to fabulous onion rings:

1. Cut them ahead
This guy starts Monday for onion rings he intends to serve Wednesday. On Monday he simply peels the onions and sets them in the refrigerator. On Tuesday he slices them, separates the rings, and lays them on a tray to air out in the fridge. On Wednesday he prepares the batter and fries them. The point of this deliberate pace is let the onions dry out so that surface moisture does not lead to the batter sloughing off in the hot oil. It turns out that freshly cut onions are juicy and that interferes with the adhesion.

2. Cook them hot
Whenever frying, you want the oil to be right below the smoking point (which indicates the oil is breaking down). That's somewhere around 350 degrees, depending on the kind of oil and how thick the food is. The hotter the oil, the quicker the frying is accomplished (about two minutes with onion rings) and the less absorption occurs. 

Hints: 
o  Make sure the oil is reasonably fresh (you can only use fry oil so many times before it starts to break down and get rancid).

o  Put enough oil in the pot that it stays hot when the raw onions rings are dropped into the oil (a significant drop in temperature equates to soggy rings).

o  Don't put too many rings in the pot at the same time; you want to cook them fast.

o  Onion rings are supposed to be light, not heavy, and they should be served hot.

To reduce the variables we bought a box of onion ring batter (Don's Chuck Wagon brand, a subsidiary of Hodgson Mill, seasoned with paprika, pepper, and celery). Further, we used Vidalia Onions, now in season. They are incredibly sweet and not sharp—delicious when fried. Though these onions don't keep well, when you can get them fresh they're the onion of choice. Yum.

To our delight, Susan's and my very first attempt turned out well enough last Tuesday afternoon, that we promptly cranked out a second batch that we proudly delivered to our annual neighborhood Fourth of July Party that evening. Talk about street cred!

In the future Susan and I look forward to experimenting with plain bread crumbs and seasoning our own batter. What a delightful addition to our repertoire. 

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Tension Between Principle and Relationship

Earlier in the year I worked intensively with a community that had a member who was in a tough bind. She cared deeply about community and put all of her energy into making her home the best she thought it could be.

The problem was that she held her ideas about how to proceed so tightly that she was essentially willing to deplete all her social capital in promoting them. After years of fighting the good fight (steadfastly promoting her ideas), almost everyone else had given up trying to work with her. Their view was that she showed no interest in alternate views, and would eventually wear everyone down. Yuck.

You can see how this could happen. Intentional community often inspires people to create a lifestyle that's firmly rooted in their principles. Sadly, in this instance her inspiration turned out to simultaneously be her opportunity and her bane. Relationship is the lifeblood of community, and it's counterproductive (even tragic) when one's ideals obscure the need to tend to them. What does it gain you if you secure your ideals, yet ultimately have no one left with which to enjoy them?

In sympathy with this dynamic, the admonition to open your heart to alternative views can appear as the same thing as being asked to accept "alternate facts." When a fellow member is working with a different set of principles—or even orders the same ones into a different package—it can be experienced as threatening, putting your dream at risk.

The request (demand?) to work constructively with different perspectives can feel like selling out. While the highly-principled person believes they're acting in the group's best interest (they'll thank me in the end), that's not how it comes across to those whose ideas are being rejected—to them this person is experienced as obstinate and arrogant (who made her God's gift to community?).

In order for groups to successfully navigate this dynamic, where principles clash, it's typically helpful to take a moment to vet the viewpoints for alignment with group values. Most often, in my experience, there is no high moral ground. That is, members are usually emphasizing different common principles, rather than promoting a personal agenda. If you can establish that point, it's generally possible to deescalate and to start looking for a balance point—instead of for a kissing-your-sister compromise.

The trick here is recognizing that a different perspective (about what is best for the group) is not the same as an unholy one. If you establish that, then perhaps no one will feel compelled to conduct a jihad. Maybe stridency can be checked at the door.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Beware of One-Trick Ponies

There is a trend in cooperative group process that has me worried: the tendency to offer one-size-fits-all solutions to complex dynamics.


I can understand the seductiveness of this. (Wouldn’t life be simpler if we had a handful of straight forward techniques that could reliably get us through the hard spots?) We yearn for magic beans (clear answers), and there is no dearth of practitioners who offer up their pet modality with the promise that if you only learn their approach your problems will be over, or at least easily managed. 

The difficulty with those claims—of which there are a growing number—is that none can deliver utopia on demand. Perhaps some of the time, but not all of the time. People (and therefore the groups into which they accrete) are simply too complex for their dynamics to be reliably broken down and resolved with techniques that can be digested in a weekend seminar.

To be sure, there are principles that serve as reliable guideposts (the imperative of acknowledging distress before attempting problem solving; the need for known channels of feedback whereby one member can pass along critical information to another about their behavior as a member of the group; meetings will occasionally be experienced as unsafe without agreements about how you’re going to work constructively with emotional input; healthy relationships are the lifeblood of community). In addition, there are useful patterns that can be learned (groups will include both the risk tolerant and the risk averse—you might as well get used to it; go rounds in large groups invariably take a long time and are highly repetitive; people process information and organize their thoughts at different speeds; rational discourse is not everyone’s best language).

But there is not just one right way to do things, and those who try to convince you otherwise are selling snake oil.

Hear me correctly: I am not saying that sociocracy, ZEGG forum, restorative circles, and nonviolent communication have no merit. I'm saying that they are not panaceas.
 
They all have strengths and can work spectacularly at times. However, my experience informs me that all of them have moments where the gold is revealed to be only a veneer; where the luster can be tarnished in the heat of the moment and the base metal core exposed.

All of them have been oversold. If a practitioner tells you that their approach has no downside and works well across the board, be very afraid.

If you witness an approach to group dynamics that works well, there’s an understandable urge to learn that approach. So far, so good. My advice, however, is that you don’t stop there. Test drive other approaches to similar dynamics so that you can pick and choose among them. Your prime directive should not be how to operate with the fewest techniques (looking for the one true way); it should be what’s most effective. Give yourself options.

Becoming nuanced and effective with cooperative group dynamics is not so much about learning a formula (if A happens, then do B) or operating from a playbook. It’s more about having an understanding of principles and developing an instinct about which to apply in emerging conditions. While it’s an excellent idea to create a plan ahead of time (to feel into what you expect to encounter), you have to be willing to scrap your plan and go off script in the dynamic moment—because that’s what the situation calls for. Your pole stars are two: 

a) What approach do you think is most likely to help the group reach its objectives for the meeting, recognizing that your answer may change over the course of the meeting?

b) How can you move forward enhancing relationships (rather than degrading them) and without leaving anyone behind?

If your course of action addresses both questions well, you know you’re in the sweet spot—never mind how well it aligns with your original plan or your favorite technique.

If you see someone do something terrific using only a hammer (or read a book that extols the virtue of hammers), there is a risk of falling in love with your hammer and neglecting the other tools in your kit. Over time, if you’re only using your hammer, a subtle change can occur: everything starts looking like a nail. (After all, it’s natural to want to justify your investment, and it can be embarrassing to admit that you may be overly relying on one tool.) 
 
The problem is that dynamics remain as messy and complicated as they ever were, yet if all you see is nails then out comes the hammer. Have you ever tried to cut a board or turn a nut with a hammer? Don’t let that be your group.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Game On

When I grew up I played a lot of cards and a lot of board games—Monopoly, Careers, Clue, Risk, Parcheesi, Life, Scrabble—that kind of thing. Games were an enjoyable way to learn math, strategic thinking, statistics, economic principles, and even geography.

In my teens I expanded my repertoire to include chess, go, and bridge.

When I was a young adult there was a new round of games: Diplomacy, Rummikub, Scotland Yard, Uno, followed by the family of train games by Mayfair—starting with Empire Builder, and eventually extending to Eurorails and Iron Dragon.

In the '90s the pace picked up. I was introduced to the breakthrough Eurogame Siedler von Catan (Settlers of Catan in English) designed by Klaus Teuber. Eurogames emphasize strategy while downplaying luck and conflict. They also tend to have economic themes rather than military and are more likely to keep all players in the game until the end.

Designed for 3-6 players, Siedler allows opportunities for players who are lagging behind to slow down the leader, and offers multiple winning strategies. The best version (for my sensibilities) is the Cities and Knights expansion, employing the fish feature and a deck of 36 cards substituting for all possible rolls of two dice. Over the past two decades I've played this game hundreds of times and it remains an all-time favorite.

Then came the no-dice games of which there are now many: Puerto Rico, Trajan, Hansa Teutonica, Caylus, and the games of Uwe Rosenberg, notably Agricola, Le Havre, and Ora and Labora. I am in awe of constructors who can figure out how to craft a game that minimizes random chance yet remains balanced.

For those who want to do more than one thing in an evening, there are shorter games like Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, and Splendor.

For the more cooperatively minded, there are a handful of offerings where players unite against the game (either everyone wins or everyone loses). Examples include Arkham Horror, Pandemic, Forbidden Island.

While there are way more games than those named above (who can keep up?), these are ones I've played most and which essentially comprise my gaming universe.

Coincident with the emergence of Siedler, my kids (Ceilee and Jo) became old enough to join me at the gaming table and it was something we did together (instead of a television, we played board games and I read thousands of pages of fiction to each of them). Sometime in the late '90s we hit upon the idea of conducting Game Days: marathon sessions where we'd play all day and occasionally into the night.
(It amuses me to observe that in the last decade Jo and I have exchanged roles with respect to board games. When she was a child I used to introduce new games to her; now it's the other way around. In fact, Jo met her husband, Peter, at a game store in Asheville NC, and they typically participate in gaming nights twice weekly. While Susan and I both enjoy games, we don't play that often.)

Game Day Rules
1. The first game is always Monopoly (which takes us experienced gamers about 45 minutes).

2. The person who finishes last in a game (or the first person eliminated) picks the next game. 

3. No game will be played more than once.

4. In addition to the games themselves, we play a meta game where we kept a running total of points earned this way:

   o  You earn a raw score of 5 points for winning a game; 2 points for second, and 1 point for third.
   o  In addition, there is a multiplier for each game (anything from 1.0 to 1.8) that is used to determine the adjusted score (taking into account the degree of skill/difficulty for that game). By definition, Monopoly has a multiplier of 1.0; for each additional game the players agree on the multiplier at start of the game.

5. The winner of the meta game is the person who accumulates the most total points over the course of the Game Day.

6. Players may selectively drop out of any game. While they score a zero for that game, they preemptively earn the right to select the next one.

Over the years there have been quite a number of people who have participated in Game Days, but the hard core—those who have most consistently indulged in this particular brand of fanaticism—are Jeffrey Harris (who lived for seven years at Dancing Rabbit, just three miles from Sandhill), Ceilee, Jo, and myself.

We tried to reprise this configuration last Friday at Jo's house in Las Vegas, but unfortunately Ceilee was not able to get away from Los Angeles to participate. Still, we had a potent gaming group: Jeffrey, Jo, Peter, and myself—with Susan flying in from Minnesota for a long weekend. While Susan decided to stand back from the intensity of Game Day, she joined us for a recreational game of Ticket to Ride Thursday evening, and a marathon game of Mah Jongg that started Saturday evening and extended into Sunday.

For Game Day we played these five games:
Monopoly
Colonia
Trajan
Railroad Tycoon
Anachrony

While Jo and Peter knew all five games, I was playing Colonia for only the second time, and Railroad Tycoon and Anachrony for the first time. Excepting Monopoly, Jeffrey was playing every game for the first time. While there's a marked tendency to be subject to fool's tax the first time you pencounter a complex game, it was a testament to Jeffrey's game savvy that he hung right in there.

After a stout breakfast we started play around 9:40 am and played until 1 am (with breaks for lunch and dinner). Notably, all four players finished first at least once, and all four of us finished last at least once. (When we played Colonia, Peter won with a score of 26; I finished dead last with a score of 23.) The competition was remarkably even, and I had a wonderful time connecting with family and an old friend. 

Given my improved health these days and the fact that Ceilee, Jo, and Jeffrey all live in the Pacific time zone, I'll be looking more assertively for future Game Day opportunities in the months and years ahead. It's hard to get too much fun and games with family and friends.